James Bond Should Always Be Classy, Not Classist

Idris Elba - H 2015
Can an actor really be "too street" to play 007?

When novelist Anthony Horowitz suggested earlier this week that Idris Elba was "too street" to play James Bond — he later apologized — the comments were taken by many as coded racism at the possibility of a black Bond.

That may have been unlikely to be the case (Horowitz's alternate suggestion for the role from the same interview was another black actor, Adrian Lester), but it was certainly a lack of understanding about what modern audiences expect from a contemporary 007.

While the original, literary version of Bond has a relatively upper-class past — in 1964's You Only Live Twice, creator Ian Fleming established that Bond had spent much of his childhood abroad, before attending both Eton College and the University of Geneva (two opportunities that aren't necessarily available to all in the U.K.) — the same isn't necessarily true of his cinematic counterparts.

Of the movie Bonds to date, some clearly read as upper class (Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton), while others are less obvious; Pierce Brosnan and George Lazenby are notably indistinct, whereas both Sean Connery and especially Daniel Craig come across as having strong working class roots that haven't quite been ironed out by years in the civil service just yet. Despite Horowitz's comments, there's a case to be made for Craig being the most "street" of any of the Bonds audiences have seen yet.

A more important question might be, however, whether or not such a thing even matters. After all, this year's Kingsman was based around the idea of turning someone "street" into the consummate Bondian agent, as smooth and dedicated to Her Majesty's Secret Service as Ian Fleming could dream of — at the same time as Craig's Bond has become more relaxed and, notably, more of a rogue agent than ever before; note that the plot description for this year's Spectre includes mention of him going rogue, following Skyfall seeing him presumed dead for an extended period (and, later in the movie, kidnapping M to all intents and purposes). The lines of what is and isn't appropriately Bond are blurring considerably, making Horowitz's commentary seem especially old-fashioned.

Moreover, such distinctions of class feel particularly British in a way that also doesn't feel true to contemporary Bond. Although he serves Queen and Country, Bond is an international film franchise — the exotic locales being as much a part of the appeal as how good the current incarnation of the character looks in a tuxedo. Even that latter fact, I'd argue, is more important than how "street" any Bond is: does he look good in a tux? Can we carry off a good suit? Then we're probably fine.

This isn't to say that Bond should be utterly classless; the contemporary Bond, the Bond that exists in the moment, should have a sense of superiority — however unearned it may be — and a self-confidence that borders on arrogance. He should believe himself in a class of his own, and above everyone else; but that is all about the character and not where he was born, or how he was raised. (And especially what color his skin is, for anyone choosing to read that into the subject.) Idris Elba, should he want the job, could crush it.