In a development online that will surprise absolutely no one, an article in the British tabloid the Daily Star last week about a British spy — based on a snippet of repeated conversation, where no one seems to have contacted the primary source for confirmation — has set off an international firestorm.
The British spy in question was not Christopher Steele, creator of the infamous Trump-Russia dossier. Rather, it was James Bond, a fictional character created during the 1950s by English novelist and former spy Ian Fleming.
According to the Star, film director Antoine Fuqua was told by Bond producer Barbara Broccoli that “it is time” for a black actor to star as 007, and that she is certain “it will happen eventually.”
Cue the excitement, the outrage, the arguments and the 280-character tweetstorms about whether a black actor can, or should, play Bond.
Even actor Idris Elba, the candidate most often mentioned for the role, weighed in with a teasing tweet saying, “My name’s Elba, Idris Elba,” and then walked it back a bit with a follow-up: “Don’t believe the hype.”
As someone who was lucky enough to work on the 007 franchise, I can tell you that none of this is new. As far back as 1994, according to Bond film historian John Cork, Entertainment Weekly proposed that the producers cast Eddie Murphy as Bond, to bring in new audiences and revitalize the franchise. (And on the question of a female Bond — which seems to be floated anew every year or so — the first time I heard it proposed was in 1986, by Kathleen Turner, who wanted to play “Jane Bond.”)
That said, is it time for a black James Bond?
Speaking for myself, and not the franchise, I say: Of course. Why not?
Is it really a stretch of anyone’s imagination to think that, right now, in real life, there’s a handsome, suave and altogether lethal black Brit walking around London, or some exotic den of international intrigue, carrying a Walther PPK and working for MI6?
Wouldn’t it be more surprising — and perhaps worrisome — if there weren’t?
Traditionalists counter that from the very first Bond novel, “Casino Royale” in 1953, Fleming described 007 as a white Englishman, with a Scottish father and a Swiss mother, who went to the ultra-tony Fettes boarding school after having been kicked out of the even tonier Eton. To which I’d respond: Perhaps you guys haven’t noticed, but the films are not locked in the amber of 1953. They’ve changed and adapted to reflect the times — Daniel Craig’s 007 would be lost without his cellphone.
For all the cultural criticism of Bond movies — they’re sexist, colonialist, imperialist, etc. — the films have also had their share of progressive moments, including the casting in 1973 (“controversial” at the time) of the black actress Gloria Hendry as Roger Moore’s love interest in “Live and Let Die,” and introducing Judi Dench — a woman! — as the head of MI6 in the 1995 release of “GoldenEye.”
I realize that I have opened the door here to inevitable questions in the age of vengeful social media: Well, what about a gay Bond? What about a transgender Bond? Can a straight actor play a gay Bond? Should a writer who is cisgender, straight and white be writing about any of this? These cross-examinations have started to feel like reeducation-camp interrogations, wherein no matter what you say, no matter what you agree to, it’s never enough. Sorry, but I decline to play.
Would Elba make a great Bond? Absolutely. He’s a terrific, charismatic actor. For that matter, what about Fuqua, an African-American, as the director? If the Bond producers wanted to break with the tradition of hiring only British passport holders for the position, the guy behind “Training Day” would be a great choice.
In the meantime, last I checked, Craig’s 007 is still on the case, doing an excellent job of fending off the forces of evil hellbent on global world domination, and won’t be retiring to open a bed-and-breakfast in Barbados any time before late 2019.
Until then, dare I say it, there’s nothing to get all shaken and stirred up about.
Bruce Feirstein, a screenwriter and journalist, has written three James Bond films and five 007 video games. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.