When You’re a Superhero, It Don’t Matter If You’re Black or White

This post on Tumblr, about the racism thrown at Donald Glover when he wanted to audition for the role of Spider-Man, made me think of a topic I’d been wanting to discuss. Whenever a non-white actor plays a character traditionally considered Caucasian, people like this come out of the woodwork. The thing is, while I obviously don’t condone racism, there IS something to be said for wanting a character to look like they do in earlier media, and I guess that could count skin color. To give a non-racial example, what if the Harry Potter movies had kept Ron Weasley’s personality consistent with the books, but made him blond? People would probably have complained, because the books specify that he has red hair. With comics, the illustrations are just as canonical as the text (if not more so), and fans are probably going to want to see a Peter Parker on screen who looks like he does in the comics.

And yeah, that would mean a white guy, at least prior to the introduction of Miles Morales in 2011.

In fact, that brings up the valid counterpoint that the personalities and appearances of comic book characters are frequently changed over the years, sometimes with entirely different people taking on the same superhero identity. In an article that partly discusses Spider-Man (here addressing the possibility of his being gay), Mark Harris points out, “In the past decade, Spider-Man has been played by two different actors. We accept him as being in high school even though Garfield turns 30 next month. There has been an evil Spidey. Replacement Spideys. A Latino/African-American Spidey in a 2011 comic-book series. Alternate-universe Spideys. A singing Spidey in a lavish Broadway musical. Spidey has died and come back to life.” This presumably wouldn’t apply to my Harry Potter example, since there haven’t been any other Ron Weasleys with a different appearance (at least not officially). That said, I wonder how many of the griping fans take the same issue when a white actor plays a non-white character, which happens all the time. That’s not to say this doesn’t cause consternation (it does, and rightfully so), but is it from the same people?

This also brought to mind some stuff I’d heard a few years ago before the Thor movie came out, about people getting up in arms because Heimdall was being played by black British actor Idris Elba.

Here, you not only have probably unintentional racism from comic book fans to contend with, but also quite intentional racism from fans of Norse mythology. Like so many other things nowadays, this is partially Hitler’s fault, with his own promotion of Norse gods and racist ideals. As a fan of mythology, these people are really making the rest of us look bad. Leave poor Odin out of your white supremacy! He had no problem having children with members of another race, if you count the giants as a separate race from the Aesir! For what it’s worth, this is what Heimdall looks like in the comics:

Elba himself remarked, “There has been a big debate about it: can a black man play a Nordic character? Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the color of my skin is wrong?” Besides, Thor was traditionally described as having red hair and a beard, so adherence to traditional depictions of the Aesir obviously wasn’t at the forefront of the minds of the people at Marvel.

Overall, the world of classic comic and literary characters is so white that the people who make the films have to add in diversity wherever they can. Regarding Heimdall in the movie, I say, “Able was I ere I saw Elba.”

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2 Responses to When You’re a Superhero, It Don’t Matter If You’re Black or White

  1. gilibug says:

    Thing is… racist reactions come out even when black actors portray characters that WERE originally described as black, like Rue in the Hunger Games: http://www.usmagazine.com/entertainment/news/hunger-games-fans-have-racist-debate-over-stars-playing-rue-thresh-2012263
    It’s not merely a color switch. It’s the fact that for many people, the “default” literary/screen hero is white. And male. And young and beautiful. Etcetera. Casting against stereotype shakes up people’s assumptions – note I wrote “against stereotype”, not “against the original text”. That’s why people get so upset. We should question our own biases, rather than justifying them by saying “that’s what was written/drawn in the original”. Just because superhero comics have been historically biased, we don’t need to continue perpetuating and reinforcing the bias.
    And I don’t think your Ron Weasley example holds. Asides from the fact that red is not an arbitrary hair color, but a characterization that has a rich literary history – characters’ hair colors are changed in movie adaptations all the time (blonde Annabeth became brunette onscreen, ditto even Dorothy Gale), and yeah, people get snarky, but nowhere near as upset as they do when the characters’ race is changed. Especially when it’s changed from white to black.

    • Nathan says:

      Regarding The Hunger Games, I’ve actually seen complaints in the other direction as well, as Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t have “olive skin.” Again, though, almost certainly not from the same people. Overall, I think you’re right that it’s basically an assumption that white is normal, at least on the big screen. Sort of like how many people consider heterosexuality to be the default, as I mentioned in another recent post.

      As for Dorothy, I remember Ruth Plumly Thompson mentioning letters in which people complained that the MGM Dorothy wasn’t going to be blonde, but Denslow drew her as a brunette anyway. I don’t believe Baum ever mentioned her hair color, but Thompson and later authors went along with Neill’s illustrations.

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