Did a BBC Official Say an Idris Elba Character Wasn’t ‘Black Enough to be Real’?

A British broadcasting official’s critique of Idris Elba’s popular detective show Luther spread exponentially in April 2021 following a questionable quote in a British tabloid.

According to the Daily Mail:

The BBC’s diversity chief has claimed Idris Elba’s TV detective Luther “isn’t Black enough to be real” because “he doesn’t have any black friends and doesn’t eat any Caribbean food.”

Miranda Wayland said the hit crime drama, which won plaudits for having a strong, Black lead character, was only superficially diverse and that corporation bosses are now looking to portray minority groups in a more convincing and rounded way.

The tabloid claimed that Wayland, the BBC’s head of creative diversity, made her remarks as part of the MIPTV Media Market trade show. We contacted the organizers and they provided us with a video recording of her April 12 2021 interview with Richard Middleton, editor of the news site Television Business International.

Wayland referenced Elba’s show, which ran for five seasons between 2010 and 2019, in response to a question from Middleton on how the BBC’s goals for workplace diversity — which call for greater representation for women, people of color, and disabled workers — would be approached in regards to BBC projects produced in partnership with companies based outside of the United Kingdom.

She said:

In terms of the conversations our commissioners will be having with international partners it will very much be about, how can we make sure this program a) is authentic in terms of storytelling, can we look at how the different contexts of someone’s identity is played out in that; and making sure that the different elements, as many of the people watching will know, is the authenticity of that character.

Take a program such as “Luther,” which hopefully is well known to your audiences. When it first came out everybody loved the fact that Idris Elba is in there — a really strong Black character lead. We all fell in love with Luther; who didn’t, right? But after you got into about the second series you got kind of like, “OK, he doesn’t have any Black friends, he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food, this doesn’t feel authentic.” So I think it’s great having those big landmark shows with those key characters, but it’s about making sure that everything around them — their environment, their culture, the set — is absolutely reflective. And so our commission has continued to have those types of dialogues and conversations about how do we continue to get the authenticity of that character correct. And then moving away to look at the different components of the individual.

There is no mention in the discussion of Elba’s character, Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, not being “Black enough to be real.”

Wayland did appear in a separate question-and-answer session, but there is no footage of that discussion available on MIPTV’s website. So it is technically possible that Wayland made the remark during that session. We contacted the Daily Mail asking for the source of that remark, but we have not yet heard back.

The show dealt in large part with Luther’s obsession with his work and its effect on his relationships both with his police colleagues as well his estranged ex-wife Zoe (played by Indira Varma) and his nihilistic friend Alice Morgan (played by Rose Wilson), who he meets during the course of a murder investigation early in the series. Luther’s family dynamics were not otherwise explored on the show.

Novelist Neil Cross, who created the program, told the Mail:

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 a Black character. We would have ended up with a slightly embarrassed, ignorant, middle-class, white writer’s idea of a Black character.

The network did not respond to requests for comment, but it did send CNN a statement saying, “The BBC is committed to its continued investment in diversity and recent BBC One dramas I May Destroy You and Small Axe are testament to that.”

CNN’s story on Wayland’s remarks was one of several posts either following up or aggregating the Daily Mail story, in some instances paraphrasing the headline bearing the quote about Luther not being “Black enough.”

Wayland was announced as the BBC’s head of creative diversity in February 2020. Four months later, the broadcaster said it would devote 1 million British pounds (around $1.38 million in U.S. currency) toward producing more inclusive programming. At the time, BBC director general Tony Hall directly identified the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd by U.S. law enforcement as a factor in making that financial commitment.

“It’s made us question ourselves about what more we can do to help tackle racism – and drive inclusion within our organisation and in society as a whole,” Hall said of Floyd’s death. “This is our response — it’s going to drive change in what we make and who makes it. It’s a big leap forward — and we’ll have more to announce in the coming weeks.”

Because of the possibility that this purported quote came from other footage, we rate this claim Unknown, pending further evidence.