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Opinion What we talk about when we debate who should play James Bond

Idris Elba poses during a photocall for the series “Mandela, My Dad, and Me” in Cannes, France, in 2015. (Valery Hache/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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The debate about when, if ever, the James Bond franchise will cast a black actor as the iconic British spy is an ongoing one, and it reignited yesterday after Anthony Horowitz, who has written an authorized Bond novel, mentioned in an interview that he didn’t think that perpetual candidate Idris Elba was right for the role.

If the reaction to Horowitz’s remarks was strong, it’s because objections to Elba playing Bond have sometimes been rooted in the conviction that Bond must always be white. “James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming. He was white and Scottish. Period. That is who James Bond is,” Rush Limbaugh insisted late last year. This certainly wasn’t what Horowitz was trying to get across; he recommended Adrian Lester, a black British actor who starred in the adaptation of Joe Klein’s “Primary Colors,” as another alternative and emphasized that “Idris Elba is a terrific actor, but I can think of other black actors who would do it better.”

Where he stepped wrong was in discussing Elba’s style, suggesting that Elba was “a bit too ‘street’ for Bond,” an assessment that both underestimated Elba’s suavity and came across as the use of coded racial language. Horowitz has apologized profusely, writing “Clumsily, I chose the word ‘street’ as Elba’s gritty portrayal of DCI John Luther was in my mind but I admit it was a poor choice of word. I am mortified to have caused offence.”

It would be easy to dismiss the blowup over Horowitz’s interview as another example of outrage culture run amok. But I suspect that even if Horowitz hadn’t raised the specter of racism and Bond, we would have ended up debating his remarks about what makes Bond an icon anyway. Arguing about who ought to play James Bond is a way of debating what constitutes the ideal man in any given era, in the same way that the perpetual fight over whether a woman can be the Doctor on the long-running British science fiction series “Doctor Who” is a way of talking about gender roles and adventurousness.

The debate over the balance of suaveness and brutality in Bond’s persona and presentation goes back to the early years of the movie adaptations of Ian Fleming’s novels and reflects a tension between Bond’s British origins and the tastes of an American audience.

“Sean Connery was not Fleming’s choice for Bond. His preference, David Niven, reflected Fleming’s view of the character. Niven was a stylish, public-school educated gent, used to playing such roles. No youngster, Niven did not seem a killer, and certainly did not have the disconcerting edge that Connery could offer,” writes Jeremy Black in his book “The Politics of James Bond.” “The producer, Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, did not want an actor or character like Niven. Instead, as he later explained, he wanted Bond to have a tougher, less British, persona. Britishness was to be diluted and transformed. Bond was to have a ‘mid-Atlantic’ image, able to appeal to American filmgoers as a man of action without putting them off with jarring British mannerisms. Bond had to be self-contained, not self-satisfied.”

Over time, Bond has shifted back and forth across that continuum. Sean Connery could deliver a one-liner with terrific elan, but his calm made his competence at violence almost unnerving. Pierce Brosnan tipped the scales towards foppery in his four Bond movies, released between 1995 and 2002; it has been a relief to see the actor age into a slightly rougher raffishness since he has been liberated from the franchise.

At his best, Daniel Craig, the present Bond, manages to combine physical force and elegant manners in ways that make for surprising and revealing juxtapositions. At the beginning of “Skyfall,” watching Craig’s Bond shoot his cuffs and report that he’s “Just changing carriages” after being shot, climbing over a piece of construction equipment into a passenger train car, and having the back of the car ripped away behind him is an impressive statement about what it means to hold onto symbols of civilization in the midst of an inherently chaotic job:

So who do we want James Bond to be next? And what do we want him to be able to do? Answering that question is a prerequisite for figuring out which actor we’d actually like to play him once Craig’s contract is up and he moves on to other things.

Do we want a sexier Bond? Anyone who looks at Elba and sees only size and physical force, doubting Elba’s abilities as a seducer, might do well to revisit “The Wire.” Stringer Bell might be most famous for his ambition and aphorisms, an early scene in which he simultaneously chastises and woos a lieutenant’s girlfriend (Shamyl Brown) captures both the instrumental and sensual sides of Bond’s nature. If we want the franchise to dig in on Bond’s dark side and sense of moral complicity, Elba’s work in “Luther” is far grittier than Bond’s splashy theatrics. If it’s gravitas that’s called for after the death of M (Judy Dench), look to Elba’s performance in “Mandela,” where he played the titular South African leader alongside Naomie Harris, currently playing Eve Moneypenny in the Bond franchise. Humor might be the toughest call, given Elba’s résumé, but I’d be curious to see him stretch.

Elba’s hardly the only black actor, British or otherwise, who could do interesting things with a character who, at this point, is as much a trope as an actual person. Lester could bring a sense of wounded honor and high principle to the part. David Oyelowo, who was outstanding in the British spy drama “MI-5,” has demonstrated all sorts of range in a strikingly divergent American résumé, tackling everything from playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” to a seriously mentally ill man in “Nightingale.” And I would watch Chiwetel Ejiofor in literally any project ever.

Figuring out Bond, in other words, is less about any particular actor and more about us and what we want from one of our most iconic fictional men. If we’re more comfortable with the first black Bond — if we’re comfortable with a black Bond at all — being lighter of skin and smaller of stature, because that reads to us as “suaver” or “less street,” that’s about the limits of our vision, our inability to see an actor’s work and the measure of a man beyond his complexion and his size.