top of page

[Opinion] Not Being a Black Actor While Being Black

Idris Elba is a Black man who has taken on a diverse array of roles from the drug kingpin Stringer Bell in The Wire to Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Elba recently had fans questioning his statement about not being labeled a “Black actor." How is it possible that a Black man is not a Black actor? The answer is both simple and complex. What Elba was expressing was the idea of going beyond playing characters specifically written for Black people and saying that oftentimes characters themselves have no race and it is ultimately up to the casting directors what the race of a character is unless explicitly stated in a script.

Long before Elba’s time, Black actors were relegated to playing roles that were strictly and stereotypically Black. Black actors didn’t have the option of portraying the hero or politician but were stuck playing the role of servant mostly. It wasn’t until Sidney Poitier came along and fought his way through the doors to portray characters that weren’t seen as the "typical" Black roles, and represented the roles he played with dignity, class and grace. If it wasn’t for men like Poitier, actors such as Elba, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Marlon Wayans and others wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go beyond being "Black actors."

Smith, Washington, Wayans and Murphy are all Black actors who have ascended being Black actors. Wayans was once cast as Robin in Tim Burton’s Batman series before production on the film was canceled. Prior to and after Wayans, casting the character has otherwise been portrayed by white actors, but there was never any definitive rule that the character had to be played by a white actor. Likewise, Washington portrayed Bennett Marco in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, a role that was played by Frank Sinatra in the original version. The remake earned over $96 million, globally.

Denzel Washington in The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

At one point, Smith was considered for the leading role in A Star is Born remake, a character that had also previously been portrayed by white actors. The films in which Smith was the leading actor have earned over $6 billion at the box office, worldwide.

However, it is evident that oftentimes Hollywood is afraid to cast Black actors in non-Black roles. But, why is that? It seems that the reason most Black actors don't get the chance to step out of non-Black roles has to do with popularity outside of Black audiences and their ability to draw big box office numbers.

Early in his career, Elba was stuck in playing Black roles from The Wire until just after Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls. After box office success in films such as 28 Weeks Later, where Elba’s character could have been any race, Elba really began breaking out of the box.

Although Elba is refusing to label himself a Black actor that doesn’t mean, however, that it changes the perception of the roles he nor other Black men will be offered despite having played characters that weren’t initially written with a specific race in mind. It also becomes a matter of choice in that actors can choose to accept Black character roles or fight for roles that aren’t tied to skin color. But many Black actors don’t have that power like Elba, Washington and Smith do. Many studios are afraid that if a Black actor outside of the aforementioned are cast in non-Black roles their productions won’t be believable or draw an audience, but in actuality, that isn’t the case.

Furthermore, when we look at the Academy Awards and see that there are no Black actor nominees for the Best Actor category, it shows that the Academy doesn’t respect Black actors playing Black roles. There have been exceptions such as Daniel Kaluuya’s win for portraying Fred Hampton, Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles, Denzel Washington in Training Day, Will Smith as Richard Williams and Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin, but their wins are few and far between.

Photo Credit:


QG - Ernie Hudson copy 4.jpg
Tshirt image front.png
bottom of page