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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Failure of imagination

by Philip Martin | October 19, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

I was pointed to a recent comment by a Random Angry Person who had, for the moment, put aside making predictions about the imminent restoration of a former president and extolling the wisdom of those brave enough to resist being vaccinated against the so-called disease (which he identifies as a PSYOP--psychological operation--meant to coerce the population into obedience) to take time out to rail against the idea that perhaps the next James Bond--for there will be a successor to Daniel Craig, no matter what the shocking ending of "No Time to Die" implies--should be a person of color.

RAP insisted Bond was a white British male and should be played by same. Accept no substitutes.

Really? RAP is wrong about this. Ian Fleming made Bond half-Scottish, half-Swiss, not English. His father was Andrew Bond, from Glencoe; his mother was Monique Delacroix, who came from Vaud in Switzerland. (Fleming's grandfather was a Scot.)

While these biographical details were not unveiled until Fleming's novel "You Only Live Twice" was published in 1964, after the movie versions of "Dr. No" and "From Russian With Love" were released, Fleming approved the casting of Scottish actor Sean Connery.

Connery was succeeded by Australian George Lazenby. Irishman Pierce Brosnan portrayed Bond in five films.

The first actor to play Bond was an American of Norwegian descent, who was born Robert Haakon Nielsen. He was known as Barry Nelson when he played Bond in a 1954 television adaptation of Ian Fleming's novel "Casino Royale" that aired live as part of the "Climax!" anthology series.

Nelson said no one ever told him Bond was an Englishman, and he lamented the fact that the production was so rushed that he had no time to research the character or even read the Fleming novel, which was published six months before the episode aired.

In the 60-minute program, he's known as "Card Sense Jimmy Bond," who works for the CIA, not MI6. He's also kind of a dolt, not at all suave. (Peter Lorre, as Soviet intelligence operative Le Chiffre, is the only reason to seek out this oddity.)

I'm being deliberately obtuse here. All these Bonds were white, which we might imagine is what matters most to RAP.

He's tired of all this talk about how representation is important because it shapes how minority communities are viewed by society and how they view themselves. Mayberry got along just fine with its occasional unpushy Black background actors; in season seven, they even let one of them, Opie's football coach Flip Conroy (Rockne Tarkington), have a couple of lines.

But the times they are a-changin', no matter how much RAP hates it. While he might take some comfort in Bond producer Barbara Broccoli's recent statement that Bond is a male character and that the next Bond will be male (though "No Time to Die" does introduce us to the first Black female 007: Lashana Lynch as Nomi), she did not guarantee his continued whiteness.

And the bookmakers--who generally know more about everything than the rest of us--have installed 31-year-old mixed-race actor Regé-Jean Page as the 5-to-2 favorite. Page currently stars in Netflix's series "Bridgerton," a Regency-era romantic comedy series that takes a non-traditional approach to casting, generously sprinkling Black actors in roles that would have traditionally gone to white performers.

Other non-white actors whose names have been mentioned as potential future Bonds include Idris Elba and "Rich Crazy Asians" star Henry Golding. Elba would be my choice, but he would be over 50 by the time the next film begins production, which I guess is a strike against him.

Craig is 53 now; he was 51 when "No Time to Die" was shot. Roger Moore remains the oldest actor to have portrayed Bond; he was 58 when he made 1985's "A View to a Kill." David Niven was 57 when he played "Sir James Bond" in the 1967 parody version of "Casino Royale."

Anyway, RAP's take betrays a lack of imagination. James Bond is obviously a fictional character, and the influences Ian Fleming drew from to make him up were diverse. Bond carried the same golf handicap as his creator and shared Fleming's taste in cars, cigarettes and liquor, but while Fleming was employed by Naval Intelligence during World War II, he was desk-bound as the personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey.

Still, he had plenty of occasion to talk to real spies and hear their war stories. Among the dozens who have been put forward as inspirations for the Bond character are Serbian triple agent Duško Popov and the man known as Sidney Reilly, the legendary British "Ace of Spies" (and master criminal).

Reilly, historians generally agree, was Jewish; they differ on whether he was born Zigmund Rozenblum in Odessa, Georgi or Salomon Rosenblum in the Russian Empire's Kherson Governorate, or Sigmund Rosenblum in Bielsk Podlaski, what is present-day Poland.

Fleming described Bond "as six feet tall, 167 pounds, a slim build with blue-gray eyes, black hair, and a thin scar on his right cheek," with a certain facial resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael--who, Ian Fleming thought, looked a lot like Ian Fleming.

Craig doesn't look anything like that, or like Ian Fleming. But, to RAP's point, he is as white as a painting of blue-eyed Jesus.

The practice of casting actors without considering their ethnicity, skin color, body shape, sex and/or gender isn't exactly new -- men played women in Elizabethan times (because women weren't allowed on stage). In the 19th Century, it was common for women to play male roles, such as when Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet. Let's not dwell on black face. Realism in casting is actually a rather recent development -- it probably started with the advent of cinema.

In the past couple of years, Dev Patel, who is of Indian descent, has played David Copperfield and Sir Gawain, son of Lot, King of Orkney. In the 2020 Hulu series "The Great," Sacha Dhawan, another actor of Indian descent, plays Russian Prince Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, who led the revolt that overthrew Tsar Peter III.

Black actor Abraham Popoola plays a Russian nobleman in the series, which sent the commentators at Russia Beyond, which has been decried as a propaganda website, into a tizzy: "A Black Count Rostov?!"

So-called "color-blind casting" isn't a stumbling block for most of us. We can accommodate characters speaking in iambic pentameter or singing their lines. As soon as you get what the movie or television show or play is doing, you kind of forget about it. Your imagination ought to able to accept the alternative reality proffered by the production.

The literal mind is a vulgar mind; only the dull expect fiction to conform with the banality of the usual world. Ranting about the prospect of a Black (or Asian or gay or transgendered) James Bond is silly, pathetic, and symptomatic of an impoverished imagination.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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