Idris Elba, Race, and Who Should Be Asked About Hollywood’s Whiteness

From a Vulture interview with the actor who, to the delights of those of us who loved him in The Wire and Luther, is starring in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel:

Just don’t ask if he blames a shortage of roles for black actors. “Next question,” he says when I raise the subject. “I’m so bored of answering that. Are there differences between black actors’ opportunities and white actors’ opportunities? Yes, there are. It’s been said. I’d rather a young black actor read about success as opposed to how tough it was. I get these roles because I can act and that’s it. Hopefully that’s it. The less I talk about being black, the better.”

He doesn’t mind talking about growing up poor, though. From the rough neighborhood of Hackney, the son of West African immigrants, he left home at 16 to join the National Youth Music Theatre, and toured with a production of Guys and Dolls. (He played Big Jule.) “We traveled the world,” he says. “I didn’t ever see a future in musicals, but I loved it.” It also kept him out of fights in Canning Town, the ostensibly nicer neighborhood where he went to high school, then a hub for the extreme right-wing party, the National Front. “Their beliefs are ‘Keep Britain White,’ ” he says. “Walking down the street, someone would call you a black cunt. I was like, ‘Fuck that.’ ” It was around that time that he shortened his given name, Idrissa, which he says means “firstborn son,” because he got tired of beating people up when they told him it sounded too feminine. “I quickly got well known because I was tall and wasn’t taking any shit.”

Of course, a lot of what the magazine describes as talking about class here is actually talking about race as inflected by class. But I do kind of take the point—in the quest to illustrate how Hollywood is denying itself talented leading men and women, great performances, new audience, journalists can run the risk of asking actors the same questions over and over again, that they find reductive and frustrating. And it’s a tactic that ends up doing the same thing that Hollywood does: treats whiteness as a natural default. I’d be curious to hear more white actors, particularly those playing characters who were people of color in life or in source material, asked to talk about race, and in those cases in particular, how they feel about participating in the homogenization of Hollywood products. And even more so to hear those questions posed to writers and directors. Making actors of color constantly relive their frustrations, especially when they feel they may not be able to be honest about those frustrations out of fear of limiting their future opportunities, may provide ammunition for making decision-makers embarrassed. But that’s not actually the same thing as asking people who make the decisions that make Hollywood whiter why they made those choices, and why they think they’re acceptable.