After foiling countless plots to destroy the Earth, would a black Bond really be the end of the world?
Like a penny stuck in a washing machine, the story of whether or not the next James Bond should be black is making the rounds again. For the uninitiated, this is nothing new – it dates all the way back to the 1990s, when Pierce Brosnan took over the Walther PPK from Timothy Dalton.
This time, the newspaper headlines are focusing on the bookie’s #1 choice to replace Daniel Craig as the next Bond – Luther star Idris Elba. Although Idris has officially removed himself from consideration, Bond stars new and old have still weighed in about his ‘suitability’ to play Bond.
Roger Moore, the suavest of the secret agents, was reported to have said that Idris wasn’t ‘English-English’ enough to play James Bond. In actual fact, that was a shitty translation error from an article originally printed in French – but it didn’t stop people throwing their toys out of the pram about Roger Moore’s alleged ‘racism.’
Next, the first black supervillain, Yaphet Kotto, argued that James Bond “cannot be black. Political correctness be damned, we have to stay with what is literally correct.”
“James Bond was established by Ian Fleming as a white character, played by white actors. Play 003 or 006, but you cannot be 007. A lot of people say we should be allowed to play everything. Don’t be ridiculous. If I say I want to play JFK, I should be laughed out of the room.”
Finally, acclaimed Bond author Anthony Horowitz has also weighed into the debate, claiming that Idris Elba was ‘too street’ to play Bond. Again, there were accusations of ‘racism’ but Horowitz clarified: “It’s not about race. Idris Elba is a terrific actor, but I can think of other black actors who would do it better.”
So where should we stand on the question of a ‘black Bond’?
As far as I’m concerned, the James Bond movies have already established the criteria for introducing a black Bond. In 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, new 007 George Lazenby lamented that “this never happened to the other fella” in the pre-credits sequence; suggesting that the name James Bond and the number 007 wasn’t a singular individual, but an identity passed from one secret agent to another.
Within the canon of the movies, this explains everything – why the actors change, and why they’re always young despite the passing years. It’s especially apparent with the Daniel Craig movies, as we get to see James Bond earn his 007 rank, while still interacting with the Judi Dench’s ‘M’ from the Pierce Brosnan era.
So given that, there is absolutely no reason why James Bond couldn’t be played by a black actor. None at all. The name James Bond and the number 007 are simply passed from one agent to another, and there’s no reason why the operative chosen to replace our current Bond couldn’t be black.
In fact, some people claim we came damn close to it in the early 2000s. When people started thinking Pierce Brosnan was past his prime, it was established Bond actor Colin Salmon, who played Mi6 operative Charles Robinson in three Bond movies, who was tipped to take the 007 mantle.
In Skyfall, the identity of ‘M’ is passed from Judi Dench to Ralph Fiennes at the end of the movie. It would have been the same logic for a tried and tested operative like Salmon’s Charles Robinson character to take 007’s place when Pierce Brosnan’s agent was retired or killed in action.
So that’s why we should be having a legitimate conversation about whether or not Idris Elba could play Bond – and the criteria we should be using is his suaveness, not the color of his skin.
Personally, after seeing Elba beat a land-speed record in a Bentley Continental, I think he’s got James Bond written all over him.
We’ve got one ‘ere
Besides, this is a conversation that’s already over. While people were arguing about the merits of a cinematic black Bond, the estate of Ian Fleming has already gone ahead and cast one.
British actor David Oyelowo was chosen to provide the voice for the audiobook of Anthony Horowitz’s new James Bond book Trigger Mortis, officially making him the world’s first ‘black Bond’ (and with the blessing of Ian Fleming’s estate, no less.)
Considering David comes from a respected stage background, and has already made grounds as the first black man to play Shakespeare’s Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company, there’s no question that he’s got the theatrical chops and requisite ‘Englishness’ to play Bond. I can’t wait to hear him in action.
The Case For
In fact, as far as I’m concerned the only reason there shouldn’t be a black Bond is because it’s actually kind of racist what a big deal this whole thing has become. The next James Bond actor should be chosen because he’s the best choice for the role – suave, competent and badass – and not because it’s ‘politically correct’ that he’s black.
We’ve already proven that having a black actor in a traditionally ‘white’ role isn’t a big deal. Idris Elba was inexplicably cast as Norse god Heimdall in Marvel’s superhero movies – and while that didn’t make a lick of narrative sense, he went ahead and nailed it.
Similarly, Marvel’s Nick Fury was originally a white guy. He was even played by David Hasselhoff during the 1990s! It wasn’t until the Ultimate comics that he was reborn as African-American (drawn to look like Samuel L. Jackson) and in the ultimate meta switcharoo, Jackson actually took the role of Fury onscreen – again, nailing it.
In the dire Daredevil movie, the white character of Kingpin was played by Michael Clarke Duncan – who expressed concern about a black actor playing a white character. In the end, he was the best part about the whole movie; and no other actor would have been able to bring that intimidating physical presence to the screen in the same way (although Vincent D’Onofrio is doing a pretty awesome job in the Netflix TV show.)
Finally, over in the DC universe, the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet switched races when Laurence Fishburne took the role – and nobody batted an eye. He was fine in the role, and I’m looking forward to his return in Batman versus Superman.
So, in short, there’s not much legitimate reason why a black actor shouldn’t play a traditionally ‘white’ role. But that being said, sometimes it does get pretty fucked up.
The Case Against
There are two major reasons why you could argue against a black actor playing a traditionally white role.
The first is when the decision is driven not by the merit of the actor, but in an effort to be hip, or cool, or politically correct. Just look at the endless debate about whether the next Doctor Who should be black, or a woman, and you’ll see what I mean.
If the next Doctor Who is black (my vote is for Chiwetel Ejiofor – not just for the first ‘black’ Doctor Who, but just for the next Doctor Who in general) I want it to be because he (or she) is a kickass, brilliant actor – not because of pressure from tedious fangirls on Tumblr, or in an effort to be politically correct.
Secondly, you can take the whole thing too far. In DC’s recent Supergirl pilot, the role of Jimmy Olsen was recast by African-American actor Mehcad Brooks – and it’s a clusterfuck. First off, Jimmy was always meant to be a goofy, awkward kid – not a towering, confident stud like Brooks. Secondly, recasting both the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet AND their scrappy photographer as black just seems a little… cynical.
And if you want cynical… in DC’s Arrow TV show, the role of former-Nazi Baron ‘Blitzkreig’ Reiter just went to Jimmy Akingbola; which will involve some pretty interesting narrative twists to make sense.
And that’s really the crux of the issue. If you want to recast a traditionally white role with a black actor, it has to be for the right reasons. The actor has to be right for the part. Otherwise it’s just cynical and disingenious.
The good news is that for the most part, movie-makers have got it right. Even the terrible 1990s movie Wild, Wild West featured a racial re-casting, when Will Smith took the role of traditionally white secret agent Jim West. And just like all great actors do, he made it his own; even in that fucking awful movie, and even though it was set in a time and place in which having black skin wasn’t exactly condusive to super-spy hijinks.
And as far as the chances of a black Bond go – it’s really no big deal. James Bond is a name and a number, chosen from the best and the brightest secret agent candidates in Mi6. If you have a problem with that choice being black, I think your issue isn’t really with the James Bond universe, but your own prejudices.
Personally, I’ll support any black actor playing James Bond – as long as he’s good at it.