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Is Recasting White Characters The Way to Tackle Representation in Hollywood?
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Is Recasting White Characters The Way to Tackle Representation in Hollywood?

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Editor’s Note: The following is an article Militant Ginger wrote about racism in Hollywood and what he perceives is the right way to fix it. We had a long discussion among the group of Echo Base editors about this post and this issue it addresses, which we’ve attached below. Recognizing we’re just a bunch of white, non-Hollywood bloggers, we humbly ask that you leave a comment below if you’d like to contribute to the conversation with thoughts and/or opinions.

Here’s a magazine cover from 1995:

tumblr_inline_oblop8aIgC1qenacx_540

 

Here’s a magazine cover from 2014:

tumblr_inline_obloqlUpnN1qenacx_540

 

As you might have noticed, they’re both complaining about the same thing – and the fact that 2014 and 2015 saw no African-American actors nominated for any of the Academy Awards in the acting category, they might have a point.

Despite decades of complaining about this problem, Hollywood still has a diversity issue.

But I’m not sure the way the movie and television industries are tackling the problem is the right way to go. A good case in point? How studios have managed to add diversity to their comic-book movies in recent years:

Here is Heimdall, from Thor. Played by Idris Elba.

 

world dark thor marveledit idris elba

 

If anybody is au fait with Norse mythology, you’d know that the all-seeing God Heimdall was actually described as – and I’m not even making this up – ‘the whitest of the Gods.’ So, naturally, Marvel decided to cast Idris Elba in the role.

Likewise, when the character of Roland Deschain was cast for The Dark Tower movie, they chose to hire Idris Elba – despite the fact that Roland’s very whiteness served a massively important plot point in the character arc of Susannah ‘Detta’ Walker in the books.

 

dark

 

And then there are the rumors of Idris Elba being cast as the next James Bond (which, as it happens, I’m totally rooting for.)

At this point, you might have noticed that one of Hollywood’s problems is that Idris Elba is apparently the only African-American actor they are aware of, and they offer him everything.

But it’s indicative of a much broader strategy – in which characters that are established as white are recast with African American actors. For example:

 

 

Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in Superman.

 

 

Mechad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen in Supergirl.

 

 

Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm.

There are a variety of reasons to question the logic of doing this.

In some movies, like the Fantastic Four, it makes no sense. Johnny Storm and Sue Storm were brother and sister and when you suddenly recast one of them as African American it literally makes no sense (they created an adoption backstory to explain it, but a smarter decision would have been to cast an African American as Ben Grimm, The Thing, instead.)

It also always creates a massive backlash on social media – and while that offers a lot of free publicity to the movies, I can’t think of a single example in which that ‘free’ publicity has actually paid off. If you just look at the failure of the new Ghostbusters movie, you can see that courting controversy on Twitter doesn’t actually work as a marketing strategy, and in the age of hashtags, Oscar Wilde’s promise that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ is untrue.

And thirdly – and most important – it’s totally disingenuous. Why recast traditionally white roles with African-American actors when you could, y’know, actually have African-American characters.

Ignoring the obvious misstep of Heimdall, this is something Marvel have been doing brilliantly. When people expressed concern about the all-white, all-male Avengers lineup, they addressed that issue not by turning Bruce Banner into a black guy, but reaching into the lexicon of Marvel characters and pulling out interesting, smart and well-developed black characters.

 

The Black Panther is going to star in his own movie, with a largely black cast – and it makes sense.

 

 

Sam Wilson, The Falcon, is now a front-line member of The Avengers. So too is Rhodey, as War Machine from the Iron Man movies.

 

iron man tony stark iron man 2 war machine

 

On Netflix, we’re about to see the launch of the Luke Cage series, set in Harlem and featuring a largely black cast. Again, it’s true to the comics, but adds diversity and richness to the Marvel universe without compromising on any establishing characters.

 

 

This is the way Hollywood should be tackling diversity – by giving us real, live, black characters.

Recasting white roles with black actors is lazy, short-sighted and insulting – and I hope Marvel will lead the way in demonstrating that real storytelling is the way to tackle diversity in the movies.

 

Apologies for the rough writing below as this is pulled directly from the behind the scenes chat about this. Nothing has been changed, spelling and grammatical errors and all!

Doug
As for MilitantGinger’s article…

Militant Ginger
^ You disagree?

Doug
No i don’t necessarily, but I’m ok with replacing black for white etc.
Like I would love a black Peter Parker, but yeah starting with original characters is the best thing.

Militant Ginger
Why have a black Peter Parker when you have Miles Morales?

Doug
I never read Miles Morales.

Militant Ginger
Get on that! It’s really good!

Doug
Thats fine but why cant Peter be black?

Militant Ginger
Because instead of just arbitrarily deciding that a character who has existed for 40+ years is suddenly going to be black, you could develop a black character, like Miles Morales… Although saying that, Nick Fury is an example of them doing that right. Can you imagine Nick as anybody else now?

Doug
Nick Fury, exactly. My worry about Miles Morales is people look at that as secondary…

Militant Ginger
But why?
Sam Wilson as the new Captain America – makes sense.

Doug
Because why cant we give a kid who is not white, representation as Peter Parker?

Frank
But does Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie?

Doug
I have no idea who Tessa Thompson is (my comic book knowledge is limited). Look this doesn’t work in all cases, but a lot do…

Militant Ginger
I guess you can if you want, it just seems lazy. It seems like there’s a perfectly good example of how you could have a POC as Spiderman in Miles Morales.
I think it honestly depends on how well you do it.

Doug
There’s a case to be made for both but I’m saying I do want to see black Peter Parker or black James Bond, etc.

Militant Ginger
Like, Nick Fury was reinvented as African American in the comics and it WORKED and now we can’t imagine him as anything else despite him existing for 40+ years as a white dude.

Doug
Most of these characters can be racially switched

Militant Ginger
They can, but why?

Doug
Why not?

Militant Ginger
Like with the new Ms. Marvel. They created a new character who is muslim and she’s AMAZING.

Doug
Because the world, in this case the USA, looks different now… and i love that!

Militant Ginger
So do I! But tell stories about THOSE people, don’t just change the color of existing characters.

Doug
Did u see this cosplayer?

Militant Ginger
She’s great!

Doug
I think there can be flexibility and Nick Fury proves that.

Militant Ginger
I think there can clearly be flexibility if it’s done right, but 90% of the time it’s not, and I think it’s a bad starting point right from the get-go.

Doug
I think its more important than ever to start making it reflective of culture at large.

Militant Ginger
Tell us stories about a young black kid who gets Spiderman’s powers, or a young muslim girl who gets Ms. Marvel’s powers. How they deal with the whole superhero identify in a modern America, faced with their unique American-ness.

Doug
Yeah i agree with that. (I’m saying Peter Parker’s story can be rewritten to fit a different experience)

Militant Ginger
Don’t lets just make Peter and Aunt May black and let them inhabit the same house in Queens, and the same high school and the friendship with Harry. It’s almost insulting to tell the same stories, but try to cash in on changing their skin color.

Doug
Why not? I don’t see the issue!

Militant Ginger
If Peter Parker had been an African American kid, imagine all the different experiences that would have shaped him.

Doug
They keep telling the same story with white people! (That’s my whole point, see the character of Parker from the eyes of an African American)

Militant Ginger
Well, let’s stop telling them!
That’s what annoyed me about Spiderman in Civil War. I’m SO BORED OF PETER PARKER!
I wanted Miles Morales. Let’s bring some ACTUAL diversity into it.

Doug
I know thats the point! Let me see it from that perspective!
Yeah i would have liked a Miles Morales too there…

Militant Ginger
I think it’s time to push some of the established white bread characters onto the back burner and embrace new and diverse CHARACTERS, not just actors. Black Panther, Luke Cage, Miles Morales, Ms. Marvel.

Doug
Agreed

Militant Ginger
Tim, Frank, try not to faint. I think we reached an agreement.

Frank
Militant Ginger, Does it matter that I like your post?

Militant Ginger
Hahaha!

Frank
with the exception of the whole Ghostbusters part.

Militant Ginger
YES! Well, I think that’s a fair comment, frank.

Frank
Which to me is sexism and not racism and just slightly off topic…

Militant Ginger
I probably worded that poorly.

Frank
But I understand why you included it.

Doug
For the record i don’t think what you are saying is bad. I disagree with not letting major characters change for diversity in storytelling.

Militant Ginger
No, I get it, and you’re not wrong. I mean Nick Fury is a perfect example. But 90% of the time I think it’s lazy and they should use a different iteration of the character.
Even Superman had a black version, in the Return of Superman arc.
I loved in the Justice League cartoons they didn’t make Hal Jordan a black guy, they just found a black Green Lantern, John Stewart. (Not to be confused with the Daily Show guy.)

Frank
he he

Doug
My final point is these characters like peter parker for instance have LEGITIMACY in pop culture history. A lot of folks in the mainstream have no idea who Miles Morales is. So it could automatically be seen as ‘lesser’ by the public.

Militant Ginger
And that’s because instead of promoting him front and center, they just recast Peter.
They could do it if they wanted.

Doug
Well thats true, it’s the creator’s job to work that.

Militant Ginger
New versions eclipse old. Look at the different versions of The Flash.

Doug
But Sony aint spending 200 million on Miles Morales.

Militant Ginger
I REALLY hoped they would, but no.

Doug
Me too

Militant Ginger
Although Donald Glover is in Homecoming so some people are wondering if Miles will make an appearance.

Doug
Ill go see any spiderman , i just want a good movie.

Militant Ginger
Although that makes NO sense since Miles is, like, 10 years younger.

Doug
Yeah. Donald glover would have been a great Peter Parker.

Militant Ginger
He would have been a great Miles Morales, which is what he’s been lobbying for for years.

Doug
There was a lobby to get him for Parker. Before Andrew what’s his face… Sony balked at casting black.

Militant Ginger
I always thought he wanted it to be the Miles Morales version, right from the get-go.

Tim
My take on peter parker is, if I’m saying “hey, where’s my representation” is it really better for them to say, oh, ok well we used up this character for 60 years as a white person so now let’s just repackage it with the same exact story as black OR is it better to say we’re going to write you a brand new character with a story that should match the identity your asking for closer?

So Doug, I disagree, I think it’s cheaper and lazier to just say ok, you get to now have a black “version” of this character and we’ll keep the name and backstory that may not match (as Militant Ginger keeps bringing up matters with the Dark Tower for example) vs. saying, ok, you want black characters, let’s put some thought into defining characters for you with their own backstory.

Doug
I agree with the last part of the sentence.

Tim
I mean none of us here can pretend to be a young black kid looking for a role model that already knows the Peter Parker story, so we’re all guessing here. But I do feel like rather than be like “hey he’s black now! yay!” they should always do “here’s a well thought out new character with his/her own backstory.”

Doug
I dont think its cheap to redo known heroes with other races to fill in a back story. These characters have history and weight and until its a little more equal at the box office we may want to let some of this go…

Tim
I guess I don’t really care IF they do it, certainly not as much as Militant Ginger does lol

Doug
Yeah and now think about how they sell that to the public, to THE WORLD

Tim
BUT my point is I agree the other way is more authentic, Miles Morales seems like a great answer to me, and it’s gaining steam, but these things take time and my opinion is to do them right, takes longer.

Doug
Hey world here is some other character dressed like spiderman…

Tim
Well not exactly, there’s a whole backstory.

Doug
World replies with a collective ‘Zzzzz’

Tim
Watch that miles morales fan film Militant Ginger wrote about a while back, it’s really good (a little cheesy).

Doug
Tell them its Peter Parker and short hand history is built in… There are people who still think rogue one is a sequel to ep 7…

Peter parker can be black thats all im saying.

Tim
I never said he couldn’t be. I said it’s easier to do that, but more authetic and richer to go the other way, that’s the entire point.

Doug
I agreed with that too.

Tim
No one here is saying you CAN’T take an established character and make him black, in fact Militant Ginger points out how sometimes it works.

Doug
Im not sure what we are arguing then…

Tim
Well, he’s saying it’s smarter and harder long term to give the character their own unique backstory…

I was just adding my agreement with Militant Ginger’s original point: Miles Morales rules.

Doug
I dont doubt it.

Militant Ginger
Well, that it’s lazy as fuck and disingenuous just to say: Yo, let’s make Johnny Storm black and that fixes our diversity problem.

Doug
Its the job of studio to sell it… I didn’t say it shouldn’t be carefully considered.

Militant Ginger
Doug, you identify the problem. The studios are too chicken-shit to gamble on a black character.
Not actor, character.

Frank
For me at least in this case with Comic books turned movies, when you change the lexicon of the original just for diversity’s sake it isn’t enough, at least for the rabid fan. Don’t make Peter Parker black, introduce Miles Morales

Militant Ginger
^ Yes!!

Tim
YES

Militant Ginger
Because making Peter black raises other questions. Would a 16 year old black kid from Queens have the same experiences as a white kid?

Frank
It’s part of the lexicon like how Thor is now a woman…
If they ever wanted to reboot the franchise they could introduce a female version because it’s been established in the original source material. Just don’t make her black or asian, she’s a Norse god or goddess in this case. And yes Militant Ginger it then becomes lazy on Hollywood’s part, I’m all for diversity but Hollywood is dumb on how they go about adding it in.

Doug
Im all for that. I want smart storytelling! (That is exactly the idea of my point, making Peter black, it WOULD BE DIFFERENT!)

Frank
Would anybody be ok if they cast a black actor for the new Young Han Solo Anthology?

Doug
And a 16 year old black kid would have a diff experience than a white kid. Who says it cant be addressed as peter parker?

Frank
I am.

Doug
Sure why the fuck not? LAndo is the black Han Solo, btw.

Frank
Make it Morales!

Militant Ginger
You could just say: “Okay, we will have Peter played by a black actor but ALL his experiences will be the same.” And that’s disingenuous and lazy storytelling. Because, let’s face it, racism exists in America.

Doug
Im fine with MM, but will a studio back a 200 million dollar Miles Morales movie? (And I didn’t say make the whole Peter Parker backstory the same! It has to be different!)

Militant Ginger
A poor white kid from Queens and a poor black kid from queens are different stories.

Doug
I never said the stories are the same! Jeezus

Militant Ginger
Okay, so could you see millionaire Harry befriend Peter if Peter was a poor black kid from queens? Maybe, but I don’t see Norman being as a okay with it.

Frank
And to Militant Ginger’s point, there a number of great comic book characters that are starting to see the light of day, that are established black roles. Luke Cage, Black Panther, Storm…

Militant Ginger
Did Uncle Ben get shot by a robber? Let’s be honest, he could have been killed by the police in New York, given their track record. Imagine THAT as an alternative scenario. Peter Parker could have had a vendetta against rogue cops, not bad guys.

Frank
I have more of an issue with Hollywoods white-washing…

Doug
Imagine a BLM Peter Parker. (This is exactly what I am talking about a Peter Parker with an entirely different perspective!)

Militant Ginger
There are SO MANY storytelling opportunities… but none of them are the Peter Parker we know… so invent a different character. BOOM – Miles Morales.

Frank
I’d be just as upset if they casted Charlize Theron as Storm instead of Halle Barry

Doug
Again im all for Miles Morales… Is Hollywood?

Tim
Touche, I think we’re all sort of saying the same thing

Frank
Not really

Tim
Frank the biggest difference is Doug can see a way it would work where us 3 are saying it’s lazy and should only be done if you can invest in the character’s story… Doug said he agrees with that, but is worried Hollywood won’t invest it.

Doug
You guys i see your points, ok? But i still think Peter Parker is workable as not white.

Militant Ginger
It’s also worth remembering that Nick Fury started off as an ‘ultimate’ incarnation – a non-canon spin off that had Thor as an environmental activist and retconned a lot of stuff. He was just so popular he went over to the ‘real’ universe.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNBRum247m0

Doug
Ugh

Militant Ginger
We lucked out with Nick Fury.

Doug
Yeah

Militant Ginger
So you’ve got a point, it can work and be better. But rarely.

Doug
Let me be clear, if you do change races or genders of a character it should be done with care. I’m not arguing for willy nilly thoughtless pandering. I’m saying show me a new spin on an old idea.
The Johnny Storm thing was dumb

All I want is a good story got dammit!

Militant Ginger
Doug, you’re right. Story is EVERYTHING.

Doug
Guys give this a look, i read this years ago

Militant Ginger
I can’t find the links, but I think Donald always wanted it to be Miles specifically… but I have no evidence right now so I could be wrong. Also, I just looked up how they retconned Nick Fury into resembling Sam Jackson in the regular ol’ Marvel universe. He’s Nick Fury Jr., and the son of the original Nick Fury by a black woman. And he coincidentally also lost his eye.

Doug
Militant Ginger read the article above

Tim
Real quick to that point: it’s like I said earlier, it’s not my place to say whether a young black kid would find a better connection with a black Peter Parker OR with a newly established black character. My opinion only extends this far: I personally feel it’s lazier to go that route and they owe all types of kids heroes that work for them and won’t randomly swap identities all the time to fit their quotas.
It may take a while, but eventually we’ll have all the types of heroes we need and they won’t need to gender/race swap, we’ll already have all of them.

Militant Ginger
Vote Tim 2016. That’s making America Great Again right there, that vision.

Doug
To the studios credit they are moving in that direction, Marvel is really pushing it well. DC wants it too. It’s gonna be slow going but will get there

Joshua
I have no problem with race/gender swapping characters. It’s all make-believe anyway. If it’s done insincerely or as a bandwagon jump, people will figure that out. Having said that, I can’t think of any gender/race swap that didn’t work. Nick Fury? Great. Who cared? Nobody. Marvel has been rebooting tons of characters as race/gender swaps and they’ve all worked for me: Sam Wilson is great as Cap. The Lady Thor is awesome, so on and so forth. And, yeah, The Lady Ghostbusters was great. So, really? When has a race/gender swap actually been, y’know, bad?

Doug
As long as money keeps rolling in we will get diverse stories…

Joshua
I could be forgetting something, but, really the only time I hear complaints is when the idea is floated and fanboy idiots scream “BUT THAT’S NOT HOW IT’S BEEN!!!”

Doug
Exactly.
Why does Peter Parker HAVE to be white?

Joshua
In a case like that? I’d LOVE to see a black Peter Parker started from the time era that the original Peter Parker was invented. Imagine seeing Spider-Man/Peter Parker growing up with those powers through the Civil Rights struggle? Could be killer!

Tim
…but for the millionth time, no one is saying Peter Parker HAS to be white here…

Joshua
If you just swap the race/gender without exploring the conditions that the said race/gender would be exposed to, what’s the point?

Tim
Because Militant Ginger’s whole point was that just slapping a black actor into an already established white character role is lazy and pandering… Instead, we should create character experiences FOR a black character, not a black actor.

Militant Ginger is just saying that a black actor in an established character’s role is lazy and that you need a black character with their own story.

Joshua
Well, duh.
But I guess I would simply ask when has that ever actually been done?

Tim
MILES FUCKING MORALES lol

Doug
I said you can make PP black and go from there with relating stories…

Joshua
I think that by and large Major Studios are terrified of going with “unknown” quantities”.

Doug
I’m talking about in a real world studio system right now they wont sell a Miles Morales Spider-Man movie
exactly.

Joshua
I think that there are lots of different reasons for that, latent prejudices included, but generally I think it’s the old adage of Give The People What We Think they Want that stifles creativity and risk taking.

Doug
So if, and its a big if, they go for black casting of spidey, its Peter Parker and yes you can make him black but not without some thought to how it works…

Joshua
I”m pretty impressed with how Marvel at least has been bucking that.

Tim
So it’s better to have 2 kids arguing about whether PP is black or white than it is to have a series where PP and MM can be together heroes and represent both sides?
Ignoring the studios for a minute Doug… let’s pretend that’s not part of the reality.
Would it be better ultimately to make PP black and white in different universes? or would it be better ultimately to have 2 separate stories with 2 separate characters?

Doug
I would love to see a Miles character at that level.
I’m dealing in how it works from studios.

Tim
so agreed all around, in a perfect world…. separate characters with unique backstories both the same level of fame and love.

Doug
For fucks sake we wont see a black Peter Parker either

Tim
right so in the non perfect world that we live in, Doug says he would even take the black PP as a start

Joshua
Eh, I think the need to cast this as a “VS” issue misses the point. Yes, Peter Parker could be black as long as it’s done with some sensitivity and a genuine interest in telling that story: a black kid named peter Parker becoming Spider-Man.
But if they just change the coloring? That’s dumb.

Tim
There is no question that the name Peter Parker has more cultural relevance (at least at this time) than Miles Morales. So yeah. It would be a huge statement to have Peter Parker be black.

Doug
What josh said…

Joshua
I’ll say this, it won’t happen in the movies unless it happens in the comics first.

Militant Ginger
One day we might even have a black president!
But not a woman one.
That would be weird.

One day we might even have a fascist cheese doodle as president! WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE!

Tim
Josh you framed the point Doug’s making very well
and it’s not wrong either

Doug
When do you think Marvel will make Parker black?
It ain’t happening anytime soon…

Militant Ginger
It doesn’t need to because of Miles Morales!

Doug
Movie wise btw.

Tim
That there’s established equity in the name PP vs. MM and that matters, I think we all agree there…

Militant Ginger
Yes!

Doug
I’m talking movies.

Joshua
I don’t know that the comics would. I just doubt that the movies would do it without it somehow being canon in the comics.

Doug
How many people who saw the Spiderman movies know who the fuck MM is? How many at Sony know?

Joshua
Background characters like Fury and Valkyrie, no problem. But an established, iconic character? I dunno.

Tim
You’re arguing from a point of reality, I think we’re arguing from a point of ultimately goal.
The pie in the sky goal: a character that represents each type of person on earth with the same levels-ish of popularity in these universes, we all agree to that right?

Doug
Yes the goal is to have a level field where anyone can be a hero

Joshua
Yeah

Tim
so to achieve that, I think we see it differently, which is fine!

Doug
I would watch the hell out of a Miles Morales character movie…

Joshua
Same

Tim
We can disagree on this, it’s totally fine, as long as we all agree on that end goal, i feel like we’re all from a good place here.

Doug
I would also watch a black Peter Parker movie…

Joshua
So would anyone, really. Except idiots.

Tim
I would too! I’m just saying I don’t think it’s the right move personally and I’m not like 1 against 5 here, Frank and Militant Ginger agree, so this must be worth debating, it just sounds like we’re not going to agree which I think is also fine! Studios probably have to do this all the time… We do it in design sessions at work, sit and argue the best path towards the same goal.

Doug
I’m not sure its a great move either but if it means no Miles Morales then why not? Especially since white Peter Parker is done to death now.

Tim
My only issue with the why not question is that it creates a disconnect between what kids see. I don’t like them arguing about which PP is better, the black one or the white one… I’d prefer established universes that stick to their types. But whatever, not in a weird like “one is better than the other” way or anything,
just in a level playing field way.

But yes, Doug makes some valid points about reality, and the studios, and the market, and why we’re just dreaming…

Militant Ginger
You made some valid and interesting points, Doug.

Doug
Ok then.

DOUG – Post script, Final thought:

I think we all agree we wish the conversation about race and the characters did not have to happen at all. We all agree storytelling is the most important thing. We are all vested in seeing people treated equally and fully in these stories. When the day comes and Hollywood will bank roll a film with people of color leading the cast with the large budget that Comic Book /Genre movies require and audiences turn out in force for them then we can consider that a win. 

 

 

 

Militant Ginger Born and raised in the cathedral city of Winchester, Roland earned his Eurotrash merit badge in Paris before moving to America to seek his fortune. If you've seen it, please give him a shout, because he's still looking. A digital Don Draper with a Hemingway complex, Roland pays the bills with his social media savvy, but under various nom de plumes is a top-ranked Amazon author after hours, and is impatiently awaiting the day he can give up the rat race forever and write schlock in a cabin in the mountains.