My recent post on Hollywood’s continued diversity problem, and the casting of Zendaya as Mary Jane in the new Spider-man movie, have been pretty contentious. And while I stand by what I wrote, Doug and other members of the team pointed out that there have been occasions in which looking beyond skin color when casting comic book characters has worked out brilliantly.
The most recent of these has to be Deadshot, in the new Suicide Squad movie. Right from his inception in 1950, the sharp-shooting character of Deadshot has always been portrayed as white – yet when Hollywood decided to cast for the Suicide Squad movie, they didn’t think twice about lining up superstar Will Smith in the role.
And the interesting thing? Nobody gave a shit.
It is really interesting how recasting some white characters with black actors – Heimdall, from Thor, and Mary Jane Watson serving as prime examples – gives people on Twitter apoplexy. Yet when Will Smith was cast, nobody gave a shit.
I mean, maybe they did – but I didn’t notice it on Twitter or the like. So it was certainly not to the same extent as Idris Elba, as Heimdall. Nope, for the most part the Internet seemed totally down with Will Smith playing a traditionally white character – and, in his defense, that might be because he’s Will Fucking Smith.
Will Fucking Smith can play anybody and we’ll love him for it. Traditionally white secret agent Jim West in Wild Wild West? Sold. As Robert Neville, the virologist from I Am Legend (a white character in the book, and portrayed twice previously onscreen as white)? We’re down. I mean, he is the most bankable star in Hollywood – but he’s also proof that the skin color of a character is less important than the actor you have playing them.
In exactly the same vein, the character of Nick Fury was originally envisioned as white (he was even played by David Hasslehoff in the 1990s) but today it would be difficult to see anybody other than Samuel L. Jackson in the role. In the early 2000s Nick Fury had a race-lift (that’s meant to be a pun on face-lift, not being offensive) and if anything it made the role explode in popularity and name recognition.
The difference between Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Will Smith’s Deadshot however is that this race-change occurred in the comic books long before the Avengers ever hit the cinema screens. In 2002’s The Ultimates, artist Bryan Hitch drew Nick Fury to resemble Samuel L. Jackson seemingly on a whim; and the look caught on so quickly that when Marvel came looking to cast a cinematic Nick Fury, there really was no other choice than his comic-book inspiration, Samuel L. Jackson.
But what’s interesting about this is that the Ultimates is a different universe to the ‘regular’ Avengers. The Ultimates are an incarnation of the famous heroes from Earth 1610 (‘our’ Avengers, in contrast, are from the ‘prime’ universe of Earth 616) and therefore there was no real narrative reason why Nick couldn’t suddenly be African-American. After all, in the same comic books Thor was portrayed as an environmental activist, and Captain America banged The Black Window. Anything could happen (and in the case of Nick Fury, it did.)
The change worked so well, though, that when they made a movie about the regular, old Earth 616 Avengers, the folks at Marvel cast Samuel L. Jackson to play Nick Fury even though, in the Earth 616 universe, ol’ Nick was still a caucasian James Bond rip off with an eyepatch. It was one of the weirdest, most meta moments in comic book history – in which a comic book artist cast an actor nearly a decade before they wound up on screen.
So successful was the shift that in the regular old Earth 616 universe, writers actually scrambled to come up with a reason to turn whitebread Nick Fury into his popular cinematic incarnation. And the answer? They invented a story in which one of Nick’s old girlfriends, African-American beauty Nia, secretly had his biracial love child. That child grew up into a kickass military leader, who would take the reins from his old man (and conveniently lose the same eye.) In the comic books, the Samuel L. Jackson-alike we know see is actually Nick Fury Junior.
Moving on, the next bit of colorblind casting I’d like to mention is Kingpin, from the 2003 movie Daredevil.
Towering actor Michael Clarke Duncan played Daredevil’s nefarious nemesis, The Kingpin, and when Clark Duncan was cast, even he was reported to ask: “Wait… Isn’t Kingpin white?”
But in a dire shit-show of a movie, Michael Clark Duncan’s portrayal of Hell’s Kitchen’s biggest crook was triumphant. He had the towering physicality to perfectly portray this criminal mastermind; and despite the change in skin color, nobody complained about it, or thought the casting was bad.
The same can’t be said for the next actor on our list – Halle Berry in 2004’s Catwoman.
This was the movie that made Ben Affleck’s Daredevil look like Captain America: Civil War. The plot of Catwoman shared nothing with the backstory of the infamous Batman villain; and the premise was so stupid it hurt (skin creams that turn you to stone? Really?)
But amongst everything that was terrible about that movie, nobody gave a shit that Catwoman was played by a black woman. And, let’s be honest, why would they? Patience was a totally different character to Selina Kyle, the Batman-canon Catwoman.
But funnily enough, Halle Berry wasn’t the first African-American Catwoman. Way back in the 1960s, during the campy Batman show on TV, actress Eartha Kitt became the third woman to play Catwoman; and filled in the spandex catsuit on the coattails of two white women – Julie Newmar and Lee Meriweather.
Amazingly enough, at the time the response to her casting was overwhelmingly positive. People through it was a breakthrough for a woman of color, and nobody could deny Eartha’s raw sexiness. In the end, it was her anti-war activism that led to people complaining about her; not the color of her skin.
It’s actually kind of sad that the world had less complaints about a racial-recasting nearly 50 years ago than they do today.
The final successful casting I’d like to look at is that of The Flash’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Iris West. A white-skinned, brown-haired beauty, she was portrayed in decades of comics as a caucasian. Yet when the CW decided to expand their DC-inspired ‘Arrowverse’ with a TV show about The Flash, they cast Candice Patton in the role.
The decision to change the race of Iris’ character was actually less about her, than about her father – Central City detective Joe West. In the TV show of The Flash, they scored a casting coup by landing Law & Order alum Jesse L. Martin in the role; and obviously it made sense for his daughter to be the same race as her dad.
In terms of the show, it makes absolutely no difference whether Iris is white or black – and Candice does a fantastic job as Barry Allen’s girlfriend. But the fact that her race is so interchangeable is something that casts kind of a shadow on the decision to have Zendaya play Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-man movie.
Iris is ‘just’ Barry’s girlfriend, so her race (and personality, job description, and pretty much everything about her) is seen as an interchangeable blank slate. My fear is that Mary Jane Watson will face the same fate in the new Spider-man movie. The more invested we are with a character, the less easy it is to swap them out for an actor of a different race. The problem is that when that racial-recasting decision is made, it disproportionately impacts female characters; which perhaps indicates just how paper-thin their characterization is.
In any event, these five examples demonstrate that recasting black characters in white roles can be very successful – but at the end of the day it always comes down to the quality of the actor, and the strength of the scripting and characterization.
Racial recasting is always controversial; and the only way to avoid criticism is to come in strong with a version of that character so dynamic that all previous (i.e. white) incarnations instantly disappear in people’s memories.
I’m stoked for Zendaya playing Mary Jane in the new Spider-man movie – but the producers need to be aware that a lot is riding on them making this incarnation of Mary Jane the most incredible yet.
That being said, I have complete faith that they will.