Name: Bond, James. Height: 183cm, weight: 76 kilograms; slim build; eyes: blue; hair: black; scar down right cheek and on left shoulder; signs of plastic surgery on back of right hand; all-round athlete; expert pistol shot, boxer, knife-thrower; does not use disguises.
The above is Ian Fleming’s description of James Bond from the novel From Russia With Love. In other books, Fleming described Bond as looking like musician Hoagy Carmichael. As such, we’ve never gotten a screen incarnation of 007 who matches Fleming’s description perfectly, and across 50+ years there has been quite a bit of variation. Black hair, brown hair, blonde hair. Blue eyes, brown eyes. Scottish, Welsh, Irish, even an Australian. The persona, too, tends to shift with each portrayal: Sean Connery’s earthy, predatory swagger; Roger Moore’s upper crust dandyism; Daniel Craig’s “blunt instrument” interpretation. But whatever the variations thus far, there’s a glaring commonality among these actors which - let’s just say it - clearly leaves Idris Elba out of the running. And I get it; it’s trendy to shake up formula, and change things just for the sake of change, but someone needs to be unafraid to point out the obvious here.
With apologies to Mr. Elba, James Bond simply cannot have a mustache.
Now that I’ve baited you in with a facetious headline, can we talk for a minute about how the idea of Idris Elba as James Bond is a way bigger deal than simply being an exciting, outside the box casting choice? On that criteria alone, I do think Elba would be a great and interesting pick. (I’m serious about that mustache, though, Idris. It’s gotta go for Bond.). This recent chatter was fueled by a mention of Elba in one of the leaked Sony emails, and was cleverly commented upon by Mr. Elba on Twitter this past week. But making James Bond a non-white character is actually a far more revolutionary act than, say, making Peter Parker African American, and carries a lot more symbolic heft than a mere “why not/isn’t it time?” gesture.
In the years following World War II, the United Kingdom was finding itself in a new, smaller role on the global stage, and it was an ill fit for the proud nation. Ian Fleming’s James Bond was a power fantasy for an empire in decline, a bespoke security blanket for an entire country. In the 11 years over which Fleming wrote his novels, Jamaica became independent, four MI6 agents defected to the Soviet Union, and British relations with the US cooled. None of these events were notes of positive change for Great Britain. Inasmuch as 007 was a drinking, fighting, screwing avatar through which aging white male readers could live vicariously, Bond was also a reassuring fiction that England was still a crucial player, secretly saving the world from non-British (and often mixed race) villains and madmen who would plunge it into chaos and darkness. In the course of these missions, the literary James Bond looks down his nose at women, at homosexuals, and very much so at the “Orientals” and “Coloureds” with whom he’s thrust into conflict. In all of Fleming’s 007 stories, only one villain was an actual Brit; many had complex ethnic backgrounds described in exacting detail by the author. Quite often, underneath Fleming's fascination with foreign cultures lied a xenophobic streak that betrayed an ugly superiority complex.
While it’s true that the cinematic Bond has never been QUITE as racist as his printed counterpart, the residue is there: Connery snapping “Fetch my shoes!” at Quarrel in Doctor No is a rather gross moment, and Moore using Indian street beggars as obstacles during a tuk-tuk chase in Octopussy is a bit troublesome. But the films carved their own path away from the novels, doing their best approximation of “changing with the times.” 1962’s Doctor No, for example, has no mention of the “Chigroes” (you can figure that portmanteau out) described in its source novel. By 1973, the cinematic Bond was bedding African-American agents in Live And Let Die, a far cry from what passes for race relations in Fleming’s novel of the same name: “One used to go to the Savoy Ballroom (in Harlem) and watch the dancing. Perhaps pick up a high-yaller and risk the doctor's bills afterwards.”
That happens in chapter four. Chapter five is called “Nigger Heaven.”
The 007 novels were fantasies of their time, bedtime stories for a man and an era in their twilight. Without apologizing for Fleming, it was an age that had different standards and different entitlements than we do today, and Fleming created colorful tales that, ultimately, aren’t much different in their attitudes about race and gender than other pop culture artifacts of the time. Fleming’s work is perhaps more scrutinized because we’ve been mining his work for entertainment for 60 years. (What other entertainment property from 60 years ago is generating a billion dollars for its parent company? That’s a seriously elite club, and one whose members are undergoing similar radical revisions these days.) But as much as we move away from Fleming’s pages, the vestiges of that ugly undercurrent remain. Consider the outcry over Skyfall’s handling of Severine, a typical Bond girl in every sense: a woman in over her head, mixed up with bad people, who succumbs to Bond’s charms and pays for it with her life. It’s not a new element; that same arc more or less plays out in just about every Bond film from Goldfinger to each one of Daniel Craig’s Bond films. But in 2012, it’s as if the culture decided we should no longer be okay with this. The template must shift.
I’d venture to say that casting a black actor to take over the role of Great Britain’s iconic savior is more than a template shift. It’s in some ways a reinvention of the character at a core DNA level. But that’s exactly what makes it an exciting move. The cinematic Bond has changed drastically over the years. It’s what’s kept the franchise going for six decades. He’s changed so much that, as noted above, the parts that haven’t changed are now starting to stick out like sore thumbs. Folks rejecting the notion of Elba as Bond might not be racist. It could be nothing more than that same fanboy rigidity that bristled at Daniel Craig being blonde, or hated the gunbarrel sequence not happening at the front of the last three films, or that needs to know where Goldfinger fits into Daniel Craig’s character arc (I once read a piece that suggested that all of Connery’s films “happened” between Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall). Fanboys and their linear, literal thinking aren’t necessarily racist. But when that inflexibility causes one to side with racists, some reflection might be in order.
I suspect Idris Elba will ultimately not play James Bond. He’s becoming too well-known, and usually Bond tends to make the man, not the other way around. Moreover, by the time the role is vacated (2017 at the earliest), Elba will be 45, a bit long in the tooth to start a four-film run on 007. There are less pleasant realities to consider: if 2014 has taught us anything it’s that racism is alive and well, and that casual email mentions aside, Sony might not be the company to take that bold step forward with their billion-dollar cash cow. Personally? My only real issue with casting Elba as Bond is that the “James Bond is a code name” truther maniacs will start anew, unable to process a work of fiction as anything other than a piece of one shared universe. (Is Felix Leiter a code name too? Is Moneypenny a code name? Are Tarzan and Bruce Wayne code names? Jesus Christ.)
(Is Jesus Christ a code name?)
If Elba is actually in the running for 007, I wish him luck and I’ll be there on opening day. If it’s not in the cards, here’s to Elba getting a franchise worthy of his talent. If I ran Hollywood? I’d use Elba to reinvent Dirty Harry, and I’d skip right to a remake of Magnum Force, pitting Elba’s Inspector Callahan against a corrupt, “shoot first” metropolitan police force.