Nerd Culture Critique: Race Bending is never OK except when it is

Nick_Fury

So this past weekend news began to circulate that actor, Michael B. Jordan has officially signed on for the character of Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four reboot. As most of you know Johnny has always been a white, blond haired, blue eyed character since his first appearance in 1961. So naturally there has been a large level of discuss as to whether this is the “right” thing to do. A large amount of the nerd community has spoken out against the casting when Jordan was even rumored to be in the running. So let’s explore this phenomenon on race bending characters and see what is really going on here.

Michael-B-Jordan

Since Blade was made into a live action film the sub-genre of comic book movies has taken off considerably. 1998 was the genesis for the explosion of superheroes movies that we know and love today. The Wesley Snipes lead movie was based on a half vampire/half human comic book character who was black and an absolute bad ass. I remember seeing this movie and being very surprised that 1. it was even being made due to its violent material. 2. that the lead is unapologetically black. Snipes isn’t some actor who might be mistaken for half white, or be considered “passable.” So to have him as the lead for this comic book movie was pretty great. Now flash forward to today and the major studios are struggling to get a comic book movie starring a black character on screen...how odd. The reason I mention Blade at all has less to do with his place in kicking off the comic book movie phenomenon, but rather that his name is brought up constantly when it comes to changing the race of comic book characters on screen. I have read many comments to the effect of “what if they changed Blade to a white guy?” Well this is actually a fairly complicated issue that I plan to explore. The history of film and of America in general plays a large part of why that answer is not a simple one. If you believe its a simple yes or no than I would argue that familiarizing yourself with history is highly important.

The history of white actors dressing up as people of other races and playing to ignorant stereotypes is long and complicated. From blackface performances to award winning films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A film having easily one of the most disgusting portrayals of east asians to date. Did you know that John Wayne played Genghis Khan once...seriously? Yeah it happened. These are the type of whitewashing issues that have permeated Hollywood for decades. Is it ok? Well at the time it was seen as absolute fine. The American populous saw no issues with these traditionally black, asian, native american, etc characters being played by white men and women in face paint. Think of it as “ignorant kabuki theater.”

Breakfast_at_tiffanys_mickey_rooney

But that was a long time ago, can’t we just move on from that? Well, not just yet. In the introduction of our most known characters during the 1930s through the 1960s in comics there are little to no characters that aren’t white. The entirety of the Justice League and Avengers are all white and mostly male; two women between both teams. So the reason why isn’t really that hard to understand. At the time of their creation American culture was pretty well steeped in whiteness. Other cultures were greatly marginalized. If you doubt this, then please take a look at Mad Men on television right now. This takes place during those times. Not too many minorities around are there? The 1950s/60s America was dominated by white men when it came to businesses and power. So the creators of our favorite characters were all white males, and wrote for a white male audience. The circumstances that got us there as a country are obvious and we don’t need to go into that, but we should recognize it. The overall theme of the 1950s and 60s could have been “All White Everything.” There is equally important point to be made that women suffered during these times as well. That is why we see both Marvel and DC still struggling to make more female characters relevant to their fan base.

After the televised civil rights battle of the 1960s I guess Marvel and DC realized that black people existed and hey maybe they read comics too! So we get the introduction to some iconic black characters. Marvel introduced the likes of Black Panther (1966), Falcon (1969), Luke Cage (1972), and Blade (1973). DC comics brought in John Stewart (1971), Black Manta (1967) and pretty much no other mainstream black characters until the 1990s. Asian heroes like Shang-Chi (1973) from Marvel have always been second tier. Shang-Chi’s creation could largely attributed to the Kung-Fu craze in the 1970s. Sunfire (1971), Mandarin (who is half Chinese - 1964) also could make the limited roster of memorable Asian characters that have been created. Seeing a pattern yet? Latino characters fared even worse; Sunspot (1982) is really the only fully Latino character that is even remotely recognizable from Marvel in years. There are others who are half latino but known who are from two latino parents. Mixed raced characters of note are Miles Morales and Sam Alexander, both newly created characters in 2011. So when it is stated that we can just choose originally black, latino, or asian characters to put on screen I laugh. The list of viable minority characters that would even generate the kind of enthusiasm of a Thor, Captain America, Superman, Batman, etc is pathetic at best.

Create new characters that are minorities and put them in the movies? Well sure that seems very simple to do. Just create a character out of thin air who the audience is suppose to immediately attach to and desire to see a two hour film about, seems reasonable (sarcasm heavily implied). Sure this works with other movies. Most movies have characters that are created out of thin air. However, when you put the stamp of Marvel or DC people expect to already know these characters or be able to read about them in some comic book. Look at easily the one of the most popular new characters in all of comics, Miles Morales AKA Ultimate Spider-man. He is a fantastic minority character. However, he is a derivative from a well known character. Spider-man is one of the most beloved heroes bar none in all of comics. It isn’t much of a surprise that a well written derivative of the character would do well. Miles has his own personality and style, but there is a built in fan base all ready the second he walks on to the scene. What completely new character has caught on to that level in such a short timeframe? Spoiler alert, NONE!

So this brings me back to the original point of the article, should changing the race of some of these comic book characters be allowed when they do live action movies? My answer is yes. Should minority characters be changed to being played by white actors? My answer is no, with a caveat. Is a character like Blade largely focused on his blackness? The answer is no it isn’t. However, characters like Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Falcon do matter. Their race is central to who they are. Those characters were born out of the aftermath of a hard fought struggle of race division in the 1960s and 70s. To not understand that is just ignorant. Does it seem fair that minority characters these days don’t get changed while traditionally white roles do in comic book movies? Well I would argue it isn’t about fairness. Its more about the pendulum swinging to equilibrium. If all things were equal in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s when these iconic characters were created we wouldn’t have seen an all white Justice League, Avengers, or Fantastic Four for example. Times are changing and the country is looking less white everyday. Comics have always worked to reflect what is going on to a degree in real life. That is why you see the introduction of characters like Miles Morales, Sam Alexander, and Cyborg. The vast majority of new characters being created are non white or of mixed race. This isn’t a gimmick this is a reflection of America.

So when you hear someone get so angry over the fact that Johnny Storm is going to be black just shake your head and ask them why they are so angry about it. If the answer is “because he isn’t black in the comics” then just walk away. Or on second thought ask them if they were that mad when this happened (all white actors playing a different race):

Burt Lancaster - Native American (Massai 1954)

John Wayne - Mongolian (The Conqueror 1956)

Marlon Brando - Japanese (The Teahouse of August Moon 1956)

Charlton Heston - Latino (A Touch of Evil 1958)

Mickey Rooney - Chinese (Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961)

Elizabeth Taylor - Cleopatra (Cleopatra 1963)

Laurence Oliver - Black (Othello 1965)

Peter Sellers - Indian (The Party 1968)

Jennifer Connelly - Latino (A Beautiful Mind 2001)

Josh Hartnett - Inuit (30 Days of Night 2007)

Ben Campbell - Asian (21 2008)

Justin Chatwin - Asian (Dragonball Evolution 2009)

Jake Gyllenhaal - Persian (Prince of Persia 2010)

Everyone in The Last Airbender

Carey Mulligan - Latino (Drive 2011)

Jennifer Lawrence - Non white, olive skinned character (Hunger Games 2012)

Ben Affleck - Latino (Argo 2012)

Just to name a few.

Lastly, go back and think about how many minority comic book characters you can name who are even remotely still talked about today that predate the 1960s. If you know of any please let us know in the comments. At the end of the day, minority heroes are few and far between. Just because a standard was set 50+ years ago doesn’t mean things can’t change. For the record the last time Fantastic Four was on the big screen one of the main cast wasn’t white. In case you didn’t know Jessica Alba is Latino. So I guess the argument comes down to who passably white at this point, right?

humantorch