James Bond
Credit: TNS Sofres/Flickr

For the last five years, Hollywood’s awards season has ended with speculation over what could be the next pop-culture phenomenon. James Bond fans have always wondered who will play the next 007, but now, some are asking the same question but with a twist: who will be the first black Bond?

We already know who will play the leading role in the next installment. Daniel Craig is now prepping for his last go-round in the forthcoming Shatterhand. Still, there’s an appetite for something different. Last year, screenwriter Bruce Feirstein wrote in the Washington Post:

Is it really a stretch of anyone’s imagination to think that, right now, in real life, there’s a handsome, suave and altogether lethal black Brit walking around London, or some exotic den of international intrigue, who’s carrying a Walther PPK and works for MI6?

Wouldn’t it be more surprising — and perhaps worrisome — if there weren’t?

This year, IndieWire put together a list of seven actors it thinks should be the next Bond: Idris Elba, Henry Golding, Daniel Kaluuya, Shaza Latif, Dev Patel, and Robert Patinson. All but one is a person of color. Two are black. The dashing Elba has been a favorite contender for years now. (North Korea’s hacked 2014 emails from the former head of Sony Pictures, which owns the franchise, showed her desire for him to play the role.)

I once belonged to the Elba camp myself, until I realized that the eagerness for a black James Bond was actually the best example of what I detest most about today’s Hollywood—its lack of imagination.

It’s understandable for some to want to diversify our cinematic cultural icons. But the answer isn’t a chocolate-covered James Bond. The enigmatic British spy is pretty compelling—for a sociopath, at least—but it is questionable if such a character would be representative of an authentic black experience. He could conceivably become a symbol of a black fantasy, illustrating some of the luxuries that many of us could never enjoy—cool, expensive gadgets and a life of intrigue. It would be more than just a swanky black man with a standard-issue blond babe and a gun. It would the image of a black catalyst—a resourceful agent of change.

The problem is, James Bond is too deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness as a white man to give him a new racial identity. A better idea, if you really wanted to build a franchise around a black spy, would be to start from scratch.

Just look at the biggest commercial hit from last year: Black Panther. The key to making a good black superhero movie was not to make an enduring character, like Superman or Batman, black. It was to make a movie about an inherently black character who had agency as an unalloyed African not constrained by white hegemony.

Rather than manufacturing a black James Bond, Sony Pictures could instead broaden the franchise. Why not just create another MI6 agent—perhaps a black 008? This agent, who could be featured in a supporting role in the forthcoming film, could later be developed into a fully-fledged protagonist.

This 008 spy could even be played by Idris Elba (whose own father was from Sierra Leone; his mother from Ghana). The only difference is he wouldn’t need to carry the weight of a legend. He would have the dignity of his own story, animated by his unique issues, ticks, and triumphs.

In a business that’s obsessed with remakes and green screen manipulations, a new take on an old tale is often the path of least resistance. But if Hollywood producers want their movies to reflect more of the real world, they can start with using their imaginations to create a more diverse and authentic set of characters.

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Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley is an author, journalist, and filmmaker living in Washington, D.C.