How Luther is Problematic

Credit: BBC

(spoilers ahead)

I hate to be that person. I really do but I seriously believe Luther is lowkey problematic. This thought started about a year ago when I was writing my dissertation for drama school. I was keen to look at the performativity of Black masculinity onscreen and onstage. I used four examples: Barber Shop Chronicles (play), Black Men Walking (play), Kidulthood (film) and Luther (TV series).

Out of all my examples, Luther really frustrated me and it still does even though I love the show. To put some context together and save me the time of writing new stuff I am going to copy and paste some of my own dissertation (Ikr) but with a mixture of new stuff. Call this a remix.

Luther is a BBC television crime drama series which focuses on the life of police officer John Luther created and written by Neil Cross.

John Luther, played by Idris Elba, is a Black (notice that rarely does Cross identify Luther’s race in the programme…) Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) who is working for the Serious Crime Unit at the beginning of the series, and later in series two moves to the “Serious and Serial Unit”. Luther is at the top of his game, a committed and driven police officer who often bends the rules to find alternative ways of convicting criminals. This is proven from the very first episode of series one where we see Luther dangling a criminal over a pit in a warehouse in order to get answers.

For Luther, it is always about catching the criminal and his alternative ways prove how committed he is as a Detective Chief Inspector. However, this later becomes a problem for the rest of his work colleagues and his boss as Luther is constantly going against the rules of what a DCI can and cannot do. Later in the series, he is even seen pleading for his job and persuading his boss that he can change. This is a constant pattern and anytime he’s given a second chance, his bosses always stress where he could be and how much they’ve helped him. What are we as the audience seeing? A Black man pleading to his white boss and his boss who is white telling him where he could be if he does not change. Isn’t that a familiar image? An image that many Black men and women are familiar whenever they go against the rule book within the (white) workspace and anytime the white co-worker is going against the rulebook they are seen as a risk-taker and are even praised. But Luther’s race is ambiguous so how does that logic even come into play, Steven? Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe I’m not.

As well as solving complicated crimes, in the first series Luther is trying to repair his failing marriage with his ex-wife, Zoe played by Indira Varma. In the first episode of the series, she informs him that she has moved on and has found someone else in her life; Luther does not take this news too well and reacts by punching the door down, screaming and shouting in Zoe’s face. He later unexpectedly turns up at Zoe’s workplace whilst she’s in a meeting to confront her and ask about her new relationship. From those two reactions, our early perceptions of Luther is that he is aggressive, angry, unpredictable and someone with a violent temperament and someone who does not know how to process bad information. A Black man who is aggressive, violent and cannot articulate his feelings… Sounds familiar right?

Some would argue that the representation of John Luther is authentic of a police officer in a television crime drama; quick, passionate, tough, determined, but you can’t really help and think about Elba’s race in relation to the character and how it is performed and then what the audience is seeing. From the examples I gave, we (the audience) know that Luther is aggressive, angry, violent and does not follow rules. Even though Luther is a (Black) middle-class man and a respected police officer, he still holds and performs a lot of the stereotypical attributes that are associated with Black men, these being: angry, loud, frightening, violent but again some would argue that Luther is just another police officer and this is an authentic representation of a crime drama. I am interested in how he still performs these negative stereotypes that are associated with Black men even though his race and class are hardly mentioned in the show or by his peers.

Neil Cross presents a complicated middle-class (Black) man in a high ranking position within the police force. The portrayal of a complicated, intelligent middle-class (Black) man is rarely seen on our screens and Cross offers that to the audience through John Luther. Black people on television and film are mostly represented as slaves, drug dealers, criminals or the first people to die in a film. Even if Black people are given powerful characters, other characters within the show are still questioning their validity because of their race. Some may argue that Cross should be praised for presenting a character that actually defies the stereotypes of Black people being poor, hating the police force and criminal justice system. Cross makes us think about the other Black man that we don’t see in those everyday jobs but this is where he also shoots himself in the foot. The stereotypical images of Black masculinity as hypersexual, hypermasculine, criminal, and violent still appear in Luther even if his race is ambiguous.

For me, they were two very problematic images in the latest series (Series 5) which were Luther towering over the psycho doctor and repeatedly punching him and the other was right at the end when he was put in cuffs and arrested surrounded by all those white police officers. A Black man arrested. A Black man in cuffs. A Black man being violent. A Black man off the rails. Hmm. Haven’t we seen those images before? I mean don’t we see those images in the media, Daily Mail and everywhere else? Is Cross not perpetuating those negative images of Black men on an international level?

I do have to say the addition of new character Detective Sergeant Catherine Halliday played by Wunmi Mosaku is a breath of fresh air. She is smart, funny and is presented as the ‘normal’ one between her and Luther. You like Halliday and you can’t help but start to fall in love with just how brilliant she is as a character and how she just wants to do her job. And seeing two Black leads on primetime television (international) is also a breath of fresh. Again, audiences are hardly presented Black characters such as Halliday and Luther together in the same show both in high ranking positions. Then she has to die. Why? This is where I’m a little bit frustrated because what it says is that audiences cannot handle more than one Black lead at a time and also that Halliday (the Black woman) is disposable. Because let’s be honest, she didn’t really need to die…

Whether intentional or unintentional, Luther constructs Black masculinities in stereotypical ways. These representations of Black men do not create space for a more positive reading of Blackness, especially Black masculinity. Regardless of Luther’s ranking position in the police force and his class, the audience will still focus on his Blackness, his rage, his anger and unconventional ways of getting the job done. These findings bring me to question whether Black men can really escape these narrow representations on television as angry, aggressive, and violent or if these are the given attributes.

In her journal titled The Performance of White Masculinity in Boys Don’t Cry: Identity, Desire, (Mis)Recognition (2003), Jennifer Esposito talks about how we cannot escape our identities because of how we are still perceived from the outside, she says:

“Regardless of how I perform identity, my body is marked with signs that signify identities that exist outside of my desires, signs that exact (mis)recognitions. It is these (mis)recognitions that actuate the border patrol, that necessitate border inspections” (Esposito, 2003: 240).

I agree with Esposito’s statement and I sometimes feel like that too. Regardless of how much I present myself as a hardworking, successful, young Black man, the world will see me as something I am not and this is solely based on their perceptions about aspects of my identity that have been gathered from the media and shows like Luther.

The overall presentation of Black men in the media is singular, exaggerated and skewed. It forgets and rejects other identities of Black men such as Black males not being able to be vulnerable or be presented with complex emotions other than anger and rage. This is the same in the other forms of media such as video games, magazines and newspapers. In order to combat this and truly give black males a fairer nuanced representation, we need to have more Black Men Walking and more Barber Shop Chronicles, we desperately need stories that introduces positive Black male narratives which fully represent a broader community of Black men and offer audiences with three-dimensional Black male characters. It is important that we (Black men) have three-dimensional characters onstage and onscreen because a huge percentage of how we define ourselves comes from these platforms and how others perceive us. Black men have complexities, Black men are multi-layered. Black men have stories that have not yet or are maybe just starting to be told. It is time for Black men to free themselves from living under the societal pressures and stereotypes arguably longer than any other man of any other race. All mediums especially theatre, TV and film should make it a priority to portray Black masculinity positively because it’s important for Black men to see more positive role models.