Black Skin, White Superheroes: Oh No! Your Beloved Superhero Looks Different!

Actor Michael B. Jordan to play Human Torch (photo via IGN)

So you’ve probably heard by now that Michael B. Jordan will be playing the Human Torch in the next Fantastic Four movie. Of course some fanlosers are throwing a fit about it… aaas they do. But neither such “race-makeovers” nor the outrage over them is news these days.

Whether or not those disappointed fans actually go and see the movies or watch the shows despite the horrible affront of casting a black Nick Fury or a female Major Anderson (Ender’s Game), these films tend towards the top of the box office lists and, for the most part, the complaints are totally mum after minds are blown at the theater that *gasp* a change of skin color didn’t actually ruin the film!

So let’s take a look at the many many times that an actor’s physical appearance differed in some notable way from the traditional character’s appearance, and how that bafflingly managed to not ruin the film!

Nick Fury

Nick Fury is white in the comic books he’s graced. However, he’s also a New York-born super-spy who isn’t afraid of anything. It’s doubtful anyone could argue that Samuel L. Jackson can’t play a fearless super spy with absolute believability.  Not to mention, a 2012 comics series titled Battle Scars created the circumstances for Nick Fury to have a secret son who is actually a black Samuel L. Jackson look-alike, christened Nick Fury, Jr….

Heimdall

Idris Elba is a phenomenal actor and did a great job as Heimdall. And while Heimdall is based off a Norse god, he’s actually Asgardian, as in of a fictional ethnicity. Who says Asgardians can’t be black?

Catwoman

No one can argue that Eartha Kitt wasn’t absolutely perfect as Catwoman. No one.  …I have nothing to say about Halle Berry‘s unfortunate depiction…

Ford Prefect

Mos Def is a hip hop artist first, so maybe one could find fault in his acting skills. However, certainly it’s not even a point to argue in this case seeing as Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel was described as Betelgeusian. That’s right, an alien journalist, not a white guy. David Dixon was cast as Ford Prefect in the 1981 BBC series, but that’s hardly reason enough to make sure the character is white in future productions.

Major Anderson

This is a fun one. In the science fiction novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the character Major Anderson is described as a white male. In the movie adaptation this character will be played by (amazing) actress Viola Davis, who has nabbed awards galore for her remarkable talents.

Rue

PSYCHE! There was a big, sad, cruel hulabaloo over the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in the Hunger Games film, with viewers outraged that the character was made to be black when (as they oddly believed) she was supposedly white in the book… Buuut, turns out, the book explicitly describes Rue as having dark skin and brown hair. Soo… yea…

And then of course there’s the fact that throughout the history of film-making and theater, male actors regularly played female characters, and, more problematically, white actors regularly played black characters, Native Americans, Latinos, Egyptians… well, basically characters of every ethnicity… because more racist eras felt it inappropriate to have actual people of color on screen.

The Aztecs

In season 1 of the original Doctor Who series (1964), these white guys played Aztecs...
In season 1 of the original Doctor Who series, these white guys played Aztecs…

Gengis Khan

John Wayne as Gengis Khan in The Conqueror (1956)

There are too many examples to choose from, and I won’t even get into blackface. This of course is quite different from much of the race-switching and gender-switching happening on big screens today. These early uses of white actors for ethnic roles were the result of deep-seated racism:

a) it was considered unacceptable to have actual ethnic characters on screen, especially as heroes or major protagonists.

b) ethnic peoples were so marginalized and subjugated that few could afford the luxury of a (respectable) acting career.

Thankfully, much has changed and strides have been made towards greater equality in Hollywood… Though there remain glaring inequalities and many areas in need of serious improvement.

One of these issues is the lack of major, non-stereotyped roles for actors of color. The historic casting of  actors of color as slaves, maids, thugs, tokens or expendable characters sadly continues. Which is why it’s so thrilling to see ethnic actors playing superheroes and iconic characters like Nick Fury!  And why not?

Sci-fi and comics readers build strong relationships to the characters they follow through epic adventures and heroics. We grow to care about them and identify with them, and we grow attached to the representations of them either in our own minds or in the art provided us. Understandably it can be jarring when a film adaptation shows a character looking very different than the image we’ve grown attached to.

Maybe she’s a different ethnicity altogether, like half-Jewish, half-Danish American actress Scarlett Johansson playing the Russian superheroine Black Widow…or Jennifer Garner playing dark-haired Greek assassin Elektra

or maybe he looks absolutely nothing at all like the character (like Keanu Reeves as British comic book hero John Constantine) …

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Seriously?

Or the ever changing face of Batman…(apparently a little hair gel does the trick for most viewers)

via. ScreenInvasion.com

Or maybe they’re even significantly older, like the Stark boys in Game of Throneswho in the books were still pubescent, but in the show have well-groomed facial hair.

Instead of leaving every film disappointed by the physical dissimilarity, we adapt. We use those imagination things we have and focus on the actor’s depiction of the character rather than the physical traits they share. And thank goodness, or movies would suck for everyone, always.

We adapt to different hair colors, body types, heights, ages, faces… So, surely, it seems pretty ridiculous to obstinately draw a line at skin color.

Finally, I just have to add… Some of the concerns over Michael B. Jordan‘s casting in Fantastic Four have been around the casting of the character’s sister Sue Storm, who is reportedly being played by white actress Allison Williams. Some argue that this presents a problem about the parentage of the siblings.  To them I have to say…. meet my brother… (also a great excuse to share this ridiculously adorable photo of us as kids)

Same Mom, different Dads; it ain't that hard.
Same Mom, different Dads; it ain’t that hard.
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33 thoughts on “Black Skin, White Superheroes: Oh No! Your Beloved Superhero Looks Different!”

  1. When an actor is good enough they can pull off the character regardless of skin color or body type. Samual Jackson is Nick Fury but, as much as I love him, John Wayne did not do well as Ghingis Kahn. And lots of white actors did terrible jobs as Spider-Man back in the 70’s. Nice article, great points.

  2. The only thing I have against nonwhite people playing formerly characters is that there are plenty of awesome, kickass nonwhite characters already in the comics which don’t have the problem of being “originally white” in the first place. There’s this insidious implication that having, say, a black main superhero somehow turns it into a “special interest” film, but having a black supporting character is just fine, as it fills a diversity quota.

    Case in point: Thor. Idris Elba can be cast as Heimdall despite the fact that there are practically no other black people in all of Asgard (and despite the fact his sister Sif is played by a white actress: certainly you can have half-siblings of different ethnicities, but I seriously doubt that was the filmmakers’ intention), because it’s extremely unlikely we’re going to get a major black superhero movie, unless it’s part of an ensemble cast.

    At this point, it seems more likely we’re going to see traditionally white/male characters get “racelifted”, than to see genuine original PoC get a big screen adaptation. Which is problematic, as it gives the impression that the existing nonwhite/male characters are either not good enough, or not popular enough, to justify a big screen adaptation. And frankly, I think that sucks. It gives the impression that the best minorities can get is playing a “white man’s playground”: “sure, you can play a supporting character or one out of four superheroes, but this is still going to be a predominantly white movie.”

    You can make Perry White, Human Torch, Heimdall and the like black, but frankly, I’d much rather we got Luke Cage, Misty Knight, John Stewart, Cyborg, Steel, Vixen, Black Panther and other genuine black superheroes in their own films than playing secondary characters in movies about White Males.

  3. Yes! Love what you’re saying! Every single one of those movies would be epic. And a bunch of movies with black and brown superhero leads would be truly ideal. Heck, even kick it up a notch and let’s get a whole series of movies in the Milestone universe. You even point to the problem… until white audiences join in and starting going to see these movies as well, studios aren’t gonna lay down the bucks for ’em. Certainly, this article was only an argument against the seriously absurd outrage at changing a characters race. But Yes please, let’s *do get to the bigger point! Let’s give these awesome POC heroes their due! Thank you!

  4. I thought we agreed that we would never speak of George Clooney as “Batman” ever again!

  5. Happy to help make such connections! Dom has wreittn one thing (a review of Air), and we’ve had initial discussions about a Battle Royale type of article based on an initial draft he’d done re: writing vs. art in comics (and which is more important), but other than that, we’ve both been busy.

  6. Mar29Mizguided1 actually when i read this comemnt a 3 panel comic popped into my head, lols. 1st panel shows you at your drawing desk(or where ever you draw)with her next to you suggesting a leaf monster but instead of words her idea/leaf monster is in a thought bubble. 2nd panel shows you looking at the thought bubble with the leaf monster jumping out of it and growing all huge (gf is still talking to you not knowing that her leaf monster just came to life) 3rd panel shows leaf monster as big as Godzilla rampaging through the town. comic strip titled Be Careful What You Wish For or sumthin like that! =) taadaa!!!

  7. you’ve said exactly what’s in my heart. Milestone Heroes, Blood Syndicate, Sabre, Shaman, Shan Shi Master of Kung Fu these are all Superheroes with stories worth telling, AND they are non-white.
    now i don’t mind changing a characters race if it doesn’t require to much retrofitting, but i get the sense that studios are saying “we need a black actor here somewhere” comic book movie’s version of the token minority.
    white audiences patronizing non-white heroes? bring in the top quality production, writers, directors, special effects values that they bring to, say The Avengers and they will come.

  8. Actually, Nick Fury isn’t such a makeover as you might think. He was first given a race-makeover in 2001 in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. A lot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe looks tend to come from the Ultimate Universe looks, rather than the Classic. Ultimate Nick Fury was actually redesigned from his first appearance to deliberately look like Samuel L. Jackson and it was off the back of the actor himself learning of this that he sought out the part of Nick Fury himself.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_Nick_Fury

  9. Actually Dolan,

    Addressing your Genghis Khan as John Wayne comparison…

    Genghis Khan, though a Mongol with Turkic features, was described by the Chinese and Persians whom he conquered, as being *fair-complected, having a cat’s eyes (green eyes) and light reddish brown hair”.

    Maybe do a little research on Genghis Khan before trying to be Mr. Right?

  10. As longs as this go in both directions. If denzel Washington can play Julius Caesar, a white actor can play Jimmie Hendrix, right? Can’t have it both way. We’re intererest in fairness after all not preferential treatment. Quid pro quo.

  11. Haven’t we given the blacks enough. Keep on and nothing will be left of white history

  12. 1 of the worst posts i have ever seen! ofc its a big difference in change! he’s been white since the start. but noooo. blacks cry about everything and demand things instead of doing anything themselves and invent their own!.lmao what crunk juice man,weed man the pimp slapper or the gang banger not good enough?who really sees them as heroes anyways!!! why do we have to change a awesome character into this? lets make blade white or m.l.k. i mean wtf does it matter right?

  13. Just because your mother was a race traiting whore dont try to steal our charachters nigger lover

  14. Geek Outsider- you’re that dumbest sack of shit out there. if you want nigger heroes so bad make your own up like i said before. why do whites have to hold niggers hands in everything we do? why is it we have to have a certain percent of these niggers in our movies?we invented it, we wrote it we paid for it we made up the set and everything else, so why do we have to include blacks? it’s kinda funny. all you shitskin fucks so is talk about how great you are, you come from gods blah blah blah but can’t fucking make up your own super hero?crunk juice man,weed man, the pimp slapper, the gang banger or the black card(he plays the black card when he gets in trouble) not good enough? shit when you shitskins make movies it’s about, getting laid,drugs,thinking you’re italian gangsters, or make movies about cutting hair,shoes,clothes, fucking car washes or doing dumb nigger shit on a plane. but no instead of doing any of the work yourselves you shitskin cry babies bitch and cry and demand we change 40+ year old comics to add you niggers in it. no one sees blacks as a hero.

  15. I love how the Libtards celebrate as the movie crashed and burned. I personally boycotted it due to race swapping. I think millions of people did. I guess you celebrated alone. All you morons should have gone to see it a few thousand times each to support your views. lmfao. dumbasses!

  16. Tired of this PC bullshit. Marvel has basically ruined the Avengers by changing the race and sex of the characters. Now theyre replacing Tony Stark with a teenage black girl as Ironman…..how fucking ridiculous.

  17. I have always been a firm believer of staying true to source material. If the character is traditionally white, leave him white. If he was originally black, leave him black. I don’t like this ulterior motive of making change to suit peoples needs. We always use the emphasis of white people being replaced. So why don’t we see a white Luke Cage? or a white Black Panther if change is a good thing? Hmm?

  18. I love seeing diversity in any superhero movie. But I want to see the characters I grew up with to be who they truly are and not some token black face to fill some stupid quota.

    Bring or make a zillion black, brown, red, yellow, green, whatever on to the screen. But can you just let the characters be who they are!? PLEASE!

    How would it look if they made a movie about Obama and made him white. Or a movie about Clint Eastwood and made him black. It’s just plain stupid!

  19. Instead of turning established white comic characters black why not create new characters? I’m sorry if I see iconic characters as they’re supposed to be portrayed ruined by trying to be “accepting” or “open minded” but I’ve yet to see any colored characters changed to a lighter race. Are we really at a point where we have to rehash characters and change their race to appeal to masses? Try being creative and make new colored superheros instead of ruining the image of established superheros. I don’t care what color your skin is, but it’s just as racist to change a white character black as it is to exclude black characters all together. This crap is what ruins our society.

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