Tag Archives: Race-bending

Remember This?? URSULA K. LEGUIN’s *Badass* Response to Syfy’s WhiteWashed EARTHSEA Adaptation?

Back in 2004, the Syfy (back then “The SciFi Channel“) released a miniseries “adaptation” of Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea trilogy, titled Legend of Earthsea

The main cast was entirely white, except for the character Ogion, who was played by Danny Glover (and apparently some spear-wielding primitives).  The problem with that isn’t just that there is a gross lack of diversity in the series (which is a completely legit problem on its own, and one that plagues science fiction entertainment today).

earthseaposter

The problem was that the series was based on books in which the majority of the characters were brown or black… (except for a people made up of brutish, war-hungry white men). The main character was described as “red-brown” and his best friend as just straight up “black”.

Somewhere this got conveniently “lost” in translation. Numerous readers (of every hue– I mean, the books freaking sold over a million copies!) were seriously miffed about many of the liberties taken in the series, and the lovely Ms. Le Guin stood up on the soap box herself and took SyFy to town in an article on Slate.

And boy did she lay down the law!

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Just look at the side-eye! She means business! (© 2012 Laura Anglin)

The first book of the Earthsea trilogy A Wizard of Earthsea was published on September 13th, 1968– 46 years ago today. So to commemorate this dope series, and her-geeky-outsiderness Ursula K. LeGuin, here are some of the gems from the magnificent shade she threw at the SciFi Channel some 10 years ago:

 

“I had been cut out of the process. And just as quickly, race, which had been a crucial element, had been cut out of my stories. In the miniseries, Danny Glover is the only man of color among the main characters (although there are a few others among the spear-carriers). A far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned.”

 

“My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?”

 

“I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.”

Boxed set cover art of the first three books in the "Earthsea" series, as issued in 1975. Artwork by Pauline Ellison.
Boxed set cover art of the first three books
in the “Earthsea” series, as issued in 1975.
Artwork by Pauline Ellison.

“Gradually I got a little more clout, a little more say-so about covers. And very, very, very gradually publishers may be beginning to lose their blind fear of putting a nonwhite face on the cover of a book. “Hurts sales, hurts sales” is the mantra. Yeah, so? On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal—a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader.”

“I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don’t notice, don’t care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being “colorblind.” Nobody else does.”

 

Read the full article here

The best part of the article, though, and one of her best points, is that many readers of color wrote to her and let her know how important it was to them to feel included and see themselves represented as heroes in a genre that neglects them to an astonishing degree.

Race-bending characters in adaptations is really cool and can be really interesting. But in a genre (ahem… and an entire entertainment world) where characters of color are completely absent or never get to play hero, it’s something entirely different to take the color out of the picture…

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.