Recent popular speculation that James Bond might soon be portrayed by a black man has met a surprising and disappointing amount of resistance. The arguments put forward by the members of this resistance range from the truly absurd to the arguably sound. The diversity of opinion represented within this group, whose central aim is to place strict limits on diversity in Hollywood, is impressive. I would like to examine one specific argument which has proven quite popular among members of this group, an argument the general format of which is frequently used in debates about diversity in casting. This is the argument that casting a black Bond would not be in-keeping with the facts of the Bond books, whose details simultaneously prevent Bond from being cast as anything but a white male (who is ethnically Scottish, and did attend Eton and Fettes) and extricate the ‘Anti-Idris’ gang from the charge that their resistance is grounded purely in prejudice.
These people believe they are realists, not racists. In a way, I agree that Bond’s potential portrayal by a person of colour would seem slightly far-fetched, though for reasons different to those usually cited by these ‘realists.’ For me, this portrayal would be tough to swallow because it is hard to picture anyone but a white male being able to accurately convey that which is intrinsically ‘Bond’. I.e. the misogyny veiled by a sparkling charm, that which, arguably, is inherent to the kinds of institution Bond has been characterised within; institutions which are private, upper-class, and associated with whiteness and a very particular type of masculinity. Apart from this contextual issue, which might slightly hinder my ability to suspend my disbelief, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to cast a black Bond.
The character, as Daniel Craig portrays him, has already strayed quite far from Fleming’s literary image of him, and there is evidence that some of these changes were made in order to accommodate a new generation of Bond fans. Why stop this evolution at the level of the skin-colour? It can be argued that the changes that have been made to Bond’s mindset and demeanour over the course of the past 20 years are much more significant in terms of the character of James Bond, than a change in complexion would be. A character’s central traits can certainly remain constant through a change in skin tone. It is telling that throughout the course of all of the fundamental changes that have been made to the character of Bond since his inception on the screen, literalists have only sprung up thumping the Fleming books once: when they saw Bond threatened by the prospect of being made black.
Appeals to ‘the original text’ are, in most cases, convenient means through which people can hide their own racist, sexist, or homophobic prejudices from themselves. It is no coincidence that the same people who are against there being a black Bond are also against Ariel being portrayed by a black woman in the upcoming live-action Little Mermaid. In the case of Ariel, appeals to the original text are also being made. People claim that Andersen, a 19th century Dane, could hardly have been imagining a black mermaid when he wrote the story. Of course, it is also hard to think that he ever would have imagined a Caribbean crab singing Soca music, and yet that image has become inextricably associated with his story in the contemporary mind.
From the perspective of those who appeal to the original text, the idea of a change in the skin colour of James Bond or Ariel should be less jarring than many changes that have actually been made to these characters over the course of their journeys from the page to the screen. Such changes have generally been met with silence, which gives one the uneasy sense that those up in arms about a black Bond and a black Ariel are not really motivated by a passionate belief in ‘sticking to the script,’ so to speak, but by something much darker.