White Characters, Black Actors: on Movies and Race Relations


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The  issue to be discussed on the blog today was brought about by popular  Bond author Anthony Horowitz’s interview with the Daily Mail where he mentions that black British actor Idris Elba is “too street” to play iconic MI6 agent James Bond. Horowitz of course has tried to clarify that it wasn’t about Elba being black of course; just that he (Elba) doesn’t just look “suave” enough. That has still not stopped the issue from generating a media storm and raising the question of racism and race relations in fiction and movies in the light of changing attitudes and perceptions about race which has began to brew recently.

The piece today is not about what Horowitz said about Elba or about Elba himself, it is just trying to weigh in on the debate on race relations in the movie and writing industry. I had not planned to join the discussion until a few days ago when I was reading an online piece about some fan boys who took to the internet to complain about how “Fox destroyed the character of Johnny ‘the human torch’ Storm” by casting an African American to play the character in the new Fantastic Four movie. In the opinion of the fan boys, the character has always been white and changing his race to black will not only affect the character “himself” it will affect the relationship between him and the other characters. For example in the case of Johnny Storm as mentioned by the article, how can they establish the fact that Susan Storm and Johnny Storm are siblings if they are being played by different race actors (the obvious reply to that thought is that one of them may have been adopted, but that’s not the issue here).

The contention of these fan boys and others of their ilk is that  movie studios are sacrificing the aesthetic qualities that have made their work iconic for many years on the altar of political correctness, in other words, they are destroying the soul of movie characters  by altering their physiology in order to appeal to alternate demographics. Sticking with the James Bond and Johnny Storm example, they are characters who were conceived as white and have been for a long time, casting black characters to play them, is simply white people  granting black people privileges  that are not often reciprocated, like  the fact that black activists led the petition to boycott the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings because the movie cast white actors to play black and middle eastern characters, or that black people tried to hound Iggy Azalea out of rap and they still view her with disdain, because she is white in a predominantly black music  genre. Who in fact can forget the criticism and hounding that Rachel Dolezal received when she was outed as a white woman pretending to be black? It seems that it is only originally white male characters that get to answer the race question, while characters from other demographics remain unchanged.

So the question is it wrong for movie studios to cast black actors as a character like Johnny Storm, or James Bond or Hemdall, the gatekeeper of Asgard (a character which incidentally is also played by Idris Elba)? Personally I don’t think so. The problem with using the Rachel Dolezal, or the Iggy Azalea or the Exodus example to complain about black privilege is that these are real people and real events and are in no way comparable to our Bond or the human torch example. Since the Exodus movie is based on real life events in ancient Egypt it behoves on the creators to portray things as they really happened and that also include characterization. To compare that case with James Bond or Johnny Storm portrays the hardly logical thinking of people who can accept a human being bursting into flames at will or someone shrinking a tank weighing several tonnes into his pocket as normal, while the possibility that a white actress and a black actor might be siblings is anathema to them.

The point of this piece is that whether we like it or not, the real world which the various movie universes are patterned is much more diverse than when these comics were first created. Imagine how George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would feel if they rose from the dead and found that a black man is now the president of the United States of America. That is the kind of world we have found ourselves in. It is ironic that these days you seeing a white captain America as the embodiment of a country which the first thing that comes to mind about it is a black man. James Bond was created in 1953, there have been black citizens of Britain long before that time, so how can anyone logically argue that there is no way He can be a black man when all that needs to be established is that he is British and he works for MI6 (and that he will likely die from alcoholism or an STD).  If nobody finds the idea absurd that Christine Ohuruogu and Mo Farah are as British as David Cameron, why should anyone complain about Idris Elba playing James Bond?

One thing of course that fan boys like to do is to raise questions about how black people are now getting big movie and comic book characters, how long it will be before women and homosexuals and Trans people will start demanding for representation. The simple answer is, that is a bridge that will be crossed when we get to it, enough of all these slippery slope arguments.

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