The rumors that Idris Elba will follow Daniel Craig as the next James Bond come and go, but they’re back again. I’m obviously in favor of this potential development on the grounds that Idris Elba is awesome (though I also think you could make great cases for David Oyelowo or Chiwetel Ejiofor) and it would give me an excuse to make a lot of “Able was I, ere I saw Elba” jokes. But there are a lot of reasons that it would be great to have a black Bond, and Elba in particular, beyond his simple excellence as an actor:
1. It would clarify that Bond is a rotating identity: James Bond is sort of like that other venerable British pop cultural institution, the Doctor. He’s been around for decades, he’s played by a rotating cast of actors, and there’s not the most rigorous continuity between incarnations, particularly between the old-school ones and the re-imagined version. But unlike the Doctor, Bond doesn’t have a clear means of passing the torch. A black Bond would be a clear break with tradition. The franchise could either nod at what this means for James Bond as an identity unmoored from a single man’s identity (it would explain why M likes Daniel Craig’s Bond more than Pierce Brosnan’s), or come up with a mythology for passing it on to the next man. Either way, this would permanently open up the franchise to different kinds of men, allowing for some experimentation in styles within the basic elements of Bond-dom.
2. It would be a nice reminder white guys aren’t the only people who can be hypercompetent national icons: It’s not as if Will Smith hasn’t been saving American bacon for a long time. But it’s one thing for a black man to be the unexpected savior of the world and for him to be anointed as the best a nation has to offer. It’s past time.
3. It would give Elba a chance to play a lover, as well as a fighter: I’ve written about this before in the context of Luther, but given how good Elba is at playing sensual, passionate, or nailing the contours of a difficult marriage, it’s too bad that so many of his roles have steered him away from being romantic or sexual and strictly towards the commission of a great deal of very stylish violence. Bond girls (or in Eva Green’s case, Bond Women) are an inherent part of the package. It would be lovely to have Elba in particular and a prominent black actor in general get a chance to play one of the world’s most famous seducers in a context where it’s evidence of his awesomeness, rather than a showcase for suspect stereotypes about black men and sexuality.
4. It might encourage the franchise to think more creatively about other elements of the Bond formula: Casino Royale worked so well because it upended almost every element of the excess that marked the Brosnan years: the villain was pegged to actual geopolitical realities, the decisive action sequences went down in a polite casino private room rather than on a grand tableaux, the violence was personal and painful rather than flashy and fake, the woman in question’s brain mattered as much as her breasts. Craig’s helped bring the franchise part of the way into the future. Maybe a black Bond would augur even further exploration of the limits of the formula.
5. It would be interesting to see a slightly older Bond: Daniel Craig remains under contract as Bond for a while, and I’ve seen some suggestions that Elba couldn’t take the role until he turns 46. Part of what was fun about Craig in Casino Royale was that the movie was an origin story about how a callow, confident young spy lost something and gained mastery as a result. It would be fascinating to see a movie that’s self-consciously about a great fighter and great lover entering the period of his decline, sort of a Casanova In Bolzano for the action world.