What is there to say about the claim that John Luther, the police officer protagonist of the BBC TV series Luther, “lacks authenticity” as a black character? Miranda Wayland, the corporation’s diversity lead, has sparked controversy after saying that the character, played by Idris Elba, was not an authentic black protagonist because “he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food” and doesn’t have any black friends.
It’s a strange point. If “authenticity” is the issue, then it is not clear why Luther – played by a British man with a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from Ghana – would eat Caribbean food anyway. Elba is not from the Caribbean! In terms of authenticity, that he is never seen eating jerk chicken is some way behind it taking five series for Luther to be arrested for all the corner-cutting, deals with serial killers and various unprofessional antics he gets up to.
In addition, less than half of black Britons have Caribbean roots, though if you widen the definition of black to include everyone in the “mixed” high-level category who are some combination of black and something else, the proportion is closer to 50-50. Regardless, the reality is that “eating Caribbean food” is not an essential part of being an authentic black protagonist, and it is slightly worrying that someone in charge of increasing diversity on screen would say so. If your brief is creative diversity, then you should be aware of the actual diversity of the United Kingdom, in all its hues.
Added to that, Luther is a police officer. The number of black officers in the Metropolitan Police is vanishingly small: just 3.5 per cent of London’s police force is from a black background, compared to 13.5 per cent of the city’s population as a whole. If anything, what makes Luther an unrealistic police officer (in addition to his extended will-they-won’t-they with a genius serial killer) is that he is not the only black officer we encounter in the show’s five-series run.
If you want to make an “authentic” drama about black British people in senior positions in public life, the majority would concern a protagonist navigating spaces in which they are virtual loners: like Luther. The character’s social circle is probably the most realistic thing about Luther, as the friends we see him make are people he meets through work. This is one of many things that Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You does near-perfectly: it’s an accurate depiction of London in all its diversity and a pretty accurate one of the much less diverse world of publishing and the arts.
And that’s before you consider that part of the joy of Luther lies in it being both high-quality hokey escapism and a drama with a protagonist who is incidentally black – which is one of the things Elba has said attracted him to the role. While I enjoyed watching Small Axe, sometimes I just want to be able to watch a show about a protagonist who happens to be black, just as I don’t want every damn word I write to be refracted through the prism of being mixed race.
So there are three problems with Wayland’s remarks. The first is that her definition of what it is to be authentically black excludes at least half of the black British population, a worryingly blinkered approach from the corporation’s diversity lead. The second is that it’s OK for stories about black people to be hokey escapism in which their race is not front and centre.
But the third is that sometimes the black experience, at least in a workplace drama, is a story in which there is only one black character: and that experience deserves representation on TV, too.