WWho would honestly want to be the next James Bond? Daniel Craig confirmed the role isn’t the dream job it claims to be when he famously said in 2015 he’d rather “slit my wrists” than return for a fifth stint. Granted he did return for a fifth outing after adding in the interview that he was only doing it for the money, but matters were then finally settled when his Bond ended up being killed No time to die. Now Idris Elba, the top candidate for his successor, has completely excluded himself from the race and has declared that the debate about it is racist – and not in a positive sense.
Obviously there’s no equivalence between being a little tired of being Bond and being racially abused for fighting to be. One is acceptable, the other just not. But Elba put his finger on a broader truth when he added during the chat that choosing an actor to play Bond “is one of those things that the whole world can vote on.” Not literally, of course. It’s not a Eurovision Song Contest. Still, James Bond is arguably the most glamorous and well-known example of the increasing politicization of casting, where the question of who gets to play what role is not dependent on which actor a director thinks is best, but on what the internet thinks the role should represent.
For example, some say it’s high time Bond was played by a woman, a black actor, or some other underrepresented minority (though as a woman myself, I think feminism needs Bond to help it giving up a Y chromosome (utterly condescending). Others, and I put it kindly, seem to think that Bond should remain exactly how Fleming envisioned him, while perpetuating the mythos of the pre-eminent white alpha male action hero. Not to mention that every actor who has played Bond in the past has reinvented him: this is acting, after all.
Both arguments are, of course, wrong, although any argument motivated by racism or bigotry, which is hardly an argument but merely abusive, is worst of all. Though the two points may seem unrelated, they are distinct facets of the same chaotic debate about cultural property that erupts with wearisome predictability each time a classic role is recast. When black actress Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel in the 2023 Disney remake The little mermaidthe racist hashtag #notmyariel started trending on Twitter, apparently because certain people in the west who grew up watching the original cartoon and presumably had nothing better to think about couldn’t stomach the idea of a childhood hero (a water nymph), to heavens will) be played by anyone who does not have white skin and purple hair.
Of course, the decision was also hailed as a big step forward for diversity. Second, when Steven Spielberg cast American Colombian actress Rachel Zegler for the role of Maria in his 2021 remake West Side Story, there was grumbling from various quarters about Zegler not having a Puerto Rican bone in her body. In any case, the arguments point above all to our confused relationship to fictional narratives, which as imagined constructs no longer have the right to live freely, but must primarily serve as ideologically motivated cultural signifiers. In other words, casting has become a victim of the imperative to reflect diversity, to prioritize lived experience, or, worse, to perpetuate the myth of cultural whiteness. Shame about the poor old character that got lost somewhere in the middle. Authenticity versus meritocracy versus so-called “woke brigade” versus racists: We’re in a real mess, and no wonder Elba wants nothing to do with it.
Elba has other reasons for stepping down from an iconic role that seems to be getting more politically charged by the week: he has said many times that he sees himself first as an actor and then as a black actor. Who would risk being celebrated more for what they represent than for being the best man for the job? The unfortunate irony here is that if Elba were a decade younger, he’d probably be the best man for the job: it’s certainly hard to imagine who would be better. Elba’s career won’t be worse without 007, but the franchise could well be worse without him.