On -isms: Endemic Issues

By | Thursday, July 10, 2014 4 comments
There have been a few instances lately of people of color being cast in movie roles for characters that historically have been portrayed as white. My stance is that, unless there's some aspect of the character that is firmly root in his/her race, it doesn't matter what race the person who portrays them is. Nothing in Batman's history says he has to be white, other than historical precedent. Nothing in Charlie Brown's history says he has to be white, other than historical precedent.

Jessica Alba is half-Mexican and did a fine job playing the Invisible Woman. Michael Clarke Duncan is Black and did an extraordinary job playing the Kingpin. Eartha Kitt is famously remembered for her role as Catwoman, after replacing a white actress who played the same character in the very same TV series. People of color portraying characters that were historically white. The movies weren't all that great, but that wasn't the fault of the actors; they worked with what they were given. I don't doubt Quvenzhané Wallis and Michael B. Jordan will similarly do excellent jobs in their forthcoming roles as Little Orphan Annie and the Human Torch.

But I was talking with a woman of color the other day about comic book movies in general, and the issue came up. (I think it spun out of the misogyny issues we were discussing relative to Sin City.) Particularly as a mother of two boys, she was all for wanting to see more Black actors as heroes/positive role models, but she had never really considered that characters like Superman and Wonder Woman could be portrayed by anyone other than white people. She wanted to see more people of color, but felt that new characters could be created easily enough.

The problem with that, however, is that the institutional racism that's already generated a white Superman has nearly a century's head-start. Marketing a known character like that is fairly simple in the first place (how many of posters/billboards/ads for the last Superman movie actually showed actor Henry Cavill at all -- as often as not, it was just the S-shield) and has the backing of a phenomenally huge marketing department in the second. A new character, however well-conceived, doesn't have the immediate brand recognition, so would require more marketing, but likely does not have the budget behind them like a Superman does. That puts any of these potential new characters at an immediate, and not insignificant, disadvantage. Which, in turn, doesn't help all that much because it allows a continued appearance of white predominance, well out of proportion to actual demographics.

But what struck me was that I was explaining this to an intenlligent Black woman. Even though she recognized the need for more people of color in heroic roles that could serve as role models and ideals for Black youth, the notion that existing white characters HAD to continue to remain white was an idea that also been impressed into her. Batman is white because he's always been white. That we have a culture (perpetuated and controlled primarily by old white guys) that's drummed that into so many people's heads for so long is a bigger problem than the individuals who raise holy hell on the internet because the actress playing Annie doesn't have red hair.
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Matt K said...

FWIW it does occur to me that our society is getting to the point where more and more of the megapopular, classic comic book characters could be re-cast as non-white persons without even really challenging expectations more than has already happened in real life.

I think the fact that a black man is currently President of the United States makes a lot of superhero backgrounds much more credible outside of their mostly WASP tradition, even if not everyone has processed this yet; certainly wrt Batman, I don't think the concept of a black billionaire industrialist would by itself trigger a widespread "that could never happen" response.

Likewise, thinking of the Fantastic Four, it occurs to me that the most prominent authority and advocate on space exploration at present is Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

(With Spider-Man, I think we're to the point where keeping the tradition of Peter Parker's making any kind of money as a freelance photography requires much more willingness to discard plausibility than re-casting his character as another race ever would have…)

Matt K said...

Another point that comes to mind. (This was a good post, apparently.)

The real diehard purists, who oppose any kind of adaptation and basically just want the comic panels filmed as literally as humanly possible (if not moreso), at least have a potentially consistent argument.

Whereas most of comics fandom seems to have been won around from their time-honored complaining ways, to freer adaptation, with one pointed exception. i.e.…

Make up a largely (or entirely) unfamiliar costume? “Well, I guess that's actually fine”
Substantially rewrite canonical origin stories? “Well, okay too I guess”
Play fast and loose with traditional supporting cast relationships? “Okay sure”

But, cast an actor with different hair or skintone from what appears in the comic? “But, but, tradition—! TRADITION!! YOU HAVE MADE THIS CHARACTER UNRECOGNIZABLE TO ME!!”

This seems like an occasion for taking a long look inside oneself.

Excellent correlation with PotUS and a Black billionaire industrialist!

And your note about changing costumes, origins and relationships is frighteningly on point! Well said! Take a long look inside oneself, indeed!

Matt K said...

Cheers; thank you, again, for such a good post. Really got the wheels turning in some new ways for me.

You do good work here, sir.