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Is The James Bond Franchise Ready For A Black 007?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

SEAN CONNERY: (As James Bond) Bond, James Bond.

INSKEEP: That's the Scottish actor Sean Connery, one of seven actors who've played James Bond over the years, including the current one, Daniel Craig. All have been white. So let's just take a moment and talk about the possibility of a black James Bond. The writer, Anthony Horowitz, was asked about this. He's the man who currently writes "James Bond" novels, and he was asked if the actor Idris Elba could play Bond. He said no, that actor was, quote, "too street," to play the role. Horowitz has since apologized.

Karen Grigsby Bates, from NPR's Code Switch team, has been asking how there could be a black James Bond.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Americans might recognize Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, the lethally intelligent Baltimore drug baron in the hit HBO series, "The Wire."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")

IDRIS ELBA: (As Stringer Bell) No beef, no drama - just business. Anybody got problems with anybody else here, we bring it to the group. We ain't got to take it to the streets.

BATES: And Elba's role as John Luther, the deeply complex London detective in a popular BBC drama, really showed off his smarts, sex appeal and magnetism. Here he is predicting to an attractive serial killer how her compulsion to keep trophies from her crimes eventually will do her in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUTHER")

ELBA: (As Detective Chief Inspector John Luther) And it's that compulsion that makes you weak in ways that you can't see or understand. It's that compulsion that's going to get you caught.

BATES: A whole lot of people want to be caught by Idris Elba. For years, there've been viral campaigns to make him the next James Bond. The comments from writer Anthony Horowitz earlier this week turned things up a notch. But that charge is just repeating history. A few years ago, Sean Connery told a British talk show host that Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, thought he was too rough for the part.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONNERY: I never got introduced to Fleming until I was well into the movie, but I know he was not that happy with me as a choice.

BATES: But Bill Desowitz, author of "Bond Unmasked," said the producer saw something essential in the darkly handsome Scot.

BILL DESOWITZ: He had this incredible panther-like walk and sexual charisma, and they thought that was very important in conveying a sense of danger.

BRUCE SCIVALLY: And in that regard, I'd say Idris Elba certainly has what it takes to be James Bond.

BATES: That's Bruce Scivally, film historian and co-author of "James Bond: The Legacy." Scivally says Connery's Bond worked well in the early '60s for a mostly mono-ethnic Britain that was still recovering from World War II. But, he says, continuing Bond's evolution keeps the films fresh.

SCIVALLY: I think Bond has become one of those characters like Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes where different actors can give it a entirely different interpretation, and yet there's still enough of the essence of that character within them to make it palatable to a mass audience.

BATES: In 2014, Elba was coy but playful when he talked to CNN about the Bond rumors.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN INTERVIEW)

ELBA: What do we have to do here? We have to wear beautiful suits, drive nice cars, chase bad guys and date beautiful women.

BATES: Elba's race still may be a challenge for some Bond fans, but, says Bill Desowitz, so might age. Movie production takes time. If Elba gets the role, he could be as old as 47 when he starts.

DESOWITZ: Getting into your late 40s does become an issue for someone signing onto a franchise.

BATES: But someone will be signing.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

JUDI DENCH: (As M) Bond, I need you back.

DANIEL CRAIG: (As James Bond) I never left.

BATES: The only question is, who?

(SOUNDBITE OF "JAMES BOND" THEME SONG)

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.