"Too Street"-gate: "James Bond" Author's Comments Reveal Racialized Class-Based Politics

Tuesday saw Idris Elba trending on Twitter. It wasn’t because of a new movie. It was because the author of the current James Bond novels said that Elba was “too street” to play the classic spy character. 

Anthony Horowitz, author of the latest Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, said in a Daily Mail interview that he didn’t think Elba wouldn’t be the best choice for Bond, stumbling into some very racially potent terminology. (As a point of interest, David Oyelowo is voicing Bond for the Trigger Mortis audiobook.)

“For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part,” he said. “It’s not a colour issue. I think he is probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond.” Instead, he thought Adrian Lester, from Hustle, could do the part. For the record, Lester is black, which probably made some people believe Horowitz wasn’t using coded language. And to be fair to Horowitz, he obviously didn’t know what he was saying when he said “too street.” However, to assert that Elba was too hardcore, and then unwittingly pit two black actors against each other in a class war, is something that is very important to discuss.

I think there is something to be said that the term “street” is another common way of saying “thug” or “black.” What people took offense to is that it sounded like Horowitz was saying Elba was too “black” to play Bond. To go even further, it’s like he was saying Elba was too uncouth, without manners. To speak in British terms, it’s like Horowitz was saying Elba was too much of a chav to play a suave, debonair man (who also is a misogynist and murderer, but whatever.)

It’s important to note that Horowitz mentions Adrian Lester in his idea of Bond. Because he mentioned a black actor, Horowitz really didn’t know that what he was about to say would be problematic. But it’s the particular background of Lester that puts one of the more subtle aspects of discrimination in the light. That aspect is that too many people (of all races, to be honest) believe that if you’re going to be black (or some other minority), that you have to be the “clean” version of it. You have to have the pedigree to be able to be validated as yourself. If not, then you’re just another chav, “too street” to be taken seriously.

This is not to bring Lester into this, because this isn’t his problem. But I believe Horowitz must have known about Elba and Lester’s theatrical backgrounds to have made his comment. Elba came from a working-class family and credits The Prince’s Trust, a charitable organization that runs, as Wikipedia states, “a range of training programmes, provide mentoring support and offer financial grants to build the confidence and motivation of disadvantaged young people,” with his start in his career. He also developed his acting talent early by winning a place in the National Youth Music Theatre, “an arts organisation in the United Kingdom providing pre-professional education and musical theatre stage experience for young people” (also quoting Wikipedia). Elba worked odd jobs while taking small roles in TV shows as he worked his way up the ladder.

One of the areas Elba was raised in is East Ham, which is one of the most diverse suburbs in London, but also one of the city’s suburbs with a high unemployment rate. Again, to quote Wikipedia:

East Ham is a multi-cultural area, with a majority of South Asians and African, Caribbean and eastern European residents. As of 2010, East Ham has the fourth highest level of unemployment in Britain, with 16.5 percent of its residents registered unemployed. Around 7 in 10 children living in East Ham are from low income families, making it one of the worst areas in the country for child poverty.

Other areas in London Elba calls home include Hackney, where he was born, and Canning Town, where Elba went to school. Like East Ham, Hackney and Canning Town both have large diverse demographics, poor housing, poverty, and are experiencing a gentrification moment.

Compare that to Lester, who was raised in Birmingham, which is the largest and most populated city next to London. It’s also nearly as prosperous, with tons of cultural and economic output. The amount of artistry in Birmingham alone is enough to give a budding actor tons of chances to enhance their talents; the city boasts its own ballet company and symphony, as well as a history of literary, artistic, musical and acting achievement.

The economics of the city can’t be ignored since compared to East Ham, which has a high diversity rate and low employment, Birmingham’s high employment rate has something to do with the fact that over 50 percent of Birmingham is white. The two towns show that white flight and race-based city zoning isn’t something that’s just a problem in America.

Lester was able to act from the age of 14 with the Birmingham Youth Theatre and later, he was able to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) which is one of the oldest drama schools in the UK and has a deep, prestigious alumni list, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hiddleston, Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Kenneth Branagh, Joan Collins, Alan Rickman, and many, many more. 

In short: Horowitz wasn’t honing in on race in a simple way; he was honing in on who he felt was “the right black person” to play what is considered a prestigious role.

Naturally, everyone, including movie and TV stars, sounded off on the tone-deafness of Horowitz’s “too street” comments. Of course, he’d have to give an apology, which he did.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Some of Horowitz’s class-based bias comes out in the fact that he felt that Elba’s “gritty” portrayal of John Luther was too much for the “shaken, not stirred” spy character. While Luther is a show that oftentimes challenges the viewer, often cited for its darkness and heaviness, Lester’s Hustle is something that gives the audience a fun ride, with The Guardian calling it “high-concept,” “slick,” and “glossy” and The Times writing that it was a drama series that didn’t take itself too seriously. Again, the concept of being “acceptable” in Hororwitz’s view is shown in the types of roles the two actors play on screen.

Again, this is not to make Lester seem like a bad guy; I’m not trying to compare Lester and Elba for nefarious reasons. But I’m not the one who insinuated the comparison in the first place. Horowitz comparing the two is what many other people do to black people with different life experiences all the time. It’s happened to me plenty of times, with me usually being the “acceptable” one, something I resent more than I can tell you. Perhaps that’s why I could recognize class-based racial issues was at the center of this the moment I recognized it was Lester Horowitz was bringing up.

The moral of the story is not to make anyone a villain, including Horowitz. The true moral is to not compare one black person against another in terms of class-based racial criticism. We aren’t supposed to fit a narrow, Eurocentric viewpoint of what “acceptability” should look like. Anyone could play James Bond, regardless of the actor’s background, race, and class. Let’s hope Horowitz, and all of us who followed this story, remember this lesson.

Idris Elba as John Luther in Luther. Photo credit: BBC

  • This also plays very neatly into the idea of “respectability politics”, although, I don’t think Horowitz is entirely aware of that.The idea that some Black people are the “good” ones and all the others are the Bad” ones.
    I’ve been on the receiving end of this myself and it was usually based entirely on how I was dressed. When it wasn’t that, it was based on how well I spoke.

    It’s more than a little galling to watch someone’s attitude change towards you, the moment you speak.

    • Yep. My whole life has been shaped by the respectability politics other people play with minorities and with other “respectable”-adjacent things, like having long hair (some people think I’m wearing weave or that I’m directly part Asian/Native or an that I’m from the Caribbean, because they think black people can’t grow long hair) or being quiet and mannerable. I’ve had some teachers be literally weirded out and surprised by it. One teacher even asked me what church I went to in an attempt to suss out what kind of values they were teaching me (the gag was on her: I don’t regularly attend church; I’m just a good kid thanks to my parents being good parents). I’ve definitely been directly compared to other black people before, and me being naive, I only realized it fully after the fact. There’s also tons of indirect stuff that I or my sisters have experienced, such as white people saying things like “you’re bright” in a surprised tone of voice. I’ve been judged by both white and black people, so I’ve grown up feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere. I’ve certainly gotten those “you aren’t black enough” looks and coded talk from several black people.

      • Aww man!
        The first time I ever got the “not black enuff ” treatment, I was in first grade. I remember the exact moment it happened. Some little girl who was sitting across from me at the lunchroom table. Because my Mom was a pre-school-educator, I was fully prepared by the time I started kindergarten, so I was let to know, by the other kids, that I wasn’t like them because I spoke ” like a white girl”.

        And I kept getting that all through my entire school career.

        It wasn’t until, well into my adulthood, that I encountered other black people who’d been through that, too. It was a relief to know my complaints about how I’d been treated by other black people, were not some kind of aberration.

        • I’m also glad that later in life, I met black people that have had the same experiences I’ve had. Makes you feel like less of an anomaly.