One of the juicier bits of industry scuttlebutt from the Sony hack that dominated entertainment-press headlines earlier this month was the news that Idris Elba, the suave British actor whose credits include the beloved HBO drama “The Wire” (where he played drug-empire consigliere Stringer Bell) and the BBC crime drama “Luther” (where he plays the titular character, a brilliant detective), was being considered for one of cinema’s most iconic roles: James Bond, the suave British Secret Service agent who has been portrayed by a range of actors since his 1962 celluloid debut.
“Idris should be the next Bond,” Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairwoman Amy Pascal wrote in a January e-mail that leaked online before Christmas. Earlier this fall, during an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit that took place before the leak, Elba said he would “absolutely” take the Bond role if offered to him.
Elba’s potential casting as Bond makes sense for a number of reasons. He has the British Isles bona fides (he was raised in London and credits his artistic upbringing in part to the British charity the Prince’s Trust); he has the rakish charm required of the role, both for its shaken-not-stirred demeanor and its ladies’ man side; he’s a former Sexiest Man Alive runner-up who’s well-known enough to attract his own fanbase to a franchise that’s growing a bit long in the tooth. (And his dabblings in music could even allow him to pull double duty as far as handling the theme song, a long-storied role in the Bond pantheon.)
But there is one difference between Elba and the other Bonds: Elba is black.
Which, really, shouldn’t mean much. James Bond is (as anyone who’s paid even glancing attention to the series knows) a fictional character who’s been played by a wide variety of actors — the Scottish thespian Sean Connery, the Englishman Roger Moore, the Irish star Pierce Brosnan.
The notion of Elba as the new Bond wasn’t without controversy, however. Conservative talk radio firebrand Rush Limbaugh railed against the notion of a non-white Bond, saying, “He was white and Scottish, period. That is who James Bond is.” (Brosnan and Moore did not come up.)
Limbaugh’s rigidity seems to be the exception, rather than the rule — if anything, casting Elba as Bond will signal another update for a franchise that sorely needs it, as Phil Nobile Jr. argues in his initially satirical "Why Idris Elba Can't Play James Bond." (The moustache!) Keep in mind, too, that little is sacred in the 007 universe that the last Bond film, 2012’s “Skyfall,” had the longtime martini quaffer preferring beer as his tipple of choice because of a “major integration” between the franchise and Heineken.
But this flare-up does speak to the idea of cultural centering in entertainment products. The idea that “normal” reads as “white” is slowly being broken by innovative casting ideas and matter-of-fact presentation of nonwhite characters, although each casting decision’s newsworthiness shows just how far our culture has to go. When the trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” premiered in November, the hashtag #BlackStormtrooper popped up on Twitter, thanks to the presence of actor John Boyega (“Attack the Block”) sporting one of the Galactic Empire’s military uniforms — in part because the “Star Wars” universe had only featured a handful of people of color up to this point. The recent remake of the much-beloved musical “Annie” stars Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis as the title character, and Jamie Foxx as the mogul who takes her in. These casting decisions were presented matter-of-factly by Hollywood, which no doubt helped confine any backlash to social media’s outer wilds.
Whether or not Elba will be cast as Bond once current 007 Daniel Craig hangs up the keys to his spymobile, he, for his part, replied to the tizzy of news with some self-effacing humor over the weekend: