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Race-Swapping – From Comic to Screen

The Internet is a hotbed whenever there’s discussion of “race-swapped” characters in comic adaptations. The latest uproar occurred when there were rumors that Steven Yeun might be cast as Nightwing in an upcoming Batman movie. Whether this was mere speculation or not is irrelevant; it’s the responses that were more notable than the casting itself. While some were positive and others negative, the usual “but Nightwing’s white” arguments were all too prevalent.

This outrage isn’t the first, or even recent, over casting PoC actors for traditionally white characters. There was even worse upset over biracial Zendaya Coleman being cast as Mary Jane Watson – a character that has been white since the 1960s – which included personal attacks over the decision. Look even further back, and you’ll find backlash against everything from Michael B. Jordan cast as Johnny Storm to even Samuel L. Jackson’s casting as Nick Fury (a role that was based on him in the Ultimate comic universe years before the movies!).

In all the debates and contention, most of the arguments have fallen victim to the same ignorant, erroneous points. That’s why it’s time to address each of these with logic and reason. Hopefully, people can understand the complexities of this issue and why sometimes it works… and other times it’s inappropriate.

“It changes the character!”
Unless race, ethnicity, or gender is key to the character’s personality or plot, it changes nothing. The Ultimate universe (and MCU) changed Nick Fury to African-American with no problem because race wasn’t important to the original character. You couldn’t do that to Black Panther or Luke Cage because their ethnicity is relevant to their origin, story, etc.

You can see this by looking at many of the replaced characters in comic book adaptations. Wilson Fisk, Heimdall, Johnny Storm, Tulip O’Hare, etc… while the adaptation may have criticisms, the characters were not “ruined” by a PoC actor. In fact, these same performances were often praised even despite the movie or show. Since there’s no evidence that changing an unimportant physical aspect hurts the adaptation, and in fact proof it helps, then there’s no support for this argument.

“It doesn’t make sense!”
Look, it only doesn’t make sense if you don’t let it. It’s amazing how people can accept all manner of fantasy, science-fiction, and horror nonsense, and yet not accept a race- or gender-swapped character. They can even change entire origin stories and characters for the movies, yet make someone black or gay? Suddenly people throw a fit.

No one said all Asgardians are white; this is an assumption based on the Norse ethnicity that produced the mythology… adapted for a comic. And since that same comic isn’t faithful to that mythology in the slightest, why should the Asgardians be anything like real-world Nordic people? Plus, Heimdall could easily be Asgardian (a culture) but from another realm (a race). After all, Hogun wasn’t Aesir (the movies claim he’s Vanir) and yet he’s considered Asgardian and a decorated warrior of that society.

Similarly, Johnny Storm and Sue Storm don’t have to be the same race. Adoptions, re-marriage, and extended families are nothing new and quite common in the 21st century. If someone readily accepts fantastic elements (aliens, magic, etc.) but can’t grasp elements based on our reality… then that’s a problem with the viewer, not the material. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief or logic for everything else, you can certainly do it for things easily explained.

“If minorities can swap, then white actors can too!”
Ummm, no. This claim ignores the entire problem in current society regarding representation and opportunity. This issue isn’t about equality but equity and equal opportunity. A white actor losing a role to a PoC doesn’t affect the larger picture because there will always be more roles for Caucasians. The same cannot be said when Native American actors are passed over for an American Indian character for a famous white actor.

When a playing field is unfair to start, fairness is not doing the same for both sides. In gaming, players in a lopsided scenario are often given bonuses or extra points to compensate. You don’t see the player who starts with the advantage complaining about that, do you? No, because they realize that the fairness in the game is by helping the disadvantaged player through other routes.

The same should occur in society, from Hollywood to social support, with those who have the advantage helping the disadvantaged. Minorities need every role they can get for equal representation; white actors do not. Casting Mary Jane with a biracial actor doesn’t strip white actors of anything; casting the Ancient One as white does do that to Asian actors.

“It feels shoe-horned, unnecessary, inorganic, etc.”
At times, as a society, we have to force people to change… because otherwise, they won’t. It took major social movements, full of protests and civil disobedience before laws were altered to allow equal opportunities for women and black people. Even then, you had to have the federal government step in, to make local governments and citizens adhere to the new social norms. That’s not even going into the continuing fights by women and minorities today despite those same laws, plus newer social movements.

You’ll see the same thing in pop culture and geek media, where new-found popularity, exposure, and changes in demographics have created new standards in comics, games, and fiction. Many involved, from fans to industry, have been slow in adapting and adhering to these new norms of inclusion and representation. That means someone has to force them to change, complying with the new norms of diversity.

“These aren’t my characters!”
You know what? You’re absolutely right. These aren’t your characters, not anymore. The new adaptations weren’t necessarily made for you, but are more likely for a new generation. A society that is more diverse and open-minded than the generations prior, and faces many different social and political issues.

The original Star Trek was made in an era full of racial discrimination and wars. The Matrix targeted the tech-savvy and anti-establishment sick of “the Man.” Now we have new movies and shows intended for audiences that have become far more diverse, inclusive, and sensitive. The same way we look at racial insensitivity, exclusion, and female stereotypes from the 20th century? That’s how younger generations look at current whitewashing, appropriation, and tropes.

Just as Jar-Jar Binks was targeting the youngest Star Wars fans and the new Ghostbusters was meant to inspire a new generation, these new versions of characters are intended for the latest generation. Your choice is to adapt and accept them… or become reclusive and exclusive. Do you want to be cool and hip, like Betty White, changing with the times? Or do you want to be bitter and old, like Clint Eastwood, clinging blindly to archaic values?

There is no valid reason why minorities can’t (or shouldn’t) be cast in most traditionally white roles. In fact, changing a character’s race, gender, orientation, etc. for representation is a good thing, given evolving demographics and societal norms. As fans, let’s try and change with the times and encourage new interpretations of favorite material… rather than be left behind, yelling at empty chairs.

About Brook H. (269 Articles)
Generalist, polymath, jack-of-all-trades... Brook has degrees in Human Behavior and Psychology and has majored in everything from computers to business. He's worked a variety of jobs, including theater, security, emergency communications, and human services. He currently resides outside Baltimore where he tries to balance children, local politics, hobbies, and work. Brook is HoH and a major Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing advocate, a lifelong gamer (from table-top to computer), loves everything paranormal, and is a Horror-movie buff.

2 Comments on Race-Swapping – From Comic to Screen

  1. Reblogged this on belleburr and commented:

    To my fellow actors of color, what are YOUR thoughts?


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