May 16, 2016
Should Spider-Man be black?
Yes, it’s that time of the season again. In the midst of rampant fandom speculation, Jeff Sneider of The Wrap has declared, based on purported insider information, that “Spider-Man’s not going to be white. … I am 95% sure.” Instead, Sneider argues, Spider-Man will either be Latino or “most likely black”, and will not be Peter Parker. Putting aside the verifiability of these statements (Mr. Sneider is not the studio, after all), this basically reignites the argument we’ve seen come and go so many times over this last year, if not longer: Casting non-white actors as normally white superheroes: Good, or EVIL?
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Actually, scratch superheroes, since in the UK we’ve had a minor bit of murmuring over the possibility of casting Idris Elba as James Bond, a choice endorsed by current Bond Daniel Craig, and ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan. It’s unlikely to happen, mind you (for reasons of age; Craig is signed on for two more movies, and Elba would be pushing 50 if and when he finally lands the part), but to be honest, I don’t think anyone would make too big a fuss if he or another black actor played the part of 007, as long as he’s good in the role. Of course, people initially complained that Craig shouldn’t have gotten the part because he’s blond, but if we can live with that, I’m sure we can accept him not being white. It would have been an issue if the character were closer to his literary counterpart (who was an outright old-fashioned, post-war, imperialistic racist, among other things), but Film-Bond and Book-Bond are two different beasts.
As for Peter Parker…Well, okay, let’s get one thing out of the way first: I would personally prefer a black/Latino/green-skinned Peter Parker over Miles Morales, for the same reason I would prefer to see Batman be Bruce Wayne rather than Dick Grayson. My objection to Miles Morales is simply that, however good his run was, Miles Morales doesn’t have the history or backstory or relationships with his supporting cast and enemies that Peter Parker does, and even after five outings, the Spider-Man movies have still barely scratched the surface of what the source material has to offer on that front. The whole Peter Parker versus Miles Morales argument is a whole other debate that goes beyond ethnicity or race (as well it should), and I’d rather not deal with it in this article. From a purely artistic and personal perspective, I still want Peter Parker, regardless of the skin color of the actor playing him.
So, moving on.
Little-to-nothing about Peter Parker necessitates that he be played by a white actor. The fact that Spider-Man lives in New York City is a pretty important part of his character, but the fact that he’s a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant is not.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 saw his enemy Electro be played by Jamie Foxx without any complaints (well, complaints about him being black, anyway). The Kingpin (a comic book character who was reportedly going to be black originally, until Marvel decided they didn’t want to get involved in ‘60s racial politics by making a black guy responsible for all crime in New York City) was played by Michael Clarke Duncan in Daredevil, cast not for his race but for his size, and the fact that he was one of the few bald, muscular actors over 6’4 who could actually act worth a damn.
Laurence Fishburne lends his gravitas to Perry White in Man of Steel. And Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury in the comics before he was brought in to play the part for real. The biggest anachronism would be the aforementioned Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall, but that doesn’t really bother anyone. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue at all when formerly white supporting characters or white villains are played by black actors, so why can’t comic book movies do the same with the main hero?
Well, in the spirit of getting a little meatier with this, allow me to play devil’s advocate. Why would they cast a black actor as Peter Parker?
I’ll admit, I’m a guy who once argued furiously against the idea of casting Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, simply because I felt he was too short (Hardy is 5’9; comic book Bane is usually 6’8). I even argued against the casting of Vincent D’Onofrio as the Kingpin in the upcoming Netflix Daredevil series for the same reason (D’Onofrio is 6’4, but Wilson Fisk is freakishly huge). Mostly, this was just me letting off steam. On a purely artistic level, and in an ideal world, I prefer an adaptation to stick as closely to the source material as possible.
My main objection to D’Onofrio is probably more that he doesn’t seem to be an action guy, and Wilson Fisk is traditionally a fighter who can hold his own against the Man Without Fear, but when it comes down to it, I can’t deny that the man has acting chops that few (taller) actors can rival. As for Tom Hardy, his Bane was different from the comic book version in so many ways that I can’t really complain about the size thing that much anymore anyway. And besides, as different as he was, I can’t deny that TDKR Bane was one of the highlights of a somewhat hit-or-miss movie.
Another anecdote, this one with more Idris Elba: When Jesse Eisenberg was announced as Lex Luthor in Batman V. Superman, it was a choice that took me and probably most other people by complete surprise in a way that wasn’t good or bad, but more along the lines of “…Really? Him?” When it comes to Luthor, Idris Elba was the one black man on my fantasy casting list for the role. And while sizing up the pros and cons of each actor on that list, I came to Mr. Elba and decided that the only problem casting him was that he’s black… and that wasn’t really a problem at all. Basically, Idris Elba is now my fantasy casting choice for Lex Luthor, and that isn’t because he’s black—it’s because he’s a damn good actor and would be demonic in the part. In my humble opinion.
Casting Peter Parker as black or Latino, however, may be slightly different, in the sense that it sounds from Sneider’s source that they’re deliberately going out of their way to cast someone non-white. When Michael B. Jordan was cast as the Human Torch (regardless of all the controversy it caused on the Internet), it wasn’t simply because he’s black; if anything, he was cast in spite of that fact. The Fantastic Four reboot is directed by Josh Trank, who directed Jordan in Chronicle and wanted to work with him again. Intentionally casting a black/Latino actor in a traditionally white role is one thing, but casting the ethnicity rather than the actor is a different matter.
And let’s be honest here—this could end up being seen as little more than a case of glorified tokenism. The reason for casting a black actor in this type of role is both because black actors rarely get these parts (as the lead in a surefire summer blockbuster, let alone a superhero movie, let alone a major fictional icon like Spider-Man), and also because there are simply more white superheroes than black superheroes, and the most well-known heroes are white (and male, but we’ll just focus on the white part for right now).
But the other problem is the lack of black (and other non-white/non-male) roles and characters in both mainstream Hollywood movies and superhero fiction, never mind popular fiction in general. It’s not that they don’t exist; it’s that they’re disproportionately underrepresented when compared to their white counterparts.
So on the one hand, purposely casting a black Spider-Man would be making a statement, yet arguably masking the problem on the other, since whether or not the lead hero is black, the rest of the supporting cast of these movies (and likely most of the extras) will still be predominantly white. It would be easy to accuse the studio of exploiting racial politics for their own gain—and even though that’s probably at least partially true—this would ignore that a lot of people would be happy to see a non-white actor play a major character like Spider-Man regardless of the motive, as a way of redressing racial imbalance in the media. But it would be more of a symbolic move than one that radically deals with the existing problem.
But let’s say it is glorified tokenism, that they are just casting a black Spider-Man for the sake of casting a black Spider-Man. Is that wrong? Well… that’s a complicated matter. The obvious response to this sort of move is “would you cast a white actor as a black superhero?” Obviously, someone like Black Panther is out of the question, since the fact that he’s an African prince is central to his character. But what about someone like Blade, or War Machine?
These types of questions might normally be ignored or dismissed in this kind of article, but I’d like to answer them: No. The answer is no, you wouldn’t, and it’s both because you would be seen as racist, and also because it never entered the minds of the casting crew to do otherwise. White character? White actor. Black character? Black actor. There will always be various exceptions for one reason or another, including adding diversity or because the actor you want to cast happens to be white or black. But as stated, these exceptions are generally reserved for the non-leading roles, and it’s usually a case of white characters being changed to non-white, rather than the other way around.
But here’s the thing: Spider-Man is white, and the bulk of his supporting cast is white. Same goes for Superman. And for Batman. And for the X-Men. And for the Fantastic Four. The most popular, successful and most well-developed superhero franchises are dominated by white characters, especially white male characters. Yes, you’ll find plenty of non-white, non-male supporting characters scattered around each of these stories; and yes, these characters are generally presented in an excellent light and are great characters in and of themselves. But there’s still a grossly disproportionate ratio of ten white and/or male characters to one ethnic minority and/or female character (yes, I pulled that statistic out of my ass, but I’m in the ballpark, and you know it), even when the fact that they are white and male doesn’t really come into play at all.
So, I suppose my point is this: in a fair world, no, you shouldn’t cast a non-white actor for the sake of casting a non-white actor; you should cast the actor based on talent and merit. And more brutal honesty: a female Thor? A black Captain America? An all-female Avengers? These aren’t changes that are going to last; these are just more token gestures that at best draw attention to the fundamental problem in the way diversity is handled in the superhero genre, but will be immediately forgotten once the status quo is inevitably restored. Getting into a real, lengthy debate about this issue means talking about history, class, segregation, the economy, and a whole bunch of other social topics that are beyond the scope of this article.
Casting a black or Latino Spider-Man for the sake of casting a black Spider-Man may or may not be the right move. It could very easily be used simply to divert attention away from the problem of how many more white characters (and actors) there are in these movies, and thus represent the illusion of progress more than actual progress itself. It could also, let’s face it, be more than a little condescending to the actor in question, whoever he is, especially if he ends up facing accusations that he got the role because he’s not white.
On the other hand, I can’t think of many good reasons to not give a non-white actor the role, and if they’re good in the part, then that should be the beginning and the end of it. And I can’t deny that, while giving a non-white actor the job would likely just be a symbolic victory more than anything else… as superhero stories repeatedly point out to me, symbols can be pretty damn powerful.