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» Idris Elba as James Bond: A License to Thrill

October 15, 2018

Idris Elba as James Bond: A License to Thrill

The internet of course is a thing of wonder.

The cacophonous din which can be created by the magnification of opinions and ideas bouncing around its various echo-chambers can also be marshalled for both good and bad. On the one extreme the mob’s schadenfreude-driven propensity for public shaming and online bullying is a hallmark of today’s social-media-scape: just ask Justine Sacco.

On the other popular uprisings like those of the Arab-spring and Ukraine (for better or worse) can be galvanised through the self-same online echo-chamber and idea-ratification machine.

There exist hives online; veritable bot-nets whose focus can be carefully crafted and shifted through blog posts, tweets and video spots (both traditional & YouTube/Video). Every week a new agenda is flung into the arena and picked apart, grabbed at, shredded, built, rebuilt and consensus of some sort is reached followed by action:

– A confederate flag is brought down in North Carolina

– The verdict of a police case dismissal is reviewed after a video is posted online

– Someone is fired

– Someone is hired

– etc…

One of the most interesting of these events recently, specifically in the realm of film-making, was the greenlighting of the Deadpool movie. With seemingly every comic book ever penned getting it’s time in the sun (they actually made an Ant-Man movie let’s not forget) the iconic Marvel character known for his wisecracking ways and breaking the 4th wall with self-referential humour, almost had his shot at the big screen.

Then the movie hit pre-production hell and the studio looked like it was going to pull the plug. Test-footage was mysteriously leaked to the internet with an all-CGI Ryan Reynolds bringing the iconic character to life in hilarious (and gloriously R-rated) fashion. Netizens the world over erupted in unbridled joy, essentially demanding that the movie be made from that point on. The studio acquiesced and the rest as we oft-say is history – release date penned for 12 February 2016.

It’s possible we’re seeing shades of a similar event happening with the James Bond franchise.

I recently saw and commented on a Facebook post asking the question “Why do we want to see a Black Bond?” It garnered a number of responses and triggered fascinating and at times highly emotive debate with a myriad of views being expressed from why black people aren’t creating their own fictional heroes and attempting to appropriate existing ones to the decision not going far enough and pining for a “Bond…Jane Bond” moment in the franchise.

What we’re experiencing does appear akin to the Deadpool treatment. Before December 2014 there’d been nary a whisper from audiences about the possibility of a person of colour taking on the famous James Bond role. Top of the movie-going zeitgeist at that time in fact was Sony Picture’s decision not to show The Interview after suffering an embarrassing and large-scale hack with added threats from the hackers.

The studio was also reeling from the release of gigabytes of internal emails and memos to the public which seemed to suggest systemic pay inequalities between male & female employees among other issues stressing the firm’s “fixers”. In one email however studio exec Amy Pascal wrote ‘Idris should be the next bond’.

Fast-forward to the present. Although a slightly less romantic interpretation of the Deadpool incident could be that it was the studio engaging in guerrilla marketing & research with a carefully orchestrated “leak.” I prefer the version where it was a genuine leak and public reaction gave the studio faith to proceed with their gamble.

With Bond then, we know there was no orchestrated injection of the idea of not just a person of colour playing Bond but Idris Elba playing him. However the information has gotten to the public, the internets have it and the echo-chambers are ringing. The views have been kaleidoscopic, as would be expected and the aforementioned Facebook comments were ultimately a microcosm of the themes that have characterised the different arguments.

[In the pro corner]

James Bond should in fact be a woman; James Bond is no longer set in the 50s it’s present day and as such a black person James Bond is both relevant and topical; James Bond is a fictional character and so his race shouldn’t be material; Hollywood has whitewashed so many characters in the past, why is it an issue when the reverse happens?; Nick Fury is Caucasian in the Avengers comics yet is played by Samuel L. Jackson in the movies….etc

[In the anti corner]

James Bond was born in Scotland and for him to be played by a black person would be to rewrite his heritage; Idris Elba is “too street” to play James Bond; The PC-police would have the Norse God Thor played by a West African if they had their way; Black people complain about cultural appropriation when Macklemore and Eminem rap but want a black person to play James Bond… ad infinitum

While there are nuggets of truth in many of the views on both sides I think these views ultimately miss the most important and material facts here.

The distributing house itself via Pascal indicated it wanted Idris to play the part – it isn’t a random idea sprung forth from the internet mob and being championed by the netizens. Whatever Amy’s motivations are for wanting Idris Elba we can’t know until she reveals them; my reading however is a fairly straight-forward one.

Although MGM had hit gold with Pierce Brosnan in Golden Eye, his last two Bond outings in Die Another Day and The World Is Not Enough had been so camp and unflinchingly unrealistic that the franchise was threatening to implode from within. The arrival of the Bourne series onto the scene coupled with new dark retellings of classic stories like Batman Begins made the Bond submarine car exploits cartoonish at best. The series required a reboot and Daniel Craig was brought on-board to help tell the story of how Bond goes from gruff pre-double-oh to suave & worldly MI agent over the course of a number of movies starting with Casino Royale.

The casting and tonal decisions brought with them fairly considerable backlash from self-styled Bond aficionados however the need for change and relevance was stark. The decision was vindicated with the success of the last three Bond movies and with Spectre claiming a $300m budget – Craig’s contract is close to being tied up in spectacular fashion; His work is largely done from a character arc perspective.

What an actor like Idris Elba could bring to the series apart from sheer star power and charisma, is of course the polish of Bond as finished article and a renewed sense of adventure and newness. In trying to avoid some of the fairly sycophantic and more fanboyish explanations on why Elba would be a good fit – I think it’s best simply to point out that as a character actor and as a movie star, Elba certainly seems to embody what is required for the next incarnation of James Bond.

Would he be materially better than Tom Hardy – another touted for the role? He would certainly be different in a way that I think the series needs to go towards. Hardy is potentially a bit too close to Craig and may have been better cast in the last few movies than the next 3 or 4. Suaveness. Authority. Candour and of course he’s already played a role whose previous incarnation was a Caucasian in Thor as Heimdall (a role it sounds like he enjoyed slightly less than he’d no doubt enjoy a run out as Bond).

It’s also no secret that the Bond franchise, particularly in the last two decades, has hardly made appeal to non-white audiences by and large. From a pure marketing point of view as well as the film-decision points raised already, Elba would potentially re-introduce the character to new audiences which the studios will no doubt be interested in considering the budget investment sizes required of late. The same arguments hold true to an extent for the other two actors mentioned for self-same reasons in Adrian Lester and David Oyewolo.

At its simplest then, the answer to why we AND the studio would want Idris Elba as James Bond? James Bond is finally cool again and it’s hard to think of many actors in contention cooler than Idris Elba.

Article By: Siya Gule

Siya is a full-time technologist working within the fintech space who harbours a broad range of interests from filmmaking & literature to geopolitics & global finance. He is a fairly intermittent contributor to the Mbewu blog generally writing on culture topics. You can find him on Twitter here @Siya_Gule.