James Bond is black. At this point, he may as well be. The court of public opinion seems to have decided that Idris Elba will be the first black Bond(TM), which is probably a little awkward, given how consistently Mr Elba has stated the exact opposite. But I think what's missing from this discussion is a look at how the Bond character has been (and continues to be) defined by context and popular attitudes. In other words, the question shouldn’t be whether our times are ready for a black Bond, but whether Bond is ready for our times.
The idea of black Bond, and of Mr Elba taking on the role, has been around since 2010. If it wasn’t for the typically yawnsome rebuttals from indignant ‘traditionalists’ (or, you know, racists), the discussion may have ended there. Instead, what started as a bit of fun speculation has morphed into a sort of absurdist anti-racist campaign. Much like with the fall-out over the Ghostbusters remake, this backlash has made progressives even more determined – seemingly against the actor’s own wishes. No, Mr Elba, I expect you to be Bond.
But the problem is not who plays the character, but rather what the character represents. James Bond was always a form of wish-fulfilment for Britain, particularly British men. Introduced in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale, James Bond became a hit with a post-war generation who not only had a taste for espionage, but an acute awareness of the country’s crumbling relevancy on the world stage.
As more people gained access to consumer goods and even foreign travel, James Bond came to represent a form of Britishness that was at once backward-looking to Imperial supremacy, but also modern, worldly, and hedonistic. As Dominic Sandbrook notes in his book, Never Had It So Good: “James Bond was the emblem of modern affluence, living a life of conspicuous consumption, luxury and sexual licence, surrounded by first-class airline tickets, champagne bottles and Turkish cigarettes.” The idealised image of British masculinity – suave and powerful, dispatching foreign baddies with silly names and bedding exotic women with even sillier ones.
It’s not difficult to see why such a character would be, to employ a favoured adjective of our current moment, ‘problematic’. Beyond the obvious racial insensitivities that have long been a staple of the franchise, one wonders if a character so defined by womanising chauvinism can exist in the era of #MeToo. From sexist insults to actual rape, James Bond has never been a paragon for respectful relations with women. As the entertainment industry continues to fight the fires from wave on wave of assault allegations, it’s not surprising that filmmakers should be so keen to distance themselves from the misogyny of this character, least of all its leading star.
Despite recent protestations, the attempt to address sexism in Bond is not new. Perhaps indicative of the burgeoning political correctness of the 90s, the 1995 return of Bond in Goldeneye saw a woman (and not just any woman – Dame Judi Dench) take on the role of M who, in her first scene, admonishes 007 for being a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur – a relic of the Cold War.’
Not that it matters of course, as not long after this moment of redress, Bond is back to undress, namely the ‘Bond girl’ Natalya and the femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (hurr geddit?). It’s as if the filmmakers believed that, by acknowledging Bond’s sexism early on, they could avoid criticism of his continued, consequence-free escapades. This confused, half-arsed, and ultimately insincere approach has persisted to the present day – but is proving harder to sustain.
The James Bond we know does not belong in this era. He just won’t fit. Studios may attempt to ensure the biggest box office returns by trying to please both feminists and the Sun readership, but their attempts will only alienate both audiences. Put simply, it does not matter how much agency the female characters are given, or how often Bond is punished for his shortcomings. It does not even matter that he gets affirmative consent. The fundamental essence of the character is the same – white, male, chauvinist – and as long as that stays the same, any attempt to ‘clean-up the franchise’ will ultimately fail.
Before we can have a black Bond, a female Bond, or any other kind of Bond, we first need to rethink our relationship with the character – who he is, where he comes from, and what he represents. Filmmakers can keep trying (and failing) to reconcile the character with the modern era, but they are missing an incredible opportunity for reinvention at what is a crucial moment in our national, social, and cultural history.
James Bond reflects the ideals of the popular imagination. He is, in many ways, the man that men have longed to be. He is the result of post-war anxieties about nationality, consumerist appetites and a Western, male-dominated culture that saw women as commodities and foreigners as devious and degenerate. But what if he came to reflect something else?