Idris Elba too ‘street’ to play Bond? Why the word sparked a racism debate

‘Rough’? Really? Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Author Anthony Horowitz, the man charged with writing the latest James Bond novel, has claimed Idris Elba, widely tipped to be the next actor to play 007 on the big screen, is “too street” for the role.

Horowitz told the Mail on Sunday:

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.

Horowitz was quick to add that several other black actors could have also played Bond, and has since issued an apology about his comments.

Do we have here a simple transfer effect here, whereby Horowitz wrongly equates Elba to two of his most popular characters, a dysfunctional murder detective (Luther) or a drug dealer who controlled the streets of Baltimore (Stringer Bell in The Wire), or do we have another case of “I’m not racist but … ”?

The colour line

Idris Elba’s career in the entertainment industry spans more than 20 years. He has played roles in big and small productions in the USA, Britain and South Africa. Yet his skills might be at the core of what appears to be a new controversy.

Ian Fleming created a character who was supposed to elegantly balance physical attributes with a sleek façade. James Bond is expected to be both tough and charming. Elba lacks the latter attribute according to Horowitz. One cannot help wonder whether the perception is based on deep knowledge of the actor’s parts in more than 70 productions, or there is more to these statements.

Horowitz’s stance about Elba’s lack of suavity could be a direct reference to his inability to interpret certain types of characters. It implies that his range is somehow limited. The film industry does after all hold in high regard actors who can move away from their usual repertoire.

And yes, some of Elba’s most recent films have been about physically strong characters. His role as Heimdall in the blockbuster movie Thor is one example. Despite the actor’s ability to bring some depth to the character he played, his part as a Norse deity drew criticism in 2013.

But what about Elba’s other roles? It seems even taking on the multifaceted personality and life of Nelson Mandela in The Long Road to Freedom and receiving accolades from film critics was not enough to convince Horowitz.

So if this is not really about craft, could it be about race? There seems to be a “colour line” that cannot be crossed when playing certain roles even in Britain, and 007 might be one of them.

It would not be the first time limitations in skills are used as an excuse to hide racially motivated comments and stances. But before we jump to conclusions, let us turn briefly to the terms used.

A history of “street”

When stating that Elba was “too street”, Horowitz might have been referring to Elba’s career as a DJ. Elba does delve into music. He is producing and performing what is known as “urban music” or more commonly called rap. Although born in West Africa and developed in the plantations in the Americas from the 16th century onwards, syncopated verses turned into rap music became a popular and respected genre in the USA in the 1970s. The genre was performed by young Black people in various places, including on the street.

The term “street” became associated with young, deprived black people living either in the projects of the Bronx and Compton in the USA or in the inner city areas of the UK. The implication about being “street” is that one is linked to deprived black youth sub-culture that is at best, emotionally and aesthetically alien to the majority of people in Britain.

To be “too street” is the next level – the accusations juxtaposes sub-culture with a sense of inadequacy when too much of an attribute becomes a hindrance. Elba would then be too rough a black man to be Bond. There is a long-standing history of associating roughness with black people. From rebellious slaves in the plantations to uncouth migrants after WWII, the racially different minority has been perceived as being aggressive and out of control.

The British context

Recent history has told us where these discursive shortcuts stem from. Police violence in Ferguson, the Sandra Bland story and all the tragedies concerning unarmed Black people shot by the police in the USA because they felt threatened, could be reduced to “just an American problem”.

However, the Toxteth, Brixton, Bristol riots in the 1980s and the recent 2011 riots that saw parts of London looted mostly by deprived youth had newspapers, politicians and members of various communities retrieving the racist discourse about rough, angry black people unable to ever really be British.

Horowitz: ‘It’s not a colour issue.’ Ian West/PA

Political correctness turned the narrative into euphemism aimed at giving the qualifications a positive turn such as “urban culture” or “street”, when what was meant was “yobs”. The question, or rather the suspicion, remains.

Could a “rough” black man ever truly be British and accurately represent what is allegedly, quintessentially British: tea, the Queen, 007? Whether Horowitz wants to acknowledge it or even if he is unaware of the long history of race relations in Britain, his use of the word “street” to describe what he sees as the shortcomings of Hackney-born actor Idris Elba is puzzling.

Despite Horowtiz’s apology, the question of legacies of Empire remains. Let us remember that some of Fleming’s books were written in Jamaica. Would it not be fitting to have at long last a child of the British Empire representing British culture?

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.