It was announced this week that Idris Elba was in talks to take over the role of Deadshot from Will Smith in the upcoming sequel to Suicide Squad. While the first film made an immense amount of money, it does seem curious that a star as beloved and in-demand as Elba would want to join a franchise that has received, to put it mildly, disappointing reviews. Then again, this new film is meant to be a minor reboot of sorts with James Gunn helming it, and the potential of his style taking on this material does hold a lot of promise for an actor. Still, the news highlighted something that Elba fans have pondered for many years: That dude’s filmography is weird.
A brief glimpse through Idris Elba’s IMDb page reveals a varied selection of films, TV shows, and hosting gigs. There are the pre-requisite one-off British telly appearances that are standard for any actor hailing from these fair isles, from The Bill to Absolutely Fabulous to Silent Witness. Then there are the starring roles in projects that never quite took off, like the sinfully underrated vampire drama Ultraviolet. He’s got bit parts in indie favourites (Buffalo Soldiers) and horror schlock (The Reaping). Then there are the critical darlings, from American Gangster to, of course, his television zenith The Wire, mixed in with action and comedy and blockbusters of all shapes and sizes. He’s worked with Tyler Perry, Kenneth Branagh, Guillermo del Toro, and Joss Whedon. He’s hosted the FIFA Football Awards two years in a row and made no-budget dramas with celebrated playwrights that maybe 12 people saw.
This year alone, we’ll see him be the mega-powered villain of the Fast and Furious spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw, play the lead in Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie, a comedy that sounds a lot like Idris does The Nanny, and, well… Cats. When the casting was announced for Tom Hooper’s inexplicable big-screen adaptation of the much-maligned musical, nothing made sense, except for Elba’s inclusion. Of course he’s in this movie. It lines up with everything we know about his erratic career choices.
I previously wrote about Will Smith’s career and the strange mediocrity of many of his choices. How does one of the most famous men on the planet, an undisputed megastar with charm to spare and seemingly his pick of movies, end up doing so many bad films? Elba doesn’t necessarily work as a direct parallel to Smith — they’re very different actors and Smith became a superstar in a way we don’t really make actors anymore — but there are similarities to be made beyond the obvious ones. Both are immensely charismatic on-screen presences who can do much to lift a scene just by being in it. They each have a sort of bombast that demands attention but never descends into smarm. It’s earned cockiness.
Smith, however, has a goofier undercurrent that Elba does not. Sure, Elba can be funny but he’s not aiming for that same sort of physicality. You couldn’t imagine him doing a silly scream during an action beat like you can with the Fresh Prince. Moreover, Elba has always been viewed as the better actor of the two. Smith may have two Oscar nominations to Elba’s zero, but Smith’s range is tied to his oft-imitated but seldom recreated persona. He’s Will Smith the Brand, and when he finds roles that play to or subvert that just enough, he’s been able to reap the benefits, such as his oddly underrated work in Ali, a performance that compliments so well what we want and need from Smith at his zenith. However, I’m not sure Smith could ever have been Stringer Bell or the cruel commander of a battalion of child soldiers in Beasts of No Nation.
Smith remains one of, if not the most famous black actor on the planet, a title he’s held onto since the era of Independence Day. That speaks volumes of Hollywood’s stifling lack of progress when it comes to racial diversity but it also reminds us of just how forceful Smith’s star power is. Even as the films got worse and the roles more inexplicable (Collateral Beauty?!?!), people still love the hell out of him, especially as he’s evolved into full goofy dad internet meme and Mr. Pinkett-Smith. However, Elba is also very famous, albeit in a different way. He’s almost transcended the questionable roles he’s taken over the years and become an icon that represents so much to his fans. As with Smith, we want so much more from him because we know he can be more.
As an independent entity, Elba’s career choices reflect a desire to be consciously public and appealing on a worldwide level. There are small movies in there that show an urge to play to his quieter strengths, but this is an actor who wants to be a blockbuster favourite. He’s Stacker Pentecost, dammit, and he will cancel the apocalypse! He’ll do the terrible sequel to Ghost Rider and be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and be a Star Trek villain and be a voice in Disney movies. He’ll host awards shows and do Netflix comedies and, yes, he’ll be in your musical about singing cats that may or may not be a Christ allegory. These are projects that will be seen by millions of people and have the opportunities to make billions of dollars. Even when he’s not front and centre in these productions, he can reap the benefits. Sure, the film itself wasn’t great, but did you see the box office numbers? Besides, people love him.
It remains depressingly notable that Elba doesn’t really have all that many leading performances in his filmography. This is another area where he starkly differs from Smith, who seldom takes a supporting part unless it really means something. He’s certainly capable, but the material doesn’t seem to be there for him. Gee, I wonder why. In rare opportunities where he’s been able to be the top-billed actor in a potential blockbuster, the results have been less than satisfying (hi there, The Dark Tower), but the disappointment has never fallen on his shoulders for that.
Elba remains a fan-casting favourite for a reason. We keep wanting him to be James Bond because not only would it be a potent symbol of industry and cultural progress to many, but it would finally be a part he can sink his teeth into. Elba could be the leading man of both commercial and critical clout. He’s so well-suited to the role of Bond and the mere idea of him taking on such an iconic role angers racists creeps the world over. Why can’t he be the ultimate representation of Britishness in Hollywood instead of whatever posh white boy in a cravat is the flavour of the moment? Of course, the downside of this endless speculation and wishing is that it dehumanizes Elba somewhat. As much as he plays into those fan-casting dreams, you can’t help but wonder if a lot of people don’t realize he isn’t the only black British actor on the planet, and what it means when he’s viewed by fans in purely fantastical terms.
For me, the best of Elba comes when he is that Jack the Lad charmer who is completely aware of his appeal and allows it to seep into every part of the story. Yeah, he knows you think he’s hot and he’s cool with it. Sometimes, you just need a strong dose of star power, and Elba can provide that in spades, even when the material isn’t deserving of it. He just needs the biggest platforms possible to shine. And yes, that includes Cats.
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