The 10 Best Idris Elba movies and TV shows, ranked

Donato Sardella/Getty Images for LACMA

It’s a crime that Idris Elba hasn’t had more hits. In the cinematic sense, that is, because he surely has delivered plenty of hits across his decades of acting (and then some).

Elba has been on our screens going on two decades now with sustained success and acclaim. Yet, it always seems despite his chops and stature, he’s still a tad below some of the heavy hitters out there. That could be due to the fact that he takes on a lot apart from the acting scene — from performing as a DJ, to theater, to even kickboxing, Elba is immersed in his work, with a credit to his name between TV and film every year since 1994.

Only two months removed from his 46th birthday, Elba was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive, and according to Box Office Mojo, his movies have eclipsed $10 billion in earnings through his career (landing in a few Avengers and MCU movies surely helped that out). What would we call Elba’s best, though? Is it the long run he had in a few TV shows? His portrayal of one of the most influential people of our lifetime, Nelson Mandela? (Elba himself was named to the Time 100 list of Most Influential People in the World in 2016 himself.)

Now 50 years old, with the movie version of his long-running BBC show Luther slated to hit the big screen this year, Elba shows no signs of slowing down. Just last year, he was in three movies and appeared in two TV shows. Let’s see what shakes out as his 10 best.

First, it seems a ‘what could have been’ is in order, only because the lead-up to the long-awaited release of The Dark Tower movie, based on the epic novels from Stephen King, fell so incredibly flat and short, and with the enormous success of the books, it had so much potential to be his greatest role and set off a run of single-name-on-the-poster roles (well, Beast counts). Alas, somehow we got Elba and Matthew McConaughey together and material ripe with greatness, and it really warrants mentioning just how poorly that turned out.

Back to our regularly scheduled list!

10. Legacy (2010)

Elba is awesome. The movie, unfortunately, is not. This is a theme that will come up again. For any fan of Elba’s though, this is a rousing performance full of emotional strife, struggle, and a portrayal of a haunted man who cannot come to grips with the past nor get a grip on the present.

9. Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

It seems the more we get Elba playing supporting roles and kicking ass, the more it’s clear that he needs to be getting these types of spinoffs on his own. He does the most with what he’s given here, and we’ll be damned if his character wasn’t killed off before we could see him turn toward the “good side” like every other bad guy in the Fast & Furious world, and get his own spinoff of a spinoff.

8. Thor (2011)

We’re sticking the original film in here to represent the whole lot, because Elba as Heimdall was perfect. We wish he could have stuck around longer and had more to do when Taika Waititi took over the helm of the Thor films, that could have been some magic on-screen with Waititi’s ability to bring out the true humorous side of his cast, something we can still see lurking in Elba thanks to his many animated appearances and his subtle humor in The Office and others.

7. Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Harrowing at times, and uplifting in small spurts, Cary Joji Fukunga’s take on the costs and impacts of war while highlighting how people come together in unimaginable ways, even in strife amidst horror, brings a breathtaking performance from Elba. Maybe it deserves to be higher on the list, but admittedly, it’s a tough watch sometimes, as mentioned above.

6. Concrete Cowboy (2020)

Elba as a stern father, and a cowboy… it’s win-win. The pacing of the story is solid, and the interplay between Elba and his on-screen son, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is drenched in the tough love that can exist between a father and son, no matter their relationship, but especially in the circumstances that came before they were reunited.

5. The Harder They Fall (2021)

A stellar cast of Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Laketih Stanfield, and Elba, to name a few, gives the movie a vividness even though we could have used more screen time for just about any of them. More true to the Western genre than Concrete Cowboy because of the setting and timeframe, we can see both of these movies being a bit of a precursor to last year’s Nope, which continued a run of fleshing out full spectrum of Black Cowboys and straying away from the all-white Westerns of the past.

4. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

It might have been too difficult to pull off a biopic about Nelson Mandela and have the film be true to the full story and everything else around the globe that surrounded Mandela’s life, before, during, and even after imprisonment. Elba steps into Mandela’s shoes admirably, and does the part justice to the full extent. The movie itself falls a little short of other biopics that have gained a foothold with audiences, but that could be because Mandela’s life involved politics instead of being famous for music or sports, or because director Justin Chadwick didn’t know precisely how to bring out a side of Mandela that hadn’t already been told. Even in its greatness, the movie itself is just a bit lacking.

3. Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

Goodness, this movie is jam-packed with a lot that brings it teetering to the edge of greatness. Still, despite powerful and stunning performances from Elba and costar Tilda Swinton, a tad more refining of the storyline and tightening up the editing perhaps could have led to this being an all-timer. It’s worth taking it in, visually, and for the performances, but prepare to be a bit distorted and even left a small bit unfulfilled when all is said and done. That seems to be a theme, to a degree, for movies Elba stars in. Through no fault of his own (mostly), it still keeps us wanting more of him, and more from the movies he’s in.

2. Luther (TV: 2010-2019; Luther: The Fallen Sun movie coming 2023)

Though it was his longest-running stint as one character, Elba’s run as DCI John Luther was nearly strong enough to take the top spot. Nearly. It’s great to see Elba go from one side of crime to the other, playing a detective in Luther as opposed to his run on The Wire. In typical British series fashion, the show came out in bursts of short episode runs, but the intensity never wavered, with Elba indulging in the character’s flaws of being unable to separate himself from the things he is investigating.

The movie is slated to hit cinemas on Feb. 24, while coming to Netflix two weeks later, on March 10.

1. The Wire (2002-2004)

Stringer Bell still lives on as one of the best character performances of our lifetime, from what’s considered in the pantheon of TV shows. Cold, calculated, and ruthless, all with charm and a sometimes soft spot, Elba embodied the show as a whole, showing the real sides of humanity in the trenches of Baltimore’s out-of-control drug trade and political maneuvering.

About the author

Habeab Kurdi

Habeab Kurdi

You could say Habeab is bit like Roy Kent — here, there, every-f’ing-where. Immersed in journalism for 20 years now, he writes about life — from sports to profiles, beer to food, film, coffee, music, and more. Hailing from Austin, Texas, he now resides in the gorgeous seaside city of Gdynia, Poland. Not one to take things too seriously, other than his craft, BB has worked in brewing and serving beer, roasting and pouring coffee, and in Austin’s finest gin distillery among myriad other things. A graduate of the University of Texas, he once worked for the Chicago Sun-Times and Austin American-Statesman when newspapers were still a thing, then dabbled in social media and marketing. If there is water, he will swim there — from the freezing seas of Copenhagen and Gdynia, to the warm waters in Texas and Thailand.