Will James Bond foil the nefarious forces of homogeneity and bring diversity to the big screen?
Yes, there are rumors that the next James Bond might or could or should be Idris Elba. Elba himself, though, seems to think it’s unlikely he’ll ever wear the tux. Despite much fevered speculation, he hasn’t been in any talks with the franchise.
More importantly, though — if increased representation and diversity on screen is your goal, James Bond just is not the hero to look to. Ian Fleming’s novels could be shockingly racist, and not coincidentally, the film plots are all more or less powered by colonial logic. Bond, the perfect suave cultured Englishman, goes off to some exotic locale, sleeps with the women and kills the men, all in the name of Queen and country. The overall racial, and indeed racist, logic of the films seems to call for a white guy hero — which is perhaps part of the reason why Yaphet Koto, who played Bond antagonist Dr. Kananga in 1973’s Live and Let Die, recently weighed in to say he couldn’t see Elba in the role.
“He cannot be black. Political correctness be damned. James Bond was established by Ian Fleming as a white character, played by white actors,” Koto declared.
Live and Let Die was the single most racist Bond film; it really did rely on Bond’s whiteness, both for offhand jokes and for its overarching central theme that black people are evil and should be killed. Obviously, future Bond films don’t have to be racist and shouldn’t be. Contra Koto, I’d be happy to see Idris Elba as the next Bond, myself.
But at the same time, it’s worth recognizing that in many of these legacy nostalgia properties, whiteness isn’t exactly incidental. Racism is unusually central to Bond, but it’s not an accident that virtually all the major, well-known superheroes of today’s movie mega-franchises are white guys. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Wolverine, were all created 30 to 70 years ago in an industry that was overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. As a result, most of the properties that get turned into films are built around white guys.
Again, there’s been some effort to change that over the years. Spider-Man in the comics has sometimes been black, and there’s some hope that a black Spider-Man might make it to the screen. Michael B. Jordan has been slated to play the Human Torch in an upcoming film; both Marvel and DC have various properties featuring women or men of color in the works. But diversity around the edges doesn’t change the fact that the default is the default.
X-Men: Days of Future Past from last year starred a bunch of white guys and one white woman with several people of color hanging around to get offed as canon fodder. In the gigantic blockbuster The Avengers from 2012, there are heaps of white male heroes, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and then Samuel Jackson standing a little off to the side. History is hard to shake off. When folks have nostalgic enthusiasm for some old superhero, that nostalgic enthusiasm is for the most part focused on some old white guy.
If people want more diverse films, fiddling around the edges of the white guy legacy properties is going to have a limited effect. Instead, maybe, fans and studios could think about pushing for different kinds of big-budget films. Rather than looking to superhero comic books or James Bond to fill the Cineplex, movies could consider cannibalizing other properties.
In particular, film might look to television. The small screen certainly isn’t as diverse as it could be, but next to James Bond or superhero comics or indeed movies in general, it looks pretty good. Elba’s own Luther is apparently being considered for the big screen, as just one example. Lots of other TV shows could make the leap as well. Empire, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Wire and Orphan Black would all, in various ways, be big steps forward for diverse representation, and representation of diverse experiences, in mainstream film. An Orange Is the New Black film would offer, in one swoop, more movie roles for women of color than just about any number of diverse superhero films are likely to.
There are other options as well. Hollywood could draw on blaxploitation cinema, as Quentin Tarantino did with “Django Unchained.” It could look to manga properties such as Sailor Moon or Ghost in the Shell (though that won’t help much if Hollywood insists on casting white actors to play the Asian characters). Or you could develop (gasp!) new series, like the fairly diverse The Fast and The Furious. The excitement about an Idris Elba James Bond makes it clear that people want to see Idris Elba play a suave spy in a big budget action film. There’s no reason that suave spy has to be 007.
People want to see a black James Bond, or a Latina Green Lantern, because they want heroes who look like them. That’s a reasonable and laudable goal. But insisting that those heroes have to be named after, and fill the shoes of, some white guy like James Bond or Green Lantern seems pointlessly limiting and even self-defeating. It’s good to make old characters more diverse. But if you really want diversity, it seems like you need new characters and new stories, as well.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.