This post comes from a thought-storm that’s been brewing since I re-watched The Princess and the Frog a few months ago. Such a fun film! After re-watching it, I found some commentaries and criticisms that stuck out to me, namely this one—a quote from a British critic: “Disney may wish to reach out to people of colour—but the colour green wasn’t what we had in mind.” The fact that Tiana spends more time in frog form than human form is a little unsettling if compared to other Disney Princesses who, well, get to retain their natural skin color for the duration of their films. The next catalyst for this post was the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, a character who, no matter his racial background, will frequently appear shrouded completely in flames, a state which renders his human features practically negligible. Why does it seem so difficult to find genre media creators/producers willing to create media with Black characters who get to show they are Black?
This is a two-prong post, so let me tackle the superhero movie angle first. The casting of a Black actor in the role of Johnny Storm has been met with some pretty polarized debate, to put it delicately, and fellow authors on this blog have tackled some important points about racial representation in genre media. However, I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone bring up my point here: the strange fact that Johnny’s “flame-on” state will mask his Black features. Granted, the Fantastic Four is a problematic group to diversify: whatever racial background Ben Grimm has, he becomes basically a humanoid pile of orange rocks. That wouldn’t help. Sue Storm’s power of invisibility would also not be ideal for a PoC re-cast, for obvious reasons (talk about erasure!). But there’s one character who gets to show his natural skin, sometimes many, many meters of it: Reed Richards. Racebending Mr. Fantastic would also allow for a brilliant Black scientist—representation which is unfortunately severely lacking, despite the continued existence of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. In addition, the Human Torch’s powered-on state reminds me of another recently racebent character: Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Played by Black actor Jaime Foxx, Electro’s transformed state makes him less Black and more… Blue. I can’t say much since I haven’t yet seen this movie, but nevertheless, what is it saying when the only Black character (a villain to boot) changes skin tones when he gains powers?
Obviously, a valid point to bring up is that most comic book heroes or villains have some aspect that obscures their features, whether as part of their power or merely as part of their costume. True, but not all the time: Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, all showed a good deal more skin than Captain America or Iron Man in Avengers. The sad fact is that when a character’s race is obscured by power or costume (Human Torch, Iron Man, War Machine, Spider-Man, etc) they can become “colorblind”. And what’s the problem with colorblind characters? Unless explicitly clarified otherwise, and sometimes even in spite of clarification, many if not most viewers will automatically assume them to be the “default” race in American genre media—white. This isn’t to say such characters should never be people of color! Far from it. But wouldn’t it be swell to have representation where a character’s skin color isn’t hidden? I was very pleased with Falcon in Captain America 2: his skin is not hidden at all, and wouldn’t ya know, he still manages to rock sophisticated superhero technology and help save the day.
On to my other prong: Disney’s continued reluctance to have Black characters. Tiana was undeniably a step forward, but her spending more time of the film as a green frog than as a Black woman is troubling. This was Disney’s big chance to have its first real encounter with Black history and culture, and yet, Tiana’s race disappeared beneath an amphibian veneer. Sure, her resolve and strength of character remained the same no matter what her physical form, but I feel the film was at times perhaps more empowering for young frog viewers than it was for young viewers of color.
The fact is even more distressing when you look to Disney’s famous African film, The Lion King. There are no Black characters in this movie, because there are no human characters. Contrast this to Disney’s Mulan: a story about a Chinese girl set in a historical Chinese milieu, featuring Chinese characters voiced by a primarily Asian cast. Disney’s first foray into Africa was a story about animals voiced by a largely white cast. When they revisited the continent a few years later in Tarzan, we actually got some human beings in the story this time! White European human beings! Oh, Disney. It’s not like African countries are somehow devoid of folktales; they have a wealth of histories and legends that could have been used for a movie. But apparently Disney thought audiences would rather watch a movie about African animals than African human beings. This gains new levels of creepy when you think about the Eurocentric historical connotations of Africa as “wild” and “savage”: is there some sort of correlating of African peoples with animals? I hope this is just me reading too much into things, because such an equivalency would be a whole new low for Disney.
In short, where are African, African-diasporic, and African-American characters who can proudly show their skin to the audience? Why are they hidden inside suits or behind powers that hide or wash away their color? And are African animals considered “close enough” to authentic African representation that Disney may very likely never do an animated feature that is actually about African peoples and cultures? How did this cross over so that the first Black American Disney Princess spent more than half of her own film as an animal? This paints a very troubling picture for racial representation in genre media, and I hope steps are taken to amend it very soon.