Let’s see more of Idris Elba, the ‘Sexiest Man Alive,’ on the silver screen
He may be following that long line of leading men, but Elba is a force all his own
People magazine choosing Idris Elba as its latest “Sexiest Man Alive” came right on time. After all, last year, the magazine selected country singer Blake Shelton (I call him B.S.) as its SMA. That signaled to me that the folks at People had run out of white guys to name its annual Sexiest Man Alive, a title that since 1985 has been held by the likes of Mel Gibson, George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Before Elba, Denzel Washington (1996) and Dwayne Johnson (2016) were the only other black winners. Keanu Reeves (1994) is the only other man of color to wear the garland as People‘s Sexiest Man Alive.
Nevertheless, women, especially black women, bought into the idea of Elba, 46, being the Sexist Man Alive when he was on HBO’s The Wire in the early 2000s. Essence magazine named the actor, activist and DJ its “Sexiest Man of the Year” in 2013.
Now it will be left to see whether women and men will buy the magazine with the Elba cover, which is the point of the whole thing, yes?
If folks don’t buy the Elba Sexiest Man Alive edition of People, then next year we might see an even more unlikely winner than Shelton was: “Lindsey Graham: that mouth, those eyes. Everything you think you know about the U.S. senator from South Carolina is wrong.”
At nearly 6 feet, 3 inches tall, Elba, sometimes called “DJ Big Driis,” epitomizes rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Berry’s brown-eyed handsome man: “Way back in history three thousand years / Back every since the world began / There’s been a whole lot of good women shed a tear / For a brown eyed handsome man.”
Still, like with Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and Billy Dee Williams in years past, Hollywood might prove reticent in taking full advantage of what Elba, black, buff and charismatic, can project on-screen: a smooth and commanding sexuality. The fear of the sexually compelling and seductive black man is large and enduring, in Hollywood and in the rest of our society.
Elba has been nominated for five Primetime Emmys, including four for his hit detective TV show Luther. He earned his fifth nomination for a guest appearance on Showtime’s The Big C.
But, for the most part, the London native hasn’t garnered as much acclaim for his film roles. Perhaps the Sexist Man Alive title will help change that. No doubt, Hollywood is prepared, even eager, to exploit the pantherlike actor and trained kickboxer as an action figure. But a romantic leading man in the movies? Perhaps not.
Hollywood, perennially unimaginative and timid with its black leading men, might look to the past for a vehicle for Elba. He’d be great in an update of An Affair to Remember. The 1957 movie starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as shipboard lovers who are promised to others. An even earlier version of the movie, Love Affair, starred Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. Those films used Europe as a backdrop.
In an update with Elba as the dashing playboy and Kate Winslet as the tart singer, or maybe Carmen Ejogo or Gugu Raw as the singer, the new film’s backdrop could be Europe too. But it also might be Africa or the Caribbean.
Furthermore, Hollywood or British filmmakers might set Elba in an updated Othello, make the title character an international business mogul instead of a Moorish general and cast Liev Schreiber as the scheming Iago, a role he has played onstage.
Or, relatedly, a new film could look at Elba as Paul Robeson playing Othello in New York in the 1940s: Robeson, an actor, lawyer and activist, tragically loved his white Desdemona (Uta Hagen) onstage and romanced his co-star off the stage too.
And apropos the current time, Elba could play a rising political star in London or Washington who finds love across the political aisle.
The shelf life of a leading man, even a black leading man, can be much longer than that of his female counterparts. By their mid-40s, far too many former Hollywood leading ladies have gone from playing “the girl” to playing crazy women or mothers — or not working regularly in the movies.
Still, a spate of roles that would focus upon Elba’s smoldering sexiness is long overdue. And it’s something women all around the world can put their arms around and squeeze.