Ignorant comments made by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh have been circulating concerning the prospect of the choice of Idris Elba to play James Bond. This was after emails from the purported Sony Hack indicated that Elba appears to be a top pick made by Sony executives to play James Bond once Daniel Craig finishes his run as the iconic franchise character. I have personally chosen to refrain from reading the actual contents of the hacked emails because of the nature of how they’ve been obtained, but several news outlets have relished in releasing multiple stories picking apart whatever “insider” information they’ve combed through and capturing the attention of their readers with flashy headlines (ahem . . . cough-cough “Daily Beast”). The recent story about Idris Elba as a future Bond will probably go down as a mere footnote in this larger media firestorm that has emerged from the Sony hack, yet it has become a hot topic of debate especially among Bond fans. It has re-ignited certain debates about race in Hollywood and show business, and whether or not non-white actors will or should be considered for roles that might have otherwise gone to white actors in the past.
It’s an interesting topic to debate about no matter where you fall on the issue, but it’s also a controversial topic to discuss because certain opinions when taken out of context could unwittingly be perceived as racist. During his show Limbaugh said, “We had 50 years of white Bonds because Bond is white. Bond was never black. Ian Fleming never created a black Brit to play James Bond. The character was always white. He was always Scottish. He always drank vodka shaken not stirred and all that.”
Many news outlets have been quick to point out that Connery was the only Scottish actor to play Bond. Pierce Brosnan is Irish, Roger Moore is English, George Lazenby is Australian, and current Bond Daniel Craig is English yet Limbaugh has never been up in arms about these non-Scottish actors playing Bond. As for Bond’s Scottish origins in the source material, many have theorized that Fleming gave Bond his Scottish ancestry after Sean Connery was given the role. Indeed, Bond’s Scottish origins are revealed in Fleming’s 11th Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was written after Connery had been chosen to star as Bond in the first Bond film Dr. No. There are some scholars who suggest that Fleming had decided on Bond’s origins before Connery had been cast, but judging from Fleming’s previous preference for American actor, composer, and singer Hoagy Carmichael for the role of Bond it would appear that Fleming was more concerned about the physical look of Bond rather than the ancestral origins of the actor who portrayed him.
Fleming, who initially disapproved of the choice of Connery to play Bond, had mostly modeled the character after himself as well as other men he encountered while he was a Commander in Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. Fleming oversaw many secret operations taking command of a unit called 30 AU (30 Assault Unit), yet Fleming never went into the field himself. He spent most of the war planning these operations at his desk and relying on men under his command to carry out the missions he designed. The character of Bond, some Fleming scholars have theorized, was essentially created out of Fleming’s fantasy of imagining himself out there in the field carrying out the various missions he designed during the war. Of course by the time he wrote his first novel, the war had ended so Fleming used the Russians as a frequent antagonist for Bond instead of the Nazis since Fleming himself decided that the stories he wrote should be current.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that someone is racist if they don’t think Bond could be played by a black man. There are those in the Bond fan community who may agree with Rush Limbaugh to a certain degree because of the literary roots of the character. Ian Fleming did indeed create a British character named James Bond who is undoubtedly white in the novels. There is no use arguing about that. It’s also true that the source material which comprises the James Bond novels was written in the 1950s and early 60s when there was little chance for diversity in the British Secret Service. The film franchise has wisely chosen to keep the settings of all the films contemporary, however, and over the course of 50 years each and every film has been representative of the time in which it was made – a zeitgeist if you will. If one keeps that in mind, it certainly makes sense that a black British actor playing Bond at some point in the future could become a reality. I would argue that today it would be entirely plausible for the British Secret Service to employ agents of various racial backgrounds so there is no reason why Bond couldn’t be portrayed by a black British actor. If Idris Elba were chosen, I’m sure the filmmakers will make it seem as if he were tailor made for the role just as they’ve done with every other previous Bond actor.
Even the earliest 1960s films with Connery sought to update the source material from the novels which were written a decade earlier. Hence, you won’t find Bond riding a jetpack in any novel, but the novelty of it was used for the 1965 film Thunderball. Indeed, the filmmakers over the course of 50 years have chosen to update, alter, or change much of Fleming’s source material entirely to the point where there are many films in the franchise that don’t really have much of any connection to the source material other than perhaps the title or a handful of scenes. There are still quite a few nuggets of scenes from the books that haven’t made it into a Bond film even in an updated form. Much of the story in the novel Moonraker hasn’t been adapted in any way for the films even though Bond filmmakers made a film called Moonraker in 1979, which consisted of a 3rd act inspired by the film producers’ desire to compete with Star Wars. Last time I checked, I don’t think Fleming ever envisioned Bond going into space, but the film is still accepted as part of the film franchise cannon. If one suspends disbelief a little it’s actually quite a good entry given the time in which it was made.
I believe the role should ultimately go to whoever is the best actor for the part regardless of race or even gender (as long as it fits within the plans the filmmakers have for the character). It was recently revealed to me in a still taken during 1965’s Thunderball when all the 00 agents are gathered that 003 was a woman in that film. It’s one of those things where you have to pause the movie at the exact spot to catch though, but imagine the possibilities of a female Bond or even just a female 00 agent. I think there’s an infinite amount of story potential to be harnessed if filmmakers and audiences were willing to explore such a prospect.
Of all the iconic cultural franchise characters that have been around for 50 years or more, I believe James Bond would be a great place to begin introducing cultural diversity. I’m not sure if audiences would be accepting of a black actor portraying Batman or Superman in my lifetime, but I don’t see why non-white actors shouldn’t be considered for these roles. These are fictional characters after all. Saying that James Bond, Batman, or Superman have to be white is the equivalent of saying Santa Claus has to be white. Why can’t fictional characters be whoever we wish them to be? We live in a time far removed from when the source material for these characters were created. As we continue to make these characters relevant to our time, why not be open to the possibility that maybe some of these characters wouldn’t be white if they were created today?
– by Jack Lugo