BLACK VOICES

Calling Idris Elba 'Too Street' Is Racist, Just Not For The Reason You Think

Is "too street" a thinly veiled way of saying "too black?"

Earlier today, James Bond author Anthony Horowitz posted a public apology via Twitter following comments he made in a recent interview about actor Idris Elba. Talking to The Daily Mail on Aug. 29, Horowitz declared that Elba is "too street" to play Bond on the big screen. There was an almost instant outrage.

Horowitz's comments were dismissed by livid Internet users and writers as racist, his use of "too street" a thinly veiled way of saying that Elba is simply too black to play the role. But Horowitz's comments actually went far beyond race, demonstrating the way that sometimes stereotypes about black actors have everything to do with their blackness and how it relates to their perceived class.

When he said Elba was "too street" to be Bond, Horowitz wasn't necessarily talking about race. After all, the author did offer his own dream casting for a black Bond: actor Adrian Lester, best known in the UK for his role as a suave conman on the television drama "Hustle." Lester is a talented and capable actor but, more importantly in contrast to Elba, he's posh, with a lilting, middle-class British accent. 

Horowitz's conception of Bond is a suave, inscrutable, posh Bond, and his comments seemed to suggest that he was more concerned with Elba's working-class background and accent. This makes sense, since the UK has always had a distinct relationship to class and socially hierarchy, with even the way a person speaks determining how far they can make it in society.  So, then, his comments weren't racist, right? Classist, maybe, but not racist? Well, not quite. It's more complicated than that.  

In his apology, Horowitz conceded that he "clumsily chose the word 'street'" because he had in mind Elba's gritty portrayal of a hardened detective on the hit BBC series "Luther." From his apology it's apparent that Horowitz truly didn't feel his comments were problematic -- he named a black actor he thought was suited for the part, after all. But Horowitz's comments play into a kind of seemingly innocuous Hollywood racism that fails to see black actors as anything more than "types."

Idris Elba is an actor. He has mastered an American accent, various African accents, and yes, and varying kinds of English accents. He's played police detectives and single dads, Norse gods, and soldiers. To dismiss him as "too street" is to have a profound lack of imagination and respect of his skill as a performer. 

This is a reality that so many black actors face. Daniel Craig has played lower-class characters with Cockney accents in the past, but they haven't defined him or blocked him from getting different roles going forward. Indeed, his version of the Bond character  has been applauded specifically for bringing a sense of street-sense and grittiness to the franchise. (Case in point: the "Casino Royale" scene where he's asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred and he answers, gruffly, "Do I look like I give a damn?") 

Last month, Zoë Kravitz revealed that producers told her she was too "urban" to play a character in The Dark Knight Rises (most likely Juno Temple's bit part as a petty thief). Let's be real. Is there anything particularly "urban" about Zoë Kravitz? And, beyond his non-posh British accent (which in America doesn't even register as anything but incredibly sexy), what exactly is so inherently "street" about Elba? For black actors, range or talent has nothing to do with it. They're either too black or not black enough. So while Horowitz's use of "too street" may not have been intentionally racist, his inability to separate Elba from one great performance kinda is. 

 

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