When Kenneth Branagh cast Idris Elba as Heimdall in the upcoming summer tentpole Thor, a furious debate erupted among fanboys, with some insisting it was wrong for a black man to play a Nordic god.
But the London-born actor has no patience for the debate. “It’s so ridiculous,” he said Feb. 24 at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.
“We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley.”
Beyond that artistic defense, though, there is an even more basic reason black actors welcome colorblind casting: There is a ceiling on the amount of business black-themed movies can achieve, so the opportunities for black actors and actresses remain limited unless they can also claim parts in mainstream entertainment.
Black-themed movies have established a niche where they can do significant business at the domestic box office, but because they don’t travel well overseas, there’s a limited number of them.
But even though they can turn to such genre films for employment, black actors have been losing ground. In the early 2000s, blacks played 15% of roles in film and TV. Today, it has fallen to 13%, according to SAG. And black directors make up only 4% of the DGA.
This year’s Academy Awards offered a stark reminder of the lack of diversity in the movie business; the nominees, both above and below the line, were almost uniformly white. And though 13 black actors have won Oscars in the ceremomy’s 83-year history, only two directors have been nominated: John Singleton for 1991’s Boyz N the Hood and Lee Daniels last year for Precious.
For while Hollywood knows the market for black films is circumscribed, it also realizes that black audiences can boost grosses on movies aimed at wider audiences. Studios rely heavily on black moviegoers to turn out for their mainstream films. Blacks, who represent 13% of the U.S. population, buy 12% of all movie tickets, according to the latest statistics from the MPAA.
Most say Hollywood needs to do a better job if it is to reduce the glaring disparity in terms of the number of blacks onscreen and behind the camera.