Dead Man Walking: Rebirth and Blackness in Live and Let Die
James Bond is always an outsider, but in the U.S. his outsider-ness feels all the more acute.Movies Features James Bond
James Bond is always a bit of a foreigner when stepping onto the terrain of any of the exotic locations so dreamily conjured in his films. And, be it in Tokyo, Venice or Moscow, his foreignness is superseded by the implication of his power, by the resilient afterlife of British Imperialism and Colonialism. It doesn’t matter if Britain actually had a hand in any foreign country Bond enters; the threat is always there.
Yet, Bond’s foreignness feels most acute in the United States; the residual gentility of his Britishness reads as odd when he’s driven around in Central Park up to Harlem, or witnessing a funeral on the streets of New Orleans. But perhaps his foreignness—his “otherness” if you will—is so obvious in America because, in a way, Bond must confront the legacy of Britain’s wrongdoings in a more direct way here than in almost any other place. In Live and Let Die, Bond’s foray into blaxploitation cinema creates an unease with Bond’s own proximity to Blackness.
Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica, once owned by John Hall and built in the 18th century, is now a resort, with the Great House overlooking 6,500+ acres of former plantation land that once grew sugar cane. Renovated in the 1960s, the property and its imposing mansion has become a well-visited tourist site, the home of many seances and spiritual readings hoping to communicate with the dead. Around 250 slaves were kept there, taking a torch to the owners and property during the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831 (also known as the Baptist War). Haunted house tours that explore the mansion are a popular excursion for visitors. And in 1973’s Live and Let Die, sections of Rose Hall were transformed into a graveyard for Bond (Roger Moore) to walk through in his attempt to find his lover Solitaire (Jane Seymour) and investigate the dead-alive voodoo priest Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder). These sections are now part of a golf course.
Bond has rarely convened with the dead, even in his past visits to Jamaica, like in 1962’s Dr. No. Prior to the Daniel Craig cycle, Bond is effectively immortal—Mendes begins Spectre with the taunting epigraph “The dead are alive.” Bond need not be resurrected; he and his iconography are eternal. As many times as Bond has looked death in the face, Live and Let Die suggests that death is comeuppance and retribution.
Live and Let Die introduced the third actor to play James Bond. That Roger Moore’s debut would so fixate on the limitations of death and the afterlife felt somewhat auspicious. How many times could the series handle reintroduction and continuation? Moore’s entrance followed Connery’s brief return in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever and George Lazenby’s one and done On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. The future of Bond was somewhat uncertain.
The film begins with the death of three MI6 agents, one in New York, one in New Orleans and one in San Monique, a Montego Bay stand-in. (It is notable that these locations are, even abstractly, ritualistic, in the sense that the United Nations, where the first agent is killed, is a communal space, as is the funeral-turned-party in New Orleans and the voodoo ritual in San Monique.) Some of the film’s anxieties about race present themselves as generic reaction. 007 floats around different set pieces, tropes and clichés of blaxploitation cinema: The first Bond woman in the film, Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), wields a gun not unlike Pam Grier in Coffy; Bond’s trip to Harlem features the use of “honky”; voodoo priests exist; and Dr. Kananga/Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto) is a heroin kingpin. This is significant given the way in which Bond had previously straddled a line through genre via a more traditional post-Cold War espionage thriller (see: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Odd Man Out), a genre it, if not invented, sustained in the wake of the popularity of comic books, filled with gadgets and action set pieces. Even in Japan (and in yellowface), You Only Live Twice did not focus nearly as much on adhering to tropes of samurai cinema, though elements are present. On the contrary, the Roald Dahl-penned script oriented more towards sci-fi. Regardless, death was not on the producers’ minds in the same way the introduction of a new phase to the franchise would warrant.
While Bond wanders around Harlem, New Orleans and San Monique, it is striking the way he occupies the spaces in the film. On the one hand, he effectively undoes the political ethos of blaxploitation, given that Bond must remain the white hero, even if a subplot involving sex, trickery and tarot complicates his “goodness.” On the other, he navigates a space that is more deliberately out of reach for him; the character’s history implies that control of a space or situation is, for Bond, within reach. But where Bond is, be it a jazz club called “Fillet of Soul” or crumbling alleys in uptown Manhattan, the complex history of race in the United States and Britain plays out unresolved. Though these areas represented reclamation or assertion of personhood, for healing, Bond is back, opening up old wounds.
White visions of Blackness in the film clash with the implied reality of the ways in which that same white vision shapes cultural impressions of Blackness or nonwhite culture. The resort where Bond buys decks of tarot cards is also where Baron Samedi, voodoo priest in skull white body paint, performs for a rapt audience of white tourists. The same can be said of the jazz club in which Bond and Felix Leiter (David Hedison) see a singer perform the title song in a slinky, soul/R&B-influenced rendition. Hampered by the logistics of creating sets for the interiors with harsh high key lighting that reveal their artifice, the expanses of Live and Let Die which are not filmed on location are even further removed from Blackness than similar places in films like Sheba, Baby and Coffy, both of which had white directors.
For as much discomfort as there is between Bond and race—the voodoo ceremonies that are detailed just enough to work in the film, the scant views of Louisiana locals, the brief observances of the streets of Harlem—it was too early in Bond’s career to ever really challenge his relationship to the legacies of colonialism. The Bond films are reactive, good for being malleable, shapeshifting from one genre aesthetic to the other, but that’s all they are: aesthetics.
Bond can afford that; Bond can be rebirthed for his own sake, and he continue living on and on. Black aesthetics can be repurposed by those in power. But the liberation of Blackness and Black artistry has rarely been provided with the same freedom for rebirth and reaction—on it own terms compared to the endless cycles of whiteness and images of white power—in mainstream culture. After Live and Let Die, settling into the immortal life of the secret agent, and in spite of the film’s intricate geo and racial politics, James Bond would once again return. He wasn’t—and isn’t—dead yet.