With this online art community, we have a unique opportunity to connect with our kindred. We must avail ourselves of this experience, for it may never come again.
Recently, rumors have surfaced concerning who would be the next contestant on-- err-- I mean, the next actor to get to play James Bond in the historic film franchise, once Daniel Craig moves on. A few of my friends were most excited by the prospect of Idris Elba taking up this auspicious mantle. I found myself alone in my dissenting opinion, and I thought I'd share the explanation of my perspectives with you here (edited in part), inviting open and mature discussion.
"Yes, I heard about this, and for a good friend at work, this seems to be his wet dream. As much as I like Elba, I don't like this idea about him playing 007. My friend and I have debated our reasons. Here are mine (as related over on facebook):
- My dissent has to do with the obvious: race. Even though it should always be about the best actor for any given role, the initial controversy stirred up by a black James Bond would distract too much from the character and story, and it could foment debates about politically-correct attitudes regarding casting. A whole lotta yadda yadda... Secondly, I think it could warp the narrative stream through which Bond customarily flows. The women, the espionage... Fleming's 007 assassin was a ladies man who could infiltrate an enemy's lair as much as a femme fatale's boudoir. Unless most of the cast is ethnically mixed, remaining inconspicuous becomes an issue. Finally, I feel that a black actor whose star is on the rise should never settle for a role previously inhabited by so many Caucasians. While I do recognize the implications of acceptance, I can't help but balk at the hand-me-down nature of it all. Why not let Elba continue to carve out his own niche in cinema history, rather than forever be saddled with being the one who was first to play an ethnic version of a white man's legend? He would have broken through the wrong color barrier. And as Bond lives on and on, should we next expect a female version, followed by a Latino, an Asian, an Indian? A Martian? ... Agent 00UFO? "The name is B'onnd. J'aimz B'onnd."
Maybe my use of the term "hand-me-down" comes off a bit crass. Granted, roles exist for actors to play. Honestly, ever since Sean Connery, every actor to become the new Bond has been given a "hand-me-down" part to play. And yet, giving it now to a black man may seem progressive, but it's also the ultimate exploitation. If this is good enough for Elba, then may God bless him. But if he's really so good, I just think he deserves to make his mark in a pure way, rather than stepping into someone else's legacy, helping to line the pockets of the Broccoli family.
This whole situation also illuminates the severe lack of positive fictional role models for black actors to choose from. Instead, must they aspire to one day play the lead character unctuously proffered by white folks? Come on, son. We deserve better than that. I mean, how many roles initially created by black folks are any white actors chomping at the bit to play? Food for thought.
As ever, your mileage may vary.
I received a response from another very good friend, via e-mail, which essentially took me to task on this matter. He invoked Jackie Robinson, and said that if Morgan Freeman can play God, then Idris Elba can play Bond. He mentioned the lucrative opportunity that is hard to refuse in the tough world of cinematic acting, to which I agreed. He went on to admonish me against separatism, pointing to a future where anyone could go see a Bond movie, and not think twice about the character's race or gender... that in this bright Utopia, such things would have become passι, of no account. He applauded the prospect of any controversy which Elba's Bond casting might incite, stating that such discussion is necessary for growth. He expressed his frustration with the status quo, as most black actor roles are relegated to the sidekick, the comic relief, the sage minstrel, and the hapless victim. Stereotypes. He lauded Elba in "LUTHER," but said that 007 is the bigger, better stage for this brilliant and charismatic actor.
I do not
disagree with many of those points. I am fortunate to have friends possessed of solid judgement. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to elaborate my viewpoints in this way:
"Well, there are certainly different ways of looking at it, and I don't claim to know which is best, or which is right. I can only express my point of view as part of the discussion. We must agree to disagree beyond that.
But I'd like to respond to a few of your points. I would agree that, with all the difficulties actors face in getting work, Elba might justifiably leap at the chance to play a character of such successful and prestigious pedigree. However, I was expressing my misgivings on more theoretical grounds.
Yes, if it were possible to journey back in time, I would definitely read everything I've said to Jackie Robinson, and to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well. I think they would smile in understanding, acceptance, and pride. This is my opinion, such as it is.
The baseball analogy seems incongruous. Still, I might adjust it to reflect that the overall game is Hollywood, not the James Bond film franchise itself, and Jackie Robinson then serves as a pioneer for black Americans in that field of the dramatic arts. Robinson would be evening out the playing field for all races to act on the big screen, but he was not assuming the identity of anyone but himself (within the analogy). He was not wearing some other man's name and number as he bravely began to forge a new path in a formerly exclusive sport. This might also apply to the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, who helped open the way for racial equality in aviation.
I don't see any direct correlation between your Freeman/God analogy and what I was saying about Elba playing Bond, although I appreciate the tangential connection, which actually illustrates my position (more on this later). While we all recognize the controversial decision and subsequent reaction to the casting of Morgan Freeman as God in BRUCE ALMIGHTY, or even as the President of the United States in DEEP IMPACT, these instances were more akin to the groundbreaking roles played by the great Sidney Poitier. Mr. Poitier broke through the proper barriers that allowed for Elba to even be considered for James Bond. The difference is that Poitier demonstrated how blacks deserved equal status in society and in Hollywood based on their own individual merits, and as a people. But the characters Poitier played were not colorless every-men. They were not shoe-horned characters bereft of distinction, who could be spun around in a revolving film-franchise door to be played by any actor who might garner sufficiently stunning headlines. They were upstanding, dignified black men, triumphant in their ethnicity, a much bolder choice in that time. Neither were they roles originally conceived as white characters now handed out to a black actor in some grandstanding gesture towards civil rights. In fact, I wonder what Poitier might have thought if ever he were offered a legacy role such as James Bond. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think he would have politely declined, recognizing it for what it is, not as a step forward. Perhaps he would smile more broadly at being offered the role of Othello. I don't know.
On the subject of racism-- I believe that every one of us who is tainted by societal programming has some measure of prejudice within. It feels almost automatic. I think it really becomes a problem based on degree, and whether or not we act on this ugliness, instead of being open-minded concerning change. It is true that more and more races are intermingling, and this is a beautiful thing. In my own family, I have a sister-in-law who is of Mexican descent, and a brother-in-law who is Caucasian. Still, I don't think the over-arching purpose is to achieve an ethnic or cultural homogeneity. I don't believe that's the cause for which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting, a color blind society. Whenever I hear white folks trying to be beneficent by proclaiming that they don't see racial color, but they see only the person, inwardly I scoff, resisting the urge to correct their gentle lie. Maybe they're sincere in their meaning. Maybe. But, to the contrary, I think it's more a matter of seeing the wondrous variety and richness of diverse culture present in the world around us. We aren't supposed to ignore it! Embrace it! When there is attraction between people of different races, it's okay that he first noticed her fair skin and blue eyes, while she was enamored with his darker complexion, and full lips (or vice versa). The underlying depth of love encompasses each individual's personal character traits, of course, but that initial physical attraction to contrast of race and culture need not be suppressed, if this was indeed the catalyst. And in interracial coupling, I don't believe the point is to blend away all that was good in the two disparate heritages. Embrace the differences, celebrate them, preserve them. Don't ignore them. This would be just as repugnant as allowing diversity to evoke fear and hatred. Race, color, and ethnicity should and must matter in a positive way.
In this vain, I don't favor the notion that eventually, in either a far-flung or not-too-distant future, a parent could read the story of Robin Hood to a child, and have the characters be depicted as black simply because the wave of political correctness has washed away all distinction, and you can select whatever version of the classic story you prefer: ethnic, or original flavor. On the screen, the latest remake of STAR WARS features a black Luke Skywalker, and on the stage, OLIVER TWIST casts a young Latino in the title role. Ostensibly, this all appears miraculously open-minded, and progressive. I can't help but see it as warped. It's the wrong road. No, thanks.
I think it has to do with folklore. Folklore may have tenets, characters, and narrative structure that is common to a variety of cultures. However, inherent in each culture comes a specificity that makes that folklore unique. This is the cultural identity, and it can be important on different levels. Art is intertwined with folklore, and it is most often a product of its era. The story of "John Henry" centers around the beginning of the Industrial Age, and the poignancy of the tale is derived from the fact that John Henry is black. He is a black man going up against the advancing power of the machine, of progress, and the diminishment of his livelihood, and of his relevance. To adapt this story for the screen, casting a white man-- it would lose so much meaning. If we are to apply a standard one way, then the reverse should also be true.
James Bond is modern-day folklore. Author Ian Fleming created the British master spy/assassin during the Cold War era, drawing from his experiences and associations in Naval Intelligence. The megalomaniacal villains were cartoonish representations of Communist dictators, and others behind the Iron Curtain of nations. I've always felt that Bond has become an obsolete character, and that his films should only continue as period pieces. It is only through the persistent exploitation of this popular character that he has become an icon warped to comic book proportions, agelessly spanning generations and undergoing an evolution of purpose. There is good and bad in this. The good is obvious. Profit. The bad is that, as the character continues to transform, becoming symbolic, his meaning slowly becomes diluted along with all specificity. Again, folklore encompasses specificity. And art identifies its era as much as it helps to define it. When you take these things away, allowing commerce to recklessly and relentlessly mold iconic characters of folklore for marketing consumption, there is an insidious tragedy at work. Casting Idris Elba as James Bond does a disservice to the character, to the folklore, as well as to Elba himself, in a subtle way. Ironically, it also does a disservice to racially progressive thinking, even if most may see it as a triumph. Better for Elba to develop a character and film franchise of his own, and have THAT be widely accepted and applauded, than to "put on somebody else's shiny coat." I haven't seen "LUTHER," but I understand that Elba has reportedly expressed interest in taking that character to the big screen.
Now, I need to make the point that I am not promoting separatism. I don't see much merit in blacks making films exclusively for blacks, or any other group doing similar. That is severely limiting, myopic in vision, and ultimately it preserves racism. I am also disappointed by the appropriation of folklore across the racial divides. THE WIZ is an example of this, as an ethnic adaptation of L. Frank Baum's THE WIZARD OF OZ. The intentions are benign, as the producers sought to bring the magical story to inner city kids in a more identifiable way. I can't help but note the accidental hypocrisy in this, as those who promote a color-blind society do so by forcing changes in their children's mythology so that they only see themselves. This underlines the need for OTHER, newer mythology that better satisfies both the needs of unique cultures as well as the general population. Alongside an unaltered version of CINDERELLA on the shelf, there needs to be JOHN HENRY, and ZORRO, and so much more.
Funny enough, there is a "Black Hollywood." And, believe it or not, many of the films coming out of there are quite successful in their own right, produced by Spike Lee, Ice Cube, the Wayans Bros, and Tyler Perry, among others. These often subsist on the ethnic stereotypes which I mostly find distasteful, and yet the market for this remains steady and strong, crossing the same racial lines as hip hop, and rap music. Exploitation abounds, but at least in cases such as these, some of the bounty is reaped by people of color.
Basically, I see it this way-- There are all types of characters and stories throughout history. Some of these characters are generic in that they can be endlessly adapted, played by actors of all diverse races and cultures. They may be timeless, with a relevance that crosses all boundaries. Then there are those characters that only resonate from a folkloric specificity, and I feel that these should only be adapted. The characters and settings are not racially interchangeable. One example of this would be Akira Kurosawa's THE SEVEN SAMURAI, which John Sturges adapted as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. James Bond was specifically created as a white British character in Cold War Europe. To suddenly cast a black actor in that role is less about being racially progressive than it is about garnering publicity, and making an outdated political statement. I would rather see a global film industry where a character can be created without ethnic stereotypes, and the producers feel free to cast a black, Asian, or Latino just because they want to, and that character is the lead. But at the same time, those producers will still feel free to cast other lead roles corresponding to a specific ethnicity where appropriate and respectful. Racial cross-casting is usually a stunt, and it's a stunt I believe the world has out-grown (or it should have by now). "LUTHER" may have been conceived as a color-less character, although I read that his creator was influenced by Sherlock Holmes, and Columbo. Therefore, Luther is a sort of adaptation, and he is not a black Sherlock Holmes, nor a black Columbo.
Thoughts? ... Anyone...? ... Anyone...? ... ...Bueller...?