Idris Elba, Escapism, and Upward Mobility

I can't stand to walk past an Abercrombie & Fitch store in the mall because I hate the stench that they call cologne. There's something else that I hate about A&F, and that's the fact that black youth have been buying it for as long as I can remember not because the simple khaki shorts, jeans and t-shirts exemplify their personal style, but because buying and wearing Abercrombie & Fitch translates in many of their minds as tantamount to buying a piece of whiteness. It's as if wearing these clothes effectively covers the "stain" of their blackness, even if it's only for the day. How do I know that this is why some black kids buy A&F?  I fell victim to this during my middle school years.

My first and last Abercrombie & Fitch outfit was a hunter green sweatshirt and cream corduroy pants. I was 13 and the new girl at a rural middle school in North Carolina. Of course I wanted to fit in, and one of the best ways to slide into a new social atmosphere is to look like everyone else. After wearing my Abercrombie outfit a few times, I retired it because it wasn't my style and I could only front like it was for a finite about of time. Now, there is nothing about shorts and t-shirts that make them "white people's clothes" ( even though A&F's lawsuits may suggest otherwise), and there is nothing about hoodies and snapbacks that make them "black people's clothes", but even now there are certain styles of clothing, brands, types of music, food, and even colors that some black people avoid simply because they consider them to be heavily tethered to blackness.  God forbid someone mistake them for being what they are.

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, for them, blackness is not as superficial as the clothing you wear, nor is it the kiss of death. Cherishing blackness is not about shutting yourself off from experiences and people outside of its realms, but it's more about establishing a sense of pride in self that radiates to others in the form of confidence, respect, and curiosity and concern for other cultures since you understand the value of your own.

That's why Idris Elba's recent commentsabout his unwillingness to talk about the lack of opportunities for black actors and actresses were so disturbing to me. Of what is called "the black question", he states:

"I’m so bored of answering that. Are there differences between black actors’ opportunities and white actors’ opportunities? Yes, there are. It’s been said. I’d rather a young black actor read about success as opposed to how tough it was.”

“I get these roles because I can act and that’s it. Hopefully that’s it. The less I talk about being black, the better."   - Idris Elba to Vulture, 5/27/12

No one likes to be around a person that complains about how hard life is, and I think Elba makes a point about giving a positive perspective to upcoming black talent instead of harping on the many stumbling blocks they may encounter in the industry. I also don't advocate for people wearing their race on their sleeves and encapsulating their entire identity within their race. Many times, these types of individuals lack personality, and they compensate by reminding everyone about how black they are and how no one else can be as black as they are. These are sentiments that I share with Elba, but I think he could have been a little less reckless with expressing them.

Elba appears to be able to get prominent roles in "mainstream" films, such as his role as the Norse god Heimdal in last year's Thor and his upcoming role as Janek in Prometheus, when his fellow black actors and actress, many of whom are equally as talented, are hard pressed to find work, and those who do find work are typecast into stereotypical, minimal roles or roles in what are considered to be "black" movies ( not that a movie having an all black cast lessens its artistic merit, as France seems to think). I think this would naturally lead one to wonder what Elba has that other black actors don't have. Suggesting that the difference is simply talent is insulting and rather arrogant on Elba's part.

In fact, the controversy over Elba having been cast as the aforementioned role in Thor illustrates the reason why there should be an ongoing discussion about black actors and how they are portrayed or omitted from a Hollywood that should reflect the society that it seeks to entertain. The fact remains that black actors and actresses are still not expected to be the leading man or the leading lady in the types of films that would catapult them to Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie type stardom. The infamous Hunger Games tweets from this past March are another reminder of how far we have to go when it comes to representation of black actors and racism as a whole. Hunger Games fans even expressed that they weren't as upset that the character Rue was killed after they found out that a black girl was cast to play her in the movie.

It would be wonderful if  black people had the ability to "just be". It would be great if we could trust that our talent and merit would be enough to move us where we would like to go on the job and in life as a whole. Unfortunately, there are still crevices and cracks in our social fabric that allow the negative forces of racism to flow through and complicate the possibility of these things becoming reality. These types of comments from high-profile personalities like Elba don't make things any better.