A Black James Bond for Once...But For All?
How to make Idris Elba as 007 interesting
Towards the end of September, Idris Elba set off a firestorm of speculation when he said he’d consider auditioning for the role of James Bond. While purely hypothetical at this point, the idea has sparked tremendous enthusiasm. The prospect of a black actor taking on the 007 moniker is exciting, but what would it actually mean for the franchise? Even if it’s never been established in the script, by this point James Bond is the movie equivalent of the Dread Pirate Roberts from “The Princess Bride” or the Doctor from “Doctor Who”—an identity that can be assumed by different people without any real concern for whether they represent a coherent continuity. Bond’s been different heights, had different hair and eye colors. So why not give him an entirely different ethnicity? There are a number of black British actors who could provide fascinating spins on Bond. Elba would be a perfect replacement for Daniel Craig, a Bond who can take as much as he dishes out, and who can clothe overwhelming strength in a perfectly-cut tuxedo. Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Inside Job”) proved his action bonafides in “Serenity,” and could bring a cerebral sensitivity to the role—we know Bond has a heart that can be broken thanks to “Casino Royale.” And David Oyelowo, who played a similar role as part of a team in “Spooks,” and showed up on American screens this summer in “The Help” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” could be a younger Bond if the franchise wanted to show us a spy who’s working up to his license to kill. But as suavely as any of these men could step into Bond’s suits, changing Bond’s race might also change the kinds of Bond stories we get on-screen. In “Casino Royale,” we saw how a white Bond can get his cover blown as one of the few men in a fighting pit in Africa. Having a black Bond might allow the movies to send the super-spy into new settings and new circumstances, embedding with the warlord who set the “Casino Royale” storyline in motion, rather than shutting down his banker, the direction that movie eventually took. Conversely, a black Bond might have to work harder to justify his presence in other contexts. Where a well-dressed white man with easy money might go unnoticed on a Siberian oil pipeline project or an extremely exclusive Bahamian country club, there are still places where people of color are mostly the help, where regulars might demand a back story of a black man they wouldn’t demand of a white man who was new to their crowd. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to tell those kinds of stories, just that they’d be inflected differently. And it would be interesting to see how majority-white audiences reacted to a black Bond not just as a fighter, but as a lover. White Bonds have romanced black Bond girls before, though they’ve been few and far between, and some of them have been villains rather than heroines. And it would be great to see black actors take on two traditionally white archetypes of sexual attractiveness. But it would also be interesting to see if a new Bond could sell the idea that the ultimate seducer is color-blind in a pop culture market where interracial romances are scarce. So a black Bond is plausible, and could be fascinating, opening up new story lines. But is race-bending the character, in this unique case, actually necessary? Is it better to have a black actor win credibility by stepping temporarily into a traditionally white role? Or would it make a stronger statement to create an enduring character who is wildly competent, outrageously attractive, and from the beginning, black? Playing Bond for a streak of movies might help make Elba, or Ejiofor, or Oyelowo a marquee name, but after a while, the role would probably revert to a white actor, and we’d be left looking for a black character who can be an international icon. If Elba or someone else lands the role, that’s great. But the fight to convince studios that black actors can be international stars wouldn’t end there.