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Roundtable: How Important Is a Black James Bond Anyway?

Every few years, someone lets slip a rumor that someone said something about a black man playing James Bond. Typically, this rumored casting is Idris Elba. A phenomenally talented actor, an icon of British and American film and television. An admirably sophisticated man. A sexy man. A man who, if he weren’t black, would likely already be playing James Bond. But Elba is irrevocably black. Problematically black. Unmistakably not white.

And so, for the next few days, white people fill Twitter threads explaining why that’s a horrible, terrible, very bad, no good idea. It doesn’t stop there either. They take to all forms of social media to screech about why James Bond is — and always will be — a white man. Typically, it sounds like this racist bleating:

That said, not everyone sees James Bond as a symbol of whiteness, but rather as a defender of the Western ideals of freedom, democracy and the Special Relationship. They see Black Bond as a new symbol for a new world. Meanwhile, black fans suggest that a black spy really ought to get a new franchise to fight his own battle against, say, the spread of creeping crypto-fascism and modern Nazis.

Back in the Old World, the idea of a Black Bond even earns a mention in the local newspaper. (It’s like Twitter before there was Twitter.)

That’s a very good question, Sir Herbert: Why can’t we get back to nearly cutting off Bond’s genitals? Like sensible people. (You get that this a troll letter, right? From a dude in The Old Asylum? In Loonraker?) The truth of the matter is, ye olde racists, fret not! Your James Bond is safe.

All this recent talk that a producer suggested it was time Bond be played by a black man was just that — talk. Turns out, Barbara Broccoli, whose family owns the rights to the Bond franchise and produces all of the films, didn’t actually say that “it was time for a Black Bond.” Thus, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “Daniel Craig, 50, is confirmed for his fifth turn as Bond in the untitled next chapter in the series dated for a Nov. 8, 2019, release.”

But what about this constant question, this persistent what if…? That is, what if Bond were black? What if Idris Elba did take over the franchise from Daniel Craig? What would that be like? Could he eventually embody the iconic role and redefine it in his inimitable way?

To answer that lingering question, I gathered a roundtable of fans, opinion-havers and Hollywood insiders. Three black men. Two white men. One singular question: Should there be a Black Bond? Here’s our best attempt at an answer.

To open the discussion, I ask a friend, a man I grew up with and with whom I’ve watched countless summer action films. I know him to be avowedly not racist. I say this because… he’s a white guy. His name is Ted. So, what does Ted think of the idea of a Black Bond?

Ted: The question of, “Are we ready for a Black Bond?” makes me give a world-weary reflexive sigh.

Me: But what about if it’s Idris Elba as Bond, does that change things for you?

Ted: I’m gay for Idris. He’d be great in the role. But he’s kind of obvious. And expected. And old. And especially, established. He is an A-Lister, and Bond has always been (at least in his first outings for each actor) a B-Lister at best. Let’s get an unknown young black actor. Or an unknown young Pakistani actor. Either would make sense for a modern 007.

Ted makes a few interesting points. Bond, the role, isn’t really for an A-List actor like Elba. He’s essentially overqualified for the part. Plus, if we’re considering moving beyond a typically white guy role to consider a Black Bond, why not an Asian bond — such as a Pakistani Bond, a Taiwanese Bond or an Indian Bond? It could be anyone from the former Commonwealth, any ethnicity, due to the simple fact that, as history reminds us, its reach was so great the sun never set on the British Empire.

Of course, purists will point out that regardless of British history, James Bond is a Scottish lad. Okay, fine. But he could be Scottish and black.

Next, I ask another white guy for his opinion on the Black Bond debate. He’s a film critic, a cinephile with wide and varied taste, but not one to sneer at the comic book ouvre, or its cinematic cousin, the James Bond-esque spy film. To sweeten the pot, he’s also Canadian. So, he has an opinion of British culture separate from our American view. His name is Allan.

Allan: As a character, James Bond only works with a serious dash of self-parody. It’s why the Roger Moore films are the only ones I like. As an actor Moore refused to take himself seriously, so there was always an edge of acknowledged absurdity in his performance, which turns Bond into a cartoon. And Bond HAS to be a cartoon. Otherwise, he’s the patron saint of toxic masculinity.

Me: How so? No one mistakes James Bond for reality. But also no one misses the undeniable cool of the Bond archetype. So, why must he be a cartoon for the coolness of the character to work? What’s the danger in him being taken seriously?

Allan: To take him seriously is to turn an outright monster into a hero, which is why I have no use for the Daniel Craig films, despite the fact that they’re arguably the best-made in the franchise. As a character, Bond is a relic. One that has no place in our modern consciousness. He’s a fantasy we should reject rather than celebrate. I don’t think casting a black actor to play him will change this. I’d much rather see that actor take on a new role — one that doesn’t have the same baggage. I’d rather see him/her inspire a character who is truly heroic, rather than one who pays tribute to an outdated idea of what a hero should be.

Like Ted, as a fan of the franchise, and as a white man, Allan is open to the idea of someone from a non-white ethnic background playing Bond. But like Ted, he also questions that choice, not for reasons of race, but rather for reasons of social values. Bond is a throwback that he has no use for as an escapist fantasy.

It’s interesting, that both white men didn’t seem to have strong opinions about James Bond being played by a black man, nor did they want to focus that much on race as a question. Instead, they focused on the Bond character. In the abstract.

What, though, of a more direct lived experience? What would a Hollywood insider say? For instance, a black man who’s known as a superfan of all things nerdy and cool. As a partner to Kevin Smith on the podcast and video series Fatman on Batman, as a writer for Castle Rock and as a journalist for The Hollywood Reporter, Marc Bernardin exists in a unique position of having a qualified opinion and a practical understanding of how to best reboot characters, to enrich stories and give fandoms what they want. Plus, he’s a legit fan of Bond.

Me: Based on you opinion, as a writer, as a creator — Black Bond, good idea or no?

Marc: I love James Bond. Probably more than I should, given that there are more bad Bond films than there are good ones. And too many of the good ones come freighted with caricatures of every sort: racial, sexual, gendered. But I like fast cars and derring-do and gadgets and attractive women and wine advice, so I stick it out.

I’ve always thought that James Bond was a codename: Why else would a goddamned secret agent keep saying his goddamned name out loud, to every goddamned person he met? I believe James Bond is as much his real name as 007 is: It’s a suit the new guy gets to wear when the old guy gets killed. (It’s also a perfect excuse for why there’s a new actor playing the same “character” every few years.) So to have a problem with Idris Elba playing James Bond feels like a small problem for the small-minded. Of course a Black man could play that role. The role is a role itself, which in no way demands that it be played by a white man.

Me: Speaking less professionally, what do you want to see, personally, as a fan and as a black man?

Marc: As much as I’d like to see Elba walk in front of that gun barrel, I can’t help but want to see him do something new — to see him carve out a new role, and a new franchise that could compete with Bond. To see a black actor kill it in a role that was written for a black actor. Would Idris Elba be a great James Bond? Sure. But instead of 8th and best, I’d rather first and only.

For a hands-on approach for what it would mean to cast a black actor as James Bond, I ask a working black actor. Mustafa Shakir plays the villainous Bushmaster on Luke Cage. In fact, to look at his body of work, his personal style and the silhouette he casts in a tuxedo, he could be a legitimate casting option to play Black Bond. So what does a leading man who’s deep in the Hollywood game think about the idea of a Black Bond?

Mustafa: I like it, just because. I feel like there should be a chance for black people or brown people to step into that role. Bond is the type of institution that’s interchangeable like that. He doesn’t have to be any particular color. The next thought I had was: What missions would this black man be doing for British intelligence? What realistically can this movie be about? Is it going to be sensitive to issues around color and race? You just can’t do the same shit with a Black Bond. (laughs) So, it brings up issues. And I’m wondering how the filmmakers would deal with those issues.

Me: You have the whole history of the British Empire to consider, and all the subjugation and oppression of black and brown people. Now, he’d be a weapon of that history, or at least an instrument of that hegemony.

Mustafa: Exactly! It’s not a good thing, in that regard. Unless, this is the beginning of some sort of cinematic reparations. (laughs) You could have it be that — in the beginning, the British government recognizes their atrocities, they begin to do something other than what they’ve been doing, which is fuckery on the planet.

Me: What about Idris Elba? You think he’d be a good choice?

Mustafa: He’d be an excellent choice. He’s got that whole thing — he looks like a black Daniel Craig; he’s got that same haircut and face shape. He’s already British. He has that as a cultural identity.

Me: As a working black actor, one who could legitimately play the part of Black Bond, would you want to take on that challenge?

Mustafa: Of course. When everyone sat around the boardroom table and discussed the direction of the film, though, it would make a big difference to me. I wouldn’t do it “just cause.”

Me: What about giving a black actor a comparable, similarly budgeted, big franchise film as a spy? Would that be a more appealing idea — to create a new black spy character?

Mustafa: Ultimately, I’d prefer that. But you know, there are a lot of conversations, or sub-conversations to this. On the one hand, there’s a part of me that just wants that infiltration of a franchise that’s been specifically white. But on the other, there’s a part of me that says, “Why can’t there be something that’s created that’s as dope, if not better? Something fresh, something that can play itself out in the current circumstances.” Bond makes me think of dry martinis and white hair. (laughs) So for the sheer anarchy of it, yes. But I also feel like, creatively, we could do better.

Me: What about the overt sexuality of James Bond? Now there would be a James Bond with a black dick. What about the oversexualization of a Black Bond?

Mustafa: Nah, fuck that. Bond is a sexual being. Every five seconds he’s throwing some girl against a bed and doing his thing. Black men are no different. I mean, of course, there’s the big dick thing. But so what? I’m tired of tiptoeing around all these little landmines, these social landmines, so to speak. It’s high time we all get over ourselves. Me, personally? I’m like, whatever. Bond’s sexy; black men are sexy. And apparently, notoriously, a little extra sexy. So what? Deal with it. (laughs)

For a different perspective, but one equally black, I spoke with a longtime fan of Bond films, a man who’s seen them all. (Except for the Timothy Dalton ones, because, as he puts it, “I don’t hate myself enough to watch those.”) What would a black superfan think of a black man playing the hero he grew up watching and wanting to be? Would he be down for a Black Bond? His name’s Michael. And he has a lot of deeply considered opinions on the matter.

Michael: We’ve been having this conversation for years now, right? Idris this, Idris that. And Idris is like, “Ain’t nobody told me shit.” The 12-year-old Anglophile in me is like over-the-moon. The 32-year-old socialist in me is probably not gonna say anything about that on Twitter. (laughs) But I’m also thinking, after a Black Panther, do we even need a Black Bond?

Even if we’re saying, sure, James Bond can be black, which I’m not arguing that he can’t; I’d argue James Bond is inescapably part of the British Empire, Western hegemony and all that represents. So now, that we’re in this dystopian cyberpunk futureland, and we have tales of our own standoffish and inscrutable black empire, why do we need a black dude enforcing and protecting a standoffish and inscrutable white empire?

Me: And do we really want to saddle a black actor with the job of acting as an agent and instrument of that historic Western hegemony and imperialism? That’s a hell of a psychic and social weight to hand a person to bear. By casting him in the role you’re essentially pitting him against the flow of the cultural conversation — at least the one taking place online.

Michael: Seriously! You really wanna make Idris carry that weight? Does anybody want that? Idris got crucified for Beast of No Nations, when he played that emotionally-conflicted anonymous African failed republic soldier guy. You want him to be an emotionally-conflicted, very-much-not-anonymous soldier from the worst empire before the American empire? But man, part of me is still 12. And there’s still that wish fulfilment that I want to see. So I’m deeply ambivalent. (laughs)

Me: What about what giving a black actor his own franchise?

Michael: That would be cool. But obviously, there’s a reason why we’re talking about Black Bond. James Bond is the ur-spy — culturally speaking. We haven’t replaced him. Bourne came close. I think a Black Bourne would be more plausible than a Black Bond. But I don’t want to see no nigga caping for the U.S. right now, neither. Which raises a bigger question: Does the spy genre even work anymore? It’s definitely a rhetorical concept from a simpler time.

Me: Yes. Pre-waterboarding. Like, Bond’s methods aren’t over-the-line anymore. What once was fantasy — when Bond interrogated a witness with brutal mind games and against-the-rules violence — is now the legal standard for Western democracies. His dramatic racing-to-save-the-world scenes that hinge on scenes of cinematic torture are now everyday business in black-op sites around the world. It’s much harder to have James Bond be cool and heroic, post-Abu Ghraib.

Michael: It’s an antiquated franchise that relies on this idea of a bipolar world, where there’s good guys and bad guys. All of the nuance that’s been added to the culture over the last 10 to 20 years — thank god — really makes it hard. It’s why Bond has been so weird the last 20 years. It’s why Daniel Craig has been such a great James Bond. He’s been a blunt instrument. The spy has always been sort of a blunt instrument.

Me: But could it be done? Could there be a Black Bond? Or is it an impossible dream?

Michael: Now, if we’re talking pie-in-the-sky, “here’s $100 million, go make a movie,” I wouldn’t mind a Carlos-the-Jackal-style black antihero. Where we get to see Idris, or whoever, get to be not-quite-the-good-guy-and-not-quite-the-bad-guy, yet still have understandable motivations. But is anyone going to bankroll a $100 million revenge flick? No. I mean, LeBron made a school; I don’t think we can ask folks to do much more than that. (laughs)

Me: What about the necessity of a black director to make the Black Bond film?

Michael: That’s necessary. You can’t do Bond in blackface. It would have to be Black Bond. You’d need black people writing it. Black people directing it. And all of that.

Me: What about casting in Hollywood? Typically, a white guy plays that Middle Eastern Jewish cat everybody knows as Jesus. Straight actors still play gay parts. And then there’s Scarlett Johansson. She’s her own industry of racial casting misfires. I’m not saying any of those choices is good or cool. Yet, somehow, for some reason, those same race-blind white audience members who seem to have no problem with White Jesus or Asian Johansson believe it’s sacrosanct for a black man to play James Bond. Or they lose it when a black woman, Anna Diop, is cast to play Starfire, a comic book alien who has orange skin. Why are certain characters, like James Bond, so off-limits for white fans?

Michael: It’s sort of what we’ve been getting at. Bond is an anachronism. He’s a creation of a particular place in time, ideology and imperial mindset. To actually make a Black Bond requires the kind of fucking-with-the-narrative that would render it… I cannot envision it. I cannot fathom a way that Bond works if he’s black. And I’m a Bond fan! I don’t think Black Bond works. The necessary facets of the character fail. James Bond embodies weaponized whiteness — and in a way that makes it impossible to cast him as a black man in the 21st century.

Me: If we’re rebooting a famous British antihero, a beloved bad boy character, I’d much rather talk about a Black Robin Hood.

Michael: Yeah, man, a 21st century Robin Hood reboot — starring any one of those kids from Attack the Block? That’d be great. Bring in Kano from Top Boy. Let him do some weird antihero thing. Speaking of — as far as I’m concerned Luther obviates the need for any Black Bond. You get Idris swaggering, you get that pulsing physicality of his. He’s kinda this British superhero, anyways. Idris has said as much. He’s been like, “Look, I did Luther because I wasn’t going to get to be that type of superhero, so I went and made my own.”

Me: For real, if you wanna watch Black Bond. Go watch Luther.