Idris Elba is funny.
Or maybe he isn’t? I’ve never actually met the man, so honestly I wouldn’t know.
What I probably should have said was, the way we treat Idris Elba is funny.
Elba’s primary role in Hollywood — and that part of the Internet that likes to talk about Hollywood — seems to be the role of Black Actor That White People Want to Play Characters We’ve Always Thought of as White. In the past few years I’ve heard calls from various quarters for Elba to play James Bond, Indiana Jones, Superman, Batman, Doctor Who, and the cowboy Roland from the Dark Tower. Indeed, I’ve heard him pegged by people for more traditionally white roles than I’ve seen him in actual movies or television series. (Which, depending on how you look at it, is either an impressive testament to Elba’s crossover appeal, or a impressively sad testament to how few black actors white people can name off the top of their heads.) For better or worse, and wherever you stand on white people playing non-white roles or vise-versa, the role Idris Elba now plays in our collective conversations is less what he does or has done as an artist, so much as what he could do someday in some alternate, post-racial universe.
And it was with this — this weighty stone of single-handedly making the entire American Entertainment Industry forever colorblind slung upon his admittedly broad shoulders — that I sat down this week to watch Idris Elba in his most defining role, the dark BBC series Luther. Now, after having binged the whole first season, I finally get why people want to insert him into whatever famous role happens to be lying about waiting for reboot.
Because here’s the thing about Luther: it shouldn’t work.
From a 10,000 foot viewpoint, Luther as written might well have been truly edgy or inspired in 1988. In 2016, however, its writing is cliche and its plots downright hackneyed. There’s the brooding anti-hero with a dark side! There’s the seductively evil, Hannibal-Lector-esque, foil-slash-equal-slash-confidant genius! There’s the protagonist’s preternatural ability to “get inside the head of the deranged killer” at the expense of his own soul, allowing him save practically everyone except those he loves most dearly! Put most of its parts together, and it’s a tried hash.
But somehow, despite all of this, Idris Elba somehow makes the damn thing work.
There’s a gravity about Elba’s John Luther that is hard to look away from. To their credit, the show runners totally get this, and so there are precise few scenes where Elba is not the directors’ sole focus. Indeed, the only time the facade of the series began to slip through my fingers were those few scenes where Elba was not present, and I found myself saying, “Wait a minute! I’ve already seen this whole thing a hundred times before!” And then Elba returns, and I found myself slipping happily back into being utterly, utterly riveted.
That’s a pretty neat trick for one single actor to pull off.
As such, I’ll likely return to watch season 2 of Luther shortly. Tonight, though, I’m about to dive back into two series I haven’t in many years, since they first ran: Christ Carter’s Millennium, and HBO’s Carnivale. I had love-hate relationship with both, way back in the day. I’m curious to discover what I think of them now that I’m older, wiser, and able to binge-watch.
My prediction? I’ll decide that both would have been at least a little better if they’d starred Idris Elba.
So, what are you watching or reading?