So I’ve recently been engaging in discussions in regards to minority roles in fantasy/comic book/sci-fi movies and let me tell you, it’s exhausting. As are most nerd and racial discussions, so to combine the two is draining. I don’t even really know where to begin on this one, there are so many pieces to it that folk just don’t get.
I guess I’ll start with the idea of minorities being cast in roles traditionally played by white characters since this tends to be the more focal point and really the only place where some folk anchor their argument. And that argument always goes something like this, “The fact that we are outraged at a minority playing a ‘traditionally’ white role is not racist. It’s because comic book and sci-fi fans love consistency. We don’t like our characters being messed with.” And in response to the folk who actually do make bold racist comments, “that was only 2 or 3 people trolling on twitter. It wasn’t real, nobody really feels that way.”….oh, alright.
Look I am a nerd myself and trust me I understand, and to a lesser extent, agree with this part of the argument. (Not the part where they try to minimalize the outright racism, but the ‘consistency’ part.) I agree that often in translation from book (book = novels, comics, manga, etc.) to film, Hollywood can mess it up sometimes and unnecessarily change characters, and I’m not a fan in most cases. But it’s usually because they changed a character’s personality or powers, some key figure that truly defines who they are and how they interact with other characters and take part in the whole story. So this, more often than not has nothing to do with their race or even gender in some cases. Like I get it, if you want to make a black Green Lantern, it’s no real need to make Hal Jordan now black, but create a newer Lantern and make him black, enter John Stewart…the best Lantern. The same goes with creating the newer Black and Hispanic Spiderman versus changing Peter Parker’s ethnicity. But these are examples that are all still rooted in the book realm and are different from talking about the transition to stage/screen and casting choices. Something that those who differ from me tend to overlook.
Just like they seem to overlook the countless number of times people of color in books are whitewashed on screen. And not even just fictional characters either, but many historical figures too. And I’m not even talking about black/brown face or other instances when they’re made up to look like another race. (Which is terrible in itself) But I’m primarily focusing on when there are characters that are explicitly meant to be a person of color but are played by and depicted as white people. Think every time a white man played Jesus, now you can debate whether you believe Jesus himself to be real or not, that is not the case. But what is, is that we know where and when he is from and even his physical description, Jesus is in no way a white man. Liz Taylor playing Cleopatra is another big one. She’s Egyptian, which is in Africa not Vermont, so black people not Africans now? Or are we just not the royal ones? Someone tried to say that me brining up decades old movies doesn’t help my point but it does point out that this has been going on forever and we’re supposed to be cool with it, but it’s a problem if it happens the other way around. Plus I have several other more recent examples too.
Kevin Spacey’s character in Pay It Forward was a black man in the book, Passion of the Christ is not that old, Christian Bale just played Moses recently and there’s another movie taking place in Egypt coming out with white lead characters. In the Dragonball Evolution movie (admittedly having a slew of just terrible issues) a movie that is from a Japanese Manga/Anime, where the characters are definitely not white, the lead character Goku is played by a white man. And what to me seemed like another slap in the face, the other supporting characters are Asian. So it’s like they acknowledge that these characters are Asian and will make the supporting cast Asian, but not the lead, he needs to be white. Same thing with Avatar the Last Airbender, supposed to be a predominantly Asian cast and you make all the leads white. The list goes on and on.
So my thing is, if you can change all these characters who are supposed to be people of color and cast white actors for them, why can’t it happen the other way around? You clearly feel that these characters ethnicities were irrelevant to the casting decision, so why can’t it work out the other way around? Why can’t a black man be James Bond or Batman, or an Asian guy be Superman? And a counter argument I hear is something to the effect of “well we can cast a white man as Black Panther then.” And that is where the disconnect lies. For one, myself and most others I know are not talking about changing the ethnicity of characters when it is an integral part of who that character is, nor do we feel like you should change it just because. The fact of the matter is that there are numerous characters who are traditionally white (waaaaaayyy more than people of color have) but it is not really a significant character trait of that person to be white. See just because a black man plays James Bond, doesn’t mean that all of a sudden Bond has to be ‘black’ and start doing ‘black’ things or that now he’s a secret agent from the hood. He’s just a man playing Bond that happens to be black, it’s not a requirement that Bond is white. There have been several Bonds over the years, so what does it have to do with the ‘consistency’ of the character’s origins when Bond is simply just the codename? And even if it wasn’t just a codename and it’s supposed to be the same guy, why can’t Idris Elba play him? He’d be great in the role.
That’s like saying my daughter can’t play Annie or some princess role in an elementary school play because she’s black and these are traditionally white characters. (see outrage over most recent Annie film) It’s not that you’re changing the character origins and traits, it just so happens that the person best suited for the role in this adaptation is a person of color. Take the example of the black woman casted to play Hermoine in the new Harry Potter stage play in England, fans are livid about that. But in the movie one of the characters was changed from black to white once she got a speaking role. Some folk love to make that consistency argument despite the fact that, especially for comics, there are constant new universes, contradictions, changes to back stories and etc. Yes I know comic book/sci-fi nerds harp over any sort of changes and that doesn’t make them racist, but that also doesn’t mean that there are not plenty of them that are racist.
I’d like to take a note from Constance Wu from the show Fresh off the Boat. I read a quote from her that went something along the lines of this; she referred to a certain show as a show about white people, and someone responded that they’re just people. She goes on to say that in terms of her show, people would say it’s a show about Asians without a second thought. You wouldn’t say Friends or countless other shows are shows about white people, but just people. And that’s the problem, minorities have to be minorities and white people get to be just people. And I feel this adds to my case because that’s the main thing I think scares some folk and fuels their anger over potential minorities in certain roles. On one end they feel like how I mentioned before with the black Bond, now all of a sudden because a POC is cast as one of my favorite fictional characters, that’s going to change everything and they’re just doing it for diversity. Apparently it can’t just be that this person was casted because they will play the role extremely well and honestly nothing about the character you love will change at all. Except one thing will change, and the passive aggressive racists overlook this, and that thing is that now you will have to look up to/empathize/root for a minority and it sickens you. It doesn’t matter that for generations blacks and others have been subjugated to have to identify with white people as their entertainment heroes, even when they’re playing characters that are supposed to be another race. Hell even historical figures too, but that’s another discussion. It disgusts you that you would have to hold someone who you do not consider to be person equal of you and your race in high regards, even as a completely fictional character. And I just want you to admit it.
They hide behind the consistency argument, but that’s no excuse for when they are outraged over brand new lead characters that are played by minorities. And when you bring up these examples and the people making outwardly racist remarks, the retort is always to the effect of “that was just a couple of people, it doesn’t mean anything”. When it’s way more than just a couple of people and means a lot. We’re not saying that everyone is a racist in these situations, but that there are a plethora of them. And taking the stance to minimalize their comments and pretend they don’t exist is an act to support those bigots whether you intend on it being that way or not. Refer to the outrage over the new Star Wars and possibly the one that gets me the most, Rue from Hunger Games. White tears were overflowing when they found out that the most beloved character (who was described as black in the books) was being played by a black girl. They could not believe that they evoked sincere emotions for what they believed to be a lesser being. It’s okay to cry tears when a fictional dog dies, but not a black girl. Minorities should feel for whites but never the other way around. I could only imagine the outrage to be had if Rey from the new Star Wars was played by a black woman. The two main protagonists in the new Star Wars series are Black!!??? White tears in a galaxy far, far away…
There is so much more I could go on about, but I’ve already wrote out more than I intended to. Bottom line, minorities are finally starting to get better representation and I’m here for it. But for some reason the people who claim this country is so great because it is diverse, have a problem with diversity. Peace and love to all.