“My enslaved ancestors whisper to me during a summer bloated with the weight of black death; they are my co-authors.”
This week in media, we were treated to another instalment in the seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of hopeless white euphemisms. This time, it was the term “street”, used to explain why black British actor Idris Elba would not be suitable as the next James Bond.
A bedfellow to another revealing descriptive, “urban”, the “too street” label was used by Anthony Horowitz, one of the novelists of the 007 spy franchise. He later apologised for the term after the internet self-combusted, perhaps helping Horowitz to realise he’d (inadvertently, he says) used a barely disguised code for race.
Elba, the actor who starred as the drug kingpin, Stringer Bell, in The Wire series and a hardened detective in the British crime drama, Luther, reacted to the apology with this tweet: “Always keep smiling!! It takes no energy and it never hurts! Learned that from the Street!”
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The acclaimed actor is tipped as a strong contender for the part, currently played by Daniel Craig. But the idea that the quintessentially English spy should be of a particular type of actor has had an earlier airing too, it seems.
Former Bond actor, Roger Moore, told the French magazine Paris Match that he thought the spy hero should be “English-English”, though he later said his comments were taken out of context.
We like to think of the film industry as a liberal, enlightened sort of environment, but this issue of a black actor playing Bond serves as yet another reminder that this is plainly not the case.
It’s not just the white possessiveness (and that’s putting it politely) of certain roles that seems to seep out of comments like those of Moore and others about non-white people playing historical characters.
It’s also the idea that black actors, unlike their white counterparts, don’t really have a professional range and, thus, must be confined to certain roles – you know the types: gang leaders, drug dealers, and characters that are clearly subservient. And the more these narrow stereotypes are pushed, the more they create the impression that this is all people of colour do, thus perpetuating this ridiculous cycle.
If a talented, popular and established actor such as Idris Elba has his ‘suitability’ for certain roles questioned, what hope is there for aspiring actors of colour struggling to make it, stifled by limitations imposed upon them, and having to work ten times as hard to try and bust assumptions and stereotypes that simply refuse to shift?
Hollywood, as has been noted depressingly often, is still terrible at casting black people. Yes, it is 2015 and we are still having this debate. If you really want to be reminded of how terrible it is, take a look at this Tumblr account for montages of the bits that actors of colour get to say in a selection of well-known movies. In some cases, all the words spoken by all the non-white characters last less than 10 seconds.
And it seems this stark colour bias in casting keeps happening because the movie industry is dominated by people making decisions on the basis of assumptions that audiences simply don’t share.
Nevermind that people of colour comprise a sizable percentage of the movie-going public; they are still consistently underrepresented or poorly represented on screen – though obviously this reason is bad enough.
More widely, whiter audiences also want to see more range, more diversity, more of our favourite non-white actors in top roles. But still, the decision-makers, seeking box office hits worldwide, assume that movies starring minorities simply won’t sell.
As Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, told the Washington Post last year: “Part of the problem is it’s an incredibly insular industry… The people who make decisions, who greenlight projects, tend to surround themselves with people pretty much like themselves.”
Of course, the outcome isn’t just dull, narrow and annoying for viewers. If a talented, popular and established actor such as Idris Elba has his “suitability” for certain roles questioned, what hope is there for aspiring actors of colour struggling to make it, stifled by limitations imposed upon them, and having to work 10 times as hard to try and bust assumptions and stereotypes that simply refuse to shift?
And back to the current question over the next 007 – let’s just put this into perspective: We’re talking about a James Bond movie, for heaven’s sake.
Really – what does a new Bond need to be, anyway? The character’s primary function (yes, apart from the spying bit, of course) is to be suave, sophisticated, daring and a reliable hit with the lucky women he beds and then immediately discards.
Those doubting movie-moneymen and decision-makers need to just take a look at the swooning social media reactions to Idris Elba from a gazillion female admirers around the world – then they can tell us again why he’s not right for the part.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.