Color Me Confused as the BBC Diversity Chief Declares Idris Elba Series ‘Not BlackEnough’

(Steffan Hill/BBC America via AP)

>Apparently, there is a threshold races need to achieve in order to be considered accurate

You do have to ask if there is ever a time when the racial profiles of characters in a film are ever accurate. It is a minefield when considering what is correct and proper regarding these issues, and the built-in sensitivities mean that people are forever on the lookout for striking a balance.  Or, they become so consumed with the effort they come off looking ridiculous.

The British television production ‘’Luther’’ starring Idris Elba has been a long-standing hit show for the BBC. The decade-long run has made Elba an international star, as he plays a driving detective fighting crime in London. It is a well-crafted drama helmed by a blatantly gifted star, who just happens to be black. Everything was just fine, and clearly the premise was accepted regarding the program, which is shown in hundreds of international markets. But now there is a problem.

The chief diversity officer at the BBC, Miranda Wayland, has looked at the program and determined that the show is only ‘’superficially diverse’’. So what specifically is the problem? It is…something to behold.

“We all fell in love with him. Who didn’t, right? But after you got into about the second series you got kind of like, OK, he doesn’t have any black friends, he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food, this doesn’t feel authentic.”

This is some remarkable check-box thinking. This is trending very close to another example of this kind of thinking from a couple of years ago. Will Smith was being considered for a role of a POC individual, and some were declaring that he was not black enough to play the character.

For starters, the approach here feels incorrect. I am not so sure most people are looking at “Luther” as a show about, nor claimed to be diverse. It is a strong character who happens to be a black male. This is not initially sold as a “black program,” but a good program. Luther being black is not incidental, but it is also not the entire focus of the program. It is about who he is as a character. Sure, that includes his ethnicity to a degree, but it is not the purpose of the show.

The character was written by Neil Cross, who is white. He did not initially intend for Luther to be a black character, but when it came to casting, it also did not matter. If you can secure a talent like Idris Elba for the role you do not hesitate at casting him. Neil Cross did not hesitate, and he also did not pretend to reshape his character after the fact.

’’It would have been an act of tremendous arrogance for me to try to write a black character. We would have ended up with a slightly embarrassed, ignorant, middle-class, white writer’s idea of a black character.’’

To see his point, try to imagine something. Take a look at the comments made by Ms. Wayland, but instead have her impressions of the character be something that had actually been written into the program by Mr. Cross. Would the outrage be just as valid, but in the other direction? Surely you can see the race police looking at a black character eating Caribbean food being an insensitive trope inserted by an oblivious white writer. This is the problem with these calls for requisite touchpoints to be included by rote. When you mandate specific traits you are trending very closely into the realm of stereotypes, and then the issue becomes what is hurtful, and when. 

A POC executive is fine stating there are specific foods a character should eat, but once a white writer makes that decision, then a line is possibly crossed — even if the exact same food is involved.

This is why it becomes problematic with racial issues in entertainment. Instead of holding up a racial template to a program let us just get to know them as characters. Let the flawed but talented John Luther outwit the criminals, and stop applying mandates on his character.