Apparently the internet is in uproar (or at least a mild kerfuffle) over the possibility of a black actor playing Bond … James Bond. While many are enthusiastic about the idea, others, such as English media personality Katie Hopkins, hate it.
I don’t see what the fuss is about.
Occasionally recasting the lead is a franchise tradition. Fans debate who best exemplified James Bond, the man whose enduring essence is that he is an elegant, martini-loving, skirt-chasing, British spy with cool gadgets and a license to kill. White skin is not essential to that role, regardless of what Hopkins and her ilk believe.
Of course, some of the other ideas floated for “representation” would change the character in crucial, and therefore unacceptable, ways. Casting a female as “Jane Bond” would certainly alter the character in essential ways. And given how central “Bond girls” are to the character and to the franchise, the same applies to the idea of a gay James Bond. Likewise, although a pious Bond might be a better role model, he would be much less like James Bond.
Even with a license to kill, there are still rules. As Bond once put it, “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done. Such as, drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit.” Ditto for making James Bond into an intersectional mascot. But a bloke with dark skin could still play an elegant, martini-loving, skirt-chasing, British spy with cool gadgets and a some notches on his Walther PPK. If Hollywood wants to create movies about female or gay or [insert identity category here] 00 agents, there is plenty of space for spin-offs.
The Bond franchise is not a period piece, forever stuck in the age of its origin. It has moved with the times, and so the possibility of the leading man having dark skin is simply the logical product of realistic casting. There are undoubtedly black Brits successfully working as agents in Her Majesty’s real secret service. In all likelihood, there were some back when Ian Fleming created James Bond, but they were unlikely to be written up as the main character of a spy thriller. That it is now culturally possible to imagine Bond as a black man is genuine progress (and it is possible — after all, the British royal family just welcomed a multiracial American).
Hopkins complaint that “Bond is a white guy” shows her inability to separate the essential from that which is not. Many of Bond’s physical attributes have changed between actors; given the racial realities of modern Britain, why should skin color be any different?
Thus, the primary qualification for any actor looking to replace Daniel Craig when he relinquishes the role is the ability to convincingly portray James Bond. Choosing to restrict the role to actors of one race would be a mistake — whether it was done to keep Bond white or to ensure a black James Bond. In either case, the casting would be driven by non-essential characteristics, at the possible cost of passing over a better actor.
However, if the casting is fair, then there will eventually be a nonwhite actor who earns the role of James Bond. It may not happen at the next opening for the role, but it will happen someday. And we should welcome this.
If the character of James Bond is successfully played by a good black actor, it would be a blow against both the identity-politics bean counters and the white supremacists. For both groups, race is essential to personal identity. And both are wrong.
This is not to say that race doesn’t matter. It does. For historical and sociological reasons (sometimes complicated, sometimes brutally simple), it matters, in James Bond’s Britain as well as in America. To pretend otherwise is ahistorical and therefore un-conservative. We know that the sins of the fathers echo down through many generations. And racism is a sin. The past (and too often, present) treatment of race as essential to defining a person, and its use as a justification for injustice, was wrong.
Because of this cultural legacy of wrongdoing, having the character of James Bond portrayed by a black actor would have meaning. It would provide a marker on our cultural movement away from racial essentialism and the oppression of people because of their race.
Which actor plays an iconic British superspy will be only a small part of the road to racial reconciliation, but it would have some value. If a black actor is cast in the role of James Bond, then the race-hustling identity politics types will briefly celebrate and then find something to complain about, white supremacist losers will whine online, and the rest of us can enjoy a (hopefully) good action flick. And then we can all move on, a little more confident that race is not essential to character or identity. The essence of James Bond is not identity politics, but shooting a villain with a spear gun, making a joke, and getting the girl.