The iconic British super-spy from literature and film has been a mainstay in popular culture for 65 years now and is one of the biggest earners on the silver screen. A whole slew of actors have portrayed the character, and as Daniel Craig prepares to take on the role for the final time, questions have been raised as to whom should be cast next.
Whilst this is normal for any transitioning Bond, in recent years people have asked whether the character should be recast as a person of color &/or a woman so as to be more inclusive and reflect the changing nature of modern Britain as well as bringing a progressive streak to the films and, whilst producers are open to the idea, those claiming to be purists (perhaps in more ways than one) took umbrage to the thought of Bond being anything other than a white Alpha-male.
The debate has raged for some time now after leaked emails from Sony studios suggested that Idris Elba, a black British actor of Ghanian and Sierra Leonean descent, was in consideration for the role post-Craig and this opened up people to the idea that if the race of Bond could change then why not the gender as well?
Recently, producer of the films Barbara Broccoli spoke to The Daily Mail (a rightwing newspaper in the UK that is exactly the sort of publication to get itself into a lather over such trivial things), and she was specifically asked about diversifying the lead role once Daniel Craig's time has come to an end. Interestingly, she didn't shoot down the idea of the character being non-white or female but rather said, “anything is possible." It should be noted that this is far from a definitive answer, but she did go on to say:
“These films tend to reflect the times, so we always try to push the envelope a little bit. Anything is possible. Right now it’s Daniel Craig, and I’m very happy with Daniel Craig, but who knows what the future will bring?”
But why does the possibility of recasting 007 cause such a stir and if the character is so outdated that it needs a fundamental shakeup to make it more acceptable in the 21st century, should the franchise not be killed off altogether?
The first James Bond novel was published in 1953 during a post-war period where being progressive was not high on the agenda, and people sought out clear-cut patriots as heroes to defend them against the former scourge of fascism and protect Western ideals from the rising specter of communism. James Bond was just the man to do it with his lothario cock-sureness and unwavering dedication to Queen and Country, but what is important to remember here is that the UK was still scarred from war and clinging onto a faltering empire that it was now too broke to maintain. The image of Bond offered up a view of Britain as always in the right, fighting for what is good and decent whilst still having a world-conquering swagger but, as we know, history and ethics are not as simple as that.
Bond is, first and foremost, an imperialist. He will do whatever it takes to defend Queen, country and Britain's interests. Disregard the murky details of how Britain came upon these interests because, as all ruling powers are, they are inherently benevolent, surely? This is a trait the character has carried with him throughout his many reincarnations and is at the very core of his being, so to delve into the controversy of recasting him as a person of color, we have to look at Britain's complex relationships with race and the rest of the world.
The very notion of old Britain, the British Empire and its imperial standing is a racist one. The idea that a large part of the globe was governed by the 'benevolent' force of the United Kingdom is to suggest that the British knew best and that their way of life could be universally applied and exported (often via force) over these 'poor' and 'backward' non-Europeans. We know this to now be a bigotted and self-aggrandizing (to say the least) approach to international relations, and yet still, reports and surveys consistently show that the majority of Britons still think that the former colonial empire was a good thing.
This seems a fact at odds with a country that is one of the most diverse and socially liberal in Europe but there is an undoubted division that has been lurking beneath the surface of public consciousness in the UK for some time now and has started to be brought to the fore with clear and virulent splits with such issues as Brexit. (N.B. It is at this stage the writer of this piece would like to point out that perhaps they are not the most qualified to talk about such divisions which may be far more obvious and less 'hidden' to others in British society as he is a white, heterosexual male. He thoroughly recommends the book 'Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race' by Reni Eddo-Lodge for those looking for a far more nuanced and informative look at race in Britain.)
Racial divisions are also still prevalent in Britain and whilst they rarely come to such a heated boiling point as they often do in the United States, government figures show that you are still eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police in Britain if you are black than if you are white, three times more likely to be arrested and three times more likely to die in custody.
Returning then to the notion of changing Bond's race, it would undoubtedly change the context around the character. It changes the distinctly European heritage of Bond (Scottish father, Swiss mother although these details could remain perfectly intact with any casting choice) and suggests, at some point, an immigrant history which, more often than not, would completely alter the relationship with the former empire, making for a far darker and more complex backstory to his undying love for it, working for security services that have an institutionally racist streak to them.
It's certainly not unworkable in a film but it sure as hell would put a spin on the self-assured nature of Bond if he were pulled over by the metropolitan police for being an ethnic minority driving a high-end sports car.
Regarding gender though, would the character be fundamentally different if they were to become a woman? His unswerving masculinity affords bond the world and his portrayal of a hard-drinking, ladies man certainly harks back to a 20th-century notion of men being men and women being objects to be wooed. Sure, there are some undeniably kick-ass women in the Bond franchise, but all fall under his spell and are eventually bedded to be then cast aside at a moments notice. He is so sexually aggressive that in films such as Octopussy and Skyfall his character practically physically forces himself upon women.
There is absolutely no reason why a female character couldn't do just the same, and it is only pre-conceived notions of masculinity and femininity that would change that but if we are truly devoted to changing the way we view gender in modern society then maybe seeing a female Bond on screen doing exactly what the character has always done would be an excellent opportunity although relegating men to a level of just being objects of desire is also problematic. Perhaps then we should have a lesbian or gender-fluid lead?
Charlize Theron did a brilliant job in her Bond-esque role for Atomic Blonde and showed just how this could work, leading her to be tipped for the role. We've seen Bond's hard-nosed boss 'M' change from male to female and back again with great success so why not the spy himself?
But perhaps, just perhaps, if we are to move away from the character that Ian Flemming Wrote James Bond as, which may actually be a good thing, then maybe we shouldn't call them James Bond as, for better or for worse, they are no longer really adhering to the writer's original character.
So should we just kill the franchise off altogether? Heck, even in 1995's Goldeneye Bond was referred to as “a relic of the Cold War" for his attitudes so maybe, as he becomes even more self-aware, it's time to put him to bed. We need more diverse and progressive casting, and stories on our screens and recasting is one way forward but maybe having the whole franchise step aside would be just as welcome.
The problem then is that it doesn't quite send the same message as recasting an icon in the mold of a bold new era by letting him shuffle off into retirement and starting from scratch.