The other day, I fired up the ol’ Netflix streaming and started watching Luther, a British psychological crime drama starring Idris Elba. Elba was nominated last year for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Television Film for his work in Luther and I’ve heard pretty good things about it in general. So far, I’m hooked. It’s only been on for one season, but if you haven’t seen it, I suggest that you do.
In the midst of reading some internet reviews of the series, I saw some news that puzzled me. Tyler Perry is apparently replacing Idris Elba as the lead in a reboot of the Alex Cross movies. That’s right, I didn’t get the order of the names mixed up. Madea is replacing Stringer. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. For those of you who don’t know, Alex Cross is a detective and protagonist of a series of novels by James Patterson. No disrespect to Perry’s acting chops, but based on both his and Elba’s past work alone, this doesn’t make sense to me. He could very well shock a lot of us on some “Heath Leger as The Joker” type steez, but I wouldn’t put my money on it, especially since the director is Rob Cohen, who’s biggest successes are The Fast and The Furious and xXx. “You know you done fucked up now. You know that right?”
This of course got me thinking of what other black actors could portray Alex Cross? The last two Alex Cross movies, Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider, had Morgan Freeman as the lead, but he’s obviously way too old to play this role again. I rolled through the list of prominent black actors who I thought could play a detective in a crime drama: Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Lawrence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx. But when you’re doing a reboot of what you hope will be a franchise, you want younger actors. So what about the following actors that could have played the part as well: Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nate Parker, Columbus Short, Laz Alonso, and Derek Luke just to name a few. These are very promising black actors who have shown their talent, but still haven’t seemed to make themselves household names. Even Idris Elba isn’t as well-known as we think he is. While it would be easy for me to describe Hollywood’s propensity to not take risks on non-white lead roles as racist, it seems more likely that their greed chooses to follow the natural racial segregation of our society.
A recent study by Andrew Weaver of the Indiana University Department of Telecommunications showed that “white participants were more interested in seeing films with white actors than films with black actors.” Weaver took 68 white undergraduates and made webpages for 12 fake romantic comedies with different percentages of white and black cast members. His results showed that the more black actors were cast, the less interested the white participants were in seeing it. In a follow up study where Weaver surveyed 150 white people between the ages of 18 and 69 that is yet to be published, the results were supposedly the same. The participants’ racial attitudes and actors’ relative celebrity didn’t have an effect. We’ve seen this happen recently with one of the biggest black actors of all time in Will Smith. The actor has admitted that race played a role in the casting of his love interest in Hitch. Studio execs were worried that a black leading couple would turn off audiences while a white love interest might offend US viewers. According to Weaver’s study, the execs were right. Even with Will Smith, a box office gold mine, the studio still saw it as a risk to team him up with a black love interest. Having said that, I would love to see this study done with participants of other races and compare the results.
Now, do I think that these results show that racial prejudice still exists in this country? Possibly. Do I think that these results could also be explained by the notion that people of any race flock to social groups and settings that they’re used to and often times end up racially segregating themselves in the process? Yes. Regardless, so long as audiences continue to believe that the intended audience for movies is determined by the race of the cast, studios will continue to not take many chances on young black actors and actresses in leading roles.