In Live and Let Die, we're introduced to Roger Moore as a new James Bond. His more suave and charming ways would define the next decade of Bond films. Unfortunately, he's stuck in a mishmash of settings and stories that is as much blaxploitation as it is spycraft. The series also introduces its worst recurring character as it begins a sad, slow backslide into camp and one-liners.
Perhaps the film is best remembered for its theme song written by Paul McCartney. One of the most famous and commercially successful of the James Bond themes, it also marks a major departure for the franchise, which had mostly stuck to classical or pop/r&b genres. Not only did the former Beatle write the theme song, but famed producer and Beatle collaborator George Martin wrote the score, taking the place of longtime Bond composer John Barry.
The plot revolves around the mystery behind the connections of a New York mobster named Mr. Big and the dictator of the small Caribbean island nation of San Monique named Dr. Kananga. Both are revealed to, in fact, be the same person, and their plan is to smuggle in enough heroin to give it away and corner the US market. The good? It's the first time Black actors have any significant speaking roles in the Bond franchise. The bad? Well, as star Yaphet Kotto said of the script, "I had to dig deep in my soul and brain and come up with a level of reality that would offset the sea of stereotype crap that (screenwriter) Tom Mankiewicz wrote that had nothing to do with the Black experience or culture." Kotto, however, manages a great performance in a thoroughly underwritten role.
In another iconic role, Jane Seymour plays Solitaire, the main Bond girl of the film. While her performance is incredible, Kananga also threatens to rape her, and Bond seduces her using tarot cards where it's revealed he stacked the deck in his favor. Her sexual agency is never addressed or even considered. Speaking of, we also have Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), a rookie agent who is charmed and seduced by Bond and then almost immediately dies as the franchise continues its tropes of killing off the first girl 007 sleeps with.
The entire film is a classic mixed bag. Yes, Black people are finally represented on screen. We shouldn't gloss over how important it is that Bond and Rosie sleep together– it will be decades before there is another non-white Bond girl. And yet the fact that she is killed off in record time also can't be ignored.
But adding insult to injury, the film introduces a racist small-town sheriff JW Pepper (Clifton James). He is just awful and would return to the series several more times.
Live and Let Die isn't a great movie, but it's hardly the worst. Despite impressive attempts by talented actors to elevate the material, it falls victim to the essence of cultural appropriation: a white screenwriter uses the trappings of an actual culture, such as voodoo, or actual Black urban culture of the early 1970s, in a script without actually understanding it or respecting it enough to get it right on the screen that is textbook cultural appropriation but, if you can ignore that, it's not terrible. And it does move the ball forward in terms of representation a great deal. And that theme song, tho.
For previous Bond binges, see the articles below: