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The arguments against Idris Elba playing James Bond are bullshit

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Novelist Anthony Horowitz put his foot in it over the weekend when he noted that he thought the black British actor Idris Elba was “too street” to ever play James Bond. (“It’s not a color issue,” he insisted in an interview with the Daily Mail, name-checking another black British actor, Adrian Lester, as a better choice for the part. “Is it a question of being suave? Yeah.”)

Daniel Craig’s hugely successful tenure in the part is uncertain: He recently told Esquire that Spectre, which comes out this fall, may be his last Bond film. And for years Elba—best known as the star of The Wire and Luther—has been rumored to be up for the part of Ian Fleming’s famous hero. Elba would, of course, be the first 007 of African descent, quite a change for a hero often thought of as symbolizing global white imperialism.

At any rate, the internet exploded at his remarks, and Horowitz, author of an upcoming Bond continuation novel set in the 1950s, quickly realized he had put his foot in his mouth, and apologized. On Twitter he explained: “Clumsily, I chose the word ‘street’ as Elba’s gritty portrayal of DCI John Luther was in my mind but I admit it was a poor choice of word. I am mortified to have caused offense.”

The apology gets at the clear coding of the word “race.” “Grit” is a word that Horowitz, in the original interview, also used to praise Craig’s debut performance in Casino Royale. But “street,” especially when applied to those of African descent, is always a weak-willed euphemism for race.

So, clearly, Horowitz is really getting at the idea of race, which we’ll come back to. But even if we take his words to just be focused on class—and I get that British anxieties about class may play out in the discussion of who would play this “classiest” of roles—his comments still make no sense.

The question about Idris Elba playing Bond is not whether or not he is “suave” enough. That’s ridiculous. The man has played Mandela. He’s a good actor. He can play whatever the part requires. Sean Connery was a milkman and bodybuilder before he was Bond. Elba is too rough for the role? That’s what everyone said about Connery.

It was Dr. No’s director, Terence Young, who was the spiritual prototype of the urbane and sophisticated film version of 007. He was the one with the slick clothes and debonair demeanor. Young took Connery to his tailor, Anthony Sinclair, to polish him up—but Connery’s appeal was always that underneath that slick, smooth facade was a magnetic and dangerous killer.

Or look at Daniel Craig. He’s proven a far cooler masculine style icon than the more classically handsome Pierce Brosnan ever was, but Craig hasn’t lost his own rough and tumble (“street”) intensity. (Everyone loves Craig in the role because he’s brought a bruiser’s toughness to the character.)

We have an idea of Bond as upper class, as an aristocrat of sorts, but this idea is not totally borne out by the novels or films. Bond attends private schools but enters a public university in Switzerland, then enters the armed services and, later, the intelligence services.

His tastes in food and clothing are specific, even eccentric, but not really that upper crust (that changes with the movies). I mean, he has a recipe for scrambled eggs. The Bond of the novels, if you read Moonraker, makes the equivalent of about $50,000 a year. In the final Bond novel that Fleming wrote, he turns down a knighthood, describing himself instead as a Scottish peasant. (Still, though we often equate the two, I think Ian Fleming was more the snob than 007. Fleming once floated the idea that David Niven, perhaps the ultimate symbol of posh, cultured, upper-class British-ness would play the part. This would have obviously been a disaster.)

In the films, Bond’s tastes are more luxurious, and there are references to Bond studying at Oxford or Cambridge, but this is just salad dressing, a scriptwriter’s miscellaneous detail—not the deliberate construction of a character defined by a wealthy upbringing.

The Craig films are rather inconsistent with his background, too. In Casino Royale we’re told that Bond didn’t come from money—that even though he went to private school, he wasn’t a rich kid, and he’s always carried a chip on his shoulder. Skyfall invents a kind of ancestral home, some giant estate in the wilds of Scotland. That suggests he did come from money.

So the character of Bond may be upper class, may come from some money—certainly he is comfortable with the things money can buy—but there’s more than a trace of a kind of muscular, working-class professionalism and disdain toward authority. He doesn’t like poseurs. In other words, there’s more than a little street in 007. This is a guy who uses a Rolex for a knuckle-duster, after all, and has a license to kill. It actually doesn’t get more street than that. In most of his iterations he is not an “effete gentleman spy.”

So forget class. It really is a simple question: Do we want to see a black 007? Does the culture somehow need that? What is essential about Bond? Right now: He’s a man. He’s British. He’s straight. He’s white? Bond’s durability as a character rests in part on these cultural specifics, his Britishness in particular. A black Bond (or an Indian Bond, for that matter) is a way of questioning the idea of what is essentially British. For an African-American like me, it’s just kind of an amusing question at happy hour. For the Brits, maybe it’s a more fundamental question.

Part of me doesn’t want to see it, because I don’t think that Bond has to be “integrated,” so to speak, and I’d hate to see Idris Elba reduced to being thought of as “the black Bond,” rather than just “Bond.” I’d be happy if Idris Elba got to be the star of a major series of action movies or thrillers or detective movies—anything—because he’s a great actor who deserves that level of success. It doesn’t have to be this role. We really need to focus more on minority under-representation in the film industry as a whole.

And the resentment from who knows how many Rush Limbaugh types wringing their hands about the “loss” of one more precious touchstone would quickly go from amusement to dismay, when they turned vitriolic and hateful. I don’t know if it’s worth it—and I’d hate to see Elba dragged through that just to play a famous action hero. He may very well feel the same. On the other hand, it’s safe to say he’d be awesome in the part.

Look, the key to the Bond role is charisma. Authority. These are the qualities that the two best Bonds—Connery and Craig—have in abundance. So does Elba. An actor either has it or doesn’t. You can’t act charisma. Take The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Henry Cavill is almost indecently handsome, built like a rock, and his suits look great. But he has so little charisma that it’s like he’s playing at being a suave secret agent, rather than just being a suave secret agent. Elba has the authority that the role requires. Few other actors do.

So, it would be cool, because Elba has enough swag to be great in the role, and if they continue to make movies with a slightly more human Bond, enough soul as well. (Craig has that, too, by the way.)

James Bond endures in part because he is both modern (liberal in his tastes; fully embracing a world of casual, consensual sex; well traveled and well versed in the consumer products of the age) and conservative (defending the nostalgia of a once-great nation state/empire; unambiguously defining certain individuals, usually foreigners, as evil and going out to destroy them; and loyal). If you read the books, plenty of Fleming’s own racism and misogyny and homophobia bleed into the character.

His contradictions, his malleability, are part of his appeal. And Elba as Bond would certainly allow new dimensions of the character’s essential identity to be explored—or erased. How far can we stretch this implausible character while maintaining his essence? What is his essence? We can probably imagine a gay actor playing a straight Bond. A gay Bond?

Because, for all the specific attributes we associate with Bond, literary or cinematic—the patriotism, the misogyny, the courage under fire, the gadgets, the ennui, the lust for danger—there is that sense that when we go looking for the root of Bond, we often find nothing there at all. Fleming once noted that he meant for Bond to be “an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened.” That may be what makes him endure as a character most of all, the essential void at his center. He is a cipher, a blank space, with perhaps only a mirror with which to find some image of ourselves.

Elba’s blackness need not be the primary element in whatever he wanted to do with the character. But, let’s be real, it would allow for one awesome moment of black payback. One of the most racist bits in the films occurs in Dr. No, where Bond and his Caribbean seaman ally, Quarrel, find themselves on Dr. No’s secretive island, Crab Key. In the film’s logic, Quarrel, because he is black and poorly educated, believes there is an actual dragon that patrols the island and kills unwanted visitors. The dragon turns out to be a kind of tank contraption that shoots fire, dressed up to look like a dragon. The racism there is not so subtle, of course, but then we get this moment, where Bond and Quarrel fear they are about to be discovered, and before they flee for cover, Bond orders Quarrel to “fetch my shoes.”

It’s the matter-of-factness of this order, its total unremarked upon quality that I would most love to see Elba overturn, with the same matter-of-fact, “I’m here, so deal with it” power.