Before I get to something unserious, let me alert you (if you haven’t read it already) that I wrote about the possible Russian attack on Ukraine for The Atlantic’s Ideas section this week. I said that Putin created this crisis, and there’s not much we can do but batten down the hatches and plan for the worst. You can read the rest here.
Now, on to the really important stuff. (Warning: There are James Bond book and movie spoilers ahead.)
If you were anywhere near social media last week, you’ll know I whacked a hornet’s nest—no, really, I know it’s uncharacteristic of me—when I commented on a report that the producers of the James Bond series were thinking of casting Idris Elba as the new 007.
The way I usually end up in an internet firestorm is to say something I think is completely unremarkable, only to find that a million people—or in some cases, a billion—think that what I said is controversial and even offensive. In this case, my cancelable opinion was that I thought James Bond, if the series were to be continued as anything drawn even remotely from the Ian Fleming novels, should be played by a white actor.
You can imagine how this went over. I was accused of everything from naked racism to underestimating Idris Elba’s acting chops.
Hear me out, because I think there’s a larger point worth considering here. None of this has to do with Mr. Elba, who is a brilliant actor. (So is Daniel Craig. I think he was miscast, too, but one controversy at a time.)
I admit that I am a purist and that I prefer the Bond who is lifted from the books: A misogynistic, booze-swilling British cad, and a man for whom any social changes after 1960 didn’t really happen. The Bond in the books is motivated almost solely by duty, nationalism, and male ego. He is a survivor, but also something of a wreck and a screwup. (Indeed, in the books, M sends him off to Jamaica in Dr. No both as a vacation and as a punishment for letting himself get poisoned by Rosa Klebb’s shoe spike at the end of From Russia With Love.)
So what’s the big deal? Idris Elba can play a vodka-sodden British skirt chaser, right?
Well, yes—except for two other problems. Bond is something of a racist, and he’s a throwback to a traditionally white, Anglo-Saxon social caste, one that took him in as an orphan and to whose higher ranks he aspires.
In the books, and later even when played by the Scottish Sean Connery or the Irish Pierce Brosnan or the Welsh Timothy Dalton or the Australian George Lazenby, this aspirationally posh English identity comes through as part of the character. Whether 007 is pretentiously critiquing an “indifferently blended” cognac (to M’s obvious irritation), sneaking caviar into a health resort, or carping about the proper temperature of champagne, James Bond is a white Brit who is not only a snob but also one who intends to move up a social ladder that was designed and put in place sometime around the writing of the Magna Carta.
And oh, that racism. Ian Fleming was, to say the least, an unenlightened man of his time (or, as one of the Bond-continuation authors charged, a racist and an anti-Semite). It’s hard to argue with that; from the description of Oddjob and the Koreans in Goldfinger to his stereotyping of the various international thugs of SPECTRE in Thunderball, Fleming’s Bond had plenty to say about Germans, Russians, Jews, Roma, various Asians, and Americans, who are mostly portrayed as uncultured hicks. (Bond’s American pal Felix Leiter, a “sandy-haired Texan,” is an exception.)
But wait, the producers mostly wrote the racism out of the Bond movies, didn’t they?
Although we think of Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond, for example, as just light fluff, there’s plenty of offensive stuff even by the looser standards of the 1970s and early 1980s, including the portrayal of Arabs in The Spy Who Loved Me and the scenes in India in Octopussy. Meanwhile, 1973’s Live and Let Die, a riff on the blaxploitation films of the period, was easily the most racist Bond flick. It has it all: Voodoo rituals. Frightened natives. A crime boss in Harlem who says things like “Names is for tombstones, baby!” and “Take this honky out and waste him!”
Moore’s Bond endures all of this with the bemused smile you’d expect from the white Etonian who took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge. The man reeks of what we would now call white privilege. (“Waste him?” Bond asks Jane Seymour, the ingenue less than half his age he’ll bed later in the movie. “Is that a good thing?”)
And while Bond serves Britain, he’s all about England. Born of a Scot and a Swiss mother, Bond was raised in Kent. He is very much English and he dwells on it, as do his enemies, who invariably describe him as English, with the obvious—and contemptuous—connotation of a particular kind of white, upper-class, educated Englishman who obsesses over tradition and manners. (“For England, James?” says Alec Trevelyan, rogue agent 006, as Bond is about to kill him. “No,” Bond responds coldly as he executes his best friend. “For me.”)
In the movie version of The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond is called to service while with a woman in a ski chalet. As he obeys M’s order to, ahem, “pull out, immediately,” the woman says: “But James! I need you!” To which Bond replies: “So does England!” He does not say: “I understand you have needs, but the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which includes Scotland and England and Wales along with the British Commonwealth, all of which are part of a rich, multiethnic tapestry of cultures that we all value equally, needs me as well.”
No. He dumps the woman and kills a bunch of KGB goons. He then skis off a cliff and is saved by a parachute emblazoned with a Union Jack.
I have no doubt that Captain Bond, RN (promoted in retirement), would today be writing snippy letters supporting Brexit from a cottage somewhere outside of London.
Fans of casting a Black actor (or a woman) in the role talk about Bond changing with the times and how the series should experiment artistically with the character. These and other arguments boil down to gutting the character, keeping the name—James Bond® or 007™—and homogenizing the series into spy generica.
This series already exists. It’s called Jason Bourne, and it’s terrible. With the possible exception of the first film, the Bourne series eviscerated Robert Ludlum’s books, cast Matt Damon as a superspy (sure, whatever), and then replaced plot and character with jiggly camera work and car chases.
Why do this to Bond? The movies are an enjoyable action franchise with a flawed antihero. They have nothing to teach us, and there is nothing in them that requires updating for relevance or modernity.
But perhaps even more to the point, why would we want to make a Black actor the target of taunting lines such as “James Bond, Her Majesty’s loyal terrier, defender of the so-called faith”? This would seem weird directed at Idris Elba. Would M slapping down Bond’s appraisal of the cognac come across as merely annoyed - or racist? Would a Black Bond laugh it up as he celebrates escaping a killer in India by shoveling money out of a cab while he yells “rupees!” and urchins clog the streets to scoop up the cash? (Watch the scene, I dare you.)
We already saw the effort to soften up and humanize Bond—while leaving aside some of Fleming’s bad stuff—in the Craig movies, which were the worst of all worlds: a moody, lovesick, sensitive Bond in need of a good therapist. Which makes perfect sense in a series where his worst enemy—Blofeld—was not a brilliant psychopath (as he was in the books) but an angry little boy who’s mad that his daddy liked James better.
No, really. I am not making that up. That’s Blofeld’s beef with 007. This, in the words of writer Parul Sehgal, is the trauma plot, a thoroughly modern literary device that filmmakers “can’t resist” but that “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority.” This reveal in Spectre was inane and made a laughable hash of both the Bond and Blofeld characters. (It also wasted the wonderful Christoph Waltz in what could have been a star turn for the ages. But I digress.)
As a last example: Imagine doing this in reverse, and deciding, say, to reboot the 1971 American classic Shaft with a white actor as the toughest private eye in Harlem going to war with the Italian Mafia. I mean, you could do it. You could find a rugged white actor with street cred and then kludge together some origin story about being raised by a Black foster mom who was killed by drug dealers or in a Mob hit or some damn thing.
But why jump through all the hoops? Shaft’s Blackness is central to his character, just as Bond’s whiteness is central to his. Indeed, why change famous characters just to engage in stunt casting? The urge to change Bond says something about the homogenizing and fragile nature of our culture now. If we’re not big boys and girls who can enjoy a flawed, ruthless hero saving the world, then maybe the Bond series has come to a natural end and we should all stick to Disney princess movies.
And now a look at the mail.
I was kind of pleased that most of you agreed with me about Jeopardy! As I was preparing this week’s newsletter, Amy Schneider’s streak came to an end, but many of you told me you’d already stopped watching. I think people are a bit reluctant to say out loud that they’re bored by the long streaks - I was complaining about them years ago during James Holzhauer’s run - because there’s a new breed of Jeopardy! fan who loves them.
One such viewer is Josefa R.’s brother, who asked her to send me this:
“Personally, I like to root for a great player on Jeopardy!, comparable to sports fans jumping on the bandwagon for a good team, or Tiger Woods perhaps. Tiger WINS, people want to share in that victory …”
Yes. That’s the problem. This is what I meant about “professionalizing” the game. And these players, as I keep arguing, are not Tiger Woods; they’re very, very good but after a certain number of games, they have a formidable advantage over newbies.
A few of you suggested, as Jeremy C. did, that maybe we can cap the streak at ten games instead of the old five-game rule. I guess that could work, but I’d still rather have as many players as possible.
Sarah R. suggested creating a second game, Jeopardy!: Elites, “a show for people who want to see the amazing streaks and the helpless other contestants get crushed, and then regular Jeopardy! with no streaks and more down-to-earth contestants.” I’m not a fan of this idea, but it would be more honest than what’s going on now.
Several of you wondered, as John J. did, how the guy who wrote The Death of Expertise could be “saying experts at Jeopardy may be ruining the game for the average Joe or Josephine?” But yes, that’s my point. It’s a game for amateurs, some of whom will be revealed as excellent players. That’s the charm of the game.
Two of the angriest responses I got were from former Jeopardy! champions on Twitter, including 2015 tournament champ Alex Jacob. Both of them were pretty put out that a guy who played, in Jacob’s words, “a million years ago” would attribute long streaks to anything except the “monstrous” knowledge gap between champions and the hapless ordinary players.
Sure, great players know more than average players. But in the piece, I argue that they do not know 30 games more than other players; they are, however, racking up a big edge by playing for so long. I guess it stings a bit for some winners of the game to admit this. I might have played a long time ago, but it seems to me that Jeopardy! champs used to have a touch more grace than this.
Finally, many of you wrote about my dystopian take on the future of democracy in the United States. I thought I was being pretty bleak; indeed, I felt sympathy for regular reader Carmen D., who blamed me for the pint of salted-caramel ice cream she ate after reading it. But I was struck by how many of you thought I wasn’t pessimistic enough. I mean, come on, people. I’m supposed to be Dr. Buzzkill, but you’re all even more in the dumps than I am.
Tom L. warned me: “You are NOT seeing clearly—rather, you grossly underestimate—the degree of danger if Trump (or a mini-Trump) and the GOP take power in 2024 (or ever again).” In a similar vein, Kay H. said: “We have an absolute nightmare ahead of us on all fronts, including the environment. The picture you paint is not at all realistic.”
Readers, please remember that my job is to depress you, not the other way around.
See you all next week, when it will be time to return to the problem of nuclear weapons—and problems even James Bond won't be able to solve.