Hol­ly­wood con­tin­ues to waste Elba’s tal­ent, and it’s a huge loss

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN 360 LIFE - By Alyssa Rosen­berg The Wash­ing­ton Post

As the trou­bled, lon­gawaited adap­ta­tion of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” rolls out to dis­mal re­views this week, I’ve had to re­sist bang­ing my head against the wall in frus­tra­tion, and not be­cause I’m a King afi­cionado grap­pling with shat­ter­ing dis­ap­point­ment. Rather, “The Dark Tower” is the lat­est frus­trat­ing ex­am­ple of how noth­ing ever seems to go quite right in the ca­reer of Idris Elba — and what a loss that is for the rest of us.

Al­though Elba had been act­ing steadily for eight years be­fore the pre­miere of “The Wire,” most Amer­i­can au­di­ences know him best from his per­for­mance as charis­matic, so­phis­ti­cated and ul­ti­mately doomed drug dealer Stringer Bell, the neme­sis of Bal­ti­more De­tec­tive Jimmy McNulty (Do­minic West). Stringer Bell was one of those ex­cep­tion­ally rare roles that give an ac­tor a chance to demon­strate that they can do many things very well. As Stringer, Elba could be in­tim­i­dat­ing when up against a ri­val, dryly funny when mess­ing with McNulty, pedan­tic in his deal­ings with un­der­lings, se­duc­tive in an old-fash­ioned way that we rarely see on screen any­more, and full of pathos when Stringer’s dreams of go­ing le­git­i­mate bumped up against the lim­its of his knowl­edge, ex­pe­ri­ence and ed­u­ca­tion.

“The Wire” should have set Elba up to do any­thing: to be an older Black Pan­ther in a Marvel adap­ta­tion; to re­vi­tal­ize the old-school movie ro­mance in an era where “Fifty Shades of Grey” was bring­ing more adult sex­u­al­ity back to the mul­ti­plex; to star in a range of his­tor­i­cal biopics at a mo­ment when di­rec­tors such as Ava DuVer­nay were turn­ing their his­tory to black Amer­ica’s past.

But some­how, the next great role, the one that should have made Elba a gen­uine movie star, or that should have put him squarely at the cen­ter of his own out­stand­ing tele­vi­sion show, never quite ar­rived. And even when parts did ma­te­ri­al­ize, they didn’t quite res­onate the way they could have.

After “The Wire,” Elba took guest roles on se­ries such as “The Of­fice and “The Big C.” As many black ac­tors in Hol­ly­wood do, he ended up in a num­ber of sen­ti­men­tal movies aimed largely at African-Amer­i­can au­di­ences, among them the melo­dra­mas “Daddy’s Lit­tle Girls” and “The Gospel.” He and Bey­oncé co-starred in a stalker drama, “Ob­sessed.”

And over and over, Elba was cast as sup­port­ing char­ac­ters in genre block­busters: as Heim­dall, the blind guardian of As­gard’s Rain­bow Bridge in Marvel’s “Thor” movies; as a priest in the sec­ond “Ghost Rider” movie; as Janek in the “Alien” pre­quel “Prometheus”; as a Starfleet cap­tain who lost his sense of mis­sion in “Star Trek Be­yond”; and as the color­fully named Stacker Pen­te­cost, the head of a gi­ant-ro­bot fight­ing crew in “Pa­cific Rim.” Even as movies like these helped raise the pro­file of ac­tors like Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, and Chris Pine, who an­chors the “Star Trek” fran­chise, these roles seemed to hem Elba in rather than help him reach the next level.

This is not to say that Elba hasn’t done out­stand­ing work in the years since Stringer Bell died at the hands of Omar Lit­tle (Michael K. Williams) and Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) in the third sea­son of “The Wire.”

He was won­der­ful as Nel­son Man­dela in “Man­dela: Long Walk to Free­dom,” cap­tur­ing both Man­dela’s mil­i­tancy and his hard-won pa­tience. But that movie (which also fea­tured a mar­velous per­for­mance by Naomie Har­ris as Man­dela’s wife, Win­nie) came out the same year as Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” In an in­dus­try that of­ten seems in­ca­pable of rec­og­niz­ing more than a few black artists at a time, “Man­dela: Long Walk to Free­dom” was largely shut out of year-end awards after a mod­est per­for­mance at the box of­fice.

Elba did sim­i­larly strong work in “Beasts of No Na­tion,” as the Com­man­dant who ma­nip­u­lates and de­ploys child sol­diers. That film, though, was dis­trib­uted through Net­flix, which bets on dar­ing con­tent but doesn’t yet seem to have fig­ured out how to make its glut of orig­i­nal movies and tele­vi­sion shows cap­ture the cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion.

Ar­guably some of Elba’s best and most pop­u­lar work — and the roles that have let him do com­edy as well as drama — come in an­i­mated films where his face is off­screen, but his rumbly bari­tone makes an un­for­get­table im­pres­sion. Three of those roles came in 2016 alone, when he played an ex­as­per­ated wa­ter buf­falo po­lice chief in “Zootopia,” Dis­ney’s wildly suc­cess­ful al­le­gory about racial pro­fil­ing and law enforcement; the men­ac­ing tiger Shere Khan in the gor­geous live-ac­tion re­make of “The Jun­gle Book”; and Fluke, one of two joc­u­lar, slightly bul­ly­ing sea lions in “Find­ing Dory,” a role that re­united him with “The Wire” co-star West, who also played a blub­bery blab­ber­mouth. It’s as if Hol­ly­wood can only fig­ure out what to do with Elba when it sep­a­rates his lively, ver­sa­tile voice from his body.

That’s an aw­ful shame, and it speaks more to the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try’s fail­ures of imag­i­na­tion than to any­thing lack­ing in Elba’s tal­ent. And while I’m sure this frus­trates Elba and his agents, this state of af­fairs is a loss for ev­ery­one.

The space be­tween what Idris Elba is ca­pa­ble of do­ing and what Hol­ly­wood has been will­ing to give him to do is a mea­sure­ment of the in­dus­try’s cre­ative fail­ure and timid­ity. And for those of us who love to watch Elba work and hate to see him wasted, the weight of per­for­mances that could have been but never will be is crush­ing.


Idris Elba stars in “The Dark Tower.”

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