‘Luther’ Creator Neil Cross on White Writers and Black Characters

Luther creator Neil Cross, in an interview in which he confirmed that the four-episode third season would be the end of the character’s run on television, also had some interesting things to say about white writers trying to create characters who are specifically intended to be black (the casting for Luther proceeded on a race-neutral basis, as I reported last year):

It was cast as a character, purely and simply, which is one of the aspects that attracted Idris to the role. I have no knowledge or expertise or right to try to tackle in some way the experience of being a black man in modern Britain. It would have been an act of tremendous arrogance for me to try to write — and you have to try to imagine the quote marks around the words — a black character because I don’t know what a black character is and we would have ended up with a slightly embarrassed, ignorant, middle-class, white writer’s idea of a black character, which would have been an embarrassment for everybody concerned. I suspect that there’s a dearth of decent roles for black actors because most writers are white and they try to write their idea of black and it’s an embarrassment.

In theory, I appreciate this kind of humility and think it’s important. But I also think it’s the kind of thinking that can easily feed the continuing dominance of white characters unless you’re deeply committed to race-neutral casting, and to the idea idea that the actors you cast may contribute substantially to shaping the backstories and motivations of the characters you created. If you can do that, and leave for a black, Hispanic, or Asian actor to come in and bring new accents, physicality, and insight into the characters’ decisions that might not fit cleanly with white defaults, than I’m all for the idea that white writers shouldn’t try to specifically write black characters out of respect for the points where their insight ends. But if you’re not in a position where casting is race-neutral, where the default will always be white, then I’d rather have actors flagging some characters as non-white. Otherwise, the palatte’s in danger of staying depressingly, dully monochromatic.