Heroes of Color: About Damn Time for a Change
ED NOTE: header image taken from Datrinti on Instagram, full photo is featured further down
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
I love capes and spandex, shimmering costumes adorning bombastic characters. I grew up on superhero comics; whether Marvel or DC, though arguably I grew up a DC kid more, the past couple decades has been a whirlwind of emotions... films spanning damn near two decades of movies and superheroes becoming big box office draws, honestly I would have loved to be a kid growing up in this time. But when you want to discuss the concept of representation, as a person of color I've seen my opinions shut down with such racially charged vitriol I have to clutch my damn pearls just to keep myself from smacking a motherfucker across the face.
This one morning a little while back was going to be just that kind of morning, browsing twitter as I tend to do I came across an uneducated comic-loving ignorant man-child as he tried to tag a prominent comic book author as if he spoke for her. The subject was the rumor that Warner Bros. was looking to cast a multi racial actress in the role of Black Canary in the forthcoming Harley Quinn led (and Margot Robbie produced) Birds of Prey film. Of course with the recent announcement that Jurnee Smollett-Bell, a bi-racial actress of Jewish and African-American heritage, proved this to be true. Joining Robbie's Harley Quinn are Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Cassandra Cain, and the aforementioned Black Canary. Already with Cassandra Cain (Asian) and Renee Montoya (Dominican), there is a strong push for a well represented cast of ladies.
Whenever there is discussion about changing the racial identity of a character previously portrayed as being white, outcry from comic book purists are full of “staying true to the source material” when in reality it's more like “don't muddy my pure white comic book heroes with your dark skin and actors with ethnic names.” It's bullshit, and while you as a white comic book fan are quick to chastise me for calling you a fucking racist... it's honestly got more of a ring to it than calling out your views as “problematic and toxic” since many of you don't even try to listen in the first place. Even the slightest mention of a “black Clark Kent as Superman” and many of you are quick to attempt to explain what a race of all-powerful aliens from the planet Krypton look like. With this op-ed, I'm sick and tired of your bullshit and there will be a lot to unpack here.
First off, I wanted to tear down one of the first arguments brought against me whenever I try to bring up the possibility of re-imagining a traditionally Caucasian character as a person of color. The “what if they changed Storm or Black Panther into white characters?” as if the color of their skin isn't integral to their respective origins. For both Storm and Black Panther, being of African descent is not a frivolous part of their origin. Both heroes have backgrounds that are deeply tied to their African roots. Storm was the daughter of a Kenyan princess and American photojournalist and descended from a long line of African priestesses, T'Challa (the Black Panther) is literally the king of a secretive yet technologically advanced African nation. Their ties to the homeland are deeply ingrained in the character, in fact if T'Challa wasn't an African king or Storm wasn't the daughter of a Kenyan princess... they would cease to even be the same characters.
Now, look at a character like Black Canary... whether the film decides to go with Dinah Drake or Dinah Laurel Lance, both could be imagined as any racial background and still be true to the character. Let's break down both Canaries and their backstories for a sec. Dinah Drake became the Black Canary in order to break up the gangs that were causing violence in her city's streets. Eventually Dinah falls in love with and marries Larry Lance, her ally on the police force. As for the younger Dinah, Dinah Laurel Lance is the daughter of Dinah Drake who takes up her mother's mantle as the second Black Canary and acting as the more recognizable one with her part as a member of the JLA and on-again-off-again relationship with the Green Arrow. Both ladies are American superheroes, with Dinah Drake based in Gotham City and the younger Dinah operating in Star City, Gotham City, and Seattle respectively. As American heroes there is nothing that requires Black Canary to be a white woman, even her iconic look of the flowing blonde locks is a part of her costume with both Dinah and Laurel wearing wigs to help hide their identity, as a note traditionally both Canaries did not wear eye masks in the comics unlike their TV counterparts on CW's Arrow.
An example of trying to explain the concept to a stubborn/tone-deaf comic fanboy, I often think of the Nightwing argument. I got into this argument with someone in a Facebook post a few years back, this kid is a delusional comic nerd who is so obsessed with Dick Grayson... I swear the guy wants to BE him and he thinks somehow cosplaying as the guy makes him the defacto authority on the guy. I was touching on how refreshing it would be to cast an Asian-American character as Nightwing. Again, another American character that has traditionally been portrayed as a white man. I argued for what felt like hours how imagining Dick Grayson as Asian-American would not change him as a character. He could still be a member of the Flying Graysons, a staple in Haley's Circus, he could still tragically lose his parents and be taken in by Bruce Wayne, he could debut as the Boy-Wonder Robin and fight along side his surrogate father as they take on Gotham's big bad crime lords, he could find his own team and help establish the Teen Titans and eventually evolve to be the hero Nightwing. Dick Grayson could do all these things and not a single fucking point requires him to be a white guy. This dude I was arguing with didn't get it, honestly most of those who are already seething at their keyboards waiting to “show me” or “own me” in the comments aren't going to get it either... so really fanboy, save your damn breath because I have zero fucks to give.
Let's look at this from a different perspective a bit, because honestly I don't think every character can be the same if they re-imagine their racial background. Erik Lehnsherr, known famously as the X-Men villain Magneto, is a Holocaust survivor and realized his powers while held captive at a Nazi concentration camp. Now, in the modern age I don't know how they will continue to adapt his origin, but being a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust is a clear and pivotal piece of Magneto's identity he could not be re-imagined as another race without completely changing the character as a whole. Professor Charles Xavier mind you could be portrayed as another race since his origin will still be true whether he's Black, White, Asian, or Hispanic.
Wanted to try something with @jurneebell as Black canary! I'm open minded guy so this doesn't really upsets me, would i have prefered someone closer in looks to the character? Sure! But this can work and i'm looking forward to it🤘 #blackcanary #birdsofprey #jurneesmollettbell #artwork #digitalart #digitalpainting #dccomics #worldsofdc #dcfilms
The TL;DR of it all, basically if a character's race factors heavily in their respective origin... it cannot be changed... and no... before you get ahead of yourself being an alien from Kyrpton, billionaire orphan, famous side kick, or god of thunder does not require the character to be white.
Marvel films seem to be the top dog when it comes to superhero flicks, unfortunately there is a clear and present lack of POC characters among their ranks. The traditionally white characters in the MCU have continued to be portrayed by Caucasian actors. There are some exceptions to the rule like Idris Elba as Heimdall and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie (both from the Thor films) along with most of the cast of Spider-Man Homecoming stepping outside of the traditionally Caucasian characters like Zendaya as MJ, Laura Harrier as Liz, Jacob Batalon as Ned, Tony Revolori as Flash, Michael Mando as Mac “the Scorpion” Gargan, and Bokeem Woodbine as Herman “the Shocker” Schultz. These examples in the MCU may be worthy of praise, but the MCU as a whole hasn't been the most inclusive for POC. Sure we got Black Panther, most of the Spider-Man Homecoming cast, a fair amount of diversity in Guardians of the Galaxy... but let's not forget that the MCU also cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One (a traditionally Asian character) as well as making a joke out of Iron Man's biggest villain the Mandarin (another Asian character). Even in the Netflix series, while I know Danny Rand was always a white character, before the release of Iron Fist I was heavy invested in arguing that they should cast an Asian-American or bi-racial Asian-American character in the role... instead we got a white guy that walks up to a random Chinese girl and starts speaking Chinese (cue the cringe) still can't excuse that scene. Basically, as an Asian American it feels like Marvel and the MCU just doesn't really care about representing us.
As for the tragically convoluted DCEU, the Arrowverse, and the forthcoming Titans series; despite my struggles with enjoying much of it, they manage to fit quite a bit of diversity into their casting choices. From casting Israeli actress Gal Gadot and Hawaiian actor Jason Mamoa as two of the Justice League's founding members Wonder Woman and Aquaman respectively, to Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen on CW's Supergirl and Candice Patton as Iris West on CW's The Flash, as well as the casting choice of Anna Diop on the forthcoming Titans series.
Whether you love or hate what DC and Warner Bros. is doing with their film and TV divisions, it's clear that they have made more strides in less time to be inclusive than what Marvel has accomplished since the release of Iron Man back in 2008.
I get it that there are heroes of color in comics, but the fact is that when you think of Green Arrow you will always think of Oliver Queen before Connor Hawke; even one of Marvel's most popular heroes Spider-Man, Peter Parker is always spoken about first before even mentioning Miles Morales. With many of these heroes created in a time when heroes of color were more or less tokens or used as a statement to say “hey now, we have a black friend so we can't be racist” as comic book films evolve, the need to seek a diverse cast grows.
Looking at the landscape of American history when some of comic's most iconic heroes were created; Superman was created almost two decades before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Spider-Man was created during arguably the most tumultuous decade of the Civil Rights Movement, and let's looks at the original subject of this piece... Black Canary debuted almost a decade before the desegregation of public schools. Basically, many of the heroes we still root for today were created during a time of deep racial divide in this country, a time full of some of the most disgusting examples of racial injustice. During this time, many of these publishers were full of white men... white men who crafted the modern mythology of our time. Is it any surprise that most of the heroes we have are Caucasian?
In our world today, being as globally connected as we are, we owe it to ourselves and to society as a whole to check our fanboyism, be introspective, and overall not be so averse to change that with every proposed step forward we aggressively take two steps back. The year is 2018, and in 2018 the notion of defaulting to Caucasian actors should no longer be the norm. Michael B. Jordan would kill as Superman, Gina Torres would be an electrifying Mystique, Diego Luna would be fantastic as Hal Jordan, Steven Yeun would be sizzling as Nightwing, Laurence Fishburn would bring Professor X to a whole new level, and I honestly feel that Jurnee Smollett-Bell would slay it as Black Canary. All actors mentioned are people of color, all characters I fan-casted have backstories that would not change regardless of the race they are portrayed as.
In closing, and once more for the people in the back. Superhero films need to evolve, comics as a medium continue to evolve but the characters within rarely evolve enough. Maybe it's wishful thinking on my part, but hopefully I get to be here in a future where kids grow up with a Black Superman and honestly it's just no big deal... growing up with superheroes taught me to believe in hope... so here's hoping.