1. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

IMDB Rating: 7.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 61%

In this biographical movie, Storyline: Idris Elba plays Nelson Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary-turned president. The film charts Mandela’s life from his childhood in a small rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected President of South Africa. The movie is based on South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name.

Why it’s a major performance: This role is by far one of Elba’s most significant roles. He delivers an exquisite performance, capturing the charm, dignity, and spirit of Mandela. Bearing a striking physical resemblance to the political leader, his portrayal goes beyond simple mimicry. He embodied the essence of Mandela, reproducing the intricate nuances of his countenance, cadence, and charisma. This led to him earning a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

Elba’s role in this movie was pivotal in solidifying his place as a powerful actor in Hollywood. The way he imbibed Mandela’s character, illustrating the trials, tribulations and triumphs experienced by the anti-apartheid revolutionary, was celebrated worldwide. Critics hailed his performance, recognizing how he smoothly transitioned from a rebellious revolutionary to an exemplary world leader.

2. Beasts of No Nation (2015)

IMDB Rating: 7.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 92%

Storyline: Idris Elba plays an African warlord known as Commandant who recruits child soldiers to fight in a bloody civil war in an unnamed African country. He converts the movie’s young protagonist Agu, into a soldier, resulting in a brutal and heartbreaking narrative of child exploitation and war.

Why it’s a major performance: Elba’s performance is bone-chillingly ruthless as he taps into the dark psyche of his character, the Commandant. Every act executed by the Commandant is soaked in an aura of menace that only a performer of his calibre could emit. The darkness of his character is balanced out with short-lived moments of charm, making audience members both loathe and sympathise with him.

Playing the role of a cruel and manipulative warlord showcased a different side of Elba’s acting prowess, earning him a Screen Actors Guild award. The actor dove into the murky, terrifying realities of war and child exploitation, embracing a character far removed from his previous roles. His powerful performance was highly acclaimed, solidifying his standing as a versatile, talented actor.

3. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

IMDB Rating: 7.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93%

Storyline: Idris Elba returns as Heimdall, a loyal Asgardian charged with defending the realm’s royal palace in the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Thor: Ragnarok. He must stand against Hela, the powerful villainess, to protect his people and aid Thor in saving Asgard.

Why it’s a major performance: As Heimdall, Elba managed to stand out amid a star-studded cast. His character carried a renewed heft in the third film of the Thor franchise, becoming a major player in the scheme of Asgard’s survival. With a relatively limited screen time, Elba’s performance as the guardian of the Bifröst bridge left an indelible mark on audiences.

Returning for his third stint as Heimdall, he brought to the character an unparalleled gravitas. He encapsulated the character’s measured calm and bravery despite the looming apocalypse. His portrayal modelled Heimdall as a beacon of hope and resilience, truly making it one of Elba’s major performing roles. This role further established his range and versatility as an actor.

4. The Wire (2002-2008)

IMDB Rating: 9.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 94%

Storyline: Idris Elba plays Stringer Bell in this beloved crime drama series. His character is a drug kingpin and second-in-command in Avon Barksdale’s Baltimore drug ring. His approach to crime control, heavily immersed in business and economic principles, and the character’s desire for legitimacy, set him apart from common portrayals of drug dealers.

Why it’s a major performance: Although this is a TV series and not a movie, Elba’s performance as Stringer Bell has been too highly praised to exclude. Elba’s ability to portray a criminal with such layered sophistication won him massive acclaim. He demonstrated the fine balance between Bell’s ruthless street side and the level-headed, articulate businessman, becoming one of the show’s most memorable characters.

In this role, Elba showcases an incredible depth and complexity of character. It’s through his performance as Stringer Bell that the world truly started to recognize his exceptional acting talent. Major critics and TV fans alike have since applauded his role in The Wire as one of the best in television history.

5. Luther (2010-2019)

IMDB Rating: 8.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 90%

Storyline: Similar to ‘The Wire’, this isn’t a movie but a series where Idris Elba shines brightly in the lead role of John Luther, a genius detective working for the serious crime unit in London. Luther deals with his mental demons as he fights other miscreants in the city, displaying a uniquely flawed hero.

Why it’s a major performance: Elba’s role as John Luther highlights his extraordinary ability to embody complicated characters. Elba won a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of the unorthodox and brilliant murder detective. His performance showcases Luther’s intense dedication and obsession, which gets him close to criminals, blurring the line between his personal and professional life.

In bringing to life a smart, but flawed character straddling between the laws of society and his ideas of justice, Elba shows his power of making any character believable. His gruff voice, towering presence, and complex portrayal helped make the show a success and reaffirmed his status as one of the top leading men on television.

6. Pacific Rim (2013)

IMDB Rating: 6.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 71%

Storyline: Idris Elba plays Stacker Pentecost, a commander in charge of a program that uses giant robots, Jaegers, to fight alien monsters, Kaiju, attacking Earth from a crack in the Pacific Ocean floor. Elba’s character remains a source of inspiration and unyielding tenacity in the fight against extinction.

Why it’s a major performance: Elba’s portrayal of the rugged military leader is nothing short of gripping. His character was a testament to his ability to command the screen. He gave the character depth, transforming it from a stereotypical stoic leader into a man burdened by his past, yet relentlessly hopeful about the future.

Despite being a sci-fi action film, Elba managed to induce strong emotional moments throughout. His compelling monologue, “Today we are cancelling the apocalypse”, is one of the highlights of the film. Elba’s portrayal of Pentecost tapped into the themes of hope, redemption, and self-sacrifice, adding layers to a seemingly straightforward action film.

7. Molly’s Game (2017)

IMDB Rating: 7.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 82%

Storyline: Elba plays Charlie Jaffey, a defense lawyer who represents Molly Bloom, a former Olympian skier who ran high-stakes poker games and fell into the FBI’s crosshairs. Elba’s character not only provides a legal defense but also moral support, being the one who truly understands her.

Why it’s a major performance: As Charlie Jaffey, Elba demonstrates his ability to master rapid-fire dialogue and complex monologues with poise and dexterous timing, befitting of writer and director Aaron Sorkin’s style. Elba’s stellar performance brought a sense of depth to his character, embellishing Charlie’s principled stand, kindness, and his bond with Molly.

Elba’s performance was met with critical acclaim. Audiences were captivated by his eloquent and powerful delivery, especially in a pivotal monologue scene where he defends Molly. This role, along with many of his others, further solidifies Elba’s reputation as an exceptionally versatile actor.

8. American Gangster (2007)

IMDB Rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 80%

Storyline: In American Gangster, Elba plays Tango, an arrogant drug dealer who crosses paths with Denzel Washington’s character, Frank Lucas. Although his role is brief, it’s a significant part of this organised crime film.

Why it’s a major performance: Elba’s time on screen may be brief, but his performance provides one of the film’s most memorable scenes. His character Tango disrespects Frank Lucas in front of his family, leading to a shocking confrontation. Elba manages to invoke the hubris and ignorance of Tango in such a realistic manner that it amplifies the gravity of events that follow.

Despite limited screen time, this performance reflects Idris Elba’s exceptional talent. He sketches a remarkable portrayal of Tango, even in a minor role, validating his acting prowess. His part in this critically acclaimed film helped solidify his position in Hollywood and opened up opportunities for future roles in major films.

9. The Mountain Between Us (2017)

IMDB Rating: 6.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 40%

Storyline: Idris Elba is Ben Bass, a surgeon who becomes stranded on a snow-covered mountain with a fellow passenger, Alex (Kate Winslet), after their private plane crashes. They must find a way to survive and reach civilization while battling the freezing cold, injuries, and, eventually, their undeniable attraction towards each other.

Why it’s a major performance: Elba’s performance in The Mountain Between Us shows his ability to portray vulnerable and tender characters. Despite the arduous circumstances his character faces, Elba brings a humane approach, projecting his anguish, fear, tenacity, hope, and complex feelings for Alex through a refined and subtle performance, underscoring the character’s depth.

Venturing from his commonly tough, unwavering roles, Elba shows a softer side in this romantic survival drama. His chemistry with Kate Winslet is captivating and genuine. Even though the film received mixed reviews, Elba’s performance was praised and it proved yet again that he is capable of thriving in any genre.

10. No Good Deed (2014)

IMDB Rating: 5.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 12%

Storyline: Here, Elba plays an unusual character, Colin, a dangerous escaped convict with a charming demeanor. He manages to gain the trust of a woman named Terri, played by Taraji P. Henson, under the pretense of being stranded due to a storm.

Why it’s a major performance: Elba’s role in No Good Deed is a departure from his conventional characters. He portrays the idiosyncrasies of his menacing character with great precision, tactfully hiding the character’s true intentions under a cover of charming courtesy and vulnerability.

Despite the film’s reception by critics, Elba’s performance was praised for bringing an element of charm and suspense to an otherwise predictable thriller. His intricate portrayal of Colin kept viewers on edge throughout the film. This role adds to his repertoire of diverse characters, showcasing his ability to excel in any role. It’s this performance that paved the path for his subsequent roles in thrillers, further expanding his range.