The movie adaptation of Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic Western drama The Dark Tower has received mostly withering reviews. Starring Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black and Idris Elba as the last Gunslinger Roland Deschain, who are entangled in an eternal battle to protect the Dark Tower that holds the universe together, the movie will nevertheless be developed as a television series – which means that Elba has yet another credit to his name.
The British actor boasts of an immensely wide and vivid body of work, which gets more and more commendable with each passing year. He is the stuff that screen dreams are made of. Be it intense brooding drama, senseless comedy, or action set in space, Elba portrays each role with dexterity.
Elba effectively broke into the television scene with the HBO series The Wire (2002) as the economic theory-quoting second-in-command to local drug lord and gangster Avon Barksdale.
While The Wire boasts of an incredibly talented ensemble cast, Elba stood out as Stringer Bell, a man capable of calculated ruthlessness, high intelligence and eerily destructive calmness. A perfect foil to the vengeful Avon, Bell is the man with a plan to get ahead and the mind and means to make it. Elba’s performance is one of TV programming’s iconic moments, and the episode in which he is killed is counted as among the finest 60 minutes in television history.
Elba moved to the other end of the moral compass (but still well within the dark side) with his intense performance as a troubled detective in the BBC crime noir Luther, which is returning for a fifth season. As John Luther, Elba is a brilliant, brawny but conflicted police detective who is called upon to solve the most ingenious crimes taking place all over London. He finds a nemesis and a close friend in Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan, the only person who is too smart for him and the prison system. The crime series gave Elba the opportunity to portray a character with many shades of grey, but a strong moral code. He walks a thin line between what is right and what is lawful, often falling to one side or another, but mostly surviving at the end of a season run. There are heroics in Luther, but it acknowledges that witnessing homicide for a living and watching friends and lovers die in the line of duty isn’t easy and does leave the protagonist sufficiently damaged.
Seeing Elba switch gears and do comedy is joy unlike any other. As Charles Miner in the American version of The Office, Elba is a welcome addition to an already hilarious ensemble. He arrives in the fifth season and right away cancels Michael Scott’s 15th anniversary party. Miner’s no-nonsense charm, deadpan dialogue delivery about self-reflection and effect on women make for a welcome, and very distinct, change of pace in a show that is relaxed in its approach to comedy.
While commendable and varied in subject matter, Elba’s TV credits build up to two of his most powerful performances till date. As The Commandant in Cary Fukunaga Beasts of No Nation, Elba plays a vicious and dangerous warlord recruiting boy soldiers. When Agu’s older brother and father are killed by the army in an unspecified West African country, Agu (Abraham Attah) runs away and into The Commandant (Elba). This is Elba in his darkest and vilest role yet, and he is successfully hateful.
Elba was also exceptional in his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which traces the South African leader’s life from childhood to becoming his country’s first elected president. Elba’s Mandela was a faithful representation of the freedom fighter – a man who loved his wife, cars and boxing and was as flawed as any other person. Mandela saw the movie before its release and approved of Elba in prosthetics, asking “Is that me?”
Early in 2017, Elba took over the programming for BBC3 for a week, commissioning content by a more diverse team both on and off screen. A part of the takeover was a five-minute, five-part series Five by Five, about subverting stereotypes and preconceived notions by examining a single day through different perspectives.
All of this pathbreaking programming is supported by commercial and successful roles, including Prometheus, Pacific Rim, RocknRolla and Thor: The Dark Lord, Elba has been building up an enviable resume. Among his upcoming films is the plane wreck adventure The Mountain Between Us, in which he stars opposite Kate Winslet, and Molly’s Game, writer Alan Sorkin’s directorial debut.