After the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I wrote a piece about the supporting character Falcon and something called Sidekick-ism. Race and racial ideology was at the heart and soul of what I wrote about, which of course rubbed some people the wrong way. Fortunately, I’ve never cared about how my observations about race and racism may or may not upset people who wander through life with blinders on, convincing themselves that it’s all good when it comes to issues of race. And though it was never my intention to revisit Sidekick-ism, there is more to be said. Because some people still don’t fully comprehend the impact of racial ideology, and how it affects everything—including things as innocuous as pop culture—I wanted to take a look at Sidekick-ism through a very narrow and specific lens. This leads us to today’s topic: Felix Leiter, sidekick to James Bond.
Fans of James Bond—both in films and books—know that Felix Leiter is an American CIA agent, who is friends with Agent 007. In the books, the relationship between Bond and Leiter is better developed than it is in the films. In the Bond movies, Felix Leiter is a textbook example of the Sidekick. Felix Leiter has appeared in ten James Bond films (including Never Say Never Again), and in the 1954 made-for-television Casino Royale, in which Bond was an American agent, and Felix Leiter became Clarence Leiter, British spy. Not counting either the 1954 or the 1967 versions of Casino Royale, in a total of twenty-three movies to date, James Bond has been played by six different actors. By comparison, to date, 007’s Sidekick and friend Felix Leiter has been played by eight actors in ten different films. This in and of itself speaks volumes about the true importance of the character—Felix Leiter is an interchangeable (and sometimes forgettable) supporting character that can be played by just about anyone (see random sampling below).
Of the eight actors to play Felix, most people are hard-pressed to name half of them. At the same time, there is this impression that the character is somehow important to the world of James Bond, given that he is one of only a select few to have a recurring role in the stories. The fact of the matter is that when you look at Felix Leiter in the James Bond films, he could be a character with a different name, and it would not change the outcome of the story, making him a half-ass Sidekick at best. The only reason he keeps coming back is to appease a sense of nostalgia—though not continuity—amongst more dedicated fans.
So what does race have to do with any of this?
Felix Leiter has been played by eight different actors—six were white, two were black. This makes the character unique amongst not just Sidekicks, but amongst literary characters portrayed on film. Felix Leiter is one of the few characters to appear in any film franchise to be played by actors of different racial backgrounds. On the surface, this is as inconsequential as the character himself is to most of the stories that finds him in service to Bond saving the world. But if we look a bit beneath the surface, where racial ideology lurks, we can begin to see how the race of Felix Leiter has a larger impact on the story. Let’s look at two different Leiters, the first, played by Jack Lord in Dr. No (below), and the most recent, played by Jeffery Wright in the 2006 version of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
Considered by many to be the best version of Felix Leiter, Jack Lord set the standard for who and what the character was supposed to be. He dutifully fulfills the role of the Sidekick by providing James Bond with crucial information, lending assistance here and there, and showing up with the cavalry, seemingly just in time, but actually after Bond has defeated the bad guys. This is the role Felix Leiter always plays, with only slight variations to the formula. He is there to make sure that Bond fulfills his heroic duties by saving the day and getting the girl. And in that regard, Felix Leiter, as played by Jack Lord and five other white actors, is a Sidekick in the truest sense of the word. That dynamic changes, however, when a black actor like Jeffrey Wright becomes Felix Leiter (below).
There is no escaping the fact that the world of James Bond is riddled with ideological problems surrounding sex, gender, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism (just to name a few). I mean come on, let’s be honest with each other, when it comes to women and sex, James Bond is his own form of deadly STD. In every single movie, there is at least one woman that he has sex with who ends up dying. I mention this, because it is important that we admit—no matter how much we may love 007 movies—they are a hot mess of ideological wrongness. This is especially true in how women are portrayed and treated, but also in terms of how people of color are presented. Once we accept that the Bond movies do not treat women well, we must look at how these same films treat people of color—in this case, specifically black people, and how issues of race affect Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Felix Leiter.
Throughout the history of James Bond films, black characters have been largely portrayed as background extras or small supporting roles in films like Dr. No, Thunderball, or Diamonds Are Forever. It wasn’t until Live and Let Die that there was any significant presence of black people in a Bond movie, and in this movie it was so omnipresent that it made Roger Moore’s first outing as 007 essentially a blaxploitation movie. But here is the thing to keep in mind—Live and Let Die featured a massive cast of black actors, nearly all of who were villains. Take a good look at the image below from Live and Let Die, and ponder the racial implications of what is going on in this single image. After Live and Let Die, the black presence in Bond movies was limited primarily to Grace Jones in A View to a Kill, and Colin Salmon in a thankless role as a MI:6 bureaucrat in three of Pierce Brosnan films. There may have been an extra here or there, or a supporting character so forgettable that I have, in fact, forgotten them (and no, I haven’t forgotten Naomi Harris in Skyfall).
In 2006’s Casino Royale, Jeffrey Wright became the second African American actor to play Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey played the character in 1983’s Never Say Never Again). When Wright introduced himself as Leiter in the franchise reboot, hardcore fans got a little giddy. Here was a familiar name, to remind us that despite outward appearances, we were still in the world of 007. And as was the case with every other actor to play Felix Leiter, Jeffrey Wright acquiesced to Daniel Craig’s Bond, ensuring that the true hero remained the true hero of the story. But here’s the problem that lies just beneath the surface of franchise conventions and predictable plot contrivances—Jeffrey Wright was the only black character representing the forces of “good” in the world of Casino Royale, and he steps aside to let a white man do his thing. Now, I know that what Felix Leiter does in Casino Royale is in step with what the character has always done, but the dynamic takes on a deeper ideological meaning when it is done by a black man. And this dynamic changes even more significantly when you consider the only other black characters in the movie are bad guys played by Issach De Bankole and Sebastien Foucan.
In nearly every James Bond that has Felix Leiter as a Sidekick, both characters exist in a nearly all-white world, where one white man is stepping aside to give another white man the chance to be a hero. This does nothing to change the racial dynamic created within the world of these films (though it does reinforce all the ideological constructs that exist). When all is said and done, Bond is the hero who saves the world. But things begin to chance when Felix Leiter is black. No longer is this an all-white world, blissfully content with its hegemonic reality that has no place for black people. Suddenly, this is a world with black villains, trying to kill the white hero (who symbolizes all the evils of colonialism—though that’s a topic for another time), and the only counterbalance to this black villainy is a Sidekick who can’t play poker worth a damn, so he tells the white guy, “It’s up to you, boss.”
When a Sidekick like Felix Leiter is played by a white actor like Jack Lord, he has the luxury of being a largely ineffective character at service to the hero in a world of whiteness. When a black actor plays the same Sidekick, and is the only non-criminalized representation of blackness, his ineffectiveness takes on greater significance—his servitude to the hero speaks more loudly. There is nothing to it when one white man gives away all their power to another white man in a predominantly white world controlled by men. But it is something else altogether when a black man gives away all his power to a white man in a predominantly white world controlled by white men. Even if most people don’t see it, or want to believe it, race and racial ideology have a tremendous impact, even on something as innocuous as the Sidekick in a James Bond movie.