by Shane Thomas

A Scotsman, a Welshman, and an Irishman walk into a casting call. No, it’s not the start of a joke, but a roundabout allusion to James Bond. The latest 007 adventure, Spectre, has hit our cinemas, no doubt to make a shedload of money[1], but a sidebar from the media circus around any Bond film is the current incumbent, Daniel Craig implying he may have had his fill of the franchise, potentially leaving the the role of the world’s most iconic assassin vacant.

Whenever talk of the next Bond is raised, one name regularly mooted as a possible replacement is Idris Elba.

Sony Pictures were not the first to spot that Elba could be a decent fit to play Bond, and once their view was publicly disclosed, the attendant influence of an established Hollywood studio made this opinion tougher to discredit.

But while it’s an exciting prospect, I suspect it’s an unlikely occurrence. Simply put, any person hired to play the role has to commit roughly 10 years of their career to the franchise (over the course of probably three to four films). Elba is 43, and the next Bond movie won’t be until 2017 at the earliest. So he would be well into his 50’s by the time his hypothetical tenure came to an end.

And yes, Roger Moore played Bond into his late 50’s, but by that time, he filmed about as many action scenes as I did. These days, the role requires a discernibly muscular and virile actor, one who could credibly take down anyone in a fight. This isn’t to impugn people in their 50’s as decrepit, just that it gives the producers an easy excuse to not cast him.

But I digress. Despite Elba reportedly being no longer interested in the role, the notion of him becoming 007 is a discomfiting prospect for some, and we should look at why.

James Bond. There’s few things more quintessentially English. The character may have strong links to Scotland, but Bond is symbolic of dominant British culture, the heart of which is England[2]. And yet, look at the roll call of actors to play the part: Sean Connery; George Lazenby; Roger Moore; Timothy Dalton; Pierce Brosnan; and Craig. Two Englishmen out of six.

It was Moore who obliquely revealed the unease around Elba as Bond when (subsequently stating he was misquoted) he was reported as saying Elba wasn’t “English English” enough for the role.

What’s particularly piquant about that comment is before Elba achieved notoriety, he had a supporting role in a Channel 4 drama called All In The Game. Starring Ray Winstone as a football manager as profane as he is unscrupulous, it contains a scene where Winstone implores the chairman of the club to sign a promising young talent, dubbing this player a potential “white Pele”. When Elba’s character says that the player is black, Winstone clarifies that he means, “…white in the terms of being English, obviously.”

While some cling to the comforting notion of Britain – and England – as a cultural melting pot, this isn’t a case for large swathes of the country. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem. But it is a problem when such optics are used to underscore an understanding of what delineates Englishness.

The possibility of a black James Bond plays into an atavistic terror this country has of becoming less white. But if England wants to be an inclusive place, then it has to break away from the stereotype of a land where its environs are bucolic, and its inhabitants are white.

Both blackness and Bond are associated with sex, cool, and violence, but another key aspect of Bond is his cunning and intellect, confronting cinema audiences with a black protagonist who isn’t just tough, but smart.

This rendering of Bond matters because of the societal importance of our popular fictional mainstays. These are characters that audiences can identify with, and live vicariously through. Whether it’s Bond, The Doctor, or Cookie Lyon, a fictional hero can be both a mirror and an aspiration for our wider society, as well as speaking to our internal hopes, ambitions, and anxieties.

An additional factor here is the notion of black heroism on screen. One that is often framed under the cloud of suffering: David Oyelowo in Selma; Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile; Sidney Poitier in pretty much everything.

Has there been a cool mainstream black hero in Hollywood films since 1980’s era Eddie Murphy? There are promising signs ahead with John Boyega in the new Star Wars movie, or Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. But a black James Bond could have an equally profound effect on the possibilities of what black actors can be on screen.

It’s for all these reasons that the prospect of a black James Bond (much like the casting of Boyega in Star Wars) jars for some[3]. It goes against so much that we’ve been conditioned to expect from mainstream Western storytelling.

I’m not the first to observe that little about Bond is heroic, as he functions as a tool for many of the ugliest building blocks in our world, such as misogyny, patriarchy, and imperialism. It would be astigmatic to think that altering his race would change the dynamic of the character.

But Bond’s significance in the pop culture firmament means he’s a cultural barometer for where England is at. Fans are precious over Bond because he is a precious part of English identity. Broadening the optics of the character could also broaden the optics of what society deems as English. And that would make for a hero that would be a lot easier for me to get behind.

[1] – In any year where this wasn’t being released, it would have a decent chance of being the biggest box-office draw of 2015.

[2] – Note this scene from Goldeneye. Sean Bean doesn’t say, “For Britain, James”, but “For England“.

[3] – Bear in mind, this pushback is just for the casting of cishetero males. Where does that leave black actors who are women/trans/queer?

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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year

Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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6 thoughts on “What Makes the Quintessential Englishman?

  1. The talk of Idris Elba being the new James Bond, has been on my mind for a while as well. Honestly at first, I was turned off by the idea for why straggle off so far from who the original James Bond is? But then I realized there is no single look James Bond has. James Bond has had quite a different array of looks over the years from the actors who portrayed him. Even their nationalities have been different, as when you stated only two of them have been English. And the whole point of James Bond is him being the prototype of a dazzling, daring English man isn’t it? Once I realized this, I thought why couldn’t Idris be James Bond? In my mind he is no different from Daniel Craig or Sean Connery in his skills. He can surely do the part justice, so what is the problem? The color of his skin plays a huge part. For to have someone like Idris play James Bond would definitely attach a new connotation to what is means to be English. For to be english, one still thinks of a white man. But in a country that has one of the most diverse cities in the world, that shouldn’t be write. The world is a very globalized place and to be British should not always equate to being white. Diversifying James Bond’s character would broaden the definition of being English and that would be very beneficial for our society.

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  2. Having come from a family of immigrants this isn’t that hard to understand, the most defining visual aspect of the English or even Europeans for that matter is the color of their skin, which is why even if you are born here but have a different skin color you will never be truly English or “native” as they like to call it.
    My parents come from Chile but i was born in Jordan, i like the country but i never felt like i was Jordanian, i didnt look like the majority and I doubt that many people considered me to be Jordanian. People were polite but there was never any doubt that i wasn’t a true Arab.
    I believe that this is just what people are like, especially in the “old world” where ethnic groups are embedded into a national identity. South America and North America in theory should be different due to the decimation for the native population, although the realities of colonialism ensure a different reality and still in places like Argentina to be Argentinian is to be white for a lot of people.

    I dont think you can blame people for having a national identity linked to an ethnic group, The idea of a “melting pot” only comes from the US and was never true to the idea to begin with. It seems like most of the world are very tribalistic when it comes to ethnicity.

    As long as immigrants and people of different races are treated with respect i couldn’t care less if the English define themselves as being white. (Being from Chile i’m tanned and so often get passed of as being Italian or Spanish therefore i don’t face any issues in the U.K which shows that there is a definite hierarchy in color)

    It’s an irony that the nationalists who want England to stay white advocated the destabilization of the Middle East and arguably parts of the North and eastern regions of Africa and don’t seem to understand the consequences of their actions, my mother’s neighbor always used to say “I didn’t come here for the weather and food”

    As for james bond. If he is supposed to represent modern imperialism then why would he be black? It would be like a Comanche auditioning for the role in Christopher Columbus in a local play.

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    1. “As for james bond. If he is supposed to represent modern imperialism then why would he be black? It would be like a Comanche auditioning for the role in Christopher Columbus in a local play.”
      Imperialism was never shy to recruit people who actually belong to marginalised groups. This is the world where the first black president of the United States happily kills brown people with drones.
      People who belong to marginalised groups aren’t magically endowed with “dominant ideology repellent” which gives them instant insight into their position within the global kyriarchy.
      Though I DO think that a black character might actually bring up some interesting discourses on this.

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    2. I’ll address this in the following way:

      Your words: The most defining visual aspect of the English or even Europeans for that matter is the color of their skin, which is why even if you are born here but have a different skin color you will never be truly English or “native” as they like to call it.

      My words: If your assertion is that the defining aspect of Europeans and the English is their skin colour, then where does that leave those who were born and raised in Europe and England, and aren’t white (like myself)? You’re basically trying to say that I’m not English? Guess what, you don’t get to define that.

      Your words: I believe that this is just what people are like.

      My words: What, racist?

      Your words: I don’t think you can blame people for having a national identity linked to an ethnic group.

      My words: I can when that identity is used as a cudgel at the expense of others.

      Your words: As long as immigrants and people of different races are treated with respect i couldn’t care less if the English define themselves as being white.

      My words: Are you new here, or have you just not taken much notice of what happens in this country?

      Your words: As for James Bond. If he is supposed to represent modern imperialism then why would he be black?

      My words: Because he doesn’t have to. And as giliell said in her comment, it could add an extra/different dimension to the character to have a black man act on behalf of a government which enacts policies that cause harm to other black people. For example, I don’t watch ‘Scandal’, but I understand this very notion was explored with Olivia Pope in the 4th season of that show, which I find an interesting narrative subplot.

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      1. “If your assertion is that the defining aspect of Europeans and the English is their skin color, then where does that leave those who were born and raised in Europe and England, and aren’t white (like myself)? You’re basically trying to say that I’m not English? Guess what, you don’t get to define that.”

        The majority of English people would probably not say you’re English , they would probably try and fob you off with something like “you’re British but you’re not English” i would be willing to bet you’ve heard this one before. “English people” would probably be categorized as a ethnic group and while ethnic groups are a social construct there is no doubt that a shared common gene pool is one of it’s defining characteristic, Im not an anthropologist so i don’t want to even begin untangling “what is ethnicity?” however I grew up living in 3 continents and i know that often enough nationality and ethnicity matter to the majority of people. “Guess what, you don’t get to define that.” -I don’t, but the majority sure as hell will, I have been dealing with this my whole life, you have to explain to a lot of people how you feel and most will ignore you anway”

        “Your words: I believe that this is just what people are like.

        My words: What, racist?”

        To varying degrees of severity mostly yes, A proud “Jordanian Jordanian” would often tell me about how he could track his lineage for over 1000 years and how most arabs these days are not true arabs, he was and still is a friend of mine. however i doubt he would let me date his sister.
        Is he racist? If he is then i would bet that most of the world is racisit, i don’t really know what to say about this other than “that’s just what people are like”. We can live in a progressive society but you can never see what people are thinking, nor would I want to.

        “Your words: I don’t think you can blame people for having a national identity linked to an ethnic group.

        My words: I can when that identity is used as a cudgel at the expense of others.”

        Point taken, but I think it’s a point with no answer, unless you redefine what is to be English or what it is to be part of an ethnic group. None of it makes any sense when you look into it from a genetic standpoint and although i don’t understand it completely it seems to matter to a lot of people.

        “Your words: As long as immigrants and people of different races are treated with respect i couldn’t care less if the English define themselves as being white.

        My words: Are you new here, or have you just not taken much notice of what happens in this country?”

        I am new here, i dont have many experiences of this country so i don’t feel it would be right to say much. I understand your point though.

        “Because he doesn’t have to. And as giliell said in her comment, it could add an extra/different dimension to the character to have a black man act on behalf of a government which enacts policies that cause harm to other black people. For example, I don’t watch ‘Scandal’, but I understand this very notion was explored with Olivia Pope in the 4th season of that show, which I find an interesting narrative subplot.”

        Yea, that sounds good, never thought of it from that point of view.

        I know that most of what I wrote sounds like “it is what it is” but I just feel like the issues here are issues which will take decades to resolve.

        What is ethnicity and nationality?

        Are they linked?

        I have no idea, you tell me.

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        1. Yes, of course it will take decades. At least. It won’t be resolved in our lifetimes. So we need to make a start, no?

          If you have no idea, then why did you comment? It’s ok to not be sure about the nuances and intersections between nationality and ethnicity. There’s plenty of complex issues that I don’t have a good handle on, but then I wouldn’t espouse them on a comment section if I’m unsure of the subject matter.

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