Idris Elba and Considerations of Black Actor Identity

Idris Elba poses at the 68th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin, February 22, 2018, Berlin, Germany. (Shutterstock)

It is undeniable that when an actor receives an industry accolade and they are a person of color, they are not only recognized for their skill and achievement as an actor, but their race also does not go unnoticed—as we have witnessed this year with the Best Actor Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh. This makes their win even more significant. One need only think of the late Harry Belafonte to recognize that whilst he was a trailblazing singer, actor, and social justice advocate, he was all of these things while being a Black man in America’s entertainment industry. This made his achievements all the more commendable. As these examples demonstrate, the achievements of Black and brown actors continue to mean so much more in light of the many obstacles which must be overcome in order to obtain success within an industry which is predicated on European standards of talent, beauty, and acceptability. In light of the limited recognition of people of color in the film industry, can we honestly consider race to no longer be relevant to an actor’s identity? In other words, has the movie industry entered a post-racial phase? This question has come to the fore since Londoner, Idris Elba—a key figure in the American entertainment industry—suggested that Black actors should be commended for being simply “actors” rather than “Black actors.”

Idris Elba OBE (Order of the British Empire), born of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian parents in London’s East End, has not only gone from being an “underground” DJ in London in the 1990s, but he has also become a world-famous actor whose work has been recognized by many including English royalty. Elba has also been inducted into “African American film royalty” through his various roles in Hollywood. As a result, he is now considered to be a leading Black actor in America who represents the “African American male” identity. This is an identity that he has benefitted from, even if he does not personally identify as an African American man or the African American struggle, in order to achieve inclusion within the film industry. This is why Elba’s preference to be identified as simply an “actor” rather than a “Black actor,” has provoked surprise and some backlash, as highlighted by numerous publications in recent months including, Entertainment Weekly, Variety Magazine, and Independent UK among several other news and media outlets. His declaration is particularly concerning, in light of the fact that Black Americans have a tradition of taking pride in their achievements in various fields, particularly as African Americans have had to “fight” for inclusion and recognition across various industries for centuries.

Interestingly, despite rejecting the “Black actor” identity, Elba has not rejected the use of his OBE award—an award that is not accepted by all celebrities to whom it is offered. This accolade, which is awarded by the British crown, is sometimes rejected by some celebrities because the Crown’s British Empire has had a history of injustice. Further the Crown is known for gaining much of its wealth from exploiting and enslaving people, particularly Black people for centuries—something that the late Queen Elizabeth II did not apologize for.

Elba’s African ethnicity both overlaps and intersects with African American culture—particularly as he has been accepted as a reputable actor within the American space. Therefore although it may not be immediately apparent, his rejection of the “Black actor” identity may derive from his ambition to not focus on his “race.” It would appear that he considers himself to be an actor who happens to be Black—a son of the African diaspora, who often works in America. Therefore he is “different” from other Black actors in America. However his unexpected declaration and desire to be acknowledged as just “an actor” who is not identified by race highlights that despite being accepted by the African American entertainment industry, he has not assimilated into the culture, nor does he consider the historical trauma attached to African American history to be a part of his own history. This is not to suggest that Elba deliberately intends to diminish his “race,” rather, Elba appears to consider race to be an unnecessary identity label—a social construct—which restricts, rather than enables growth.

Elba is quoted as having commented that race can become an “obsession [that] can hinder people’s aspirations, hinder people’s growth.” As this comment demonstrates, he does not appear to have the same emotional attachment towards the label of a

“Black actor” in Hollywood as many would expect from him within the American space. However the notion of having one’s “growth” hindered by identifying with one’s race, is what is most problematic. This is because one does not need to declare one’s “race” for one’s “race” to be used to hinder you in any situation. Racism creates hindrances and its own barriers.

Baldwin’s writing in The Fire Next Time provides a crucial insight into this predicament. He wrote, “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” During the same year that Baldwin shared this crucial insight, Sidney Poitier made history by becoming the first Black person to win the Best Actor award at the Oscars. This win was in full recognition of Poitier’s excellence, paving the way for future Black actors such as Elba to have space in the industry. However as Poitier’s win occurred at a time when Black people still had not gained full access to all public spaces due to segregation laws, being recognized for one’s excellence whilst being Black within a society that was—and has remained systemically and institutionally racist— demonstrates the gravity of such an achievement for any Black person. Such achievements should never be forgotten nor dismissed.

It appears that Elba may be suggesting that when one aspires to grow, one does not need to identify their race. Morgan Freeman also shared similar views in the 1990s. Although Elba is now a visible member of the American entertainment industry, he was not born into American society, nor does he hold these crucial identity values commonly held by most Black actors in America who take pride in celebrating “Black” achievements. This could be because he clearly does not consider African American history and “Blackness” as being pertinent to his individual achievements or his success. This is misguided, particularly as it is within the American space and by encompassing the “Black actor’s” identity, that Elba’s career has been able to reach its peak.

Du Bois’ writings highlight that some African diasporic individuals are, and will be, afflicted by “second-sight.” This is a lens where one views themselves as human and yet subconsciously, they view themselves through the lens of the oppressor which deems “Blackness” negatively. This causes some individuals to want to distance themselves from their Black identity. This may cause one to consider that highlighting their “race” or stating “Blackness,”  hinders their  “growth” as Elba has suggested. However it is important to recognize that it is not identifying one’s “race” which hinders the individual. It is a society which is predicated on racial prejudice which creates limitations on those who are “raced” which hinders one’s growth.

As much as some like Elba may see racial acknowledgement to be unnecessary, we must not forget that without initiatives and pride to self-identify, the contributions and accomplishments of Black people in America would likely be downplayed, or simply ignored due to racial bias in society. It must also be noted that those who have been oppressed did not choose to occupy their social position. Therefore whether or not one highlights their “race” alongside their achievement, “race” is an identity which is always noted, albeit discreetly. Therefore, it cannot and should not be denied, instead, it should be celebrated.

To conclude, as much as we may be entertained by actors such as Morgan Freeman, or Idris Elba, whether African American like Freeman, or Black British like Elba, we must not forget that they are actors who work to entertain. They have the prerogative to self-define without being considered for making academic or accurate statements about race. Whilst it is important to congratulate Elba for his achievements as an actor, it is also important to recognize that as a precursor to this success, it is the struggle of Black Americans and specifically Black actors, which have afforded Elba—and many other African diasporic people within the American space— the opportunity to have such success.

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Anique John

Anique John is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, with a PhD in Justice Studies who specializes in Africana Studies and Human Rights. Her passion for social, institutional and immigrant justice for Black communities in the USA and UK, has been demonstrated through her research and scholarship. Focusing on the legal rights of Black and immigrant communities, Dr. John has been able to develop notable insights into societal challenges and institutional injustices experienced by minorities within Western spaces. She has used her insights to consider how marginalized Africana communities can realize what she has termed as “Life Success” (John, 2019). This theory highlights the relevance of situated knowledge to comprehend the academic and professional experiences of Africana populations, whilst providing ‘voice’ to minority individuals whose experiences of social injustice are often muted as they strive to obtain “life success.”

Comments on “Idris Elba and Considerations of Black Actor Identity

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    Well said. “They are actors who work to entertain…”

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    Well said! I hope Mr. Elba finds this article

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    Good read. Didn’t know Elba made those statements. Thank you!!!

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    Well written. I appreciate you highlighting the various identities among the diaspora that may change our perspective on race.

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    Great article!! I appreciate your highlight of Elba accepting OBE. Though I don’t recall the development of Jazz ever being called “Black Jazz.” The music distinguished the musicians, who were unequivocally black. Moreover, the presentations of art exhibitions titled, Black Portraits in HBCU art museums seem redundant, not to mention missed opportunities for innovative titles. There’s something about this racial assignment we absorbed 500 years ago that is a “Catch-22.” Baldwin was right when we said to white people, “As long as you have to be white, we have to be black.” I ask, but who would we be, if we didn’t identify as black? The default doesn’t mean or require that one identify as “white.” Without societal intervention, children seem paused to experience what none or few of us have considered. Does not the identity politics act as a cuff upon our humanity?

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