This is one of those tempest-in-a-teacup issues, but I thought it might be interesting to think about it a bit.
So it seems like the next Bond will not be played by a white British actor. This raises some interesting questions. Obviously many will be angry because of reasons. Because Bond has always been white, because some of these people are racist, or because they don’t like change. (They riled against a blond dude, as well. And they wanted the goofy Bond back, too, when the tone changed –even though the dark, murderous psychopath that is James Bond is closer to the original character in the books.) Rush Limbaugh didn’t like the idea at all –and in this, I’m ashamed to say, we agree. I have to add hastily, our reasons are different, though. He had some incoherent ramblings comparing Bond to a historical figure (he does not seem to grasp he is a piece of fiction), while I actually have a point about the character. Bond is created as a womanizer, politically incorrect white secret agent. You don’t need to change him into something else; you can have another secret agent who is black/gay/a woman.
Because the question is: how far can you change a character before it becomes something else? Can you swap Jason Bourne for a black guy? Or even a woman? My answer is: sure you can. Bourne is a product of a CIA attempt of creating super-assassins. It matters not where their labrats are from; they are equal opportunity villains. In fact, Bourne does kill a couple of his fellow labrats -one of whom was most definitely British; so there are Bournes running around. He was unique in one thing: he suddenly realized the moral issues with what he was doing -and it is irrelevant what his gender or skin color is. Can we switch Spiderman? We can; in fact, we already have. Parker comes from a poor middle-class background. A background that is shared by a huge portion of the US population. Wisecracking teens are hardly limited to the white skinned adolescents, either. Superman could be anyone, too; after all, who is to say what color people on other planets should be? (Although growing up in small-town America as a black kid would have been a very different experience for Kent.)
How about Batman? Can you change Batman into a black guy? This is where I would say you could not. The whole background of Bruce Wayne is the rich WASP upbringing. It is as fundamental for his character as much as his broken psyche is, that forces him to dress up night after night and beat criminals into pulp dressed as a ninja with pointy ears. Sometimes we see him grapple with the contradiction of his wealth, his privilege, and the world he confronts every night. If you take his background away from him- he won’t be Batman anymore. There are other superheroes, and he could be one of them, but not Batman. He has to be from “old money” to be able to play the rich millionaire playboy. After all, the point is that we never can be sure who the real person is: Bruce Wayne who dresses up like Batman at night, or Batman, who pretends to be Bruce Wayne during the day. It would just not work with an investment banker or a lottery winner. (Ironically, Captain America should be black; after all the US Army did experiment on black soldiers.)
Turn this thought around, then. As we might recall not long ago Othello became somewhat of a controversy, when a director suggested that he could be played by a white actor. So let’s see what else we can find. Could you make Shaft white, for example? After all, if we can change anything we want, why not have Pitt play Shaft, the cool, smooth, sharp-dressing P.I.? Shaft was created to be kind of a black James Bond. But herein come again the whole issue of race. Shaft is black. And I mean, he is VERY black. Just like Othello, his skin color is fundamental to what he has become due to his circumstances. Shaft was shaped by the experience of the ‘50s-‘70s America; KKK, segregation, racial tension, civil rights movement, Malcom X, Black Panthers, and all that jazz. He is a man who distrusts whites (with good reason), and who is fraternizing with the members of the criminal underworld, simply because he knows the system is as hostile towards him as to the criminals in Harlem. He became what he is in a highly divided, very racist world. Take it away from him, and he would be a generic P.I. He would not be Shaft anymore; many things that are motivating him would disappear. He could be Magnum, he could be Sherlock Holmes, he could be McGywer, he could be anyone with a license to P.I.
Talking about Sherlock Holmes… Could he be Indian, for example? Can we imagine an Indian person in Victorian England in his situation? Could be afford his house in Baker street, play his violin, shoot his guns, smoke opium, track down bad guys, and hold the respect of the police force? Is it racism to say no? But if it IS racism, then would it not be racism to say Shaft cannot be played by any other actor but a black one? (Or, Laurence Olivier style, a blackfaced white one, if we want to be flippant.) An also interesting question: should someone actually proposed a Shaft reboot with Pitt, could you silence the people protesting it with accusations of racism?
And this leads us to Bond. Bond, obviously, has changed a lot since he first appeared. Flemming was racist and sexist to the limit, and so was his creation. He is the product of an older era: a time when Britain was a global superpower; a time when it was fine to hit your wife, and call people who were not white “lesser”, “savages” or other, even less savoury names. Don’t forget: it the books Bond regularly refers to black mobsters as gorillas, and he is so manly, he actually cures a lesbian by sleeping with her.
(To be fair, in this Bond is surprisingly modern: the lesbian in question is black. He is an equal opportunity womanizer, even in the original books.)
A lot of this had to be changed, since we can’t really have such a relic of the old British Empire running around, shooting people in today’s world. He was modernized; but he always had this air of the “old times”. But how far can we go with the modernization before we transform him into a generic action hero? Bond, like it or not, IS a product of the British Empire; it gives him a certain charm, and it makes him unique. All his family, generations back to Drake, has been serving Queen and Country, fighting the savages, expanding the borders of the Imperium, (maybe dabbing into the slave trade), enforcing the law of Britannia –in other words, bearing the white man’s burden. (Before anyone is getting a brain aneurism, I’m using the words that were used by Bond’s ancestors at the time to make a point.) We would find his ancestors fighting rebels in India, fighting Zulu tribes in Africa; we would see them die in the trenches of the First World War, and on the African front fighting Rommel. They were the type of people who sent their kids to Eton, who attended to Oxbridge or a military academy, and spent their blood in service of the Crown, crawling in jungles with a revolver in their mouths, looking at the whole warmaking business as a sport. This is where Bond is from. He is coming from the “higher class” of British society; from the “old” Britain. He is moving in different circles than your average Briton; I seriously doubt he has ever seen an apartment from the inside that cost less than 4000 quids per week to rent (unless he went there to kill somebody). For him there are no moral issues murdering anyone who is acting against the interests of Britain; he does not need to know their motivations. He is absolutely and utterly devoted to the country.
The question is: how different would the world-view of a black person growing up in England would be from his? I would say very different. I don’t think you can expect such an utter devotion to the cause from a person who is a second or third generation Briton, who comes from a minority background, whose family is from places where colonialism was a fact of everyday life for centuries (regardless if it was under the British, French, Germans, Dutch or Belgians), experienced the stop-and-frisk policies of the Met, and other cases of institutionalized racism over the decades. This guy would have a markedly different experience from Bond’s of what a colonial empire really means, and this would color his views on the foreign policy of the present. And it’s not really a race issue, either. He could not be a descendant of a Polish pilot fighting for Britain, either, for the very same reasons. You can’t just put a non-white (and non-British) person into Bond’s dinner jacket, give him a Martini, and call him Bond, just as you cannot put Pitt into Shaft’s leather coat. To do that you will have to change Bond fundamentally. He would be questioning, he would be torn by doubts; he would lose his ruthless single-minded devotion.
Who knows? It might be an interesting change that evolves the character –or it might turn him into your run-of-the-mill assassin with an alcohol problem and the world’s largest collection of STDs.
Only time will tell.