Why James Bond is black

Whether Idris Elba is the next James Bond or not, people have certainly been talking about it a lot in the last few days, and not all of them are happy. Despite Elba being pegged the favourite to don the signature suit and bow-tie, there are some people who are up-in-arms over the potential casting. Why?

Because “James Bond isn’t black”.

Now, having only watched a snippets of the films myself, I’m not exactly an expert on all things Bond, though there are many things that the character strikes me as. Bond is arrogant, manipulative and perpetually misogynistic, but he’s also something else: fictional.

Many have been quick to point out that Bond – an English spy who works for M16 – has been played in the past by an American (Barry Nelson), a Scot (Sean Connery), a Welshman (Timothy Dalton), an Irishman (Pierce Brosnan) and an Australian (George Lazenby), so clearly the casting of Bond over the years is already fairly flexible, or at least when it comes to casting white men. It’s difficult to see why no complaints were made about these actors taking on the role, especially when Elba was born and raised in London.

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Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig as Bond.

The point that I want to make about Elba’s casting is that because James Bond is fictional, he can be whoever we want him to. A character whose role has been passed on for fifty years, existing in a universe outside the realms of ageing or anybody questioning why his appearance continually changes, it’s a little hard to understand why he can’t be black. Especially since there is a theory circulating that James Bond is in fact just a code name used by various agents and not a consistent character.

Race is not and has never been central to the character of Bond, or his story-lines, there is nothing about his character that suggests he has to be white. Therefore, if the actors that play the role can be interchangeable, why shouldn’t his race be too? Similarly to the controversy that surrounded Jodie Whittaker being cast as the Doctor earlier this year, because “the Doctor is a man”, these arguments simply lack weight and portray nothing but a desire to cling onto the outdated idea that intelligent, powerful leading roles belong to white men alone.

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George Chakiris as Bernardo in West Side Story (1961).

To give an example of when a character’s race is central to their storyline, take West Side Story (1961). The plot centres around a race war between two gangs, the Sharks (a Puerto Rican gang) and the Jets (a gang of white Americans), that erupts when two members from each side fall in love. The race of these characters – particularly the Sharks – is vital to the movie because it focuses on the tensions that still exist between immigrants and white Americans, as well as the prejudices that immigrants face even today. Without casting Puerto Rican actors, this in itself becomes nonsensical and uncomfortable to watch, though it is exactly what directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise chose to do. Maria, a Puerto Rican woman who falls in love with a white man, was played by Natalie Wood – a white, Russian-American actress. George Chakiris (a Greek-American actor) was among other white actors who played a Puerto Rican character, and it has since been noted that both he and Wood wore brownface for their roles.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that these roles never should have been given to white actors. In cases where the character’s race is essential to the role and to the storyline, then filmmakers have to take that into consideration and act accordingly. Not only do castings such as these deprive people of colour of roles that they so obviously deserve, it is a complete misrepresentation of their experiences and at worst just irresponsible. It is for reasons such as these – the historical white-washing of roles in Hollywood – that people of colour struggle to obtain such high-profile roles such as Bond, as they can’t even get in the room to have their voices heard when it comes to telling their own stories.

And although there were ructions when Scarlett Johansson was cast as trans man, Dante “Tex” Gill the other month in Rub & Tug, causing her to quit the role, people were quieter about her casting in Ghost in the Shell, as Japanese cyber-human Motoko Kusanagi. Perhaps because this is not new.

White actors have been being cast in roles as people of colour since the film industry first began. Whether it be Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger, Emma Stone in Aloha, or even Rooney Mara in Pan, there is certainly no shortage of roles meant for POC going to white actors. And while none of these movies centre around race or issues surrounding it, these castings were incredibly awkwardly handled and entirely misplaced. There is a huge difference between casting a black man in a role that has historically been played by white men and casting a white man as a Persian prince (see Jake Gyllenhaal).

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Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan (2017), Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013) and Emma Stone as Captain Allison Ng in Aloha (2015).

 

And that’s why Idris Elba is completely entitled to the role of Bond, and I think that we should be welcoming him to it.

There is a clear absence of black men in spy and action films, in fact, the majority of black leading actors find themselves in dramas, comedies or biopics. Black actors have been pigeon-holed into the roles of the gangster, the token black friend and the addict, and Hollywood is still playing catch-up when it comes to giving POC the roles that they deserve.

If Elba is cast as Bond, it won’t be about “political correctness” or affirmative action, it will be because he deserves that role. He’s proven in the past that he can play gritty, intense characters such as his roles in the Wire and Luther, but that he can also be suave and intuitive, which is exactly what the role of Bond calls for.

So if these casting predictions do come true, and Elba is the next Bond, then I for one am excited to see where it goes, not for the Bond franchise, but for the representation of people of colour in more mainstream Hollywood roles and genres.

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Hannibal Lecter: Cannibal and Anti-Misogynist?

Image result for clarice and lecterLast night was the first time that I watched The Silence of the Lambs (1991), directed by Jonathan Demme, and what immediately struck me was how much more likeable Lecter was as a character than any of the other male characters presented. Although it’s true that Lecter is already a more interesting character in terms of depth, he is also altogether more respectful than any of the other men in the film towards FBI trainee Clarice Starling.

It cannot be argued that the male gaze features majorly in the film, with Clarice receiving many unwelcome and often objectifying glances from multiple men, including her colleagues and superiors. When Dr Chilton first meets her, his first comment is on how he can’t recall having encountered another detective “so attractive”, following this by asking her if she’s planning on staying the night. And while he is by far the most forward of any of the objectifying males that Clarice encounters, he is definitely not the only one. Every room that Clarice enters in her work is filled with men, immediately causing her to stand out. This does not go unnoticed by the men either, whose eyes are almost constantly on her. Lecter himself knows this without even having to witness it, prompting him to ask “don’t you feel eyes moving over your body”, as he is aware of how a male-dominated workplace will react to a young woman.

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However, what Lecter does is to admire Clarice not for her body, but for her work. For while Dr Chilton states that Clarice was only hired by Crawford to “turn [Lecter] on”, therefore diminishing her education, expertise and hard work.  Lecter himself does not do this, choosing to interact with Clarice as his equal.

Although the cryptic clues that he offers her surrounding Buffalo Bill could be seen as him toying with her, I choose to see them more as him trusting in her intelligence. While he could give her the answers she wants immediately, thus ending the process, Lecter wants to see her prove herself and demonstrate that she is as perceptive as he believes her to be. He gives her the clues because he knows that she can solve them. Thus, he recognises her skill, viewing her as a detective rather than a sexual object. He even goes as far as to punish those that objectify her, such as fellow prisoner Miggs, who tells Clarice that he can “smell [her] c***”. Lecter gets Miggs to bite his tongue in perhaps the most brutal way possible – by convincing him to swallow it. It is never explicitly mentioned why he does this, though the implication is that it’s a result of his vulgar language towards Clarice. It could even be suggested that the reason Lecter is seen following Dr Chilton at the end of the film upon his escape is due to his objectification of Clarice, though it is more likely due to Chilton’s work at the facility that he was held in.

Lecter is a character known for his dislike of rude people – with them often becoming his victims – however, his treatment of Miggs is particularly interesting in that he vocalises what many of the other male characters are implied to be thinking. Lecter is the opposite of this, choosing to punish those that act in this way and view Clarice as a professional. And though he does manipulate her in other ways, such as getting her to reveal things about her past and purposely using up time to provide little information, it is clear that he has respect for her. Clarice herself says once she knows Lecter has escaped that “he won’t come after me”, as even she is aware of his regard for her. She doesn’t fear him just as he doesn’t disrespect her.

Hannibal Lecter is definitively not a good person, though an excellently crafted character. His respect for Clarice is not meant to portray him as a well-rounded individual, but to shed a light on the commonplace disrespectful behaviour of ‘good men’ towards women. It is interesting for an audience that a serial killer-cannibal has more respect for women than her work colleagues, as it draws an interesting comparison between the two. We end up having more appreciation for Lecter than we do for the people responsible for his capture.

The Silence of the Lambs is by no means your all-round feminist film, nor does it contain some immensely powerful lesson about women. What is does, however, on some level, is examine the male gaze in its most common form and touch on what it feels like to be a woman in a male-dominated field. Not what you’d expect from your typical crime-drama, but not an altogether unwelcome observation either.

A Monster Calls review

Image result for a monster calls posterAt first glance, A Monster Calls appeared to me a sentimental fantasy film about the charming friendship between a boy and a fantastical monster. And honestly, if it weren’t for the incredible animation, I probably never would have watched it. But I’m glad that I did.

Because what A Monster Calls really is, is a heart-rending and compelling story about coping with grief and learning to let go. It stars Lewis MacDougall as 12-year-old Conor, a creative young boy caught between school bullies, an indifferent grandmother and his mother’s terminal illness. It is only when he begins to realise that he may be losing his mother – the only person he has to turn to – that he finds an unlikely friend in the Monster (Liam Neeson).

MacDougall shows a remarkable sensibility for his age and is a remarkable talent, a real credit to the film. He tackles some truly difficult subjects and handles them with incredible maturity, resulting in a thoroughly believable and raw performance. But I think what strikes viewers the most is the woeful honesty that he brings out of the character. And this is not only down to MacDougall’s impressive acting, but also the astonishing writing of Patrick Ness.

Having never read the novel, I can’t compare how it translates to the screen. However, as a movie the story is flawlessly carried through, with moments of unbelievable tension and some very poignant scenes. Although the writing has been said to be too dark by some, to take that away would remove the rare honesty that these scenes give. And overall, the message of the film is one that, although not altogether lighthearted, is powerful. But where it falls in terms of recommended audience is difficult to distinguish. Too dark for younger audiences and perhaps too rooted in fantasy for adults, it falls in a strange in-between.

What it is, however, is an extremely tough watch at times. Although there are some heartwarming and charming moments, the overall themes of the film are a lot more sensitive than they first appear. And while it is a highly recommendable film – despite its lack of huge success – it is still to be viewed with discretion.

Having said this, A Monster Calls is a stunningly beautiful film. It shows us familiar relationships, problems and hardships through a unique friendship and a world of fantastical stories. It is emotionally charged and in many ways inspiring.

★★★★