Idris Elba may be the sexiest man in movies today. Here's my problem with that:
Elba gets his first full-fledged movie star role in Beasts of No Nationand, wouldn't you know, it's an outrageous ethnic stereotype that also plays to sexual-racial preconceptions. We're not always responsible for the fantasies that are brought on by social conditioning but that reflex can sometimes be startling. Who knew dictatorial madmen stuck in post-colonial power games like Elba portrays in Beasts could be so hot?
As one of those men born with bedroom eyes and a seductive baritone, Elba has a libidinous advantage that Hollywood has been reluctant to exploit.
That hesitance is communicated through Hollywood's business-as-usual practices, not so different from the conventions of gay-targeted media (remember the Abercrombie & Fitch controversy?). It creates a mental barrier that can lead to either resistance or shame. At the movies, as on TV news, awareness of a black man's sexiness is akin to noticing his threat. This stigma reflects backward social attitudes and is an issue of special interest to gays who also suffer the mixed-message of Hollywood acceptance/reluctance.
In Beasts, Elba plays Commandant, a licentious rebel who leads a brigade of boy soldiers/killers during a civil war in an unnamed African country. The role, like the war and the country, is an imaginary figment (although based on documented history). It's all meant to trigger socio-political responses to which Elba, unsurprisingly, adds lust. Commandant commands his brigade like Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He doesn't wear Tom Ford or Michael Kors and doesn't need to. His red beret, or elegant head scarf, and sweat-stained T-shirt are overpoweringly voluptuous. The Commandant's appeal is primal. Ask any man with a hard-on if a love object's political or racial identity matters and you'll discover an omnisexual truth that transcends politics.
Writer-director Cary Fukanaga (HBO's True Detective) may not think in terms of erotic appreciation, but his dependence on liberal Third World sympathy can't avoid it. The Commandant illustrates the ambiguity of morality and politics; he personifies the corrupt, rapacious effects of war on innocence. A boy named Agu (Abraham Attah ) narrates wartime disasters as if to warn us of a nation, a continent, a people's potential damnation. This recalls the ultimate black pathologies displayed in Beasts of the Southern Wild while Agu's voice-over prayers also recall Celie in The Color Purple except that here, Agu--the film's Jack Hawkins figure--could well go bad, turning into the next generation's Commandant. An implied gay sexual act confirms that horror.
Fukanaga cuts away from Commandant's seduction of Agu to a shot of an empty chair. Any semiotician will tell you that that empty seat is the throne of racist sexual fantasy--and Elba makes you feel implicated. Elba's hypermasculinity is similar to the dangerous swagger that rappers exert over audiences from Rakim and Tupac to the present. Elba does everything in a sexy, jazzy way, using his suaveness to encourage tribal pride, even murder. "Chop 'im good-good," he tells machete-wielding little Agu. Then Elba growls in guttural, satiated notes--this is a dimension Forest Whitaker couldn't achieve when playing Idi Amin.
Just like gay characters who are frequently presented as social problems to be solved, a sexy black actor is frequently limited to similar slotting. Recently there have been Internet campaigns calling for Elba to be the next James Bond (the first black Bond in the history of that venerable series). Yet, before that ever happens, Elba has to conform to type. That he does it so compellingly in Beasts of No Nation--leaving the debonair machismo of Rocknrolla and Takers behind--creates another problem: So far Hollywood can only imagine Elba as Superpimp of the Third World. This is a hair-raising characterization as when Commandant regales the boys with erotic boasts ("my soldier stands up!"). But for both the My-T-Fine Elba and his fans, it is also a trap.