Race + Film: A Black Johnny Storm: What Happened to Color Blind?

Actor Michael B Jordan and The Human Torch.

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:

“I thought the Internet was going to explode […] I’d like to think that the support was enough to overshadow the retorts, but it wasn’t.”

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.

File:Spider-Man actors.jpg

Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man

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.

Image of Johnny Storm via Deviant artist DoOp.

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.

But – with the exception of those sadly niche places like Racialicious and Racebending and Afro Punk, for whom discussions of these order are their market – the world was strangely quiet.

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.

  • happyappa

    White actors should not be able to play poc characters, because since when has there been equal representation of pocs? Heck, even ACTUAL living people get whitewashed/racebent (21, Argo, etc)

    “Another thing you will hear people say: in an attempt to deflect accusations of racism… 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.”

    You gotta love closet racists who, instead of saying explicitly “I don’t want a poc to play this white character”, say “I just want them to stick to the source material”. But sticking to such source material means sticking to the status quo. And take a wild guess who benefits from the status quo.

  • Kate

    You said that Storm or Black Panther would matter if their race was changed because their race is a part of who they are and a point is made of it, while white characters typically don’t have that.

    “[T]o make the Black Panther anything other than black would be to fundamentally change his character and his story.”

    *I* think that’s WHY white characters should stay white. What I mean is, as a white person, my race is irrelevant to my personal life. Has the Human Torch ever experienced race-related issues in his life? No, he hasn’t. Because he’s white. Would he be changed as a person if he had experienced race-related issues? Yes, probably, and that would have happened if he was black. When you’re a POC, your race is never irrelevant. You’re reminded of it everywhere you go, and that changes you very slightly over time. Even if POC Johnny Storm had the same personality on the outside, he would be shaped very subtly differently on the inside, in a way that would eventually peek out. White characters’ races ARE relevant BECAUSE they aren’t relevant and that becomes part of who they are.

    As a comic-book fan, I do actually get extremely annoyed whenever any white actor is cast in a white character role that they don’t visibly suit. Most notably recently was the casting of Black Widow as Scarlett Johansson, which was irritating enough for me to refuse to see ANY Marvel superhero movie after Iron Man [the first one]. I’ve also boycotted the new Star Trek for the whitewashing of Kahn, and gone on lengthy angry rants to my boyfriend (a POC, actually) about the race-bending of Nick Fury.

    The fact is, we live in a visual society. We are assigned worth based on our appearance, be that whether we’re white vs. black, blond vs. brunette, skinny vs. fat, or blue-eyed vs. brown-eyed. The reality IS that characters exist WITHIN -THIS- reality. So it follows that they are WHO they are, in part, because of how they look. They need to look the way they look, because it it truly a part of who they are within society. Humans judge people based on appearance and treat people differently, and that changes us, that changes how we see ourselves, that changes what we avoid and what we are drawn too. It changes everything.

    That’s why the Human Torch should be white.

  • tauceti

    Brilliant article!

    I agree wholeheartedly, with one exception. As much as I love Benedict Cumberbatch, Khan’s race is extremely important to the character. io9 puts it best: “Khan’s whole backstory and reason for existing have to do with the Eugenics Wars. He’s the product of selective breeding (or, according to Wrath of Khan, genetic engineering) to create the perfect human. He’s smarter, faster, cleverer and more cunning than any normal human, and he can learn any topic from top to bottom in moments…. Making the ultimate representation of eugenics into a vaguely Asian villain played by a Latino was an oddly clever choice — it divorces his claims of genetic superiority from the real-life advocates of eugenics, and forces you to see the issue in a new light. For most of its history, eugenics was synoymous with ‘white superiority’ — but Khan flies in the face of that, by giving us a eugenics experiment in which race is apparently not a factor.”

    http://io9.com/5907467/the-real-problem-with-benedict-cumberbatchs-villain-role-in-star-trek-12

    They should have cast a POC in the role. Otherwise, they’re sending the message that they think a genetically-superior supervillain should be white instead of brown.

  • Ejaz

    The problem with Khan in Star Trek wasn’t that he didn’t look Indian. It’s that he didn’t behave like Khan in the slightest! Montelban’s Khan was a force of incredible nature, pulling the audience to him in every scene regardless of what’s going on. Chewing every bit of scenery at least twice before swallowing. Cumberbatch played a great character called John Harrison, but instead they went for the thrill. I reckon his cryo-tube was one over from Khan’s y’see – he was just pretending. The Indian factor just piled on that for me making it worse. I enjoyed the film alot but There Is Only One Khan.

    Personally I don’t see why having a black Johnny and Sue makes any difference at all – unless they set the film in the 60′s. Which would be awesome.

  • Joseph

    There’s some superheroes, where racebending completely change the character, simply because it fundamental changes the characters interaction with the general society. John Storm isn’t one of those. But if John Storm is changed into a Black man, they better do the same thing with Sue (Black woman of course). The whole “here’s my adopted BLACK brother” simply remove focus from the story and weaken it by creating a “as you know Bob…”, one of the biggest sins in storytelling.

  • Dismal Moron

    There are some stories that would be inhibited or downright ruined when ignoring the race of the characters. Look at Avatar – The Last Airbender. They whitewashed the cast and it killed the integrity of the movie. In the case of Spiderman, it’s easy to process that a scrawny, young white kid Spiderman. It doesn’t change the story.

    Believing that a black kid was adopted and become a self-centered, entitled rich kid would drastically change the story. Being adopted alone would change his motives, even if we ignore race.

  • SnapIntoASlimJim

    I just finished reading this article and I honestly wish I waited till then to reply rather than read half of white and then chime in because after I reading it I am angry at this writer. The writer is most uninformed about the entire situation especially what goes on in Hollywood.

    First of all, a person who doesn’t even know how to spell the name of a character correctly (it’s “Bane” not “Bain”) clearly does not know much about the character and thus has no business deciding that his race “does not intimately define his character”. Because you see, yes. Yes, Bane’s ethnicity does indeed define his character.

    Bane being Latino is an enormous part of his character. His background, his culture, his first language (being Spanish not English) all down to the fact that the creators of Bane gave him a luchador inspired mask design to reflect that he is Latino. Just because you enjoyed Hardy’s bizarre performance in ignorance of the source material does not make Nolan’s whitewashing less insulting and hurtful to Latino actors in Hollywood that can’t get anything past a stereotype or a white man’s sidekick.

    Equally ignorant is your comment about Khan. You claim that Montalbán “did nothing to try and disguise the fact that he was Mexican”. You make it obvious you haven’t actually seen the episode and movie where Montalbán played Khan. In “Space Seed” there is a part where you see a drawing of his character from when he was supposedly younger and he is drawn with a turban. The character was meant to be South Asian. How can you even claim that Khan being South Asian isn’t important when the name of the character is “Khan Noonien Singh”? How many white people have you bumped into with a name like that? Gene Roddenberry took a lot of guts as it was hiring nonwhites to be part of the main crew of his show during the 60s in the US but then he went out of his way to create a superhuman character with the conscious choice to make that character nonwhite.

    This entire premise is flawed down to the core. The whole “his/her race does not inform the character” is nonsense since the arguments have never been convincing. It’s always been some arbitrary invention of those who use that argument to decide that a character’s race isn’t important. And when it comes from the mouth of someone defending a white character being changed to nonwhite that person never sees the big picture.

    Think about it. Why is only Johnny Storm’s race being changed? His sister is white. Why not change the sister’s race as well? It seems very suspicious that they are only willing to change one character’s race where that character has a biological sister. It’s screams of “token black guy”. And how come almost all these white to nonwhite character changes in movies tends to be black? Why not Native American or Asian?

    When it comes down to it, nonwhites do not have the quality and amount of choices that whites have thanks to white supremacy in Hollywood. For every white character changed to nonwhite we’ll have far more nonwhite characters being changed to white and thus more nonwhite actors being marginalized stuck to play unimportant roles and stereotypes. What’s noteworthy also about the race changes of characters, and what misinformed people like the author of this article doesn’t even realize, is that the majority of the time that a white character gets changed to nonwhite, it’s almost always a supporting character or of even less importance. But when the change is nonwhite to white the character is almost always the main character.

    That is key to this whole thing and why it is nowhere near equal like the author mistakenly believes and is ignorantly arguing for.

  • SnapIntoASlimJim

    I’m sorry but these kinds of talks are not good for POC. All of the arguments used for why a white character can be played by a nonwhite actor hurts POC in the end because the exact argument can be used in the reverse and that reverse scenario (i.e. nonwhite character changed to white) hurts nonwhite actors as they have far less options in Hollywood than whites.

  • ellid

    You weren’t looking in the right places. There was a huge outcry in the fannish community about the whitewashing in the Avatar movie, with many people who’d loved the anime vowing that they would never see the film for that very reason.

    • SnapIntoASlimJim

      The Avatar show was not anime. It was an American production with some anime influence. “Anime” = Japanese animation.

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    Good article, but Bane (not “Bain”) was of mixed background in the original comic. He was raised in a Caribbean prison, but his father was a British criminal known as King Snake.

    The thing about Shakespeare is that there is a suspension of disbelief.David Oyelowo as Henry VI works in spite of not looking like Henry VI, just as Patrick Stewart worked in the “photo-negative” version of Othello. Shakespeare has been staged in many different variations and dress.

    My point is that live theatre (or theatre presented on film) has a different level of “reality” than a movie. I don’t see why a white (or Asian or East Indian) actor could not play Othello (although of course without blackface).

    • SnapIntoASlimJim

      Bane being of mixed background doesn’t change anything. His mother was a native of the Latin American country he was born in. Being half British doesn’t make Bane or any other half white person white. He is nonwhite just the same. Christopher Nolan though totally altered Bane’s character so that he was just a white man from somewhere in Europe so that Tom Hardy can play him. Nolan’s version of Bane was a whitewash for sure.

      Bane was Latino and has always been represented as a Latino. Not a white man who happened for no reason to grow up in a Latin American country. The whole half British thing came much later on in a lame pot twist that was done to generate interest and sales like many of the weak stunts that DC and Marvel pull from time to time to help maintain interest in their never ending comic books stories.

  • http://about.me/leonx Leon X

    The only Marvel character I could think of to make the “What if Black superhero were played by white people” argument would be Falcon. Race for his character does not particularly play into his identity.

    • ellid

      Except doesn’t he have a backstory as a social worker in Harlem? Somehow I don’t think having him played by a white man would go over too well.

      • http://about.me/leonx Leon X

        The Falcon’s powers were granted by magic. Being a social worker in Harlem would have nothing to do with it. Also let’s not say that it isn’t a stretch to have a white social worker in Harlem.

  • Meg

    The one thing that should remain constant in FF is the concept of them all being a family unit. So maybe he’s Sue’s adopted brother or someone she grew up with that was “like a brother” to her. As a big fan of the Fantastic Four (was invisible woman for halloween last year) I’d be fine with this casting. It’s less about them both having blonde hair and blue eyes, and more about them having a good on screen family relationship. The Andrew Garfield example is such a good example. He looked much less like Peter Parker than Tobey did, but he portrayed the character better in my opinion.

    • Ejaz

      Although I think it would be awesome if Sue was black too! Reed should say exactly as he is – an older white guy who’s in love with a totally smoking black woman. Imagine if it was set in the 60′s!

      • Meg

        I’d watch it!!

  • Jake Austen

    “nothing about Johnny Storm’s identity hinges on him being white”

    Obviously the Human Torch is not so sacred a character that he couldn’t be changed, so a black Johnny Storm could be great, but to say “nothing about Johnny Storm’s identity hinges on him being white” is an overstatement. As originally conceived he has to be the sibling of Sue Storm (who could be black as well, though “Invisible” becomes thornier when you shift from H.G. Wells’ concept to Ralph Ellison’s), and more significantly, the personality he has in the earliest comics seems to have something to do with white privilege — he’s an obnoxious carefree teen who treats his powers as an entitlement rather than a responsibility. But changing the character’s race, family, or personality would be welcome if it made the movie better (though it couldn’t be worse than previous Fantastic Four films).