Why I Still Believe That Idris Elba Should Not Play James Bond
Black people don’t have to be a part of everything.
And I am talking about Bond. James Bond.
When the campaign first started to get Idris Elba cast as the lead in the next James Bond flick, I wrote a piece expressing how much I hated the idea.
Fast forward about 10 months later and I can honestly say that I still hate the idea.
I really don’t care that Anthony Horowitz, writer of the new James Bond novel, thought Big Driis to be “too street” for the movie role. I don’t care that he later apologized and offered up Adrian Lester as an equally eye-raising alternative (He might be able to play Bond’s lawyer or accountant, but Bond himself? Nah). I don’t even care that David Oyelowo is doing the voice of the Bond character in the audiobook version of Horowitz’s novel.
Idris Elba should not play James Bond. In fact, a Black Bond is just a horrible idea.
This is what I said before about the matter:
But really, it’s because I hate the idea that James Bond has to be the standard in international espionage films anyway. First off, he’s a white guy in a world that is majority brown – that means that he stands out like a sore thumb. That part of the Bond lore never made sense to me. Secondly, he is a womanizer, who in spite of his charm, doesn’t treat the ladies in his life all that well. And how do folks not have an ounce of respect for video vixens and basketball wives, but give men, who smut around the world, passes? Where are respectability politics when you need them? And thirdly, who wants to watch a film where the brotha’s main interest as a spy is to help white supremacy thrive in the world?
It is the third point, which I would like to expand on, considering that it is the primary reason for my disdain for the idea of a Black Bond. In case you are unaware, the Bond character was created by Ian Fleming, a British Royal Naval Intelligence Officer. When referring to his work, folks often call him a “man of his time.”
That’s because his time was the 1950s. And the Bond novels were chock-full of racism, sexism, and homophobia. He particularly hated the Koreans, people he frequently called Orientals.
In an essay by Phil Noble Jr. titled “Why Idris Elba Can’t Play James Bond,” he writes of the true face behind 007:
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 raced) 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.
Later in the essay, Noble talks about the movie version of Live and Let Die, which whitewashed over some of the book’s more colorful moments. In particular, chapter five of the book, which was originally titled “Ni**er Heaven” in the British version and renamed “Seventh Avenue” in the American version. There have been lots of interesting re-edits (including the omission of entire passages) to this book, as well as other Bond novels over the years.
His portrayals of White women and all people of color was so horrible that even William Boyd, the third writer of the new (and more tolerant) installment of the James Bond novels, said of his predecessor’s work, “It’s unbelievable to read now. I think if you were of that privileged upper class, born at the beginning of the 20th century, you were probably racist, sexist, right wing and anti-Semitic.”
He is probably right. But those -isms were not just reserved for the privileged. And I am sure there were folks calling them out on their -isms then, so nope. No pass.
And as Noble points out.
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.
Some might argue that this is all in the past and that we are reclaiming our favorite character from the racist and sexist clenches of his creator. But what exactly are we reclaiming? The fear of foreigners? The British Empire? The Queen? How are colonialism and imperialism, as told through a spy story, any more progressive just because we put a Black face on it?
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that Hollywood (including the British entertainment industry) is racist as hell and that this Horowitz guy put his foot in his mouth. Still, I also can’t help but feel that some of this outrage over Elba, or any Black person, being excluded from contention as lead in the next Bond film plays right into long-held tropes about White always being right.
As if Bond is the apex of great spies and every future spy should aspire and demand to be like him. Even as the ideas, themes and agendas that we are demanding to be a part of are ultimately counterproductive to our own interests. Besides, he is just a character; we can always make another one with less baggage.
But to put a Black face on Bond is like admitting defeat. And frankly, I’ll take a street dude over a horrible, misogynistic racist any day.