Earlier this week, actor Idris Elba addressed the U.K.’s Parliament, delivering a powerful speech about diversity.
Maybe you know him from his role as Detective John Luther on BBC’s “Luther”? Maybe you saw his powerful performance in “Beasts of No Nation”? Maybe as Stringer Bell on “The Wire”? Or maybe you just know him as that really good-looking guy who was rumored to be taking over as James Bond a while back.
In any case, he was recently at the House of Commons to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Channel 4’s 360° Diversity Charter. And while the timing coincides with some of the uproar over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominees, Elba reportedly wrote the speech a couple weeks ago, back before the return of the #OscarsSoWhite discussion.
Here are five of the most powerful moments from Elba’s speech:
1. Diversity is more than just race.
Near the beginning of his speech, Elba tackled what people mean when they talk about diversity. What he wound up touching on, interestingly, was the concept of intersectionality — that is, the idea that things like gender, race, disability, and sexual orientation are linked and can overlap and compound one’s identity.
“I’m not here to talk about black people. I’m here to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin color — it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and — most important of all, as far as I’m concerned — diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV and film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned.”
2. Being able to see yourself in the media around you is important.
“I was busy, I was getting lots of work, but I realized I could only play so many ‘best friends’ or ‘gang leaders.’ I knew I wasn’t going to land a lead role. I knew there wasn’t enough imagination in the industry for me to be seen as a lead.
In other words, if I wanted to star in a British drama like ‘Luther,’ then I’d have to go to a country like America. Now some people might say, ‘But back then, Britain hardly had any black detectives, so how could you expect us to have a TV show about one? How could you expect the BBC to have the imagination to put Luther on TV?’
Because it’s TELEVISION?!
And the other thing was, because I never saw myself or my culture on TV, I stopped watching TV. Instead I decided to just go out and become TV. If I aspired to be on a level with the Denzel Washingtons and the Robert De Niros, I had to reinvent myself. I had to transform the way industry saw me. I had to climb out of the box.”
3. Being typecast, being stuck in a box, is no place to be.
“Are black people often playing petty criminals?” Elba asks rhetorically. “Are women always playing the love interest or talking about men? Are gay people always stereotyped? Are disabled people hardly ever seen?”
Stereotypes are tired. By definition, they’re what we already know, and it’s a shame that when people who aren’t straight white men do pop up in the media, it’s so often as a caricature. Typecasting only reinforces existing ideas about groups of people.
“What all this taught me is too often people get locked inside boxes, and it’s not a great place to be. Ask women, they’ll say the same thing. Or disabled people. Or gay people. Or any number of underrepresented groups. So today I’m asking the TV and film industry to think outside the box and to GET outside the box.
This isn’t a speech about race; this is a speech about imagination. Diversity of thought. Thankfully in our country, we’re free to say what we want. But we’re not as free as we think because our imagination isn’t that free.
We can’t help putting people inside boxes, it’s a national pastime. Funny thing is, it’s not good for the people locked in the box, but it’s also not good for the people deciding what’s ON the box.”
4. Diversity starts from the ground up with decision makers.
The world is shaped through what we see in the media, and sadly, just a select few people control that — and they’re not exactly the most diverse bunch themselves.
How many wonderful stories out there haven’t we heard because the person behind it didn’t have the right look, race, sexual orientation, or whatever else? How different might our worldview be if we were exposed to more realistic representations of society?
To find that out, we need to see people with a wide range of backgrounds put in charge of programming and development.
“The Britain I come from is the most successful, diverse, multicultural country on earth. But here’s my point: You wouldn’t know it if you turned on the TV. Too many of our creative decision-makers share the same background.
They decide which stories get told and those stories decide how Britain is viewed. Even to ourselves. Especially to ourselves. Furthermore, how Britain is viewed on the world stage should concern all of us. It’s all our business.
And that’s why everyone should care about our media industry — it’s the custodian of our global identity.”
5. It’s time to take risks if you want to survive and see rewards.
With original programming coming from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others, it’s a scary time to be a TV broadcaster. And while it may seem like a good idea to play it safe with tried and true (and not so diverse) castings, the innovative programming coming from the streaming services is taking the opposite approach.
The entire text of the speech can be found here, and you can watch his full speech below: