Idris Elba, the New James Bond?

Rumours have been abuzz for the last few months over whether Idris Elba will take on the iconic Bond role when Daniel Craig passes down the mantle. I for one am immensely excited and intrigued by the news, although I confess that I’m still waiting on a female Bond. Anything that shifts the role away from the traditional white male paradigm, though, is an immense change for the character and the franchise, and it’s a change that is long past its time; Craig himself suggested that it was time to see a man of colour in the role, for instance.

I’ve been a big fan of Elba ever since I discovered him in Luther, where he’s absolutely superb, and he’s appeared in a whole slew of other things. Excitingly, he sounds like he’s very, very into the idea of playing Bond:

I’d not only get in the cab [to take a meeting with the studio], but I’d take the taxi driver out of the car, hostage. The taxi, jump out while it was moving, jump onto a pedal bike that was just past the door as I got on it, and then get onto a plane—on the wing—land on top of Sony Studios, slide through the air conditioning, and land in the office.

Shifting the Bond narrative with an actor who would be great for the role is a fantastic thing, but Elba notes that his enthusiasm comes with a note of caution. He doesn’t want to be known as ‘the Black Bond,’ and stresses that his goal as an actor isn’t to play Black roles, but simply roles. Much like other actors who belong to marginalised groups, he’s interested in playing fascinating, dynamic characters who aren’t consumed by their identities, and don’t become a complex metaphor for identity politics. It sounds like he, like me, would like to see the Bond role played straight rather than as a complex metacommentary on the race of the actor who’s been cast.

Inevitably, the reception to the character and attitudes about him would change with Elba in the role, and this is a good thing. Viewers should be confronted with a differing Bond, because Bond lives in a different world now; Ian Fleming is gone, and so is the model of espionage that dominated when he was writing. The Cold War is over, and no one knows what lies ahead, precisely, but we do know that it looks very different. Just as Craig’s Bond is much more rough around the edges, much more physical, much more likely to get into fisticuffs and explode on screen with raw power, Elba’s Bond would be a very different man too, one whom I suspect might be more thoughtful and tempered, but with the strong independent streak Bond is famous for.

Casting for the women of Bond in recent years has been open to actors of all races, which is already a shift from the doe-eyed and very, very white women of the early years of the franchise. Some of my favourite women opposite Bond have been women of colour like Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry, though I’d like to see even more representation for women of colour. Especially since the fundamental role of the ‘Bond girl’ has shifted quite radically since the beginning, and these women are not passive objects there as eye candy for viewers, but fully engaged as part of the narrative, in many cases, and every bit as resourceful, sharp, and driven as Bond himself is. Surely the same should apply to Bond too, and supposedly Elba has been in talks to play the role, which suggests this may be more than just idle speculation.

If it is, I suspect some backlash will result, the inevitable consequence of making changes to a beloved franchise in a society rife with unexamined racism. Much as people exploded with rage over the casting of Lucy Liu as Watson, claiming they objected to the gender switch while really harbouring racist thoughts about a Chinese woman in the role, people will be angry about Elba as Bond, furious that a Black man should be offered an opportunity to perform in a traditionally, but not necessarily canonically, white role.

While Bond canon has it that he’s Scottish, and this part of his origins was really played up in Skyfall with Bond’s return to the family manor, we’ve had non-Scottish men in the role. And for that matter, being Black doesn’t preclude being Scottish; in fact, there’s ample historical evidence showing that people of African descent were active in the British Isles long before the modern era, so there’s nothing at all new about a Black Scotsman. There’s no objection on the grounds of continuity or canon1 to casting Elba in the role, which means these things shouldn’t be used as fig leaves by racists opposed to Elba’s casting, but they undoubtedly will be.

Elba has clearly considered the potential backlash to any casting decision placing him in the famous tuxedo, and I hope he doesn’t let it dissuade him from the role. Having to be a trailblazer is a heavy burden to carry, but someone has to take the first step, and Elba would be a mighty fine candidate for it, because he’s so very suited to the role, and I’d love to see more US audiences getting into him. In a franchise with a history of reinventing itself, this seems like a natural evolutionary step.

  1. As though these two things are somehow critical to the franchise.