The Controversy’s Bond, James Bond

30 Dec

The recent revelation that Sony had been speaking to Idris Elba about the possibility of him playing James Bond has led to a flurry of controversy over whether or not a black Bond is a good idea, largely veering away into debates about racism. We have even had David Aaronovitch reported as citing the example of a blacked-up Lawrence Olivier as a precedent (I don’t know if this is accurate – I’m not subscribing to The Times online edition just to check – but that it sounds entirely plausible in the context of the debate shows how far from reality it has spiraled away!).

Another, verified David Aaronovitch quotation (really, the entire controversy seems to be just him and Rush Limbaugh), more relevant to the actual crux of the issue, is “James Bond isn’t real. Of course he can be black.” Which is entirely true. Indeed, you could paint an actor bright blue, use a dog or insert a cartoon toaster to play the role, but it doesn’t mean that it would work if what you want to produce is a James Bond movie, as opposed to an ersatz action-espionage adventure with James Bond in the title or a spoof. Just because something is fictional doesn’t mean that you can do what you want with it and expect it to work. Daniel Craig has made some good action movies, but they aren’t Bond films because he doesn’t look, sound or act like James Bond. There are certainly black actors (although I wouldn’t count Idris Elba amongst them) who could play a more convincing James Bond than Daniel Craig, but they still wouldn’t fit because James Bond isn’t supposed to be black.

James Bond is a product of a specific era and of a specific class and that creates a specific image. It can, as we have seen, be stretched to work, to a greater or lesser extent, with a number of different approaches, but it can only be stretched so far because it snaps. Daniel Craig doesn’t work. A black actor wouldn’t work. The aborted Jimmy Bond of the CIA didn’t work. Indeed, I don’t think James Bond works, except as a spoof, outside of the Cold War or the early post-Cold War period. Any new Bond film, unless adopting a historical setting, won’t really work because a fitting portrayal of Bond wouldn’t fit into most modern settings and changing Bond renders the brand connection meaningless. Indeed, it may be best to put the series to bed.

Rather than seeking a black Bond, which carries the unfortunate implication that a black secret service agent isn’t viable unless they are built on a white foundation and playing to a white formula, why doesn’t someone create a black secret agent? I certainly can’t think of one of any stature, yet we have Bond and Bourne and plenty more with white skin. Or, better yet, why not create new characters suitable to the modern world for whom the skin colour of the actor would be incidental?


One Response to “The Controversy’s Bond, James Bond”


  1. Is It Racist? | atlanteanpublishing - June 12, 2016

    […] I’ve said before, there’s also something patronising about this trend for trying to make established white […]

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