By Guest Contributer TajRoy Calhoun
There was a rumor that actor Michael B. Jordan was in the running for the role of Human Torch Johnny Storm in the up-and-coming reboot of the Fantastic Four. The response was deafening.
A blog on entertainment website IGN – which, through a good amount of traffic, managed to make it to the front page of the site (I say this to note how much interest – from both sides – has been generated by this topic) – described it well:
The problem: Michael B. Jordan is black. And Johnny Storm isn’t (or, possibly, wasn’t).
I’m not going to call racism – hang my head and lament the continued existence of racism in America and the excessive amount of it in nerd culture. I”m simply going to ask: why is this casting choice a problem?
Johnny Storm has previously only ever been portrayed as white – but that does not mean he is defined by that portrayal. Until 2001 whenDavid Oyelowo portrayed Henry VI, no black actor has ever portrayed an English king in a major Shakespearean production. There is a first time for everything.
Like the characters in Shakespeare, who can be played by actors of any race because their identities exist beyond such base and socially-constructed aspects such as race, nothing about Johnny Storm’s identity hinges on him being white.
“What if Storm or Black Panther were played by white people”, you will hear some say, in defense – but these characters are different; their race does factor into their identity. Similar to Shakespeare’s Othello, unique in the Shakespearean pantheon as being a character whose story centers on the fact that he is of a different race than those around him – to make the Black Panther anything other than black would be to fundamentally change his character and his story.
Johnny Storm is no Othello. He is Romeo. He is King Lear. He is Hamlet. He can be played as easily by the white Laurence Olivier as by Oyelowo.
Another thing you will hear people say: in an attempt to deflect accusations of racism, you will likely hear people, rather than saying “Johnny Storm isn’t black, he’s white”, say something like “he’s blond-haired and blue-eyed, which Michael B. Jordan isn’t”. The idea being that, “it’s not that we don’t want a black actor – we just want an actor who accurately embodies the character as he is portrayed in the comics.
As one person put it: “Unlike literary figures, where they only exist in our imaginations, comic book characters are visual represented. We grew up reading and looking at comic books. By changing a characters’ appearance, they are no longer the characters readers grew up seeing in comic books.”
This would be a sound argument – if the people that used it stuck to it; if, in all cases, they defended it as fervently as they do now. But that is not the case. One need not look any farther than Chris Evan’s portrayal of the character in the 2005 adaptation. If you want to bring up the fact that Michael B. Jordan isn’t blond – well neither is Evans, at least not in that portrayal. Yet there was no such rabid complaints about his inaccurate portrayal. And this is true for a great number of comic book characters portrayed in film.
Aside from their race, most actors don’t look like their comic book counterparts. With some exceptions I don’t believe we’ve gotten a single Bruce Wayne in cinema who looks like the comic book Bruce Wayne – black hair, sharp-featured square face, broad-shoulders, pale skin – Michael Keaton was the closest. Yet we haven’t heard criticism of these actors not accurately representing the characters we grew up with. Likewise, there has been no criticism of the casting of the fair-skinned Henry Cavil as the habitually olive-skinned Superman.
And the two actors we’ve gotten to play Spider-Man look nothing alike aside from their race. Different build, hair color – hell, they even have different skin colors (though both are racially “white”) – and neither looks exactly like the comic book Spider-Man. Most fans adore Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker for more accurately representing the spirit of the character (I too am a fan) but with the exception of his build, he (arguably) looks less like the comic book Peter Parker than Tobey McGuire (I say arguably as it can be hard to measure what the “definitive” image of a character is in comics, as some of the more subtle features can change from artist to artist – this brings in the argument that, owing to this fact, the image of comic book characters are naturally malleable, and not only do they need not be held to hold, but cannot be – though I will not go further in that argument here).
With certain exceptions (Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey Jr.), fans have had to make due with casting choices that failed to capture the image of the character they grew up seeing – and yet no complaints (or, at least none of such volume and fervor as today) have been made – because as different as those actors may be to their character, they were at least white.
As I have stated above – the recasting of a black character such as Storm or the Black Panther (or, I have seen someone bring up – Django) would be a completely different subject, as these are characters whose race informs and is an integral part of their character – these character’s race influences their portrayal, their actions, their stories – you could not tell story of the Black Panther, as it is in comics, if he wasn’t black. To change his race, it would be necessary to also change his story.
And I do not make this argument for one-side either. I would argue that Captain America (the Steve Roger’s Captain – though I would love to see an Isaiah Bradley film) is a character that should only be portrayed as white – I believe his race is integral to his character. Same for Bruce Wayne – a man from old money, raised in privilege, forced to confront the darker and bleaker aspects of life. To change their race, I argue, would also necessitate the changing of their character.
With Johnny Storm, however, we have an example of a character whose race does not inform their character. And, again, I am not arguing for one-side either, when I say that there should be no problem with Johnny Storm being cast as black. Although I would bemoan the loss of an opportunity for a colored actor to have a role, if my argument is to hold any water I must also say: if there is a colored character whose race does not inform his identity, it should be alright to cast color-blind.
But at the same time, if those on the other side wish to cry foul of color-blind casting for Johnny Storm, they must also cry foul when color-blind casting is used to place white actors in traditionally colored roles. With that being said – where was the massive fan outcry when the white Tom Hardy was cast as the Afro-Latino Bain? Or having the “Indian” Khan portrayed by the white Benedict Cumberbatch in the newest Star Trek.
Though many – understandably – did, I, personally, did not have a problem with these casting choices (outside of bemoaning the loss of an opportunity for a colored actor to have a major role in a blockbuster Hollywood film). As much as the thought of a Latino or Afro-Latino Bain gives me goosebumps (the good kind), Tom Hardy did fantastic as the character – and there was, really, nothing keeping him from giving a full, accurate portrayal of that character. Although the character of Bain was based on Edmond Dantes from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo - a character who, despite almost always being portrayed as white, was based on Alexandre Dumas’ own father, French general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was black – Bain, like Johnny Storm, is a character whose race does not intimately define his character. It is merely a detail – like the color of Bruce Wayne’s hair, or the exact shade of “white” of Peter Parker.
This is the same for Khan – though it goes further than him simply, again, being an example of a character for whom his race does not inform his identity. While in his backstory he is described as being from India, he was originally portrayed by Ricardo Montalbán, who, despite his great skills as an actor, did nothing to try and disguise the fact that he was Mexican. Thus, from day one a precedent had been set for the raceless casting of this character, and thus I see no problem accepting Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of this “Indian” character. To do otherwise would be to say – while neither Montalbán or Cumberbatch are Indian, Montalbán has greater right to the role simply by virtue of not-being-white. And I believe that is wrong.
Just as wrong as saying that any other non-blond-haired-blue-eyed actor has greater right to the character of Johnny Storm than Michael B. Jordan, simply by virtue of being white. There should have been just as much outcry for the “racebending” of Bain and Khan as there is now for Johnny Storm But there wasn’t. Because there has never been a problem with racebending – while there are many who, unlike me, are adamantly against the casting of white actors as Bain and Khan, their voices were, unfortunately – and like the voices of many who wish to discuss race in America – largely unheard outside of niche media. Hell, I’m still confounded by the relative lack of outcry for the racebending of the actors in Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. I cannot make this statement with certainty, so I do apologize – I am not relying on hard statistics, merely my own memory and experiences – but I believe that more attention, and a greater vocal outcry, has been generated by the controversial over the rumors of a black Johnny Storm then by the entire cast of that movie - and the racist remarks made by some of those cast members.
And in many places the casting was defended. Not due to the “racelessness” of these characters – as I argue was the case with Khan and Bain, and here and now Johnny Storm – but with an argument for color-blindness. I do not wish to talk about color-blindness – just as I did not wish to talk about racism. I simply wish to ask: what happened to that color-blindness?
Now they are making the same argument that only people of color (and our allies) were making before: a vocal argument against racebending. And its getting attention. It might even have an impact.
Because now that “racebending” is happening to white characters it is suddenly a problem. And whether the voices are in greater numbers or just louder, or simply the ears listening more attuned, everyone can hear their cries.