Idris Elba 'Too Street' for James Bond?!

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

There is no particularly good reason to object to the idea of a non-white actor playing James Bond, but author Anthony Horowitz put a particularly large foot in his mouth by calling Idris Elba “too street” for the role in an interview with the Daily Mail. Horowitz, an acclaimed young adult author and British TV creator, was promoting his new Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, and quickly wandered into the fraught cultural issue of Bond casting.

I have written about the country’s hand-wringing about the next James Bond; news that Damian Lewis, a redhead, had become the bookmakers’ favorite for the role was enough to spark some controversy. Elba has consistently been floated as an even more radical possibility, though the actor insists he’s too old for it, but Horowitz had a different, more dismissive attitude in his Mail interview.

“Idris Elba is a terrific actor, but I can think of other black actors who would do it better,” he said, citing TV and stage actor Adrian Lester (who, at 47, is five years older than Elba). “For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part. It’s not a color issue. I think he is probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond. Is it a question of being suave? Yeah.”

“Street,” here, seems unfortunately coded as meaning “threatening,” or lacking sophistication, but it’s hard to know just what Horowitz was thinking saying this. Elba has certainly proven himself as one of his generation’s most versatile actors, but in Britain especially, the cultural minefield of just what exactly the character of Bond is supposed to represent remains extremely volatile.