Earlier this week at UNILAD Towers, a colleague sent over an article from The Hollywood Reporter and asked me what I thought of its argument – it’s time for a black James Bond.
My first response as a 21st century man with a license to be woke was, ‘of course it is’, it’s 2018 and it would be perfectly normal these days for a black person to be a spy.
The article was well thought out, articulate, and the writer’s skill with words left me green with envy, but I’ll be honest, I disagreed with it.
You see, the piece argued while it’s acceptable to have a black Bond, the historical context of a character like Bruce Wayne – traditionally wealthy and part of Gotham’s high society – precluded a non-white person from playing Batman.
It’s a sadly accurate statement about the historic treatment of minority people in the West, but I don’t think historical context should ever prevent a black person from playing a character who, for socio-economic reasons, is historically white.
So, let’s examine The Hollywood Reporter’s argument and see where I think the writer’s lost me with his argument.
They begin by outlining the origin of Ian Flemming’s most famous character, including his lineage, education and career, making the perfectly valid point, none of it calls for a Caucasian actor.
The only thing which does is tradition, an argument they claim is the ‘least interesting reason to refute innovation’ and I agree completely with this.
Just because things work when done a certain way, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and rejig the formulae every now and again to see if you can’t get something a little better.
Or to twist the words of Welcome To Nightvale’s Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, for my own ends, ‘past performance is not a predictor of future results’.
But here’s where the writer muddies the waters.
In their eloquent and nuanced opinion, tradition is not an excuse to resist change, yet they don’t think Batman can’t be white?
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.
This is a pretty well thought out reason for Batman to be played by a white person because it’s, unfortunately, mainly true. It’s unlikely, nay impossible, for a black person to come from the background Bruce Wayne did.
And yet it’s a blinkered take on the origins of Batman and indeed the medium of comic books which superhero films draw their inspiration.
While it’s undeniable some writers have indeed portrayed the Waynes, prior to Thomas as a shower of sh*ts, it’s not always the case.
In his run on the Batman book, Grant Morrison wrote the Wayne family as a family who’d always strived to do their best for Gotham and its people.
You see the wonderful and frustrating thing about comics is they’re mutable, backstories chop and change to suit the current writer’s story with casual abandon.
Why can’t the same be true for a movie? Furthermore, why do the Waynes even need to be Bruce’s biological parents? He could be a black child adopted by a caring white family?
Or this could be a fictional world where the socio-economic divide between people of colour and Caucasians isn’t as pronounced, anything can change at the flick of the writer’s pen or click of a keyboard.
My point here is Batman is fictional, which makes him changeable and adaptable. He can be the Bat-dancing Caped Crusader of the Adam West years, or the perma-scowled, gruff-voiced, wounded human of the Nolan years.
The writer of The Hollywood Reporter piece even acknowledges this in their argument in regards to Bond.
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?
It’s a fair point but one, if you really want to delve into, doesn’t hold up to examination. Skyfall demonstrated how 007’s real name is James Bond – not a code name – and how the legacy idea was just fan fiction.
But the joy of fiction is, like in the case of Batman, we can ignore what we don’t like to suit individual stories. Bond or Batman can be whatever you need to suit the story, and if you want them to be black, then just do it.
So to take this back to Bond specifically and finally get to the point of this opinion piece, why is it time for a black Bond?
Well as The Hollywood Reporter themselves argued, there’s nothing in his background which rules it out. If we wanted to apply our real world standards to this piece then it would make sense for modern Britain to give rise to a black spy eventually.
But more importantly, it provides another aspirational figure for black people to enjoy.
Without sounding too ‘right on’ I think we can all acknowledge, in fiction, there aren’t many black ‘role models’, which is why Black Panther was such a joy – because black children could finally watch a hero who looked like them on the big screen, why would we deny them more of this?
Bond being black in his next incarnation doesn’t erase the adventures of white Bond, or make him anything lesser, it just enriches the character.
To finish, I want to explain how I came to this realisation. It was 2011 and Sony had announced their plans for a new Spider-Man franchise and there were whispers they may cast a black actor as Peter Parker.
Now, I’d be lying if this didn’t bother me, Spider-Man has always been my favourite character in part because I could relate to his backstory as a nerdy, white guy outsider.
The notion of someone like that becoming powerful and choosing to use his powers for good rather than taking out his frustrations on his bullies was inspiring and honestly impacted the way I live my life.
But that’s when I realised how selfish I was being. Why would I want to deny another kid, regardless of skin colour, the opportunity to enjoy or be inspired by Spider-Man?
It was selfish white privilege nonsense and I still feel ashamed at that reaction, Spidey can be black because any kid can be an outsider, or interested in science or bullied, and it’s stupid to say otherwise.
The same’s true for Bond and any other fictional character. They’re meant to inspire and be enjoyed, and if you think pigeonholing characters as a certain race is wrong, or betrays the character, then you missed the point.
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More of a concept than a journalist, Tom Percival was forged in the bowels of Salford University from which he emerged grasping a Masters in journalism.
Since then his rise has been described by himself as ‘meteoric’ rising to the esteemed rank of Social Editor at UNILAD as well as working at the BBC, Manchester Evening News, and ITV.
He credits his success to three core techniques, name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.