On Black Characters and the Cost of Diversity

michael-b-jordan-fantastic-four-e1392904953390As you likely already know, Michael B. Jordan will play the Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four film, slated for release on June 19, 2015. This casting decision was met with its fair share of outcry, because Johnny Storm is understood to be a White character, and Michael B. Jordan is clearly African-American. I think it would be easy to write it off as just another instance of fans of a very White and very male industry being a very White and male kind of racist. But there are deeper questions about misunderstanding of the role of diversity in artistic representation. During my tenure at this blog, I’ve written a fair amount about race and representation in the geek world, not just in comics, but also in video games, and theatre. I’ll be honest, I’ve found a dearth of good arguments against increasing the level of racial diversity in geek culture. Once more, with feeling: brown kids deserve more brown superheroes. Most counter-arguments to that notion are vapid, disingenuous, or just plain racist, like “most people won’t be able to relate to that character if his race is changed/is nonwhite”. There’s a comic over at Critical Miss that sums it up perfectly:

People can identify with Fox McCloud and he’s a bipedal fox. But a dude with darker skin is somehow too alien? What is that if not [racism]?

Arguments like this one are easily, and hilariously, dismissed (seriously, go read that comic). But every once in a while, a more seductive argument against diversity of representation pops up. It usually goes something like: “Why is it okay to change the race of [x], who is White, but not okay to change [y], who is a POC, to a White character?” The argument relies on a rather misguided sense of absolute equality, among myriad other problems. It’s probably easier to get traction on such an issue if we phrase it in terms of concrete examples.

Mara, and Tiger Lily

Mara, and Tiger Lily

I got into a discussion last week about this post: “Tiger Lily Doesn’t Equal Human Torch”, by Felicia Day. We should, and will, come back to that, but it’s not been uncommon for detractors to opine that it seems odd that progressive fans should embrace a change of race for Heimdall, when Idris Elba was cast in the role, but should object when Rooney Mara is cast as Tiger Lily. You can google this yourself, as it gets pretty ugly, but this exposes the specious nature of many of these arguments. First of all, Heimdall in the Marvel universe isn’t White the way that humans understand it, or Nordic. He’s an alien. Even the original mythic entity of Heimdall predates the modern concept of Whiteness, which you can read about in Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.

rue-hunger-gamesAs a trend, the furor over the choice to cast black actors in roles that people traditionally see as White is linked with the same mindset that devalues the life of Rue, from the Hunger Games, based on her skin color, despite her being described as having “dark brown skin and eyes”. This is old news, and Twitter does things that don’t make sense to the human mind, and maybe shaming people on Twitter isn’t productive. That’s not my goal. It’s important that we understand these things not as simple racial prejudice, but as a fear of loss of cultural property. When Heimdall is Black, or Johnny Storm is Black, or Spider-Man is written as a young man of mixed Black/Hispanic heritage, the reaction is not simple enough to be characterized as racism and blithely tossed over a shoulder. It’s one of loss and alienation.

I say that because the reactions aren’t directly aimed at the superiority of Whites and the inferiority of Blacks or other PoC, though that’s certainly an undercurrent. Take the adverse fan reaction to Donald Glover’s suggestion that he play Spider-Man in a film, enshrined in this series of gifs from this interview:

tumblr_mxrb8yTSFh1ser9m9o1_500Now that’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of support from other corners, but think about the reactions he describes. They’re either “don’t fucking take Peter Parker from us” or “listen… there’re no black kids like Peter Parker”. The replacement of traditionally White characters with Black ones, or the casting of Black actors in their roles represents a threat, a danger. To what, you ask? The short answer is privilege. In a number of ways, none of them complete, the position of White, middle-class, male, and average, has been eroded. It no longer so completely represents the establishment position. Whites have for centuries enjoyed a monopoly or near monopoly on positive artistic representation in this country. A leveling of the playing field is going to feel like a loss, and as such is going to generate fear, resentment, and reactions ranging from the vitriolic to the ridiculous.

This represents something about our culture larger than just Twitter or comic book fans, and it represents a real problem. If the reaction to these changes is so adverse that some literally cannot imagine a character they are fond of as African-American, we have a serious problem. Now, in part this is a thing that ameliorates over time. My grandfather served in WWII, earned a purple heart, and came back to find the he couldn’t eat at a lunch counter in his uniform, and his experience was not atypical, but that’s not a situation that veterans of color have to deal with as a general status quo any more. My point is that there are always these kinds of conflicts, and things do improve, but not without concerted effort toward cultural change. It may seem odd to use so grave an example, but consider that we’re talking about movies, comics, and social media, three things that represent a massive portion of how we express ourselves as a culture. We’re talking about the future of our stories. Consider the following, from a New Yorker piece on racism and the Hunger Games:

If the stories we tell ourselves about the future, however disturbing, don’t include black people; if readers of “The Hunger Games” are so blind as to skip over the author’s specific details and themes of appearance, race, and class, then what does it say about the stories we tell ourselves regarding the present?

Now, as I said, we should talk about Felicia Day’s Tumblr post. Aside from the fact that it has thoroughly cemented her position as someone who “gets it”, it makes clear certain strong points on why comparing the Human Torch and Tiger Lily is a false equivalency (we’ll let go of the implicit tu quoque fallacy for now). I don’t want to expound on all her points here; she does an eloquent job on her own. Go read it. Then come back.

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon

Essentially, decisions like these about casting are not about faithfulness to mythology or the source text. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in making an adaptation of something, blind obedience to the source material is a vice, not a virtue. They’re about ensuring that there are opportunities for artists of color to work. Why is it important that artists of color are provided opportunities to work? The obvious answer is because all artists should be able to work and that artists of color shouldn’t be deprived of opportunity because the establishment has not yet broken free of its monochromatic navelgazing. We must also consider that without artists of different races and ethnicities, not to mention gender identifications, classes, locations, and sexual orientations, we’re deprived of a whole variety of perspectives. When we only represent the establishment in our art, when we don’t challenge that, we deprive ourselves of everything that is not the normal prepackaged way of understanding the world. I’d make the same argument for colorblind casting in theatre, but that’s a different post entirely.

Electro, and Jamie Foxx.

Electro, and Jamie Foxx.

I haven’t talked about Michael B. Jordan much in this post, and that’s not because he’s not a talented young actor, though the previous Fantastic Four film set the bar pretty low. (I mean no disrespect there to Chris Evans, he was a younger actor, and the writing of the film was also pretty terrible.) I open with his example simply because it is the latest and most salient in a long string of manifestations of this same problem. We have to reject an Occam’s Razor approach to diversity of all kinds in our art, one that says “all other things being equal, the simple solution [treating everyone exactly the same all the time] is best”, because all other things aren’t equal. If they were, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

Inclusion is the remedy here, though it may be complex and sticky to work out the best way to do it. Would that we could change our cultural milieu such that it’s not impossible or even challenging to imagine a Black Human Torch or Spider-Man. The beautiful thing about art, about memory and being human, is that previous incarnations of the same idea can be recorded and remembered, and we need to understand that. Previous incarnations don’t disappear and the Johnny Storm first written back in November of 1961 will always be there. Opening our cultural references to more diverse interpretations costs us little, and gains us much.

6 thoughts on “On Black Characters and the Cost of Diversity

  1. I would be perfectly fine with Michael B Jordan playing Torch, just so long as they find a way for him and Sue to still be siblings. Maybe one of them is adopted or something.

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