Today in What Kind of Fuckery Is This, the author of an upcoming James Bond book, Anthony Horowitz, came under fire for shooting down the possibility of fan favorite Idris Elba as Bond, saying Elba was “too street” to play the superspy. Horowitz has since apologized, saying “street” was on his mind because of Elba’s portrayal of the title character in Luther.
But even if it’s only Luther and not Idris Elba who is “street” in Horowitz’s eyes, that criticism is a particularly strange choice for Horowitz, given Bond’s origins, the success of the current Bond as played by Daniel Craig, and Elba’s popularity among Bond fans of all stripes—including actress Jessica Chastain, who tweeted today to show her support.
James Bond is one of the most malleable characters in Western pop culture—that you can even call Anthony Horowitz a “James Bond author” is a sign of how much the character bends to the prevailing wind.
Bond was created by Ian Fleming in 1953; following Fleming’s death in 1964, the series was continued by a chain of writers, each hoping to make their mark on the Bond mythos. Just as there has been turnover from Bond actor to Bond actor, there has been turnover from Bond author to Bond author. Bond is not an enigma so much as he’s an amoeba, ready to change form according to the needs of his environment. Any man could be Bond—that’s the key to his appeal and that’s why the series has survived for over half a century. The few concrete and unchangeable pillars of his personality—he’s an orphan and he went to Britain’s prestigious boy’s school, Eton—present a wealth of possibilities. If Horowitz can’t picture Bond as someone who is “street,” it only shows his own lack of imagination…and maybe a lack of experience with boarding schools.
Imagination is at the heart of this issue because Bond is a fantasy of masculinity and so his shape shifts depending whose fantasy he is representing. Sean Connery, who played Bond in films throughout most of the ’60s, was the man’s man. With his Scottish brogue and his rakish manner, he could have been described as “street.” Roger Moore was an aristocratic fantasy—which is probably why he hasn’t lingered in the hearts of the public. Craig is in many ways a return to Connery’s fight-dirty smooth talker, but he plays Bond with some emotional baggage and is a bit more sexually ambiguous than previous iterations, more verse top than piggish stud.
Personally, Elba is my favorite of the many names being tossed into the ring as contenders for the next Bond because he brings richness to the screen. He doesn’t speak with the kind of British boarding school accent that actors like Eddie Redmayne have ridden to success in the States. The British film industry is increasingly dominated by the upper class—a fact most notably pointed out by actor James McAvoy, who called for Britain to do more to support the arts for children of lower-class backgrounds. Amid a sea of trust fund legacies like Benedict Cumberbatch, Elba represents a more egalitarian presence.
But the reason that people have latched onto Elba—and not necessarily onto David Oyelowo, another well-respected black actor who was just announced as the voice of Bond in a new audiobook—is that Elba’s bearing is regal. He’s my favorite possibility for the new Bond, but if you were going to talk me out of it, you’d be better off calling him too mature for Bond than you would be calling him too “street.” Elba might not read as part of the entitled class, but the way that he reads onscreen could hardly be described as common man. Physically, he’d be the first Bond to match Sean Connery for sheer size, but it’s his presence—the deep voice he almost never raises, his direct gaze, his walk—that seals the deal.
When you look at Idris Elba, what you see is power. That’s sexy, that’s cinematic, and that’s what would be new about an Elba Bond.
But let’s not pretend that anyone who shoots down Idris Elba as James Bond has considered anything past his skin color. We’ve heard it all before—thug, savage, street, they’re all the same, just euphemisms for saying black will get you in trouble. Anthony Horowitz might claim he was thinking of Luther, but I don’t remember anyone complaining about Daniel Craig being too street when he was cast as Bond, despite his history of playing hustlers in movies like Layer Cake.
Just once I wish these criticisms would come honestly—“I don’t see Bond as black”—so we don’t have to do this dumb dance, pretending to argue about things like accents when what we’re really talking about is white content creators’ inability to push their imaginations beyond a man’s race to see his character. The problem’s not Idris, and it’s not Bond either. It’s you.