A few years ago, I overheard a conversation between two people about the new James Bond. Not the new movie, but the man who plays him. When the current 007 hangs up his Aston Martin, what worthy actor will inherit the keys?
One of the friends suggested the black British actor, Idris Elba, citing his good looks, sophistication, and all-round tough guy image as perfect for the role. His friend disagreed. “No. You can’t have a black guy playing Bond. Ian Fleming, the writer of the original books, made Bond Scottish. Therefore, he must be white.”
I would have spluttered into my tea, if I’d been drinking some. This opinion seemed so backward-looking and, well, ignorant. For a start, Scottish people are not all white. According to the last census, 4% of the Scottish population is made up of people of color. So, the idea of Scots being ‘white’ is wrong and, actually, pretty disrespectful to the people of Scotland.
But there’s another reason I found the idea of exclusively white people playing James Bond so troubling. It is the nature of art. Not all art is an exact representation of reality. In fact, most of it is not. When the Impressionists painted, they weren’t trying to produce a photographic image of those waterlilies. An artist is free to draw, compose, design, and write whatever she wants in whatever form she wants. She is expressing her meaning, and does not have to do it in a literal way.
So, an actor’s skin color need not be the same as that of a historical figure they are playing on the stage or screen. For example, before the pandemic, Gelind and I saw the Broadway production of Joan of Arc. Joan was played by the African-American actress Condola Rashad (from the TV show ‘Billions’). Some literalists might protest, “Joan of Arc wasn’t black!” But that’s not the point. It’s art, not history. For the producer of the play, the casting of Rashad expressed a truth that the playwright had possibly not even been conscious of. It was impossible to see Joan in shackles and not see shadows of slavery in our own land.
Well, this leads me into a fun comment about Christmas. Nativities. Have you seen how many there are out there? And many of their creators have taken the same artistic license to make their point. There’s an Irish nativity – the magi are giving clover, gold and Guinness; a Canadian nativity – Mary and Joseph are dressed as Mounties, and there are moose and beavers in attendance; there’s a minimalist Nativity, a Manhattan Nativity, and a Frankenstein Nativity (see them below); and my favorite – a Hipster Nativity (see above).
So, what’s going on? Are these nativities blasphemous? No more than a blond, blue-eyed Jesus is blasphemous. (OK, maybe the Frankenstein one gets close.) You see, the truth that God became a human being gives dignity and honor to ALL human beings. God happened to be incarnated at a particular time, in a particular place, and to particular parents. But the fact that God became a human (ANY human) allows us to imagine God in OUR skin, living OUR lives, empathizing with US in whatever situation we are in.
So, bring on Idris Elba as Bond!