Black 'Thor' Actor Blasts Debate Over His Casting
“It’s so ridiculous,” Idris Elba says as The Hollywood Reporter magazine looks at colorblind casting and the shrinking roles for African-American actors before Friday's NAACP Image Awards.
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.
"The prosperity of the African-American audience is enormous, and they contribute formidably to the bottom line for films like Iron Man or Transformers," one veteran studio executive says.
Animated films also do huge business among black audiences. In 2009, Disney released its first toon featuring a black princess, The Princess and the Frog, and it grossed $267 million worldwide.
Seeking out roles, regardless of color, allows black actors more opportunities and the chance to build a following among general audiences.
When Anthony Mackie set his sights on playing Sgt. JT Sanborn in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, he and longtime manager Jason Spire had some convincing to do. The part was written for a white male.
"That was the play we decided we were going to make," recalls Spire, who signed Mackie when the actor was attending Juilliard and Spire was still an agent at Gersh. "Unless there is actually a reason why a role has to be a certain color or a certain ethnic background to be pivotal to the story, in my opinion, all roles should be colorblind. There's no reason why they shouldn't be."
Although Mackie had worked in film for nearly a decade, starring in a number of acclaimed indies, it was only after his performance in eventual best picture Oscar winner Hurt Locker that doors began opening wider. He has a substantial role in Universal's The Adjustment Bureau, opening March 4, playing a guardian angel to Matt Damon's character. And in February, he closed a deal to star in one of Hollywood's more high-profile studio projects: Fox's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Jackson is another up-and-comer who has benefited from colorblind casting, having played a Greek satyr in 2010's Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
But actors like Mackie and Elba still face a tough road in trying to emulate the statesman status of A-listers such as Will Smith, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, who have succeeded -- against tough odds -- in transcending racial barriers.
Smith has become one of the world's biggest box-office draws, debunking the commonly voiced notion that black stars can't travel overseas. His films have grossed $2.52 billion worldwide, not far behind the $2.87 billion collected by Tom Cruise films.
"I think it's interesting that the only lock in this business is Will Smith," Cheadle says. "But he didn't break out until [1997's] Men in Black, when Sony put its full power behind him."
Freeman fought for, and won, the chance to play the role of Red in Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption, which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor in 1995. In Stephen King's novella, Red was a middle-aged, balding Irishman.
Darabont has said in interviews that he always had Freeman in mind for the part because of the actor's demeanor and voice.