007 Turns 50

In 1962, the world first met the British agent, James Bond. Since then, so much of Bond-mania has gone down in cinema history. But one of the less appreciated aspects of the franchise is the early use of actors of color in important roles. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with The Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, Wesley Morris.

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(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BOND THEME SONG)

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

It's hard to believe but it's been 50 years since James Bond sipped his first martini - shaken, not stirred - in "Dr. No" with Sean Connery, wearing a perfectly tailored tuxedo and winning a hand of cards. Who else but 007 could simply say his name and have it become the 22nd greatest quotation in cinema history - at least according to the American Film Institute?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DR. NO")

EUNICE GRAYSON: (as Sylvia Trench ) I admire your luck, Mr...

SEAN CONNERY: (as James Bond) Bond. James Bond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: One of the less appreciated aspects of the Bond franchise is that fairly early on the films used actors of color in important roles. "Live and Let Die," from 1973, featured the first black Bond girl, Gloria Hendry as Rosie Carver, since then there've been many more, including Malaysian born actress Michelle Yeoh in "Tomorrow Never Dies" and, of course, Halle Berry in "Die Another Day." This year, actress Naomie Harris will have a featured role in the new Bond film "Skyfall."

Joining us to talk about that and the many other actors of color in James Bond films is The Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, Wesley Morris.

Welcome to the program.

WESLEY MORRIS: Thanks for having me, Celeste.

HEADLEE: So Wesley, is the Bond franchise better at integrating than Hollywood in general or about the same?

MORRIS: I think it's no better or no worse, really. I mean they, they have in their movies the people that you'd want in any of your movies, and some of those people, you know, happen to be Halle Berry and Naomie Harris, who is in this new movie, "Skyfall." But, you know, I mean they sort of conform to two types. I mean they're either the villain or the person James Bond wants to have sex with.

HEADLEE: Right. Of course. Well, let's talk about that...

MORRIS: So...

HEADLEE: ...the type of character - because as you say, some of these roles are not necessarily uplifting. There's Oddjob, the mostly silent bodyguard of them main villain in "Goldfinger" from 1964...

MORRIS: Oh, Oddjob.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: ... played by actor Harold Sakata, who is of Japanese descent, although he's born in Hawaii. Can we look at this as sort of the product of their times or is there just not a lot of role models that become part of these James Bond stories?

MORRIS: Well, I mean I think that one of the interesting things about some of these films is they are very much products of their era. If you look at "Live and Let Die," I mean that is basically a blaxploitation movie with James Bond. You know, you have Yaphet Kotto, you have Gloria Hendry and you have, you know, the Pimp Mobile. There's a very jive sensibility to that movie...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

MORRIS: ...that is both laughable but I mean I'm sure in 1973 it was interesting movie-going insofar as it was in direct conversation with like other blaxploitation movies. And I think that the movies sort of got slicker as the years passed, and I think they also sort of tried to touch on these like globalist political themes without actually advancing the conversation but sort of turning them into camp or, you know, turning into camp. I mean you can't actually turn something into camp.

HEADLEE: Right.

MORRIS: But, you know, they're interesting and I like the fact that there are people of color in these films. It's just once you see them you then have to ask what they're actually doing in those movies.

HEADLEE: Well, it's a good opportunity to take a look at what roles people of color have played. Here's Halle Berry playing Jinx in "Die Another Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DIE ANOTHER DAY")

HALLE BERRY: (as Jinx) James, here for the penguins this time, or for the view again?

PIERCE BROSNAN: (as James Bond) Right now I'm only interested in endangered species.

BERRY: (as Jinx) Ooh, wow. Does that include me?

BROSNAN: (as James Bond) Depends on what you're up to this time.

HEADLEE: So that's Pierce Brosnan there are as Bond in "Die Another Day." Was that a stereotyped character? I mean would you see that as not James Bond's equal?

MORRIS: Oh no. But I mean she's Halle Berry. She's more important to everything than Pierce Brosnan. At the time, I believe she had just won her Oscar or it had been a year, and this was like one of the very first things she had done after that. I mean the idea that being in one or being a part of one as this incredible, you know, flattering thing is nice on the one hand but kind of not quite enough for me anyway as a moviegoer on the other.

I will say though, that when you have someone like Jeffrey Wright in these movies - and he plays Felix Leiter. He's been in the last two Daniel Craig installments of these films, I mean I like what he brings to these movies, which is a kind of panache. He's somebody that, you know, could play James Bond but is also existing in another part of this universe in a, you know, a similarly suave way.

HEADLEE: He's definitely James Bond's equal.

MORRIS: Yes. But I mean he's not his narrative equal. And this is really the thing that I'd like to ask is, you know, it's fine to like, you know, have these people of color playing judges and cops and other spies, but really, how much screen time does Jeffrey Wright have? I mean how much screen time does Halle Berry...

HEADLEE: OK. But wait a second here, Wesley. What you're basically saying...

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: ...is that the only way that the Bond franchise could really appreciate and give equal to an actor/actress of color is to make them James Bond.

MORRIS: Yes, I think that's your only option.

HEADLEE: OK. So taken that as a given, like you just said...

MORRIS: But I mean, but Celeste, I just want to say that like I don't think it's James Bond's responsibility to like to do that.

HEADLEE: Right.

MORRIS: But I think in these people want to take it on and revolutionize the series I think that's kind of the only way to do it.

HEADLEE: So that begs the question, of course, who would be the best black James Bond?

MORRIS: The best black James Bond? I mean...

HEADLEE: Or Latino or non-white James Bond?

MORRIS: I think Oscar Isaac would be an awesome James Bond. He's this little guy who has been in a lot of movies. There's a movie called "Drive" that came out last year with Ryan Gosling.

HEADLEE: Right.

MORRIS: He was the guy who got out of jail that Ryan Gosling's character had to help. He's very smooth, very sexy...

HEADLEE: What about Denzel Washington? He seems like the perfect example.

MORRIS: Celeste?

HEADLEE: What?

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: I think Denzel might be too old. And I know it's a crime to say it...

HEADLEE: Aw, come on.

MORRIS: I also think that he's too Denzel for the - Denzel doesn't need James Bond is the other thing. I mean...

HEADLEE: That's true. All right. Well, then Idris Elba. Come on. The accent.

MORRIS: I mean I think you're getting hotter. That's about as good as you're going to get for black men, I think. This would be a great thing for you to do. But I also wonder - I mean you see with every Bond who isn't Sean Connery - and it took a long time for Sean Connery to get out of that pigeonhole too, which is that once you play this part you are forever associated with being James Bond. I don't think that's something if you're Idris Elba at this point in your career you really want to do. He's not old. He's got a lot of things he can offer movies and television without taking this easy paycheck for a lot of work that basically sort of changes the entire trajectory of his career in a way that I'm not sure if you're him you really want to take.

And I think Daniel Craig is also trying to figure out what to do with himself now that he's doing, you know, a James Bond movie every two or three years. It's changed his career and I don't know if necessarily for the better.

HEADLEE: So clearly, Kerry Washington would be our best choice for the next James Bond.

MORRIS: I'd picked her for a Bond any and in a heartbeat.

HEADLEE: Ah, we finally find something we can agree on. Wesley Morris...

MORRIS: Yes. That's a good choice, Celeste.

HEADLEE: ...Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for The Boston Globe joined us from Boston. Thanks so much.

MORRIS: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And let's go out on a little music. Here's Tina Turner performing the theme song for 1995's "GoldenEye."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDENEYE")

TINA TURNER: (Singing) See reflections on the water, more than darkness in the depths. See him surface in every shadow. On the wind I feel his breath. GoldenEye, I found his weakness. GoldenEye, he'll do what I please.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDENEYE")

TURNER: (Singing) ...but a bitter kiss will bring him to his knees. You'll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child. You'll never know how it feels to be left behind. You'll never know the days, the nights, the tears, the tears I've cried. But now my time has come and time, time is not on your side.

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