Everyone knows Idris Elba is about as much of a man’s man as it gets.
Americans in particular have projected a certain image onto the “Luther” actor, one that gets reinforced every time he appears on a magazine cover. Elba is our go-to debonair, classy black man, having assumed the mantle from previous Designated Handsome Black Actor Denzel Washington. His English accent serves as the perfect topper.
And yet, as much as much as we associate Elba with the effortless smolder that is the quintessence of James Bond, coming to that image was a journey for Elba. Before his acting career took off, he was a drug dealer, a rapper, a doorman and DJ. As recently as 2013, he described himself as a “f—ing dutty rude boy” in an interview with Esquire U.K.
While Americans tend to hear English accents and instantly add 25 IQ points, in Elba’s home country, that’s not necessarily the case. Elba speaks with a gritty London accent that’s indicative of his upbringing in the London borough of East Ham. And this probably had something to do with 007 author Anthony Horowitz’s assessment of Elba as James Bond.
Here’s what the “Trigger Mortis” author told Britain’s Daily Mail:
“Idris Elba is a terrific actor, but I can think of other black actors who would do it better.”
He names Adrian Lester, star of “Hustle.”
“For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part. It’s not a colour issue. I think he is probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond. Is it a question of being suave? Yeah.”
Americans latched on to Horowitz’s statement, and his assessment that Elba is “too street” to play Bond was immediately interpreted as coded racism. That was the line that made it into headlines across the Internet, including the Post’s. Indeed, there’s precedent for these sorts of alarm bells. Earlier this year, former Bond actor Roger Moore reportedly told Paris Match magazine that Elba was “unrealistic” as Bond because he wasn’t “English-English.” It was exactly the sort of dogwhistle one might expect from a member of the U.K. Independence Party (or UKIP, which is basically the English version of the tea party), which bears a reputation for jingoistic rhetoric and for being virulently anti-immigration.
“Just what is it that prevents Elba from being ‘English-English’, Roger?” asked Daily Mail writer Sebastian Shakespeare. “He was born in Hackney, raised in East Ham, schooled in Canning Town, started work in Dagenham and he supports Arsenal.”
Idris Elba became a trending topic on Twitter as people angrily tweeted about why they thought Horowitz was full of it and what was informing his statement about Elba.
What was missing however, was any sort of analysis about why Horowitz would name Lester as a more appropriate candidate for playing Bond. If that suggestion reveals anything, it may be that Horowitz harbors attitudes better characterized as classist.
The Bond character has always been about brains and pedigree triumphing over muscle and brute strength, to the point that its influence can be found in later characters such as “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s” Napoleon Solo, Maxwell Smart of “Get Smart” or even “White Collar’s” Neal Caffrey, who functions not as a spy, but as a thief-turned-criminal informant for the FBI.
Bond is very much an upper-class hero — he was, according to lore, educated at Eton (Prince William went there) before attending Fettes College in Edinburgh. Part of the reason Bond holds such outsize importance in British culture is because he is universally liked while embodying very conservative, old-school characteristics informed by British imperialism. He represents male wish fulfillment when it comes to British upper-crust masculinity and the way Britain’s gentry idealizes itself.
That lies in stark contrast to the way upper-class people and the middle-class strivers who desperately want to be upper class are commonly portrayed in classic British comedy. A great deal of it is informed by social climbing. It’s in “Absolutely Fabulous.” It’s in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and the source material for it, “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s basically the entirety of “Keeping Up Appearances.”
Take, for instance, a show like “Good Neighbors,” in which Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington played Margo and Jerry Ledbetter, a posh couple who function as fish out of water compared to their not-so-posh neighbors who have eschewed their comfy middle-class life to be farmers. The joke is almost always on the Ledbetters and their cluelessness.
Gary Waldhorn’s David Horton in “The Vicar of Dibley” served a similar function as a stuffy, socially maladroit know-it-all who doesn’t know how to talk to women.
So what do they have to do with James Bond? Well, let’s think about the way Austin Powers — a character who was created and played by a Canadian with British parents — parodies Bond. Mike Myers pokes fun at Bond by making Powers a wealthy buffoon who dresses in expensive but garish clothing. He’s not conventionally attractive. Any toff worth their hoity-toity social standing would be mortified to find themselves in the same room with him. He doesn’t speak with the same polish conveyed by RP (received pronunciation) that his co-star, Elizabeth Hurley, did whilst playing Vanessa Kensington.
But you know who does speak with that sort of polish? Adrian Lester. Most Americans probably know Lester as the idealistic goody two-shoes Henry Burton from “Primary Colors.” Lester was classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He’s been in productions of “Othello,” “As You Like It,” “Hamlet” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
It makes it really easy to see how Horowitz — who holds much more conservative preferences about onscreen portrayals of Bond generally — would picture Lester as an ideal Bond. Lester’s training and background suggests that he could very easily slip into the role of effete gentleman spy with expensive taste.
Even though Daniel Craig’s portrayal advanced a Bond who’s a little rougher around the edges, Lester fits the bill when it comes to playing a 007 who is always polished and controlled.
That plays into a larger conversation about the direction of the character. Horowitz wasn’t even okay with Bond’s evolution as a character that can be vulnerable — it’s one of the reasons he didn’t like “Skyfall.” His own Bond novel is set in 1957, two weeks after “Goldfinger” ends. This is not a particularly forward-looking man.
no disrespect to Lester, who I can completely see as a great Bond. but people who're attracted to men will make you rich if you cast Idris.
— Small Human Disliker (@PykeA) September 1, 2015
Of course, as an actor, Elba is capable of stepping outside of himself to play Bond. He mastered an American accent to play Stringer Bell on “The Wire,” so much so that he fooled creator David Simon into thinking he was American when he auditioned for the part. If the smooth delivery of RP is what Bond requires, surely Elba is up to the task. But Britain’s cultural obsession with class shouldn’t be ignored when evaluating Horowitz’s words.
It’s worth remembering that Horowitz is the latest in a string of authors charged with continuing creator Ian Fleming’s series of Bond novels; he’s not a casting director. He’s not even associated with Eon Productions, the company charged with preserving the legacy and anointing new iterations of the silver-screen Bond. That’s why Horowitz has the freedom to speak so openly about his opinion on filmic Bonds in the first place. He answers to the Fleming estate. If Horowitz wants to stew in his particularly British brand of old-school classism, let him. It probably will have little bearing on whether or not Elba is offered the role.