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because “the Doctor is a man”, these arguments simply lack weight and portray nothing but a desire to cling onto the outdated idea that intelligent, powerful leading roles belong to white men alone.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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