Why James Bond Should Be Black But Batman Should Stay White

With the Idris Elba 007 rumor again catching fire, columnist Marc Bernardin makes a nuanced argument for the race-blind casting of iconic characters — with a few key caveats.
Illustration by: Guy Shield
With the Idris Elba 007 rumor again catching fire, columnist Marc Bernardin makes a nuanced argument for the race-blind casting of iconic characters — with a few key caveats.

There has been talk, for years now, about who should play the next James Bond. There are the obvious choices, like Henry Cavill or Chris Hemsworth, and the outliers, like Tom Hardy or Tom Hiddleston. And then there's Idris Elba.

In those emails hacked out of Sony, former studio chief Amy Pascal said what anyone 
who had seen the now-45-year-old actor steal every scene he was in on The Wire, prowl through Luther and cancel the apocalypse in Pacific Rim know to be true: "Idris should 
be the next Bond." When that rumor caught fire again last week, the reaction was two scoops of very familiar flavors: "Elba should play everything," and "James Bond is white and should always be white."

Now, I have skated close to this third rail before: Back in 2011, I wrote a column for the website io9 that said, perhaps, Spider-Man didn't need to be played by a white guy. That article led to the Donald Glover for Spidey "movement," which then inspired writer Brian Michael Bendis to create Miles Morales — the Afro-Latinx webslinger that's the 
star of this December's Marvel animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — and more than one person to send me death threats. My reasoning was that there is nothing about Peter Parker that requires him to be Caucasian. The science 
nerd lives in Queens and comes from a broken home. He could be anything, from anywhere.

James Bond was, according to his British creator Ian Fleming, born to a Scottish father and a Swiss mother. He's an orphan, raised by his aunt. After short stints at boarding schools, he joins the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, then makes his way to the Ministry of Defence and lobbies for a slot in the Secret Service. Does any of that mandate he be played by a white actor? No. All that calls for a Caucasian is tradition — possibly the least interesting reason to refute innovation. (Tradition seems to be holding the Bond franchise back in more than one way: Clearly, director Danny Boyle wanted to do things that the standard-bearers didn't like, which resulted in him leaving Bond 25 over the traditional "creative differences.")

Add to this the fact that many Bond fans — myself included — always thought that "James Bond" was an identity that gets handed to the poor fool who inherits the 007 designation after the last guy gets killed in action. (Otherwise, why the hell would any secret agent keep telling everyone he meets that his name is "Bond, James Bond"? That implies 
a catastrophic misunderstanding of the word "secret.") So why can't the seventh guy to play James Bond in the franchise be a black guy?

On the other hand, let's take Batman. Or, rather, Bruce Wayne — another role that Elba's name has been mentioned for more than once. In DC Comics lore, the Wayne family has been part of Gotham City since before there was a Gotham City. They helped build it, the way the Carnegies, Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers helped build New York. To extricate the Waynes from Gotham would be like trying to take 
the sugar from a baked cake: Even if you could, why bother? No one would want what was left, anyway.

The Waynes, generation after generation, took as much from Gotham as they gave. Much of the crime that infected the city was as 
a result of the income gap enjoyed and propagated by the Waynes — until Bruce's father, Thomas, bucked the family code and became a doctor. He married a woman, Martha, who believed in charity. And they taught their son to be better than the Waynes that came before — that it is Bruce's responsibility as a Wayne to make Gotham a better place.

Bruce Wayne has to come from old money because he has to feel the generational guilt that comes with being a Wayne. So that when his parents are murdered on the streets of Gotham, the mania that grips a child is informed by those lessons from parents who chose to be better. To save lives.

Bruce Wayne has to be white because that kind of legacy and wealth don't exist in the African-American community. (Yet.) For that character to be true to who he is, he can't be anything else.

Do the foundations of the character call for a specific race? If the answer is no, to me, it's an open playing field. If the answer is yes, 
then dig in. And if the original author is still alive, she or he can shed some crucial light … as J.K. Rowling did after the casting of a black actress as Hermione Granger in the stage 
play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child caused some drama. "Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified," Rowling tweeted. She would later follow with: "We found the best actress for the role and she's black. Bye bye, now."

The path forward for Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson isn't easy, but it shouldn't be. Would I prefer a Hollywood that was incentivized to create franchises for someone like Idris Elba — or Tessa Thompson or John Boyega or Oscar Isaac — rather than have him step into a role that has been tapped as often as a frat party keg? Sure. But those are few and far between.

So I get that you want to increase diversity while making content in a world dominated by established, name-checkable IP. And I understand that you look to satisfy both masters at once. But you've got to do 
the hard thinking: Who is this character, essentially? Does race-blind casting violate the integrity of the character? If not, go 
for it. There will always be those who hate that because they think change is scary. It 
is … but only if you're the one who's decided to drop anchor in the past.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.