LICENSE TO CHANGE

Cast Idris Elba as James Bond Already

After a slew of developments, the search for Daniel Craig’s successor heightens. Why making Idris Elba the first black Bond is the cultural moment the franchise—and we—need.

Michael Buckner

Daniel Craig really doesn’t want to be James Bond anymore.

According to The Daily Mail—so maybe channel dearly departed M and take this with a healthy amount of wry skepticism—the actor turned down a £68 million offer (that converts to roughly $100 million) to return to the 007 franchise for two more films.

Apparently not even enough cash to furnish his own fleet of Aston Martins was enough for the increasingly grouchy Craig—who recently huffed, puffed, and scowled his way through the Spectre promotional tour—to globetrot in a devastatingly tailored suit two last times.

That’s OK, though, as a red carpet’s worth of Britain’s most genetically blessed males are more than eager to obtain a license to kill. (Make Tom Hiddleston’s martini a double for gamely weathering the journalism industry-wide mandate to ask him about stepping into Bond’s designer shoes.)

Others don’t need to campaign so aggressively. The world’s Bond fans are doing the legwork for them. Enter Idris Elba, who has been appropriately dubbed “The People’s Bond.”

But with the reports, as anonymously sourced as they may be, that Craig is so done with the franchise that he can’t even be bought back into it—thus staying true to such jolly sentiments as saying he’d rather “slash my wrists” than make another Bond film—oddsmakers, dream casters, and 007 enthusiasts are in a tizzy nailing down who will be the next actor in the role.

And, with such a public demand for Elba to take on the role, thus becoming the first black James Bond, the unasked question is: What will happen if he does?

Craig’s most Bondian move yet—proving so resistant to coercion that not even an ungodly amount of money could sway him—comes not even a week after some other major 007 casting news: Bookmakers suspended betting on who will play the next James Bond after a flurry of bets tipped the odds overwhelmingly in Tom Hiddleston’s favor.

Momentum for Hiddleston had been building with each successive charming interview the debonair Brit gave about his desire to play the role, eventually exploding with Hiddleston’s performance in the limited series The Night Manager.

The slick spy thriller essentially doubled as a six-episode Bond audition for Hiddleston, who at one point, detonating minds everywhere, gestures to the barkeep and, ordering a drink, remarks: “Excuse me, sir, could I have a vodka martini, please?”

Then, reports that Hiddleston was spotted meeting with director Sam Mendes and franchise producer Barbara Broccoli served as the catalyst for the levee-breaking betting spree. (Hiddleston has denied that such a meeting took place.)

“There is no smoke without fire, and following the big gamble on Tom Hiddleston in the last 24 hours, we’ve had no choice but to pull the plug on the market,” Nicola McGeady, spokesperson for British bookmaker Coral, said. “Earlier in the year there was a gamble on Idris Elba and Damian Lewis, but nothing has come close to the recent gamble on Hiddleston.”

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Hiddleston would make an excellent James Bond. He’s dashing, fills out a suit, has a piercing gaze capable of inducing mass swoons when wielded just right, and is as believable bedding babes as he is blowing up bad guys.

Damian Lewis, a top contender best known for his roles on Homeland and Billions, would also make an excellent Bond. He’s dashing, fills out a suit, has a piercing gaze capable of inducing mass…you see where I’m going with this. Also potentially excellent bonds: Tom Hardy, Aidan Turner, and, yes, Elba, the blokes who round out the odds-on favorites.

It might be a cop-out or even construed as a slight to Ian Fleming’s cherished hero to suggest that a half-dozen men would be equally suited to portraying an icon. But at the risk of downplaying the importance of casting the Bond replacement, any of these men would do formidable, blockbuster-making, cash-grabbing, fan-satisfying work in the role.

So why not make the casting of the role actually important?

It would be hard, frustratingly so, to divorce the casting of Idris Elba—an actor with equal parts charisma, gravitas, and sex appeal who, based on those attributes alone, fits the Bond character description to a T—from the reductive designation as “the black Bond.”

That truth is many things. It’s unfortunate. It’s understandable. It speaks to the monumental moment this would be in the ever-important push to normalize diversity and increase opportunity and visibility for minority performers. And it speaks to our reluctance to embrace the reality of that initiative as much as we embrace the spirit of it: we might celebrate Idris Elba for being the first black Bond. But we’ll also confine him to that label.

The weight of it all is something that Elba has expressed conflicting feelings about. That he didn’t actually throw his hat in the ring himself—that it was the will of the people that turned his possible casting into a global obsession—suggests not only an enthusiasm for but also willingness to accept his revolutionary casting.

But the barrage of questions he’s faced about it and the importance of it has left him, it seems, exasperated.

There was perceived glee over the idea of being the first black Bond when he was asked about it last fall. “If human beings want to know if there’s any connectivity between all of us, the one thing I’ve heard around the world universally is that, ‘You’ll be great at James Bond!’” Elba told Variety in September. “If it should happen, that’s proof there’s connectivity amongst human beings. If everyone wants something, they can make it happen. That would be true.”

But that morphed into an irritation when he was grilled about it the following winter, telling The Telegraph, “Can we not?” when asked to talk about it: “Because it feels like I’m campaigning, and I’m not,” he said. “At first it was harmless—oh I know, wouldn’t it be great?—and now it’s started off racial debates. I’m probably the most famous Bond actor in the world, and I’ve not even played the role. Enough is enough. I can’t talk about it anymore.”

Predictable ugliness sprouted like weeds from the conversation. Author Anthony Horowitz, who wrote the new James Bond novel Trigger Mortis, said Elba is “probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond. Is it a question of being suave? Yeah.”

Some have made the rudimentary argument that being white is part of the character’s specific makeup, and has been for decades. Others have, less delicately, argued that Bond’s Britishness is an equally integral part of that makeup, and that a black Bond directly questions what it means to be British.

There’s been the suggestion that Elba’s casting would be “token,” which is an unsavory thought. And people have questioned if Bond’s more morally questionable acts—his killing and womanizing—would read more differently if they were performed by a black actor. I’d say that’s an unsavory thought, too.

It would be a shame for Elba, an actor who could land the role on the strength of an audition alone, to be dragged through all of this because he’s the “first.” But the sad reality is that backlash, racism, outrage, boycotts, petitions, and cries of ruined childhoods and tarnished legacies are inevitable.

Look at the response to John Boyega being cast in Star Wars, or even the reaction to Donald Glover possibly becoming the first black Spider-Man, for proof of that.

But you need a “first” to face all of that in order for it to eventually dissipate. I’m not offering Idris Elba to the wolves. I’m acknowledging that the wolves exist, and that they only go away when someone powerful enough arrives to break up the pack.

An optimist might look at the cultural conversation about diversity in Hollywood and opportunity at the top and surmise we’re at a tipping point. It’s the awareness of the sad state of affairs, the call to arms, and even the movement against it that is driving us to that tipping point, and Idris Elba could help carry us over.

Watching the casting notices trickle in for Marvel’s Black Panther movie has been almost a religious experience to some. Reports of varying credibility have linked Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, and John Boyega to the film, which will be directed by Ryan Coogler and feature the first black superhero in a lead role in a Marvel film, to be played by Chadwick Boseman.

It’s a glorious contrast to the otherwise despicable state of diversity in blockbuster films. As Kyle Buchanan eloquently wrote in a suitably mad-as-hell piece for Vulture, there’s a baffling trend in Hollywood to cast the industry’s most talented actors of color in big-budget movies, but then hide their faces behind unrecognizable makeup, costume, and CGI.

Nyong’o played an orange alien in Star Wars and a wolf in The Jungle Book. Paula Patton is a green half-human in Warcraft. Zoe Saldana is a rainbow of colors but her natural one in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avatar franchises, and Elba himself has four major studio films scheduled this year—but you won’t see his face in any of them.

It’s not just #OscarsSoWhite anymore. It’s #HollywoodSoWhite. It’s always been, and franchises—the showcases for rising talent and star power that breed opportunity, visibility, and change—are the whitest.

The reason that Daniel Craig’s stretch of Bond films reinvigorated the franchise was because of how expertly he and collaborator Sam Mendes rebranded its tone, modernizing the increasingly stale franchise. It’d be crude to suggest that casting Elba, or another actor of color, would be a response to any sort of current trend. It’s the rock-and-a-hard-place: It will be impossible to separate his casting from the assumption that it might be.

But as with Craig—and Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton before them—the proof is in the performance. And please, find me someone who questions whether Elba is capable of giving a performance that’s both shaken and stirred.