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A Black James Bond: Advancement or Albatross?

03/29/2015 10:52 EDT | Updated 05/29/2015 05:59 EDT
Kevork Djansezian via Getty Images
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Actor Idris Elba attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

His name is Bond.

James Bond. 

Or, how about Tyrone Bond? 

The fictional Secret Service agent for the British MI6 has captivated audiences for half a century. Bond is also known by his code number, 007.

Writer Ian Fleming created a character in his own image: Caucasian, male, neutral-looking enough to blend into the décor as an international spy.  

"I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, 'James Bond' was much better than something more interesting, like 'Peregrine Carruthers'. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure -- an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department."
- Ian Fleming, James Bond creator

Fleming wrote a family background for Bond: his parents were Andrew Bond of Scotland and a Swiss Monique Delacroix. Indeed, James Bond was white. All 23 Bond flicks have been loyal to the author's vision: all six James Bond actors have been white.  

Until now.

COMING SOON TO A THEATRE NEAR YOU: A BLACK BOND?

Rumours have been swirling about a black James Bond for years. If the leaked 2014 memo from Sony Entertainment is accurate, consummate Afro-British actor Idris Elba is being considered for the role. There is no question that Elba has the talent required to incarnate the famous MI6 character. But there's one intrinsic characteristic Elba will never acquire -- a European extraction. 

 

The mere suggestion of a melanin metamorphosis ‎drew the ire of former Bond actor Roger Moore,  James Bond purists‎ and well-known American bigots. (The latter two are considered mutually exclusive). ‎

Some fans expressed discomfort with a blonde Bond when Daniel Craig took on the role in 2005.  Unlike race, hair colour is a trait easily altered by colouring dye, thus rendering futile any comparisons between the blonde Bond and a plausible black Bond.

OFF-COLOUR CLOAK

RaceBending.com, an international grassroots organization which advocates for underrepresented groups in entertainment media, explores racial alterations in Hollywood films. The term "race bending" refers to situations where a movie studio changes the race or ethnicity of a character -- notably allowing a Caucasian actor to play a role which should have gone to a person of colour. 

Over the 20th century, Hollywood executives deemed blackface, redface, brownface and yellowface as legitimate substitutes for African-American, Amerindian, Latino and Asian actors, respectively. Even lucrative stunt-double jobs for minorities went to whites. Bill Cosby played a role in upending the blackface stunt double scheme in 1965.  

 

In an upcoming documentary called Painted Down, Bill Cosby recounts his discomfort while watching his Caucasian stunt double being painted black. The I Spy actor persuaded the TV show's producer: "You can save your money on makeup, because I know some guys I grew up with in the projects who will do that."

‎When Hollywood wasn't wiping out work opportunities for non-white actors, they simply recast racial-minority characters as whites in blackface.

That's how John Wayne won the role of  Asian Genghis Khan in "The Conqueror" (1956), why blue-eyed Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Afro-Egyptian pharaoh  Cleopatra (1963), and why Jesus Christ    always seems  to be portrayed with blue eyes, without regard to historical or ethnographic accuracy. 

In recent years, Angela Jolie played an Afro-European woman in "A Mighty Heart" (2007),  Latina Zoe Saldana blacked up and donned a kinky wig to play the legendary singer Nina Simone ("Nina", 2015). Ridley Scott's latest film "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is set in Ancient Egypt, in an African's empire. Irresponsible casting rendered all the lead roles to white actors whilst delegating villain and servant roles to people of colour.   ‎

 

Closer to home in Montreal, where elites still publicly defend blackface, the Théâtre du Rideau Vertemployed a white actor to play hockey star P.K. Subban in a 2014 end-of-year "revue" show.

HOLLYWOOD'S BAD HABIT

Hollywood has a longstanding habit of whitewashing people of colour and eliminating minorities' screen time by allowing white actors to play their parts. The system invariably favours Caucasian actors. Would a black James Bond be the first time a role meant for a white actor is bestowed upon a person of colour?  

Precedents such as these provide fodder for bigots to silence future dissenting voices. Every Halloween, "White Chicks" (2004) is cited to defend blackface. The comedic film depicts two African-American men moonlighting as white women.  It has become the favourite "go to" excuse for 21st century blackface.

Mike Le of RaceBending.com  believes people who think of themselves as "post-racial" will find a way to twist this theatrical racial reversal, arguing  "with this particular event, you're no longer allowed to complain about racism."

After the Emancipation Proclamation, people said "You're not allowed to complain because we freed the slaves."

But Le still thinks there should be a black James Bond because "racists will always be racist."

While Le's point of view has merit, there is a contingent of concerned African-Americans who recoil the idea of giving autocrats a rope -- until they can ascertain who will ultimately be hanging from it.