“I’m not here to talk about black people. I’m here to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour– it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned- diversity of thought.” -Idris Elba
In December of 2014, Sony Pictures was at the center of a devastating leaked email scandal in which the public became privy to certain sentiments shared by Sony executives. Yet, although many leaked emails contained damning and insensitive information, such as co-chairman Amy Pascal referring to Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave as President Obama’s favorite films, not all painted the inner machinations of a Hollywood studio in a negative light. Pascal herself advocated for Idris Elba, star of BBC’s award-winning series Luther, to don the tux of James Bond next, and in doing so, become the first black actor to portray the iconic spy. Now, over thirteen months later, Hollywood is at the forefront of another controversy, this time spurred by the lack of diversity in the recently announced nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards. At a time when we ought to be celebrating film’s finest achievements, many are instead angered, saddened, and frustrated by the current landscape. As such, there cannot be a better time for Sony to make a loud statement by casting Elba as Bond.
On January 14th, to the disappointment and chagrin of many, not a single non-white actor was nominated in any of the four acting categories. Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation was shut-out, while Straight Outta Compton and Creed were both sparingly nominated for their white screenwriters and actor, respectively. Discussing whether the Academy is racist, as they have been accused, is difficult; some members of the Academy have taken umbrage to this recent controversy, but if starting this important discussion hurts some feelings, so be it. I believe that the Academy, whose demographics skew heavily white and aged, at the very least are biased to more traditional tastes, if not overtly conservative values. Was the Academy hesitant to acknowledge Netflix as an emerging distributor of feature films with Beasts of No Nation or did they purposely snub Idris Elba in due to his role as an evil African warlord? Other instances of bias are more straightforward, and notions of discrimination seem quite apparent. Carol, which the Academy nominated as one of the best acted, written, and aesthetically pleasing films of the year, was oddly not among the eight Best Picture nominees. Does a homosexual love story still make voters queasy and uncomfortable, even in 2015, ten years after they egregiously anointed Crash over Brokeback Mountain?
Each year, dozens of films and actors hope their names are announced as one of the five nominees in various categories. Competition is undeniably stiff, and every year filmmakers from all backgrounds come up empty handed. While Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and Beasts were not nominated for Best Picture, others including Johnny Depp were also snubbed. However, it’s disconcerting that not a single performer or person of color to receive a nomination among that trio of critically and commercially acclaimed films. This is not a matter of fulfillment, or receiving a tangible reminder of appreciation. This is not about a clunky piece of gold that will sit idly on a shelf. Rather, this is about Latino, Black, and Asian actors deserving opportunity, which is why addressing the issue of diversity in Hollywood at solely the level of an awards show is flawed. While minorities accounted for nearly 38% of the population in 2013, they landed the lead role in only 16.7% of the films analyzed.
Some advocate that casting roles in Hollywood are based on the audience’s ability to relate to the character, explaining why Jesus is so often whitewashed on screen in many films, when in reality he was likely brown-skinned. But, on a larger scale, that theory holds little substance; it is hard to believe that how relatable a protagonist is has so much to do with revenues when audiences flock to blockbuster films about billionaire playboys and superheros. Not to mention that in 2013, more than half of frequent moviegoers in America and Canada were minorities - evidently, they had no such difficulty relating to disproportionately white films, why should the situation be any different for the reverse? With a younger generation of minority talent emerging, blockbusters with a Michael B. Jordan or Chadwick Boseman in the lead role have the potential to be commercial successes as well. And although Boseman is set to play the titular role in Black Panther for Marvel, this is a comic-book character that is traditionally black. Casting Elba as Bond, on the other hand, not only places his face in one of the most beloved franchises of all time, it represents changing global ideas and a huge step in diversification.
But this casting is not purely political: Idris Elba epitomizes Bond’s qualities. He is suave, intimate, and contains a magnetic screen presence. The notion of Elba being “too street”, as posited by Bond author Anthony Horowitz, is ludicrous, and comments by former Bond, Roger Moore, that Bond should be “english-english”, represent a poor attempt at saying a black man is not fit to play Bond. Yet, placed in the same room with other 007 hopefuls, Elba will out-act and out-charm the rest of the field. With many critically acclaimed turns in television and dramas behind him, coupled with Daniel Craig’s continued apathy towards the role, Elba is the right man to take over the beloved spy franchise. Elba once commented that since we do not refer to Craig as the ‘blue-eyed Bond’, then he does want to be known as the black Bond. He should not and will not be given the role to fulfill a ‘quota’. He will be given the role because he simply deserves it.
At a recent appearance in England’s House of Commons, Elba gave to Parliament what he views as the most important speech of his life. His speech included the quote that opens this piece, and showcases that Elba’s role in changing public and Hollywood perceptions is far more than just as an actor. He understands the issues at stake, and the moral complexity that complicates the issues many look at in simple ways. He understands that awards are subjective, that talent is widespread. He understands that without opportunity, talent is wasted. With so much discussion regarding diversity rampant in political, social, and entertainment communities, the time is ripe for Hollywood to be revolutionized. Dear Hollywood, let Idris Elba lead the way.