Idris Elba Says Hollywood's Diversity Problem Is a Failure of Imagination

The British actor, who was snubbed for an Oscar nomination, addressed the U.K. Parliament this week.

Idris Elba. (Photo: Jason LaVeris/Getty Images)

Jan 20, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

With celebrity calls to boycott the Oscars over the lack of racial diversity growing louder by the day, it's easy to forget that the problem isn't unique to Hollywood—or America, for that matter. In a wide-ranging speech to the U.K. Parliament on Monday, British actor Idris Elba highlighted a recent diversity initiative launched by that country's television industry and revealed that he left England in part because he faced typecasting based on his race.

"I was busy, I was getting lots of work, but I realized I could only play so many 'best friends' or 'gang leaders.' I knew I wasn't going to land a lead role," Elba told Parliament. "I knew there wasn't enough imagination in the industry for me to be seen as a lead." During his lengthy remarks, he evoked Jay Z and Winston Churchill and repeatedly championed imagination as a solution to improving inclusivity in the media.

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The Golden Globe winner stressed that he was only able to get cast as the title character in the BBC detective drama Luther by first traveling to America in the early aughts and reinventing himself on such mainstream television shows as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, and The Wire. "I didn't go to America because I couldn't get parts," he said. "I went to America because I was running out of parts. They were all the same parts."

That's not to suggest that the British entertainment industry isn't striving to boost diversity among its ranks. Broadcasting network Channel 4 last year announced a goal for people from black, Asian, and other backgrounds to comprise at least 20 percent of its staff by 2020. Called the "360-degrees diversity charter," the initiative mandates that the network triple its proportion of staff with disabilities to 6 percent and more than double its numbers for LGBT employees, also to 6 percent. Executives could face paycheck cuts if they fail to hit the targets, according to The Guardian.

Elba acknowledged those efforts during his speech, which was presented in advance of a meeting of the CEOs of England's major broadcast networks to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the diversity charter's launch. The actor credited a number of British casting directors for giving him his start two decades ago and for having the imagination and perseverance to advocate for him in roles "that definitely weren't written for me or my type."

Elba applauded the work of casting director Nina Gold, whom he said was responsible for casting John Boyega in the 2011 U.K. action film Attack the Block and for casting him as the lead in the latest Star Wars film. But not all diverse casting choices have gone over so smoothly with fans. When Elba was rumored to have been cast as James Bond in the latest franchise, Bond novelist Anthony Horowitz fielded accusations of racial stereotyping after commenting in September that he thought Elba was "too street" to play Bond. In an Instagram post the actor responded, "Always keep smiling!! It takes no energy and never hurts! Learned that from the Street."

Despite his personal success, in his speech Elba acknowledged there is still a long way to go toward fairly and accurately representing not just people of color but also people from all walks of life—including women, people with disabilities, and LGBT people. He credited research that was commissioned by Channel 4 and released this week showing that women are outnumbered by men on television programs by a ratio of 2 to 1 and are five times more likely to be objectified on-screen.

"The headline finding is that British TV is awash with low-level sexism. The interesting comparison is that the same figure for low-level racism was only a tenth of that," Elba said. "This means women on TV are 10 times more likely to be treated negatively than black people on TV. That's crazy, right?"

While Elba did not directly address the Academy Awards controversy that has embroiled much of Hollywood, he became a topic of conversation among film critics and on social media after the Academy failed to nominate him for his performance in the Netflix film Beasts of No Nation. (Disclosure: TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, coproduced the film.)

It's not just Elba's omission from the acting nominations that drew outrage. Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael B. Jordan are among the black actors who also were not nominated for their lead roles in films last year, drawing criticism from Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee, both of whom said they would not be attending the ceremony.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is a partner on Beasts of No Nation, as well as on Oscar-nominated films Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and The Look of Silence.