by Dan Whisker
The comedian Athena Kugblenu recently delivered a comedic routine addressing the implausibility of Idris Elba’s black James Bond (black James Bond is inevitably in the long, slow passport queue at Moscow airport; local law enforcement agencies the world over vigorously object to a heavily armed black man in their jurisdictions). Of course, for all the Daniel Craig era’s gestures towards realism – usually interpreted as a greater emphasis on the literary Bond’s ‘cruelty’, the Bond films are fantasies. Bond never queues at passport control. The question is, what are they fantasies about? Here, I approach this question, and try to get a sense of what the recent spate of ‘race bending’ controversies in relation to casting can tell us about how ‘race’ works in pop-cultural stories.
It is perhaps only a slight co-incidence that Idris Elba has already been involved in some public dispute about another piece of race-bent casting. His role as Heimdall – the Marvel comic’s version of the Nordic deity Heimdallr – provoked some objections from the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) who one doubts are big comics fans anyway. Elba said of the controversy, ‘We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley.’
Elba’s critique make sense, yet the CCC’s objection wasn’t a question of plausibility, but of politics. Their call for a boycott of the movie stated that, ‘Marvel has now inserted social engineering into European mythology’. The crucial factor is that, the CCC, despite its explicitly Christian position, shares an emotional attachment to pre-Christian European mythology with openly racist neo-pagans within Odinism and Asatru. This particular association of the Nordic pantheon with recently emerged accounts of a ‘white’ identity in a multi-polar world is, Gardell (2003) suggests, at least partially, a solution to the persistent problem of Jesus’ unpalatably Middle Eastern origins for Christian racists.
Online discussions of Elba’s and Heimdall’s skin colours (both pro and anti diverse casting) frequently assert that Heimdall was referred to as ‘the whitest of the Gods’ in ‘real Norse mythology’. In fact, Heimdall is a very sparsely described character throughout the existing texts. Claims about his ‘whiteness’ refer to stanza 15 of the Thrymskvitha or lay of Thrym (in which, incidentally, Thor dresses as a maiden to steal back his hammer). The old Norse used is Hvit – which does directly translate as referring to the colour white – but when the Eddas were composed (probably somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries) the word lacked the present-day racialized connotations and so its meaning in the context of the poem, or of the character of Heimdallr, is somewhat obtuse. A more common translation is ‘fairest’ (Ashliman 2009) which can connote ‘beauty’ or ‘justice’ as well as pigmentation. Other authors (Thorpe 1865) have offered ‘brightest’, which, with its implication of ‘cleverest’ certainly makes sense within the poem, since it is Heimdallr who has the bright idea of putting Thor in a wedding dress.
Such ambiguity highlights the particular difficulty of dissociating arguments about fictional or historical casting from present day emotional/political concerns unrelated to the original context of the story’s composition or the character’s ‘real’ life.
No-one has a problem with a black Henry V, and not only because the field of those who might be interested in Shakespearean drama is significantly more progressive than the field of those who might be interested in mass-market action films – it isn’t. The difference is that the ‘Englishness’ which an actor playing Henry represents is an obsolete one. The play dates from 1599 – before the union of crowns, before the Act of Union, before ‘Britain’ and her empire. If we read Henry at Agincourt as Harry in Afghanistan, or Montgomery in North Africa, then we do so in a way which is deliberately and consciously anachronistic. No-one today living is English in the sense that Shakespeare’s Henry is – and so a black actor or a white one can wear the mask equally easily. And no-one today living is a Theban, or an Athenian in the way that Sophocles’s Oedipus is, so whether the actor playing Oedipus is or is not a citizen of the present day Hellenic Republic is immaterial.
This then is a different work of translation than, for example, casting a white actor as Othello. That move has become taboo for obvious reasons: because there are many black (and Turkish, Arabian or North African for that matter) actors who can play the role and because blacking-up reminds us of the tradition of minstrelsy.
Nonetheless, no-one today is ‘a moor’ in the way that Othello was, as Isaac Butler’s recent interview with Katie Sisneros for Slate suggests. A ‘Moor’ was neither ‘Black’ nor a ‘Muslim’; neither the triangular trade nor imperial orientalism shaped the category. The difference between ‘Moor’ and ‘Muslim’, or ‘Moor’ and ‘Black’, emerges in the longue durée of cultural time, as an effect of the emergence of ‘religion’ as a cultural category in the furnace of the reformation’s wars of religion and the cabinet of curiosities assembled in the age of exploration’s slow metastasization into colonialism. When a white actor puts on blackface, they not only put on a skin which is not their own, but a ‘blackness’ which was not Othello’s. No less does a black actor do the same. However, there is more slippage between the two categories than there is between the Thebans and the Greeks. Shakespeare wrote at the cusp of modernity, the category of ‘the Moor’ which he deployed in Othello was the parent of today’s categories of ‘Black’ and ‘Muslim’ – if only because of the historical accident which turned Shakespeare’s ‘England’ into the root myth of the British industrial empire which birthed our present globalized capitalism. Because of this, ‘The Moor’ has been used to speak about black people, by white people, for two hundred or more years. There are versions of Othello which can do otherwise.
The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington DC, in 1997, produced a version which cast the white actor Patrick Stewart as the Moor and surrounding him with black Venetians. Stewart said: ‘One of my hopes for this production is that it will continue to say what a conventional production of Othello would say about racism and prejudice […] To replace the black outsider with a white man in a black society will, I hope, encourage a much broader view of the fundamentals of racism.’
As far as I know, there has never yet been a production of the play in which the actor playing Othello was the only member of an all black cast not to wear whiteface. I can’t decide what the cultural politics of the piece would be – but you’d definitely get press.
The neglected 1995 film White Man’s Burden does similar kind of work. It forces white audiences to recognise the structural character of racism by subjecting John Travolta’s good, responsible, hard-working white family to the prejudice of Harry Belafonte’s factory owner and the cultural degradation and state violence of a racially inverted America. The inversion produces powerful scenes. Travolta’s son channel surfing through a parade of images of happy, wealthy black people, resting briefly on a news anchor’s description of a white criminal; Belafonte’s wife arbitrarily attaching her fear of white people to their appearance: ‘they look just like ghosts’. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses and its sequels have a similar uncanny effect.
However, these inversions, worthy as they are, by their very nature, are denuded of specific historical content. They present a story of prejudice, structural inequality and power that is decontextualized, a juxtaposition of generic oppressor and oppressed.
The playwright Katori Hall, author of The Mountaintop – a dramatization of Martin Luther King’s last night of life – objected in November 2015 to a production of her play which cast a white actor as Dr King – while keeping the other character of the play – a hotel maid named Camae – black. This might seem to resemble the earlier inversions – white Othello; white MLK. However, Hall has suggested that this was not so (and her support of nontraditional casting in some of her other plays seems to lend credence to her argument), because, in her phrase, the role of MLK in her play was intended to represent a certain ‘skin experience’. In the terms I have set out here, there can be little doubt that the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr was ‘Black’ in exactly the same way in which many people today are – paradigmatically so in fact. No only because he is remembered in the minds of people still living, but because MLK’s life and words and cultural impact were foundational to the meaning of what is to be Black in America – and across the diaspora – today. This specific, real and historical blackness is an essential component of the character of MLK in the play. It is essential and, unlike other identities which might be essential in a character (the gayness of Harvey Milk; the schizophrenia of John Nash), is necessarily written on the actor’s body.
Could one produce a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which Marlowe, or Kurtz, was portrayed by a black man? No, because the essential thing about Marlowe is that he is a white man who discovers that he may as well be black. The whiteness is essential to the story, not in a de-contextualized way, juxtaposing generic oppressors and oppressed, but as a specific treatment of the real, specified historical circumstance of colonialism in the Belgian Congo.
In the second part of this article, I will go on to reflect on the ways that the speculative genres – fantasy and science fiction – can reflect, enact and accelerate the historical mobility of discourse, opening out the stories we can tell about race, and other ascribed identities. I will then move on to explore the effect of this mobility on the range of meanings available to stories about the character of James Bond.
In the first part of this article I discussed the relationship between decontextualised instances of race-bending – the inverted castings of Patrick Stewart’s white Othello in the Black Venice, and Malorie Blackman’s world of Noughts and Crosses – and the historical transformations of discourses about ‘Race’ as an ascribed identity.
There are also social fictions which do an opposite kind of work – telling stories about worlds which are necessarily diverse. The crew of a federation starship in the Star Trek universe have to be diverse – with representatives of both several Earthly ethnicities and non-human life forms – because the story of Star Trek is about progress, inclusion and dialogue – about humanity’s escape from the petty tribalisms and nationalisms of the past in what Paul Gilroy calls ‘planetary humanism’ (2013). Equally the diverse nations, tribes, kingdoms and nomads of Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example, have to be diverse – but for different reasons. Avatar is fantasy, not science fiction, and its four-quartered of the world draws on Jungian imagery – mapping loosely drawn ethnicities onto the four classical elements in a more-or-less arbitrary way. The heroic quest is to unite the four elements in a movement towards wholeness. In both of these stories, the specific content of the diversity is irrelevant – a crew in Star Trek can include Russians, Americans, Creoles, Africans, Hopi, Vulcans, Ferengi, Chinese, Androids, Arabs, Klingons, Borg… and the individual elements are interchangeable. Similarly, to replace loosely modelled Tibetans with loosely modelled Sioux as the visual inspiration for the Air Nomads in Avatar: The Last Airbender would do little to undermine the elemental coherence of the story – whereas making everyone except the villains white, as the 2010 movie did, clearly does.
In his introduction to the foundational cyberpunk anthology Burning Chrome (1986), Bruce Sterling says that, ‘If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science fiction writers are its court jesters. We are Wise Fools who can leap, caper, utter prophecies, and scratch ourselves in public. We can play with Big Ideas because the garish motley of our pulp origins make us seem harmless’ (p.9). Fantasy grants a certain degree of freedom in relation to the histories which have made our world, and Science Fiction lets us imagine other futures. For this reason, the speculative genres have a particular role to play in the on-going pop-cultural critique of specific injustices and the cognitive lenses which naturalise them.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, imagines a world – a human world – without gender. The world it imagines – Gethen – is no utopia. It has unshiftable traditions, mad modernities and its own arbitrary rules of honour and disgrace – but it does not have gender. The book was written in 1969 and in the completeness of its imagination, its radicalism and its generous humanity, it still has the power to make even the most progressive products of mainstream popular culture look dated. A believable world without gender is the receding horizon of feminist fiction, as Le Guin says, ‘[not as] a practicable alternative to contemporary society, since it is based on an imaginary, radical change in human anatomy. All it tries to do is to open up an alternative viewpoint, to widen the imagination, without making any very definite suggestions as to what might be seen from that new viewpoint’ (Le Guin, 1992, p.171)
The only way to make Marlowe black would be to remove his story from the lower reaches of the Thames, in the last days of Victoria, under a benign immensity of unstained light, as talk between men who have followed the sea, imagining the long-gone Romans on the banks of their muddy river, before it watered the greatest town on Earth. Instead, place them on the base of the great space-elevator of Kinshasa, in the last days of President Lomendja’s administration, with strands of cloud at the windows, men who have leapt to the stars, imagining the long-gone Europeans on the banks of their muddy river, before it watered the greatest town in the solar system. And then suddenly let our black Marlowe say, ‘And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.’
This brings us, in a roundabout way, back to the idea of a black James Bond. Ian Fleming’s writing of the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die – with its Soviet-controlled voodoo crime syndicate and ‘genius negro’ villain, Mr Big – coincided with the beginning of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. For the Jamaican resident Fleming, the prospect of armed anti-colonial struggle must have been a very real threat. Whether Fleming’s Bond acts entirely as Fleming’s surrogate or not, he is, in the books, certainly the active agent of Britain’s imperial rule – meeting threats to its hegemony with unquestioning violence. Fleming’s Bond has to be white; his job is to protect white supremacy.
Of course, the films have always glossed over Bond’s personal racism and the racist purposes of his professional projects, just as the history curriculum in British schools has always glossed over the concentration camps and massacres which characterised Britain’s imperial retreat. Though there are scenes of unreconstructed privilege in some of the earlier films – Connery orders his black servant to ‘Fetch my shoes!’ in Dr No, for example – by the time of Bond’s transition from page to screen, the wind of change had already blown most of the pink off the map. As the concrete historical context of Bond’s adventures changed, not just colonial independence but the collapse of the soviet empire, the genderquake, the changing public discourse about health – the films have repeatedly highlighted Bond’s purported obsolescence: ‘You’re a dinosaur, Bond!’ someone will say. Increasingly too, the canonical elements of his back-story become implausible, such as his participation in World War II.
However, there is a sense in which the Bond films can themselves be imagined as a form of speculative fiction. They certainly don’t rely on detailed and realistic depictions of tradecraft for their power, and they never have. It makes no sense to adapt Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as anything other than a period piece; the presence of a mobile phone would irrevocably alter the plot. By contrast, there have always been elements of the Bond films from just beyond the bleeding edge of technology, both incidental gadgets like lasers and x-ray glasses, and plot Mcguffins such as Nazi super-babies. These fantastical elements are secondary, however, to the social futurism which distinguishes the films from the books.
As global geopolitics and technology accelerate away from their 20th century configurations, and the films travel further from their cold war and imperial origins, they necessarily come closer to John Clute’s assertion from his 2003 review of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition that ‘any story about the case of the world, any story the world can be seen through, is in fact SF’. That Gibson’s own work has changed from sci-fi to a form of accelerated realism as the world has caught up with him demonstrates the change. 2018’s Bond will be a William Gibson character, barely closer to Fleming’s Bond than Marvel’s Heimdall is to the poetic fragments which comprise the Heimdallr of the Eddas. Fewer and fewer people, even in the upper echelons of the British elite, remain ‘white’ in the way that Fleming’s Bond was. The future Bond’s enemies will not be devious Soviets and genius negroes but capital gone mad, wild technologies, the inscrutable purposes of the deep state and the vengeance of the cast-aside. His concern will not be to preserve the British Empire but to re-settle the veil of ignorance and distance between commuters and tourists walking the streets of London and the far-flung violence of the world which that empire founded. Marlowe, in the dark heart of colonialism, discovers that he may as well be black – since he has to pay for his whiteness with his humanity. Fleming’s Bond never learnt the lesson, but he’s gone down the river of time. Let him go. The 21st century Bond may as well be black, as long as he is still cruel.
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Hall, K (2015) Playwright reacts to the white casting of MLK in The Mountaintop. The Root Magazine.
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Thorpe, B (1865) The Edda Of Sæmund The Learned From The Old Norse Or Icelandic With A Mythological Index. Trübner & Co, London.
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Dan Whisker received his doctorate in 2008, and spent the period from 2008-12 teaching at the University of Birmingham. He worked in secondary schools across Birmingham from 2008 until 2014. He has written about the religious right in the USA and about the history of Anthropology He is presently a lecturer in Working with Children, Young People and Families at Newman University.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam and commissioned and edited by Adefemi Adekunle. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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