It’s been over ten years since Casino Royale and the debut of Daniel Craig as James Bond, which means we’re overdue for a new 007. The British tabloid the Daily Star published a rumor that Bond producer Barbara Broccoli thought it was time some diversity was brought to the role and director Antoine Fuqua suggested that Idris Elba was his top choice.
Elba himself has publicly campaigned for the role for years, in 2011 saying “I’d not only get in the cab, but I’d take the taxi driver out of the car, hostage. The taxi, jump out while it was moving, jump onto a pedal bike that was just past the door as I got on it, and then get onto a plane—on the wing—land on top of Sony Studios, slide through the air conditioning, and land in the office.” And he further added fuel to the fire on Sunday by tweeting, “my name’s Elba, Idris Elba.”
Now, all of this “news” is purely guesswork. There’s been no official announcement, but it’s hard to think of an actor better suited to play Bond than Elba. He’s English, mid-forties, and known for being famously, irresistibly handsome. He has a distinguished career playing characters who are equal parts charming and menacing, such as drug kingpin Stringer Bell on The Wire and apocalypse canceller Marshal Stacker Pentecost in Pacific Rim. And he has a fun social media presence that allows him to engage with his fans while playing on his larger-than-life persona.
So: the only “problem” with Elba taking on the role of Bond is his skin color. There are many 007 “fans” that will not accept a black James Bond. For these (let’s just say it) racists, a Bond of African descent just can’t work; as Rush Limbaugh put it, “James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming. He was white and Scottish. Period. That is who James Bond is.”
To these people, a black Bond is unacceptable because, at his heart, Bond is a straight white male power fantasy, a reactionary counter to the end of the British empire and the rise of civil rights movements around the world. As former colonies became their own countries with power to rival Great Britain, and women and racial minorities were claiming their place at the table, it was comforting to believe that only a white man, drinking and screwing his way around the globe, could actually save the world.
This reactionary fantasy is even present in 1995’s Goldeneye, where M correctly identifies Bond as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.” The moral of Goldeneye, then, is that the world needs a misogynist dinosaur to save it and that it’s not Bond who has to change with the times: it’s the world that has to accept him.
But the fact is that Bond has constantly changed over the last fifty years. 007 hasn’t been played by a Scot since Sean Connery, and it’s impossible for any Bond since Timothy Dalton’s to be literally the same character as the one in From Russia with Love (unless some sort of regeneration is going on, but let’s not go there right now).
Even when the same actor plays Bond for a period of time, he shifts his characterization over the course of his tenure. Connery’s Bond in Dr. No is a drunk screw-up, the kind of agent who gets sent to Jamaica because a scientist has wandered off, and two films later he’s a suave superman sent to foil the greatest gold theft in history. Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale is a brutal thug uncomfortable in the high class world of Le Chiffre, and two films later he’s a suave superman coming out of retirement to save MI6.
It’s inevitable that a new Bond will not adhere to Ian Fleming’s “total concept.” By casting Idris Elba (or another actor of color), Broccoli and Fuqua can blow up the racist heart of the Bond films—the flawed tenet that only a white man can save the world. That only a white man can be smart, strong, sophisticated, and suave enough to be a super spy. That only the people who have always controlled the world can continue to save it.
I’d say that casting Elba would drag Bond into the 21st century, but the fact is this radical rebranding of Bond should have happened twenty years ago. The response to “you’re a misogynist dinosaur” shouldn’t ever be “you’re right and I’m proud.” It should be to say, “Holy shit, you’re right, I’d better get with the times.”
With that in mind, casting Elba (who, again, I think would be a great choice to play the part), might not be going far enough. Why not a woman? Why not someone queer? Craig campaigned for Bond to have a homosexual romance for years, all of which amounted to one throwaway line in Skyfall. Bond is a power fantasy, will always be a power fantasy, but why should he remain a fantasy for just a straight white male minority? Shouldn’t everybody get to play at getting drunk, getting laid, and saving the world—and looking amazing while doing it?