From a black James Bond to a female Sherlock, diverse casting isn’t PC gone mad – it makes stories better

There was a bit more to Agincourt than a dozen Rada graduates standing around between two curtains.

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“James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming. He was white and Scottish. Period,” said Rush Limbaugh just before Christmas, apparently not having seen any of the films after Sean Connery’s. And without knowing that Fleming came up with the Scottish backstory only after Connery was cast in Dr No.

What prompted the blowhard radio host’s outburst? He was decrying the suggestion – made by the Sony film executive Amy Pascal in emails leaked by hackers – that Idris Elba might play 007 once Daniel Craig shuffles off to the Great Budgie Smuggler in the Sky. As it happens, I agree that Idris Elba shouldn’t play James Bond. But not because he’s black – it’s because his strength as an actor is a brooding physicality at odds with my idea of Bond as a smooth psychopath in a dinner jacket. Chiwetel Ejiofor, on the other hand . . . He’s the Bond for me. Bring on the phallic sports car and the cheap puns about electrocuting people.

Thankfully, overt racism about casting decisions is much rarer than it once was – at least outside internet comments, where one person I read suggested Elba playing Bond was a gateway drug to Frank Bruno as prime minister. But there are more subtle, and more successful, arguments that conspire to keep non-white actors out of leading roles.

The first is the power of the default. Too many roles are assumed to be white roles unless otherwise specified; James Bond is a classic case. Is it so bizarre to imagine that a black or Asian boy might be orphaned and dropped into public school, and might emerge a repressed charmer with great aim and a taste for Martini? Also, just putting this out there, but I hear there are non-white people in Scotland these days. (Notwithstanding Billy Connolly’s claim that actually most Scots aren’t even white: they’re pale blue.)

The second is the hard-headed commercial argument: ah, we would love to cast non-traditionally, but – oh dear! – it would be a commercial flop. This is the argument advanced by Ridley Scott to explain why his film Exodus featured a cast that would have needed to apply SPF50 ten times a day while crossing the Red Sea. “I can’t mount a film of this budget . . . and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he told Variety. “I’m just not going to get it financed.” He’s right that the system is stacked against him, but equally, audiences can’t demonstrate what they want until they are offered it. Five years ago, you’d have been told that no one wanted a female action hero. Then came The Hunger Games. Before that, people fretted about having a black action hero. Then came Will Smith.

The last redoubt of this argument is the most persistent: the appeal to historical accuracy, the argumentum ad Downton, if you will. Unfortunately, it is also total bollocks. It ignores, for a start, that Europe’s population was not snow-white until the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. To take a random example, in 1789 London’s big literary sensation was the bestselling autobiography of the former slave Olaudah Equiano; he even went on a book tour to promote it. Just over 20 years later, a Bengal-born man called Sake Dean Mahomed established Britain’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House in London. Just because the history many of us were taught at school doesn’t mention the likes of Equiano and Mahomed doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

In any case, we gaily ignore strict historical accuracy when it suits us. Every so often, someone has a conniption about an innovative way of presenting Shakespeare, with the implication that the director has mucked about with The Way It Has Always Been Done. But people have always mucked about with Shakespeare: the 18th century preferred King Lear with a happy ending. Against this, experiments with casting such as Patrick Stewart’s “photo-negative” Othello – he was the only white actor in an otherwise all-black cast – don’t raise many eyebrows. What might surprise you is that as recently as 1981, it was considered OK for Anthony Hopkins to black up for the part.

It’s a criminal waste of talent that many of our best black actors will be inundated with offers to play Othello but wouldn’t ever be considered for Hamlet. Look, unless you’ve got boys playing all the women’s roles and you’re doing it in original pronunciation, don’t come bleating about source material. (Yes, Lenny Henry’s accent is more “authentic” than John Gielgud’s.) I have a smidgen more sympathy with people who might find a non-white Henry V disorienting, but if they can imagine that there was a teeny bit more to Agincourt than a dozen Rada graduates standing around between two velvet curtains, they can probably cope.

In any case, more diverse casting is better casting. Why? Because we are addicted to franchises and remakes. Actively casting women and minorities in established parts opens up interesting narrative possibilities. Take the story of Sherlock Holmes: stripped of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages, it’s a story about how the world accommodates a difficult genius, and what it means to care about someone who refuses to listen to good advice. In the past ten years, that has given us the BBC’s Sherlock, where the central relationship is reimagined as homoerotic; CBS’s Elementary, where a female Watson is much more reluctant to indulge her Sherlock’s whims; and Fox’s Bones, where Emily Deschanel’s forensic anthropologist is the high-functioning social maladroit and David Boreanaz the people person.

Diversity here is about more than “political correctness”; it makes for better drama. What keeps us coming back to Shakespeare, or Sherlock, is that they tap in to universal archetypes and emotions – but every generation can make them new again.

Now, get Chiwetel on the phone. There’s a dinner jacket with his name on it. 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth