Imagining Idris Elba

How the film industry is failing black actors

#OscarsSoWhite seemed to come and go. Viewers held their breath for the opening speech but soon after curtains closed, narratives about the events seemed disbanded and dissembled. Then came speculation surrounding the Nation’s favourite spy, James Bond. Would we get a black or female Bond? Discussions persisted, with the favourite being Idris Elba and in February, after a joke about the role, speculation increased. September proposed eight main contenders, Elba being one. Yet with this came poorly-worded discourses on the ‘appropriateness’ of such casting.

Although there are hostile opponents, the general feeling is discomfort. Whilst the film industry struggles to justify its lack of diversity, for the British public, the issue is not that they don’t want a black James Bond, but that they cannot imagine one. Elba’s flourishing television career indicates the progress TV is making in diversity, compared to film. We know that diversity does exist in England but there is reluctance to allow this to be reflected in the sacred, untouchable media of the motion picture. Both Elba and Abraham Attah remained un-nominated for Oscars after their roles in Beasts of No Nation to much public confusion, with the same true of Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta Compton.

There is something about Elba specifically. Perhaps it’s his tolerance and softness towards the issues. His speech in the House of Commons on TV’s lack of diversity stresses how the issue manifests across all fields as well as race. He argued “when you don’t reflect the real world too much, talent is trashed”. If people cannot see someone in a role, they will never be given the opportunity. Instead, black actors are often stereotyped or compartmentalised. Viola Davis has noted the limited roles available to her, who, since her role in The Help frequently receives scripts for the roles of maids. In the past, the majority of Oscar winning black actors have portrayed a narrow range of characters, principally: slave, maid, jezebel, thug, ‘Magical Negro’, or a famous personality in a biopic.

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The fact people ‘just can’t see’ black actors in important roles is due to conditioning exerted by the media. Our imagination is lacking as we just aren’t used to seeing the diversity of life reflected in film. For James Bond, lack of imagination is fuelled by narrow ideas of the perfect English man. Critics forget that today the Englishman isn’t the same as a 1950s English man.

Today, in order to place anyone who is different from the norm in a lead film role would be a political statement, as opposed to an exhibition of raw talent. Recently, a precedent has been set. Ground-breaking films such as Get Out, Moonlight, Loving, Fences, and Hidden Figures call for a more representative Academy.

We often fall into the cliché of heralding film as an art form for all, which shows real stories and real lives, but for it to remain in this image it must commit, as an art, to imitating life in a more honest way.