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Why Idris Elba Should Play James Bond
Last week, rumors began to circulate that James Bond producers were strongly considering Idris Elba to play the iconic character of 007. Even Elba himself had a little fun with the rumors, posting a couple of harmless tweets. But because everything needs to become a thing, this rumor caused outrage on social media, with people debating if Elba should play Bond. Internet trolls were enraged that this silly fictional character would potentially look different than he has in the past—despite being played by seven different actors of varying backgrounds and physical appearances.
When Ian Fleming first created the character (in the early 1950s, mind you), Bond was inspired by a number of men the author knew while in the Naval Intelligence Division. The character’s appearance is only sketched out in the original books; it wasn’t until the 12th book in the series (1964’s You Only Live Twice) that Fleming described Bond’s Scottish background—directly inspired by actor Sean Connery, who had already played Bond in 1962’s Dr. No and 1963’s From Russia With Love.
It was established from the very beginning of the EON-produced series of films that James Bond’s identity is, well, malleable—which has been the case for the last half-century, as the franchise has been an combined effort from dozens of writers, directors, and actors. And yet, those who claim that James Bond couldn’t possibly be portrayed by Idris Elba (or any other person of color) base their entire argument on the claim that the character simply was not written that way.
As the world evolves, so does James Bond.
The character was also never written to have blond hair and blue eyes, as Daniel Craig does. The character was also never written to understand the intricacies of cyber crime or smart phones, but he’s managed to learn a few new tricks over the last few decades. As the world evolves, so does James Bond.
If we’re so strictly adhering to what Fleming outlined in those original novels, why is it okay that so many different screenwriters have been allowed their own interpretations of James Bond? Why is it fine that Bond has been played non-Scottish actors—including those of English (Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, David Niven, and Daniel Craig), Irish (Pierce Brosnan), and even Australian (George Lazenby) heritage?
It’s an argument that doesn’t necessarily hold up, because the fact is that it doesn’t matter if James Bond has brown or blond hair or is from Scotland or Ireland. And likewise, it doesn’t matter what color his skin is because—besides being from somewhere within the United Kingdom—his ethnicity isn’t vital to his characterization. Race isn’t what drives James Bond’s motives, nor does it contribute to any situation in which he finds himself. His race would never fundamentally change any Bond movie (although it’d be certainly impressive for a non-white James Bond, would such a radical move take place, to exhibit an awareness that he is in fact non-white rather than just acknowledged color-blind casting).
A bad-faith response to the concept of a non-white James Bond is the notion that popular fictional non-white characters (say, Luke Cage or Black Panther, for example) can be played by white actors. It’s a fundamentally flawed logic, as those characters’ stories and motives are directly rooted in their identities—and the ways in which they exist in a larger, white-dominated world. Besides, the film industry has a long tradition casting white actors as non-white roles; consider recent examples of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, or the most egregious case: Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And those are just fictional characters; John Wayne once played Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, and Ben Affleck cast himself as the Mexican-American CIA agent Tony Mendez in Argo.
And if you’re still an Idris Elba detractor and planning to use his age—45 years old—as another strike against him, consider that Daniel Craig is currently filming his final Bond movie at the age of 50 (and was just seven years younger than Elba is now when he starred in Casino Royale). Even Sean Connery played Bond at 53 in 1983’s Never Say Never Again after a 12-year break from the character. Meanwhile, our American equivalent of James Bond—Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt—is played by a 56-year-old Tom Cruise, who is still managing to jump out of airplanes and into helicopters.
These criticisms are completely unfounded excuses and distractions from a pervasive truth about commercial filmmaking: There’s a systemic prejudice against people of color in major movie roles. Arguing that James Bond cannot be played by a non-white actor because the character wasn’t written that way is just a barely polite way to avoid admitting what we all know you’re really thinking: You simply don’t want to see a black guy playing one of the most iconic roles in cinema history.