Fox wants to bring the BBC’s award-winning, frankly awesome detective thriller Luther to the U.S., but they’ve got a problem: Finding an American Idris Elba — who brought a ruthless intelligence and rugged sexuality to the role of haunted detective chief inspector John Luther — has proved too daunting a task. So, according to The Hollywood Reporter, they’ve put their remake on hold — after, apparently, entertaining the thought of Marlon Wayans as the lead.
When writer Neil Cross was first creating the character of DCI John Luther, he didn’t write him as a black man, he just wrote him as a man. As Cross told BBC Radio 4:
It was cast as a character, purely and simply, which is one of the aspects that attracted Idris to the role. I have no knowledge or expertise or right to try to tackle in some way the experience of being a black man in modern Britain… It would have been an act of tremendous arrogance for me to try to write — and you have to try to imagine the quote marks around the words — a black character because I don’t know what a black character is and we would have ended up with a slightly embarrassed, ignorant, middle-class, white writer’s idea of a black character, which would have been an embarrassment for everybody concerned.
Cross and the BBC did what we now call “colorblind” or “race-neutral” casting: They went after who they thought was the best actor for the role and, wouldn’t you know it, landed the best actor for the role. There is absolutely something that Elba brings to the part, a knowledge of what it’s like to be a giant black man in a smaller white world, but the things that make Luther who and what he is have nothing to do with race. Here’s how John Luther is described in Cross’ script for the Luther pilot:
A SHABBY FIGURE appears. Implacable. Eyes that burn with lunacy and murder. Incredible as it seems — this is DETECTIVE CHIEF INSPECTOR JOHN LUTHER.
Less a man than a FORCE OF NATURE. Vengeance personified.
Luther is a man apart. Gifted with a taste of madness. Born in the wrong time, but with the right gifts. But nowhere does it say that he’s black. So why should Fox’s American John Luther be black, too? Much has been made in the past couple of years about race and iconic roles, kicked off with the question, Does Spider-Man Need to Be A White Guy? (which I might have had something to do with). The thing that makes Spider-Man unique is that he’s a science nerd from Queens, living in a house riven by death and abandonment — and that he’s got the proportionate strength and speed of a spider. Marvel eventually understood this and gave us the Miles Morales Spider-Man.
But colorblind casting should also go the other way, so long as it retains fidelity to what makes that character special. As the old saying goes, what is good for the goose should also be good for the gander. For example, the DNA of Foxy Brown is such that you couldn’t just get Ann Margaret to play her, but God can be played by people besides Morgan Freeman (weird as it may be to ponder). The characters on shows like Empire, Black-ish and Jane the Virgin are specific to those worlds. But the desire to “keep what’s ours” among those black viewers who fell in love with Luther isn’t a valid reason to not broaden the search.
Why couldn’t John Luther be, say, Hispanic?
All Luther needs to be is a man apart. A bull in a china shop. Different. And sexy as hell.
Marc Bernardin — formerly of The Hollywood Reporter — is the deputy editor of Playboy.com, where he manages the site’s entertainment and pop culture news. He had the chance to interview Idris Elba once but turned it down, claiming “I’m not sure my self-image can withstand being in the same room as Idris Elba.”