Never Say Never: Idris Elba And The James Bond Casting Controversy

Brogan Morris examines the recent fuss over the idea of Idris Elba being cast as James Bond and argues that there hasn't ever been a 'true' portrayal of the iconic spy.

It certainly wasn’t wise of James Bond novelist Anthony Horowitz when, in an interview with the Mail recently, he chose to use the term “too street” – a nebulous, racially-charged description if ever there was one – to dismiss the prospect of The Wire’s Idris Elba playing 007 after Daniel Craig. Horowitz promptly said sorry for what some perceived to be veiled racism, while Elba gracefully shrugged the comments off, posting a screengrab of Horowitz’s apology on Instagram, captioned with the words “Always Keep Smiling! It takes no energy and never hurts! Learned that from the Street!” Just like Elba did that time Roger Moore said he wasn’t “English-English” enough to be Bond. It would appear that the Luther actor has moved on faster than the rest of us.

Everyone else, it seems, will continue to debate this one for a bit longer. Elba has for the past couple of years been the unfortunate centre-point of a debate regarding whether a black man should play a character who up to now has always been white. As a veritable British institution, James Bond just happens to be a concept that some take very seriously – so seriously that they’re willing to argue that their idea of Bond is the correct one, even if they’re in danger of offending. Anthony Horowitz is guilty of that. Still, it would be rash to declare the author outright racist – inside the controversy echo chamber, one thing that got lost was Horowitz’s proposal in the same interview that another black actor, Adrian Lester, would be a better fit for Bond. His reason being that Lester is “suave” where Elba is “rough”.

It suggests, among other things, that Horowitz was less racist, more clumsy with his words. Also, that the novelist has only a very limited knowledge of Idris Elba’s work. You see, like any great actor, Idris Elba can adapt. To say he’s “rough” or “too street” is to fail to recognise his ability to play all manner of characters, something he’s done throughout a career spanning two decades. Never mind that Elba in real life is smooth, charismatic and confident enough to embody what is presumably Horowitz’s ‘traditional’ idea of Bond: on-screen, Elba’s been a calculating Baltimore drugs kingpin, a morose London copper, an impassioned revolutionary icon and, in his latest project, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts Of No Nation, a menacing West African warlord. Somewhere in there, within the spectrum of a man of such range, there’s a Bond.

But even if Elba – were he cast as Daniel Craig’s replacement – chose to play his version of Bond ‘street’, it still wouldn’t be legitimate cause for uproar. Because the fact is that there is no ‘too street’ for Bond. What Horowitz and people like shock jock Rush Limbaugh, who last year said Bond is “white and Scottish, period”, don’t seem to understand is that James Bond can be – and historically has been – lots of different things. On film, Bond hasn’t been white and Scottish since 1971 (excepting Connery’s turn in unofficial 1983 Bond movie Never Say Never Again). Since then, physically 007 has undergone a radical transformation. From Connery to Craig, Bond has shifted from being a lithe, handsome, dark-haired gentleman standing at 6 ft 2, to a blonde, stocky, 5 ft 10 bruiser with hard, craggy features.

Fans have had to cook up a theory just to make sense of it; said theory being that ‘James Bond’ is merely an MI6 code name, and that a new actor in the role signifies a change in the agent going by the moniker. This would explain why a fresh body steps in whenever ‘James Bond’ visibly becomes too old for such a physical job. It would explain why Bond has changed so much in appearance over the years, and why the red-haired, Steve McQueen-alike Damian Lewis (apparently a current bookies favourite) or the black Idris Elba could feasibly play Bond next. More importantly, it would explain why 007 has never been consistent in terms of character.

For Horowitz to say there’s a ‘too street’ for Bond is to imply there’s only one version of 007. In reality, there have already been six on-screen alone: the borderline sociopathic Connery Bond, the playful and affectionate (he got married!) Lazenby Bond, the archly comedic Moore Bond, the cruel and humourless Dalton Bond, the cold yet sophisticated Brosnan Bond, and the complex, troubled Craig Bond. Horowitz gets one thing right when he says casting is, “not a colour issue”, but he gets it oh-so-wrong when he suggests Bond’s personality is set in stone. Really, this crime of Horowitz’s isn’t racism, but a fundamental misunderstanding of the character he’s been made responsible for.

For Horowitz, Bond is simply “a man who kills people”, a man with “unfortunate attitudes towards women, gays, Jews and foreigners”. That Horowitz protests that Daniel Craig’s ‘doubtful’ 007 is “not Bond” indicates the author’s unwillingness to accept that the character – perhaps not in Horowitz’s literature, but in cinema, at least – has moved on. And not just that, but that the character necessarily must change, and always has. Sean Connery’s conservative misogynist was the Bond for the pre-counterculture era; Timothy Dalton’s chilly sadist was the Bond for the Cold War’s gloomy tail-end; and Daniel Craig’s conflicted antihero is the Bond for a complicated post-9/11 world.

Would Idris Elba playing Bond ‘street’ – whatever that means – really be so wrong for a character that has already been reinvented time and again? Not at all, though we’ll probably never actually see Elba in the role: at 42, Elba is already likely too old to be given the part, considering producers will presumably want to hire an actor they can get more mileage out of after Craig departs. No matter who takes on the role next, though, James Bond will inevitably shapeshift, and will continue to do so as long as the world around him changes. It’s how the character remains relevant. Anthony Horowitz might not be able to see it, but it’s the very reason why Bond has been around long enough to become a British institution.

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