Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Race and Comic Book Films

Since Marvel has started to make their own movies, starting with Iron Man (2008) they have done one interesting thing. Sure, Iron Man was a well formed film, but most interesting was in portrayal of Nick Fury by Samuel Jackson.

Now, that decision was not completely an attempt to broaden the racial spectrum of the Marvel Universe. Samuel Jackson is one of Hollywood's biggest draws right now. Fury is also a good choice, as there is really nothing about the character that demands he be white. Just look at Issue 1 (right) and you can see that this was going to have a bit of grooviness to it. Nick Fury is, despite his complexion, a bit of a Blaxploitation James Bond. It could easily be John Shaft, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. instead.

So, why should Marvel stop there? Instead of picking actors who best portray their characters racially, why not pick those who would portray them best overall? We are often talking about 50 year old characters, and until the 1970s it was less of an option to have non-white heroes. Nowadays many of these heroes' back stories would almost demand a non-white character, particularly as the urban centers they come from have either been vacated by less affluent whites for the suburbs, or have been overrun by very affluent whites who do not fit the back story well.

There was, last year, a campaign to give Community star Donald Glover a shot at playing Spider-Man. There was a lot of devisive talk on this, and a lot of "how could Spider-Man be black?" being tossed around. Well, since comics are basically tropes and personified stereotypes anyway, lets look at Peter Parker. A poor kid whose parents are dead, lives with his Aunt and Uncle. Wants to go to college with a scientific degree program. Works his way through college. House is robbed and Uncle is murdered. There is no real racial profile for this in real life, but in the realm of tropes and stereotypes you almost have to make a Peter Parker character black, don't you? I am not saying that the use of stereotypes is the best way to go, but neither is making Peter Parker white just because he has always been white. From a Spider-man angle, Glover is a great fit. He has the acting range to pull off the dual identity necessary for a super hero. He can certainly crack wise; an essential element for Spider-Man. I don't know anything about the actor in the forthcoming The Amazing Spider-Man film, but I have a feeling Glover could take him.

Now, while we are at it, lets look at this from a completely different angle (perhaps). In the modern world is there any reason why any comic book character has to be of any particular race? I give you again, Fan-Boy Icon #40 Michael Jai White. White is a funny bad ass, and in my mind could pull off any Marvel character. Certainly many people are itching to see him as Luke Cage (Power Man) or T'Challa (Black Panther), but I'd rather see him as Captain America, Iron Fist, hell, even Doctor Strange. The guy has "super hero" written all over him. Yeah, Captain America was from a time when soldiers were white by a vast majority, and we'd be taking some liberties with history perhaps... or perhaps not. Captain America was the product of scientific experimentation on a human being. Quite a dangerous experiment at that. When we look at that time in US history, there was an awful lot of that going on with member of the black community. As an example, North Carolina is finally coming to terms with its eugenics activity started in the 1930s. So, in the case of Captain America, the scientists were not assured success. Would they have tried this on a poster boy, or rather on someone who was already part of a population being medically toyed with? Then, if the first experiment was a success, you don't just throw the guy away. I imagine Super-Soldier serum is expensive and hard to come by, otherwise we'd have Captain Americas coming out our ass. Sure, we now have a Captain America in film, but personally I think it is too easy to make Michael Jai White into Luke Cage. Too easy, and does not move anything forward.

Just as Nichelle Nichols' work as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek was groundbreaking on many levels, (an overlooked one is that there was no imperative for the character to be black) I think it would be groundbreaking for DC to shake things up a bit. While I have only offered up African American actors thus far, there is little reason that most any particular character would be of a particular race. Certain cases, sure, such as Colossus being Russian, or Black Panther being a tribal African prince, but if the character is from the United States, he or she could easily be non-white. Let's mix it up and see if comics can't be important for something again.


Nathan said...

Good post. I'm not that familiar with comics, but I do know that most of these characters have had several changes in appearance since they first showed up, so I don't know why a change in race would be a big deal. The exception would be if a character's ethnicity is important, as with Colossus. Then again, it's not like all Russians are uniform in skin tone. Yul Brynner was Russian, and they had him play pretty much every nationality in existence.

Darius Whiteplume said...

True about Brynner. I guess you couldn't have a German Apache Chief either. Theresa and I were talking a bit about "Homicide: Life on the Streets" in regard to this post. I did not watch that often, but they certainly seemed to go with "best actor for the part" -- the awesome Yaphet Koto played "Al Giardello" and Melissa Leo's "Kay Howard" who had a very androgynous portrayal. Det. Howard could have been another male character and the show wouldn't even need rewrites, from what I remember.

Glad you enjoyed the post.

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