Idris Elba has been essentially fan-casted for almost every major heroic franchise role in the last several years. This includes roles that would have naturally gone to a black actor (Black Panther, John Stewart, etc.) as well as those generally played by white actors (Dr. Who, James Bond, etc.). In the same way folks tend to throw out Kathryn Bigelow’s name on a director wish-list to show that they’ve heard of at least one prominent female director, Elba’s name gets tossed into fantasy cast lists by quite a few people who don’t know a ton of black actors off the top of their head beyond Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson.
And yet, here we are, with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower being made into a feature film. And the main heroic character of said film, originally described as a riff on Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name from his 1960’s spaghetti westerns, is played by none other than Idris Elba. It’s as good a choice as any, as Elba smolders and holds the screen exactly as you’d expect the star of Luthor and The Wire to do so when given the opportunity to play a mythic gunslinger in a big-budget fantasy epic. His is the best performance in the movie, and that the picture works at all is due to his star turn.
But Idris Elba isn’t just playing a character in the Dark Tower who was a white guy in the Dark Tower books. He’s playing essentially the lead character in the movie. You’d think that this sort of thing would be more common 21-years after Independence Day, 20 years after Men in Black and 19 years after Blade. But we’re still more likely today to see a situation like Walt Disney’s Doctor Strange (where a male Asian character gets changed into a white female) or Ghost in the Shell (which essentially makes whitewashing/race bending into its core plot) than a situation where The Gunslinger just happens to be played by a well-known black actor for whom the role fits like a glove.
You think Charlie Hunnam’s career is going to be hurt at all from King Arthur: Legend of the Sword or Crimson Peak? You think Tom Hardy’s stock took even a slight tumble after Citizen 44 or The Drop? Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex, Labor Day, Oldboy, etc.) and Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs, Assassin’s Creed, The Counselor, etc.) are borderline box office poison, but they still get to be Thanos, Cable, Magneto and Steve Jobs and Assassin S. Creed while the media tells Melissa McCarthy how to save her career over and over again. Elba is just as good, arguably better, in The Dark Tower as any of his white compatriots would have been. But that’s just half the battle.
I too wish The Dark Tower was a better movie, and I’m not necessarily in the mood to reward Sony and MRC for giving us a glorified TV pilot in place of what could have been the next Fellowship of the Ring. But it is also a rare opportunity for a black actor to play the kind of role that would otherwise have gone to a brooding white guy. Sony and MRC didn’t just race-swap a minor supporting character and shout about progress and inclusivity. They went and race-swapped the outright heroic lead of the story, which is a step further and one that (especially if you’re a fan of the actor) deserves $10 and 90-minutes of your time. As unfair as it is, we have to show the investors and the studios that actors like Idris Elba can succeed in these sorts of roles.
So what are you going to do about it? You may argue that Idris Elba should be James Bond, but have you seen Bastille Day? You say you want more non-white actors with leading roles in mainstream big-budget franchise pictures? Are you among those who tend to picture Idris Elba for every male hero/villain role that comes down the pike? He’s now playing the heroic lead, quite well, I might add, in Sony’s adaptation of The Dark Tower, playing a character who was white in the original books. So you better damn sure show up at the theater this month. Because here’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is.
I know some people may disagree, but the writer is making a fair point. Idris Elba is a great actor & Hollywood should take note.