racebending

“But why’d they have to make him Black?”

 

Ever since Samuel L. Jackson became the new face of Nick Fury, I haven’t heard the end of it. It’s understandable for people to want their favorite characters realized on screen as accurately as possible. We all know that feeling. But it’s also important to have some diversity on the big screen, especially with superhero films.

 

“The studios are trying too hard to be diverse.”

 

Are they? We’ve had exclusively white characters in the superhero genre for decades and no one made a fuss. Now there’s attempts to try to add a little color and people just can’t handle it. What many don’t understand is the extensive timeline of all of this. Superhero comic books started becoming prominent in the 1930s and 40s, a time when racism and segregation were still major issues in North America. Those early heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Captain America are still among the most popular heroes today. They were all born from a time when people of color had little to no exposure in popular culture. All of “the greats” are white heroes because they were created in a time where that was the norm. Black Panther, the first Black superhero in mainstream American comics didn’t even come around until 1966, almost 20 years after the emergence of superhero comics!

 

It’s quite astonishing that race-bending is even an issue with superhero movies because the characters that have been changed aren’t even main characters. Nick Fury from The Avengers, Heimdall from Thor, and most recently Iris West in the upcoming TV show The Flash have all been cast as Black actors and caused some discontent among hardcore fans. These are all side characters that people barely paid attention to in the first place. Now that they’re “the wrong race”, everyone’s concerned about them. Before Thor, I had never even heard of Heimdall in the geek community. He wasn’t a character people really thought of or cared about, but as soon as a Black actor was confirmed to play the role, a bunch of fans began complaining that he didn’t look like the original character that they “knew and loved”.

 

A Facebook group was even created to boycott Thor for making Heimdall, Black. And yet we have a character like Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man whose portrayal very few people complained about perhaps because his race could be ignored since he spent most of the movie more blue than Black.

 

 

Often when I start talking about race-bending in movies or ‘colorblind casting,’ those who oppose try to say something along the lines of, “well what if they made a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and he was casted as a white person? You’d be upset wouldn’t you?” This kind of retort is unfortunately very common and beyond frustrating because that comparison doesn’t even make sense. Martin Luther King Jr. was a real person who actually existed. He’s not up for interpretation because he isn’t a fictional character. Many people seem to forget that these are fictional characters we’re talking about. Superheroes were created to show that anyone can be extraordinary no matter who they are, where they come from or what they look like. It’s about time we embrace that.

 

It’s okay to not be comfortable when a character’s race is altered, we all have our own preferences. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is the only version I know so that’s the look I associate with that character. But the original content isn’t going anywhere! If you prefer a certain version of a character, you’ll always have them available in the original books, shows or movies. You don’t have to like the change, but you don’t have to discourage other people from enjoying it.

 

With the news of our new Human Torch being Black in the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot, I hope people keep an open mind. I mean we all questioned Quicksilver’s look in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but the character turned out great! Let’s not be so quick to judge based on appearances.

 

AlanaAlanna is a Canadian cosplayer, filmmaker, photographer, musician and all around geek. She’s a comic book nerd and gamer at heart, with a particular fondness for Marvel and DC Comics. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr as AlannaMode.

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  • I don’t like seeing Black actors thrown in just to make some sort of race quota, that’s such a sell out, but if a Black actor is the best fit, I can live with that. I mean Hugh Jackman is way too tall for Wolverine, but he nailed the character so well. When I saw they made Kingpin Black in the Daredevil movie I was skeptical. But lets face it, could anyone but Michael Clarke Duncan play the part. My reaction on watching him was “Oh my gawd, he IS Kingpin. Kerry Washington also nailed Alicia, even if she wasn’t blonde. Getting actors who can portray the personality of a character rather than look exactly like them is more important to me.

  • Alanna, you make a great point about the characters that are being recast racially are all side-line, secondary or periphery characters. Sometimes, these secondary characters are given to established black actors and this inevitably shoves said character into the limelight, and the geek purists (being of an already marginalised culture) seem to raise their No.1 editions in uproar that these new adaptations aren’t the same as in their comic panels! Well gee-whiz buddy, so sorry that we need to ask you to accept change in the 21st century, but we aren’t fighting the Nazis or the Commies any more….and oooh LOOK a woman wearing trousers!? *gasp* ;0

    All joking aside, diversity MUST continue! And not just within the black community. What would happen if a female superhero managed to kick ass, save the world and wear a hijab?
    I know and am aware of so many indie writers and illustrators who have had to create media (books, comics, films etc), in order to see themselves fairly represented.
    The executive number-crunchers, who run these conglomerates, care more about making money than artistic risk, and then use ‘marketing stats’ as an excuse for not providing a wide-range of reading and viewing material, that is representative. But, that’s why our communities, online or otherwise, are so important! We can effect change: with every article, tweet and petition! We do make a difference, even if it takes years! Stubbornness, thy name is Nerd!

    Also, I find it hilarious that comic purists get their sweater-vests in a twist over movie adaptations. I suppose, because both are visual media that it’s easy to forget that a film is a different type of story-telling device, therefore, the same rules do not apply. (PS: I have ruined many a good sweater-vest myself, before remembering that change can sometimes be good….sometimes….when done properly….and not half-heartedly…or simply to pay lip service to hit your diversity quota… -_- ).

  • Marie Simmons

    But Nick Fury is black in the ultimate universe. I thought that’s the Nick Fury they chose. The other problem is that the source material hasn’t been all that diverse either…

  • Race-bending is only a problem—to me—if the race of the character is vital to their experience, personal point of view, life, ethics, etc.
    For instance, I think a black or Hispanic Oliver Queen or Bruce Wayne wouldn’t really work (agina: for me) because they are “white men who come from old money.” Not saying there aren’t POC who come from old money…but it’s not as likely here in the US (I’d have a hard time with them being made female either, but hey, Emma Frost is old money, so why not?). But, I think there are very few characters that can’t be changed to a POC (these three being the only ones I can actually think of). Making Black Panther white to pander to the people who are complaining doesn’t make sense either, since his background is a hugely a black experience. And I won’t even touch the MLK Jr. “idea” (surely, this does not stem from a brain, but someone thinking with their ass), because that’s a ludicrous example for the reasons you have already pointed out.
    There are many prominent characters that could be black. For example, Captain America could easily be a POC! The idea that he MUST to be a white guy, is the least historical to me. I LOVED Captain America Red, White and Black for this reason (in the comic, the Tuskegee experiments were to recreate, Steve Rogers abilities in soldiers to make more). It called out the trend of experimenting on blacks first. But, Steve wouldn’t have been the first subject would he?
    Also, Nick Fury was black WELL before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see: Ultimate)…this was in 2001 nearly a decade before them!!! But “fake-geek guys” (I am calling the folks who don’t know this fact that, since they are so up in arms but didn’t even know, but wanted to whine about it) always “forget” this fact.
    Lastly, can we talk about how: Fox from Wanted; The Mandarin from Iron Man…his frigging nemesis; the kids in Avatar the Last Airbender; Shredder from Michael Bay’s upcoming abortion, I mean, TMNT; and now, TIGER LILY in an upcoming Peter Pan are all POC, who were made white? Where’s the PC in that? We need to point these “atrocities” out to fans too…since they clearly can’t stand this right?
    People’s abhorrence to “forced political correctness” serves as a reminder that racism/homophobia/sexism/elitism all still exist!
    Its just that now we can hide it at work, school, etc. and take it to the forums of the interwebs with “anonymity” to cover our trails.

  • Brad.k

    I love the points you have brought up especially Nick Fury who’s race is different in many comics. I know many people are disappointed that he’s not the Snake Pliskin-esque persona he’s known for. I for one support the change in race and I find it better than yet another gruff white action hero that’s like Snake Pliskin or Ashley Williams.

  • misterultimate

    Technically, Samuel L. Jackson isn’t a race swap. In the Ultimate line of Marvel comics, Nick Fury is not only black, but his look is intentionally patterned after Jackson. They even went as far as to have the character say that Jackson would be who he wants to play him if they made an Avengers movie long before the actual film was announced. Fans are mostly fine with this because they get to watch more Sam Jackson.

  • I dont object to the changing of color, but more to Samuel l. Jackson.
    He is a great actor, but even with the new Fury patterned after him, to me Avery Brooks would have made a better Fury.

  • I’ve said this once and I’ll say it again. As a black female, I feel that race bending is an issue and it needs to stop. I totally get what you’re saying. Comics and comic book movies have dominated by white people for a very long time and now that it’s 2015, we should see more diversity in comic book movies. It’s sad that if Samuel Jackson hadn’t been in The Avengers the cast would have literally been all white. It’s sad that the same thing can be said for Idris Elba in Thor and Micheal B. Jordan in Fantastic Four. Diversity definately needs to happen but THIS is NOT the way to do it. The studios shouldn’t do stuff like this and we shouldn’t do it. These characters are not true characters, they are tokens.

    Let me remind you that same studio that’s casting Micheal B. Jordan as the Human Torch as a way of “diversifying” the team and “taking a step forward” is the same studio that gave Storm little to no importance whatsoever in the X-Men movies. Storm, the only black, female superhero that’s mainstream enough to actually be in a superhero movie and how what do they do? Make her take back seat to Wolverine in every X-Men she’s been in (just like what they did with other characters like Jean and Rouge). This is the same studio that killed off the only black superhero in X-Men: First Class about 20 minutes after they introduced him. Do black characters really have that good a track record in 20th Century Fox’s Marvel movies? Their most recent ones included? I’d have to say no, And I also have to call BS on them making Human Torch black because they care about the audience.

    This is nothing more than them throwing the audience a bone. When I see Hollywood do this, take any originally white character and make him black (because this usually only happens to the white male characters from what I’ve seen) I don’t see it as diversity or a step forward. I see it as them not believing that ORIGINAL stories about black characters are worth taking the time to create. That the characters in comic books that are already black don’t deserve the attention that is given to white characters despite being almost as prominent, if not just as prominent, as their white counterparts.

    I’ve heard the whole, “But the race of the character doesn’t matter!” argument for why race-bending is okay. Well what about a character Cyborg or John Stewart (Green Lantern)? What about some of the black female superheros listed in this very site? Do their races affect their character all that much? No.(not from what I’ve read about them atleast, if I am wrong please correct me.)This is the SAME argument used when people take a black character and then make them white in a movie adaptation and we get upset about it. Either way it goes it’s wrong. Even if there are plenty of white superheroes to spare if some of them are cast as black. We can’t keep using these arguments to justify stuff like this.

    So while I do agree that comic book movies should be more diverse, race-bending isn’t the way to go about it. I say just keep the characters the way are and take the time to create new stories for black characters like Dreamworks is doing, or the take the time to build on existing black characters like the Black Panther movie coming out. Will this result in most comic book movies being predominantly if not all white? Definately. But it’d also result in REAL stories being told about REAL black characters. And that means more to me than a “race-bent” token ever will or ever has.

    (link to info about Dreamworks movie: http://metro.co.uk/2014/04/19/rihanna-to-star-in-first-3d-animated-film-to-feature-a-black-lead-character-4703616/)

  • My initial thought when Marvel announced Lady Thor was that they were “trying too hard to include women.” But that’s not the actual problem. The problem is they aren’t trying hard enough. If they were trying harder, someone like Lady Sif would get her own title instead of temporary change to a now popular character.

  • Dayis

    “We’ve had exclusively white characters in the superhero genre for decades and no one made a fuss.”

    I have to disagree completely Blade was their first after failed early 90s projects, Shaq’s Steel (really terrible) and one I enjoyed and would buy the blu-ray meteor Man (honorable mention goes to Blank Man). Before that Berry Gordon’s Last Dragon. I cosplay as Sho’nuff for crying out loud and get recognized at Comic con, otakon, even gen con. Anyway interesting article and perspective.

  • Ndoki Hasaki

    The problem isn’t in trying to be diverse, or having more racially diverse characters. The problem is changing already existing characters to a different race, or gods forbid, a different gender.

    What if someone made a movie about Rosa Parks but made her a white man? People would be up in arms for the very same reason.

    If, instead of changing already existing characters (which is both lazy AND throwing away the character’s already established and cherished history) companies just added or included more racially diverse characters (there are already plenty of existing ones for ANY race/gender/ability you can think of) I highly doubt any more than maybe a dozen actual racists would even bat an eyelash.