Elba. Idris Elba.

In James Bond, Movies on November 20, 2012 at 3:57 am

Have you heard the rumors about a black James Bond? This is old news (as far as the internet is concerned), but while I have seen doubts about the movie-going public’s ability to accept this possibility, I have yet to see anyone discuss the history of filmmakers’ reluctance to cast black men as sexually voracious heroes.

Before I get into my take on this, let’s unpack the history of this rumor.

On October 23rd, The Huffington Post posted an interview with Skyfall cast member Naomie Harris. She’s currently shooting a film with Idris Elba, who is well known for playing Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire or DCI Luther on the BBC series Luther.

In regards to her current cast member, she said, “[Elba] said that he met Barbara Broccoli [James Bond producer] and that it does seem like there is a possibility in the future that there could very well be a black James Bond.”*

The internet took this to mean, “Idris Elba is James Bond!” Surprisingly, the reaction to this I’ve seen from everyone, online and In Real Life, is “Hell yeah!” I was surprised because, while being a London native, Elba is black, and this kind of racially blind casting has been publicly decried by hardcore fans in the past. Case in point: when Elba himself was cast as Heimdall, a Norse god, for the Marvel film Thor, comic nerds and mythology scholars cried foul. However, everyone I’ve come across seems to recognize that Elba, regardless of race, expresses the right combination of coolness, charisma, and danger that is essential for playing secret agent James Bond.

But hold your horses, internet. Neither Elba nor the Broccoli production company has verified this rumor. Also, the current Bond, Daniel Craig, is contracted for two more movies as 007. So your excitement might be a bit premature.

And although the majority of Bond’s audience seems to think the idea is cool,** will mainstream filmmakers think it is viable to cast a black man as a character who is known for his sexual aggressiveness? James Bond travels the world, and has sex with women of every nation, ethnicity, and race, most of them white. Unless they severely limit where Bond travels to in the future, a black James Bond will be having a lot of interracial sex.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Why would this be a problem? I’ve seen all kinds of interracial relationships in movies in the last 20 years.” Sure, but the vast majority of them were between a white man and a black woman. Zoe Saldana, Thandie Newton, and Halle Berry are three actresses that pop immediately to mind as black women who’ve had white male love interests in their films. Halle Berry, in fact, played the love interest for James Bond in Die Another Day.

However, when the leads are a black man and a white woman, the only time a sexual relationship happens between them in mainstream cinema is when the controversy and trouble of the interracial relationship is the point of the movie. Idris Elba, in fact, starred in a movie, Obsessed, in which the physical attraction between him and a white woman was shown to be something that was, not only taboo, but dangerous. On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Pelican Brief, starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts. In the book by John Grisham, the two lead characters have a romantic relationship. Yet this is totally absent from the movie. Honestly, I can’t recall a movie since Shaft (1971) where a black heroic male lead has sex with a white woman.

This leads me to believe that commercial filmmakers see a sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman as something that is still too taboo for most audiences. It’s as if stereotypes of white feminine purity and black male savagery are still in effect in the public imagination. These are tropes that have existed since the beginning of cinema history. They have their cinematic origins in, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) in which the Ku Klux Klan form after a white woman dies hurling herself off a cliff to avoid being, presumably, assaulted by a pursuing black man. Keeping black male and white female leads from having sex in modern movies is the cinematic equivalent of protecting the virginity of white women from the dark, lustful impulses of the Negro.

In light of this, and that Craig is Bond for two more films, I think it’s more likely that Elba is being tapped for a role other than 007. My guess is he may replace Jeffery Wright, who we saw in Casino Royale as CIA operative Felix Leiter. He could also play the Caribbean MI6 agent Quarrel who was seen in Dr. No, but hopefully with Bond treating him as an equal this time instead of his servant.  There’s also the possibility of Elba as a villain and that idea gives me goose bumps almost as much as the idea of him playing Bond does.

But who knows. I could be totally wrong and Elba is the next Bond. Maybe the world is ready. After all, in the ‘60s both Batman and Star Trek had episodes that featured the white male leads kissing a black woman (Catwoman and Uhura, respectively) and despite fear of sponsors pulling out, or stations in the South dropping the show, both shows survived and remain iconic. And let’s not forget the U.S. reelected a black president and Washington State legalized marijuana and gay marriage. Within that context, a black James Bond doesn’t seem that controversial.

*Go here for the full interview

**I haven’t done any actual polling myself. I’m just judging by the reaction I’ve seen.

  1. Really great blog entry! Lots of thought-provoking stuff here. There was a theater in NY City that actually cast the best actor in specific roles, regardless of race. It was called the Greenwich Mews Theater. In fact, the Greenwich Mews Theater is still around, but I don’t know if they kept that casting policy in the current theater. I remember when you wanted to play Sherlock Holmes. I think you would have been brilliant as Sherlock Holmes. One night, while I was rehearsing my cast for PURLIE VICTORIOUS, I had the actors playing Cap’n Cotichipee and Luttliebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins switch roles, just as an exercise. Amazing results: “Luttiebelle” was a better Cap’n Cotchipee than “Cotchipee”! This was in 1967, and I seriously considered changing the casting to make what might have been a stronger point about roles and race relations. But I chickened out. When I was younger, I always wanted to play the male lead in A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the part made famous by Sidney Poitier. Ridiculous, I know, but I had a strong emotional connection to that character. In our current society, we should be much farther ahead on issues related to type casting, but—unfortunately—the public’s views on race haven’t changed near as much as we fantasize they have. It’s really sad when you think about it. Despite what people may assume, today’s casting problems reflect the deeper racism of American society in general.

  2. Actually (you knew someone would “actually” you, didn’t you?), in PROMETHEUS, Idris Elba, playing, arguably, the only heroic character in the movie, has sex with his white, female boss. Race isn’t an issue.

    But, yeah, neither he nor Charlize Theron are the leads in the film. I can’t think of any recent mainstream film in which the heroic black male lead has a romantic relationship with a white female lead so your point stands.

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