Idris Elba Urges British Government to Promote Racial Diversity on Screen

by Angelique Jackson 9:30 AM PST, January 19, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

Idris Elba gave the "most important" speech of his life on Monday, urging the British government to promote racial diversity on screen. 

He explained that he pursued his career as an actor in America because of the "glass ceiling" and stereotyping he was running into  in the U.K., only landing roles as "best friends" or "gang leaders,” versus the lead. 

“My agent and I, we’d get scripts and we were always asked to read the ‘black male’ character. Or ‘the athletic type,’” Elba said. “But when a script called for a ‘black male,’ it wasn’t describing a character. It was a describing a skin color. A white man -- or a caucasian -- was described as ‘a man with a twinkle in his eye.’ My eyes may be dark, but they definitely twinkle! (Ask the Mrs…) And I was like, ‘I wanna play the character with a twinkle in his eyes!’”

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Elba's speech to Parliament was not just about black people, he acknowledged, but about "gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and most important of all...diversity of thought.”

As the #OscarsSoWhite backlash grows and stars call for a boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards, Elba's words were very timely. For the second year in a row, all 20 acting nominees were white actors and actresses. The most notable snubs included Will Smith, Creed director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, and -- yes -- Elba for Beasts of No Nation.

While Elba's speech did not directly address his Oscar snub, these were his first comments since the nominations were announced. 

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Elba also lauded Shonda Rhimes, Star Wars breakout John Boyega, and Viola Davis, acknowledging their accomplishments in the fight for diversity. 

“As Viola Davis said last year, when she became the first-ever black woman to win an Emmy for drama, ’You can’t win an Emmy for a role that’s never been written,’” he said. “That’s why we need more imagination from our directors, our producers, our casting directors, our writers -- especially our writers. So I’m just saying we need to be more aware."

Elba’s comments come as more in Hollywood are speaking out against the Oscars. Back in Los Angeles, David Oyelowo admonished the Academy for its failure to diversify its nominees for a second year in a row.

“The Academy is an institution in which they all say radical and timely change cannot happen quickly,” he said. “It better happen quickly. The law of this country can change in a matter of months. It better come on. The Oscars is on February 28. Cheryl needs us to pray that by that date, change is going to come. We need to pray for Cheryl, we need to support Cheryl, we need to love Cheryl. We cannot afford to get bitter, we cannot afford to get negative. But we must make our voice heard.”

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