Friday, November 4, 2016

Being Colorblind: Race in Comics... Again

I have written about race in comics for several of the most recent posts.  I've been wanting to write a review of the Luke Cage Netflix series and use it as an example of a trend of moving away from placating white audiences by making a white POV an entitlement.  I could easily see a time when a Luke Cage movie or TV series would essentially amount to "Luke Cage does stuff, white people think about it.".  A scenario where Luke Cage is ostensibly the main character, certainly the titular character, but his actions are filtered through some white perspective, possibly a cop, and way too much attention is paid to what white people think about what this black person is doing.  I imagine a 48 hours deal where Eddie Murphy is the star but it's all filtered through how Nick Nolte thinks about Eddie Murphy.  Granted it's been a while since I've seen 48 hours, maybe a better choice would be any Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder movie.  The movie was made to showcase the attitude of Richard Pryor but everything he says and does is commented on by Gene Wilder.

Reading the criticism of Luke Cage, that being the lack of a white perspective, the story being unrelatable by white people, blah blah blah, reminded me of the first time I got checked on my own similar mindset.  I was in my mid twenties and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas just came out.  I had a co-worker friend who was very into it and talked me into buying it.  I played about an hour of it and put it aside.  When my co-worker asked me my thoughts on it I replied with "I just couldn't get into the character, I felt ostracized and I couldn't relate."  What he said to me after that has stuck with me "You mean because he's black?" and I hemmed and hawed and tried to explain that no it wasn't because of that and he cut me off by saying "So, you can't put yourself aside long enough to understand what it might be like to be someone of another color, another ethnicity and find how you might be alike?" and I was dumbfounded.  Nobody had ever checked my white mindset before.  It was the first time that I realized just how much of media is aimed at me as a white, middle class male.  I have taken it for granted that my perspective would be the default perspective and I was so mired in that, that when I was confronted with a different perspective I immediately abandoned it because that was easier.  After that I worked harder to be open to other points of view.

So, when I come across criticism against changing the gender, race or culture of a character I'm quick to defend the change.  However it seems there are some concepts that kind of get stuck and fixated on by people which made me think I would talk about it again in a different way.

We'll start with this:
‘Doctor Strange’ and the tiresome, stereotypical journey east to discover magical Asian awesomeness
Because I think it says some interesting things.

White People are the Mario of Everything

Mario is always the most well rounded character in every game he's in.  He's versatile, he's adaptable and what he lacks in overwhelming strength in one area he makes up for with a general aptitude in everything.  This is how white people have been historically portrayed in western media.  When you have a movie called The Last Samurai and it stars Tom Cruise that's kind of weird.  That should be a red flag.  This isn't a particularly novel observation and Paul Mooney made it better:

The same goes for a Ghost in the Shell movie starring Scarlett Johansson.  I'm a firm believer in a meritocracy and if Scarlett Johansson was truly the best for the role then it's right she got it but somehow I doubt that she was.  I doubt that very much.  I find it ridiculous when you have The Last Samurai and cast Tom Cruise, I was equally dumbfounded by the choice to cast Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin.  I saw neither movie for the reason that those choices seemed stupid and I didn't want to support them.

Why Does Hollywood Whitewash?

Money.  It's pretty much that simple.  Getting money to make a film is hard and you need "bankable" stars.  Bankable here meaning actors that guarantee an audience, a guaranteed audience means guaranteed cash and when you have a movie that costs hundreds of millions of dollars a total loss of investment can be pretty devastating which leads to low risk taking behavior.

Most of what I know is reading about stuff, at one point I aspired to be a script writer but Max Landis talks about it here:

I would also encourage people to watch this video reply by Chris Grace because he adds a perspective that I haven't given much consideration to until I went to look for that video just now to add to this article.

When Does Colorblind Casting go Right?

Idris Elba as Heimdall is a good start.  That man is the best for any role, Idris Elba is an amazing actor who always gives something 100%, few actors top that.  I would even say Chiwetel Ejiofor is another good one.  Baron Mordo has traditionally been white, they cast him differently and he's another amazing actor.  The only reason he's second fiddle to Cumberbatch is because he is a future arch nemesis, so he'll get his time in a big role.  The changing of Nick Fury, Johhny Storm and Perry White are more examples.  Characters where race was not important, the character is what is important.

When Does Colorblind Casting go Wrong?

Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One.  It's an example of colorblind casting, it's true that the Ancient One is historically an Asian person so casting Tilda is totally a case of colorblind casting.  They went who they thought was best, I don't know who tried out for the role but Tilda Swinton is a very good actress so I can see why they chose her.  I don't know why they didn't try harder to find somebody else though.  But this is an example of where race is very important to the character and it should be preserved.

The Heroes for Hire Exception.

It seems both exceptions to the rule happen to team up frequently.  Luke Cage and Danny Rand aka Iron Fist cannot have their race changed.  For Luke Cage it's because his ethnicity is integral to his character.  A member of a minority who has experienced great oppression from a system that oppresses people that look like him.  He is strong and invulnerable and therefore does not need to be subject to that oppression anymore.  That's what was so brilliant about the Luke Cage series, the hoodie with bullet holes that everyone talks about being such a powerful form of symbolism.  In a world where black people are murdered by gun violence every day here you have a black person who is bullet proof.  He is his own confident man in a world that tries to shrink him down.  Luke Cage HAS to be black.

Similarly Danny Rand HAS to be white.  I don't agree with the author of the linked article that Danny Rand is necessarily the result of the "white guy machine" that pumped out characters in the early days of comic books.  He may have started that way, I haven't read his old stuff, but I think what Brubaker and Fraction did with him trumps that now.  The heart and soul of Danny Rand is a person who is stuck in the middle of many worlds and he doesn't know where he fits in, in any of it.  He's too white to fit in the monastery where he grew up, he's too Asian to fit in with the white people of his native home, he's too powerful to be a normal person but he's so accustomed to power that it's normal to him.  He's been too poor to know how to be rich but he's too rich to act like he's poor.  All of that only works if he's white and if he's not white then he can't be Asian.  You make him Asian and suddenly he fits in somewhere, he has a culture and home of his own so there is nothing driving his search for himself or driving his reason to leave the monastery and stay in America.  As we find out in Immortal Iron Fist, it's normal for Kun Lun's Immortal Weapon to stay there but he doesn't stay there because he doesn't fit in.  His difference drives him back to America where he discovers that his time in Kun Lun has made him too different to be American.  The key being the difference in America is a cultural one, he can "blend in", whereas the difference in Kun Lun is a racial one, he'll never "blend in" there, he will always be an outsider based on his appearance.  In either case he doesn't fit but in America he can at least fake it so that's where he stays.  So, if you're wondering why they cast Danny Rand as white, that's why.  If it weren't for that core character aspect I would agree that you could cast whoever you want.  But also the reality is if you cast an Asian person as Iron Fist what you have is essentially Shang Chi and not Iron Fist.

Why Don't They Make New Characters Instead of Changing Old Ones?

Money.  That and fans don't buy new characters.

I've touched on this in more depth previously but I hear this a lot and it's even mentioned in the linked article.  The example they use is Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel.  Kamala is new, "Ms. Marvel" is a legacy name.  Legacy names draw money because fans will buy legacies.  At this point there is an expectation that the Avengers will have a Thor.  Not a Thor stand in, not a Thor rip-off but a Thor.  It needs to have a Thor because they have Thor movies to make and Thor movies need to tie into other movies and they all tie into the Avengers movies which all make crazy money.  So, if you have an idea for a new female character, or a desire to add diversity what is going to do better?  Lightning Lady or Thor?  What is going to sell comics?  What is going to marketable?  What is going to "bankable" for the movies?  Thor is.  Thor is a legacy and people will buy Thor when they would ignore Lightning Lady.  Thor fans will buy Thor comics, fans of diversity will now buy Thor comics, fans of movies who know the name of Thor will buy Thor comics.  But if you have Thor on the big screen, no Thor on the comic shelves and Lightning Lass instead, well now suddenly you have no one buying it.  The Thor fans are not buying anything that isn't Thor, diversity fans don't see the comic at all and movie fans have no idea who the fuck Lightning Lass is.  So, Thor is a lady now and frankly since they changed Thor it's been the first time I've found the book readable and enjoyable.  I love Jane Foster as Thor.

Similarly I've used wrestling to explain it, although the metaphor is slightly flawed because you don't have new people taking up legacy names.  But if WWE is running a show and they want to draw money for that show are they going to put John Cena in the show or are they going to put The Jean Short Rapper?  People who both love and hate John Cena will come pay money to see Cena, either to win or lose.  But The Jean Short Rapper?  Sure he's kind of like John Cena, he's a new character that fills a roughly John Cena shaped hole but ain't nobody care about him and if nobody cares nobody pays money and money is what makes things happen.


Go watch Luke Cage, it's awesome, I think it's the best Marvel Netflix show yet.  They seem to top themselves every time they release one of these things so I'm looking forward to Iron Fist but since Iron Fist may be the first backslide they have I'm betting at least Defenders will be amazeballs.  Also be open to characters changing, 99% of characters are not race or gender dependent.  They are character dependent.  But for the 1% where it does matter don't get made about them not changing.  It's all contextual because one persons Idris Elba as Heimdall is another persons Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One meaning some are interchangeable and others aren't.

I want to make clear that none of what I've said above is a justification for how things are.  They're reasons for how things are.  You want to know why they do things, that's why.  It's not really that things are black and white but more like things are not easy and as human beings we tend to take the path of least resistance.  But as Chris Grace talks about, if you make these decisions harder for the companies to make, organize in large groups to make an effective use of voting with your dollar, make commentary and strive for change then change will happen.  And if you are a talented person who can and wants to work in any of these industries then you can make even more effective change from the inside.  None of it is really set in stone but it takes an understanding of the forces at work, pressure and time to make that change.

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