Idris Elba: ‘I Stopped Describing Myself as a Black Actor’ Because ‘It Puts Me in a Box’

"I don’t want to be the first Black. I’m the first Idris."
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 20: Idris Elba attends the screening of "Three Thousand Years Of Longing (Trois Mille Ans A T'Attendre)" during the 75th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 20, 2022 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Idris Elba
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Idris Elba is speaking out on labels.

The “Luther: The Fallen Sun” star opened up about race and nationality in a new cover story with Esquire UK.

“I didn’t become an actor because I didn’t see Black people doing it and I wanted to change that,” Elba said. “I did it because I thought that’s a great profession and I could do a good job at it. As you get up the ladder, you get asked what it’s like to be the first Black to do this or that. Well, it’s the same as it would be if I were white. It’s the first time for me. I don’t want to be the first Black. I’m the first Idris.”

Elba, whose breakout stateside performance in “The Wire” propelled him to being an A-list multi-hyphenate talent, addressed his upbringing in Canning Town, England. The British actor is of Sierra Leonean and Ghanese descent.

“People say you come from a tough neighborhood. That’s not a tough neighborhood. If you’ve come from that place, lived there all your life, that’s just home,” Elba said. “It’s a tough neighborhood compared to where you come from. [Canning Town] was a right-wing, white, working-class community. There weren’t that many Black people, weren’t that many Asians. In my school there was a lot of Black and brown, but the neighborhood, not so much.”

The “Three Thousand Years of Longing” actor continued, “I’m always curious why this is fascinating to people. It’s a question I get asked a lot. I don’t go to my Black friends, in conversation, and ask them to tell me about racism. Have I ever faced racism? Yeah. I’m not any more Black because I’m in a white area, or more Black because I’m in a Black area. I’m Black. And that skin stays with me no matter where I go, every day, through Black areas with white people in it, or white areas with Black people in it. I’m the same Black.”

Elba shared, “Of course, I’m a member of the Black community. You say a prominent one. But when I go to America, I’m a prominent member of the British community. ‘Oh, UK’s in the house!’ If we spent half the time not talking about the differences but the similarities between us, the entire planet would have a shift in the way we deal with each other. As humans, we are obsessed with race. And that obsession can really hinder people’s aspirations, hinder people’s growth. Racism should be a topic for discussion, sure. Racism is very real. But from my perspective, it’s only as powerful as you allow it to be.”

The “Suicide Squad” star said, “I stopped describing myself as a Black actor when I realized it put me in a box. We’ve got to grow. We’ve got to. Our skin is no more than that: it’s just skin. Rant over.”

Elba summed up, “I accept that it is part of my journey to be aware that, in many cases, I might be the first to look like me to do a certain thing. And that’s good, to leave as part of my legacy. So that other people, Black kids, but also white kids growing up in the circumstances I grew up in, are able to see there was a kid who came from Canning Town who ended up doing what I do. It can be done.”

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