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Who’s afraid of black James Bond?

Those who think British superstar Idris Elba cannot play the famous spy forget that Ian Fleming's character belongs to the movie industry now.

Able was I ere I saw Elba. (Photo by Mike Coppola/MG18/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)
Able was I ere I saw Elba. (Photo by Mike Coppola/MG18/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

Off and on over the years, rumors have floated through Hollywood casting circles and social media fanzines that actor Idris Elba would be next in the line of hunky leading men to announce himself as “Bond, James Bond” in the long-running movie franchise.

Last weekendspeculation spiked once again when Elba sent out a curious tweet that sparked a fresh round of movie-media and -industry chatter, reviving the teeming online discussions over whether the black British actor could — or should — personify 007. It didn’t take much to get everyone worked up, either:In that Sunday morning tweet, Elba — best known for his roles as Stringer Bell in HBO’s “The Wire” and John Luther in the BBC One series “Luther” — sent out an artsy-filtered selfie with the caption: “my name’s Elba, Idris Elba.”

The tweet went viral immediately, prompting Elba to send out a follow-up several hours later that warned his followers “Don’t believe the HYPE…”

Too late! The game was afoot. Despite the fact that Elba hasn’t been tapped for the role, these mischievous social media postings were enough to cause the ever-simmering debate to flare up once again over whether it’s appropriate for a black actor to play a role so identified with a white man. Indeed, some critics have even complained that casting Elba as Bond would represent an unfair, double-standard regarding the appropriation of white, British culture.

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Notably, Katie Hopkins, a conservative British writer and trollish media personality, took to YouTube to argue that only a white actor should play the embodiment of Anglo-Saxon masculine privilege.

“No Idris Elba, you cannot be James Bond. You will not be 007, no matter how many tweets you put out saying ‘I’m Elba, Idris Elba.’ It’s not because you’re a gentleman of color. It’s because James Bond isn’t. He’s written as an upper-class, arrogant white,” Hopkins said.

Rush Limbaugh has expressed similar views, telling a television interviewer in 2014 that Elba wasn’t right for the role. “James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming,” Limbaugh said. “He was white and Scottish. Period. That is who James Bond is. But now they are suggesting that the next James Bond should be Idris Elba, a black Briton, rather than a white from Scotland. But that’s not who James Bond is.”

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Fact of the matter, Hopkins, Limbaugh and others who argue that only a white person should play Bond have no understanding of either cultural appropriation or the fictitious history of the Bond character.

By definition, cultural appropriation is a one-way street of white, dominant people taking without compensation or credit the elements of a less powerful, minority group’s knowledge, symbols, language, or other cultural expressions. In its rawest forms, cultural appropriation occurs in the unequal exercise of power by colonialism or military oppression. More commonly, it’s enabled by economic forces — such as when musicians like Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin got rich and famous playing music created by Big Momma Thornton, who received relatively little credit or compensation for her founding role in the creation of rock and roll music.

Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and author of the 2005 book “Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law,” told ThinkProgress that while the Elba-as-Bond debate wasn’t a hot topic when she wrote her book, it’s become a relevant example of the cultural discussions it engenders in the past three to four years. “That’s because of social media,” Scafidi said in a phone interview. “The conversations we’ve had about stealing culture from minorities that we’ve had in private are now public conversations.”

Scafidi pointed to a 2015 Halloween incident at Yale as a flashpoint that elevated cultural appropriation to fevered national debate. In that case, a Yale faculty member sent out guidelines, warning students about racial and ethnic sensitivities in how they dressed and behaved at costume parties. Outraged white students complained their freedom of speech and expression were being hindered, sparking a campus debate over race and privilege that jumped from the campus to prominence across the land.

“The incident became a cultural moment,” she said. “What might have stayed quietly in dorm rooms or among campus debates became a national conversation and the discussion over cultural appropriation has grown from there.”

We do need to have a certain amount of cultural borrowing, which can be good. That’s how we get fusion cuisine, Tex-Mex and California rolls.

Scafidi, who is the founder of the Fashion Law Institute that explores issues of culture in the fashion industry, said the fluid nature of culture makes it difficult to discern what’s exploitative and what’s merely borrowing from different groups. She said that while the misappropriation of culture can create harm when it exerts or extends economic or psychological damage to minority groups, equitably sharing or sampling from the melange of cultures available potentially produces a social benefit.

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“We do need to have a certain amount of cultural borrowing, which can be good,” she said. “That’s how we get fusion cuisine, Tex-Mex and California rolls.”

As for the cultural appropriation of James Bond, the fictional character, well, that happened a long, long time ago. What most of us recognize as James Bond stems from the celluloid character made famous in 1962’s “Do. No” by actor Sean Connery (unquestionably the best Bond ever).

But Connery’s portrayal was a radical deviation from the literary character created by Ian Fleming, who wrote 12 Bond novels and two short story collections. Fleming’s creation was a hard-drinking, woman-abusing, racist and homophobic loner — traits the author thought made him ideally suited for having “a license to kill.”

Culturally speaking, James Bond belongs to Hollywood, now.

Of course, such a repugnant character wouldn’t fly as the Cold War protagonist of an early 1960s spy movie. Hollywood producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and his partner Harry Saltzman tapped Connery, a relatively unknown actor and body builder, to play Bond with his roughest edges glossed away and his cruel impulses tempered with wry humor and twinkling eyes. In other words, the movie-making process fundamentally changed who and what Fleming created in his dark-hearted British spy.

Culturally speaking, James Bond belongs to Hollywood, now. And over many decades, through more than two dozen Bond films, the actors who have played the role — and their characterizations — have evolved numerous times. In fact, many characters central to the franchise — such as “M,” the head of MI6 — have undergone substantial changes.

In 1995, the acclaimed actress Dame Judi Dench took over that role in “Golden Eye,” and has reprised the role in the seven Bond films that followed, including Daniel Craig’s Bond-cycle in “Casino Royale” (2006), “Quantum of Solace” (2008), “Skyfall” (2012) and “Spectre” (2015). And while “M,” up to that point, had been capably played by white men such as Bernard Lee and Robert Brown — it wasn’t until the series rolled the dice on changing the character’s gender that the series managed to bring “M” out of the background and more fully into the Bond universe.

So what’s the big deal about a black actor playing Bond? There’s scant evidence that any economic exploitation or societal norms risk being damaged by bringing this character into the 21st century. In fact, great benefit would likely come to the movie-makers and audiences that are clamoring for it. According to a recent ODEON poll of British moviegoers, Elba is the favorite of 26 percent of respondents with actor Tom Hardy a close second at 22 percent.

What’s more, according to Esquire’s Matt Miller, “James Bond producers are starting to lean toward the idea of Elba taking the role.”  Barbara Broccoli, who took over the Bond film production company in 1996 from her father, isn’t talking about who will play the British super-spy after the current actor, Daniel Craig, steps aside. But Hollywood insiders claim she has expressed willingness to open the role to a non-white actor.

No doubt that’s why Elba is using Twitter to audition for the role.