Hollywood is known for discarding the old in favor of the new. Yet, when it comes to ushering in a new crop of African-American stars, that revolving door keeps getting stuck. In a perfect world, Idris Elba would already be a Hollywood A-Lister.

Tinseltown insider website Deadline’s announcement Wednesday morning that Elba had signed on to play the lead role of Sensi in the Warner Bros. sci-fi film Pacific Rim helmed by the highly regarded Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), who had been attached to direct The Hobbit, once again put him closer to that coveted top tier star status. Hopefully reports that Elba is taking on a role originally developed for Tom Cruise — which speaks to how high profile the project will be.

What’s been the hold-up? It’s certainly not lack of skill. Since breaking through big time as Stringer Bell on The Wire, the British thespian has wasted few opportunities to display his acting chops here and in his own country. Last year, his lead role in the British detective series Luther really got critics in the U.S. and in Great Britain open on Elba again. News that he was taking over the Alex Cross franchise from Morgan Freeman who starred in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, coupled with Elba starring in the summer blockbuster Thor, only upped the buzz factor.

Then the unthinkable happened; Elba was replaced as Alex Cross by Tyler Perry. And, just like that, the A-list leading man prize which he had earned appeared to be slipping away until now. To regretfully go there, there’s little doubt that a white actor with Elba’s ability to smolder as a gangster on The Wire, deliver the laughs on The Office, elevate a light heist film like Takers and the even more dubious Obsessed, starring BeyoncĂ©, to the top of the box office, as well as hold their own in storied summer fare like Thor, would already be there. So, why does it keep slipping away from Elba?

Considering that both Denzel Washington and Will Smith have helped power Hollywood’s star factory for some years now, Elba’s ascendancy should have been less difficult than it has been. After all, trailblazers usually make it easier for those who come behind them. If bets were being placed, however, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Elba brings one thing that wasn’t initially apparent when both Washington and Smith were first making their way up the cinematic ladder — sex appeal.
Yes, Denzel Washington and Will Smith are indeed sex symbols now but it took a minute for Hollywood to catch on to that.

Arguably Washington wasn’t truly turning heads, even among his now black female faithful, until he starred in The Mighty Quinn and Glory in 1989. In 1990, the year when Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues was released, he landed on People’s “Most Beautiful” roster for the first time.

Before 1996’s Independence Day, Will Smith had been known for bringing the laughs in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Even as a rapper, he was more so the funny one than the cute or sexy one. But saving the world does wonders for any actor’s sex appeal.
The problem with Elba might just be that he can’t hide his sex appeal. When news of him taking over for Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross broke, there was no question that some smoldering sex scenes would surely be in the mix.

Despite the fact that author James Patterson gives Alex Cross plenty of action in his books, somehow Morgan Freeman’s Alex Cross never appeared the least bit interested in getting it on. And it’s extremely doubtful that Tyler Perry’s Alex Cross will change that. Plus it’s hard to forget how Elba sizzled as Tango in American Gangster, even upstaging Denzel Washington for a brief minute, and there are few women who missed that scene of Elba in his bedroom in Takers.

As hard as it is to believe in 2011, perhaps what rang true in 1811 still holds today. Judging by such sexy responses as “One word — YUMMY!” and “He is so gorgeous, good Lord!!!” to New York magazine’s post of Elba’s latest move in Pacific Rim, which takes place in the future and has him battling monsters that seek to destroy the planet, Hollywood’s fears differ little from those that existed even before its own rumblings.

Being a great actor or star is one thing for a black man in Hollywood but a sex symbol is quite the other. Yet, when it’s undeniable, it, well, won’t be denied. With Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in production and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in post-production, Pacific Rim just ensures that Idris Elba is well on his way to making more women swoon in a theater near you.