You may have watched the BBC’s hit crime drama Luther – featuring none other than Idris Elba. His character, who bears the name’s sake of the show, is a detective chief inspector who is passionate about solving crimes – but also intense and obsessive; he does not always stick to the rules.
The show is one of the first British prime time television dramas that stars a black actor in the lead title role, and it recently came into the spotlight again after the BBC’s head of diverse creativity Miranda Wayland commented on the authenticity of the detective.
Miranda Wayland has worked in the role since February 2020 – her position was created during a series of changes at the BBC, aiming to demonstrate the BBC’s commitment to on-air diversity.
She said: “When Luther first came out everybody loved the fact that Idris Elba was in there – a really strong, black character lead. 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, okay, he doesn’t have any Black friends, he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food, this doesn’t feel authentic.”
This sparked a series of reactions, including writer Neil Cross, who created the character of Luther.
He said that Idris Elba only accepted the role due to the fact that race was not an integral part of the character on screen.
He also said: “I have no knowledge or expertise or right to try to tackle in some way the experience of being a Black man in modern Britain.
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.”
‘Luther’ does not have any noticeably cultural indicators or influences in his life – he does not have those elements that a fellow black British person may recognise and identify with. A huge part of the television experience for audiences, is identity and some find meaning in that. For others, having a character that ‘looks like them’ is enough.
On the other hand, being black or even black British is not a homogenous experience – Neil Cross highlights this by refusing to write from a place of assumption. Black people do not fit in a box -, being black is not only defined by the foods you eat, the music you listen to or the ethnicity of the friends you keep – even though these are important culturally defining factors. Furthermore, the story line of Luther focuses on crime, and his obsession with it – the lack of focus on his ‘blackness’ does not mean that it is being ignored or minimalised.
However, there is also no harm in consulting black voices when creating a character who is from culture different to your own. Everyone benefits when a range of voices are included, behind the scenes and on-air: this is important to remember as strides are made to increase diversity within television.