You know, I did promise myself that I would put a moratorium on further James Bond related articles for at least a month. However, the recent leak in lieu of the hack revealing Sony Pictures Amy Pascal’s embracement over Idris Elba as 007 brought about the usual silly and obviously ignorant response on Rush Limbaugh’s part. Not that there was any confirmation that Idris Elba will be the next James Bond. But apparently light speculation on Pascal’s part was risible enough to invoke Limbaugh’s ire. For those of you who do not know who Rush is, just Google him, listen in on one of his broadcasts, you’ll get the gist. He is a self proclaimed ombudsman of the American political Right and, basically, he comes across as an inflated, smug baboon while expounding on why my nation is going to hell in a hand basket and how he is the chosen arbiter of the way things should be. Clearly a “ditto head” I am not.
Putting forth the possibility of casting an actor of color, as the man with the license to kill has been a discussion bandied about by James Bond fans for a while now. So that’s really nothing new. And the fact that Limbaugh takes the opposing view on this subject should not surprise anyone. Nor should we be surprised that he got his facts over Ian Fleming’s character laughably wrong:
“Fifty years of white Bond because Bond is white. Always Scottish. Always drank vodka.”
Let me correct the record quickly so I can move on to what I really want to say. First, Bond was not “always Scottish.” For one thing that wasn’t established until the end of the second to last Fleming novel You Only Live Twice and that bit of trivia was added as a nod to the then current actor playing the role, Sean Connery. Up until that time, it was assumed that Bond was simply “English.” And if you really, really, really wanted to nitpick… not only was Bond also at least partially Swiss (as he was born of a Scottish father and Swiss mother) but Swiss law also demands that if one is born of a Swiss mother then legally you are a Swiss citizen. So James Bond was just as much of a Swiss as he was a Scot. Second, Bond didn’t always drink Vodka. He pretty much drank anything because, well, he was a functioning alcoholic.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to focus on this “fifty years of white Bond because Bond is white” presumption that, frankly, really sticks in my craw. And this is the thing, Rush Limbaugh’s attempts at being a bloviating idiot aside; this is scarily enough a common thought among many James Bond fans, that 007 could never nor should ever be portrayed by a person of color.
Those sentiments are out there. Just visit any fan forum, Facebook group or page. Sometimes the possibility is met with the similar form of vitriol usually reserved for after someone suggests an American potential as James Bond. That Bond not only has to be white, but also can only be played by Brits. Which proves just how ill informed some James Bond “fans” actually are. George Lazenby – the one time Bond – starred in what is considered to be one of the best 007 flicks ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. And he was Australian. New Zealander Sam Neill came very close to snagging the role for LIVING DAYLIGHTS. And this was after he had established acclaim as the Bond-like but true-to-life and very English WWI double agent SIDNEY REILLY: ACE OF SPIES. And then there was John Gavin.
John Gavin was a tall, dark and very handsome actor who sort of fit the Cary Grant mold of dashing gentleman (as opposed to the rugged brutishness of Connery). Best known for his appearances in Kubrick’s SPARTACUS (he played the young Julius Caesar) and Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (he was Janet Leigh’s boyfriend), he signed up to play James Bond in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. That is until United Artists went behind the backs of EON Productions and made a last minute attempt to woo Sean Connery back. Well, it turned out UA was successful as that resulted in one of the largest paychecks an actor had ever received up to that point. So… Gavin was bought out of his contract. Even though, during what must have been an agonizingly brief moment, John Gavin was James Bond. But that’s not all.
John Gavin was an American. Yep. We were this close to having an American James Bond.
One could also point out how during the late 1980s Bond producer Cubby Broccoli was on record saying French actor Lambert Wilson (the Merovingian in THE MATRIX movies) would be a perfect Bond. Clearly EON Productions were not limiting their casting options to just the Commonwealth.
Yet, the aforementioned hopefuls are still white regardless of their nationalities. So that sort of makes it okay? But when an actor of color is brought up, that’s where the line is drawn for a lot of fans out there. Because, you know, James Bond has to be white.
Let us set aside the underlying context of racial ignorance and “White Male Privilege” motivating this notion and attempt to be the devil’s advocate for a moment. How do we argue for this? Well, Bond was written as a white character. That is true. Not only that but in adapting a literary character to film, one wouldn’t cast, say, a white actor in a role that was originally conceived to be a minority character. Okay, maybe you’ve got something there. Hell. Even Limbaugh pointed out that no one would cast George Clooney and Kate Hudson as President Obama and his wife. Why of course no one would–
Wait. False equivalency time. This has been the common response from those who are opposed, “you wouldn’t cast a white actor to play our black president! You wouldn’t cast Brad Pitt to play Mohammad Ali!” Unfortunately, our President, Ali… those are real people. So, no, you wouldn’t cast an actor of one race to play a historical figure who represents another because, like, they’re totally real? And, like, James Bond is totally fiction?
Let me repeat: James Bond is a fictional character.
All right so then we’re left with the “we wouldn’t cast a white actor to play a fictional character whom was initially conceived to be black, Asian, Middle-Eastern, etc.” argument. Well, unfortunately that did happen. And continued to happen until Hollywood got a little more politically correct late into the 20th century. And therein lies some pretty significant historical context. For the longest time Jewish actors were cast as Italians, Italians were cast as Native Americans; white, classically trained actors like Olivier and Alec Guinness played Arabs in many David Lean-inspired dessert epics and war films. You see, even when it came to minority characters in film, it was the white actor who had a monopoly on those roles as well as the rest. Actors of a race that is other than white were left with servant roles and small, uncomfortably silly comedic relief parts. And that would be insulting enough. However, a lot of those minority representations were of the villainous variety. Rarely were heroes ever represented. Even if they were, white men also played these characters: Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), Charlie Chan (Warner Oland), Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre), etc.
Now let’s get back to being for or against Idris Elba as James Bond. We live in a day and age were it is perfectly conceivable that had Fleming’s creation been a man of the 21rst Century, that man could have been of any race and any color. Because when it comes to Bond, this is what we know:
1) Swiss Mum and Scottish Dad
2) He’s an orphan
3) He dropped out of Eton
4) Was a naval officer before he became a spy (the current Craig era of Bond positions him as an ex-SAS officer).
Those are the key factors that define Bond’s background and there is nothing there that refutes the idea that Bond can be of another race. For example, it’s perfectly conceivable that at least one of his parents was black. There are a lot of mixed race couples in Scotland and Switzerland nowadays. Also, while I could be totally wrong about this (and feel free to disagree with me), I am pretty sure that the majority of orphans out there are not just white. I am also pretty sure that more than a few naval officers since the late 1960s are comprised of different races and backgrounds. And there are plenty of wealthy, non-white people who are in the affluent position to send their kids to Eton.
Now if you still want to refute the above then all I have to say is “from this point on you want every James Bond film to be set in the 1950s, where 007 was a WWII veteran, where misogyny was more widely accepted as was segregation. So, yeah, then it wouldn’t make sense if Bond were cast as a black man. Historically it would be near impossible.” But today’s Bond films are representative of the times we live in. We’re beyond the 60s, 70s even the early Naughts. Unless you want your contemporized version of Bond to exist in an alternate reality were misogyny is still widely accepted as is segregation. Even though we are already approaching the year 2015. So I sincerely apologize if this sounds too below the belt but I do think it needs to be said: it’s time for y’all to grow up.
Seriously. Grow the eff up.
For the longest time (and I’m talking about since the inception of Penny Dreadfuls and Pulp Literature right on up to as recently as the late 20th century), heroes and lead protagonists were white not because their creators intended them to be that way but only because “white” was synonymous with being a leader, heroic and slack jawed while “black” was relegated to being lower class and “bad.” James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Allan Quatermain, Philip Marlowe, Batman, Superman… all were prototypes for the modern hero and they were all white because that’s how people viewed their protagonists during the eras of white colonialism, segregation and racial injustice. Their skin colors were not intrinsic to who they were as characters. They were simply “white” because that was how we viewed our heroes at the time.
Moving on, we would eventually get a Bruce Lee, a Black Panther, a Luke Cage, a Shaft or Superfly. But these characters would not make their introduction until way late into the game. And, again, it was white actors who were portraying whatever non-white protagonists existed up to that point. So not only were actors of a certain race denied the opportunity to play heroic leading characters. But they were also denied the opportunity to play those characters even if they represented their own race.
This is the important historical context, people. Generations of actors and performers had been alienated from taking on roles that were exclusively given to white people. Not because being white was important to those characters but because if you wanted to play that character you had to be white. Some people have argued that Idris Elba shouldn’t have to play Bond, though. Why not invent a whole new, black superspy? Why not take this opportunity to come up with something original! For one thing didn’t they try to do that already with Wesley Snipes and THE ART OF WAR? More importantly: if someone like Elba was given the choice of either playing 007 or a role that was created for him, you don’t think Elba would want to rise up to the challenge of playing an established, iconic character instead? That an opportunity has been presented which, up to this point, had been historically denied to a whole population of actors because of the color of their skin?
And seeing as we are now such a multicultural society where mixed race families are almost the norm, that gay marriage is becoming increasingly accepted legally… aren’t the odds against a modern James Bond being totally white anyway?
So to all the Limbaugh Ditto Heads and the 007 fans who have the audacity to think they own the key to Ian Fleming’s brain and know (like, are seriously positive) as to how the character is supposed to be portrayed on the screen. Allow me some further, sobering facts:
1) Very few Bond films are faithful to their literary source.
2) The franchise arch villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld only appeared in three novels. And he looked nothing like Donald Pleasance nor Telly Savalas. Nor did he own a cat.
3) In the novels, the predominant villains were the Russians. Not SPECTRE. Ergo, Dr. No, Rosa Klebb, Red Grant, Mr. Big were all Russian agents.
4) Felix Leiter, Bond’s CIA chum, was described as blonde and a Texan. Name one blonde actor who’s played Leiter? Rik Van Nutter of THUNDERBALL perhaps? Oh… Felix Leiter quits the CIA after the second novel Live And Let Die and becomes a Pinkerton. And doesn’t return to the CIA until much later. Oh, oh, oh and he sports a fake hand after losing it to a shark in that same novel.
5) Bond is described as having a scar on his cheekbone. Which makes for an interesting, albeit sinister look. Note how none of the actors who have played the role have sported this facial deformity.
6) The movies did not follow the continuity of the novels. Heck, the films had no continuity whatsoever (with the exception of the more recent Daniel Craig era)
7) Bond is described as having dark hair. Craig is blonde. And he’s been doing pretty well thus far. And for the longest time we all seemed to be okay with a female M.
8) No one seems to be complaining over a black Moneypenny (yet).
9) For all you Anglo-Saxon purists out there chew on this: Connery was balding and brown-eyed, Roger Moore was a dirty blonde and (heaven forbid!) Jewish.
10) George Lazenby was ten years shy from being a teenager (he was 29 when he took on the role).
11) The Bond of the novels smokes a lot. And I mean a lot. The movie Bond hasn’t smoked since Pierce Brosnan took on the role.
12) Bond was never a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” type. He actually fell in love with his women. Not only that, he never even goes to bed with the main female character in the novel Moonraker.
13) While in action, Bond was often described as wearing jeans and moccasins. Not always the formal fashion template the films would have you believe.
14) Here’s something to blow your mind. Did you know Fleming’s James Bond was a dad? Towards the end of You Only Live Twice, it is revealed that… SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER… the very Japanese Kissy Suzuki is pregnant with 007’s child. That’s right: James Bond is the father of a mixed race kid.
15) I could go on but I am getting bored so I’ll leave you with this, possibly the most important point I can make about Fleming’s James Bond. He was a product of a post WWII, post British colonial mindset and was an almost fetishized fantasy derived from Fleming’s old-fashioned imagination. It was also Fleming’s attempt to create a British Mike Hammer. However, Fleming himself said that he never thought of Bond as a “hero.” Bond was a killer, a blunt instrument for the United Kingdom and a man who could bleed and have his heart broken like anyone else. More significantly, he was born of an era whose relevance has ceased many moons ago and therefore has no place in our present society.
How am I doing so far? Still skeptical? Still entrenched in that “I know what’s best for Bond” mentality? Console yourself with the fact that the company you share is with Rush Limbaugh, white supremacists, the KKK, and uneducated white folk. Not that I am accusing you of being all of those things, mind you. But just think about it. Then remind yourself of the times we live in, the harsh realities when it comes to race and its significance within today’s social environment. You cannot claim a writer’s intent when it comes to a certain character especially when the popular attempts to adapt said character has been fraught with being unfaithful. And you cannot keep that character trapped within an eternal time capsule when the world has progressed and changed around him. So bring on an Asian Doc Savage, a Latino Bruce Wayne and, ultimately, a black James Bond.
Or please go home. And politely shut up.