A to Z Challenge 2013

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Race-Neutral Stories? No Thank You!

After commenting on two separate blogs, I realize that this issue is something that really bothers me.  What I'm referring to is when the race of a given character is altered in order to (I assume this is the purpose) show that all races are present at all echelons in society, no matter what time era is being depicted.

Two recent examples of this are the upcoming comic book movies The Avengers and Man Of Steel.  In both cases, white men in positions of power have been replaced by African American actors.  And I guess before I go any further, it needs to be stated that yes I am a white male and this is not a racist agenda for me.  It's more about accuracy and honesty, as well as maintaining the original story.  I'm a fan of leaving things alone, because a successful story is good for a reason and should be undisturbed.

In the case of The Avengers, I guess I'm just against it on principle.  I can see the argument that because the story is taking place in modern times, it's an acceptable change.  I don't know what was wrong with casting someone who fit the original character, but I guess I can deal with it.  With the Man Of Steel however, it's more of an problem with historical accuracy.  Given the time period the story of Superman was originally written about, it becomes more and more unlikely that an African American male would be the head of the largest newspaper in a city modeled after New York City.  I'm not saying it couldn't possibly happen during that time period, but it was less likely.

I'm going to tread through some dangerous water here (as if I haven't already), so I understand if you want to stop reading at this point.  Let's say for argument sake that the Chief is an African American.  Wouldn't this necessarily alter the dynamic between all the main characters around him?  While we might like to pretend we are completely blind to race and skin color, the truth is that the differences in race can often bring with it differences in how we interact with each other.  And an African American who has made it to the top of a major newspaper will undoubtedly have a distinctly different perspective on life than a white male taking that same journey.  That difference in background and experiences should also affect how they interact with everyone else, hence changing a crucial character in this story.

If you're going to do that, as far as I'm concerned you might as well create a new character with a new name and either alter the timeline of the story or alter the universe you're creating it in.  It's no longer the same story and it really shouldn't be.  If Perry White were a minor character that nobody interacted with, I could maybe understand.  But he is too central a character and has too great an effect on those around him.

I've used comic books as examples, but I've seen it happen in all sorts of things.  And while humanity has experienced countless moments of racial exclusion, trying to cover it up or ignore it only serves to bury the truth and doesn't teach us why that practice is wrong.  Changing the stories makes it easier for people to pretend that there wasn't a time when certain races were persecuted or excluded in the United States.  Before long, we're forgetting to teach our children that slavery did exist and that Whites Only was once culturally acceptable in certain parts of our country.

I've soap-boxed long enough.  I do apologize if anyone has been offended by this topic, but it's just something I had to talk about.  If you have an opinion (either for or against), I'd love to hear it.


Matthew MacNish said...

A little like taking the N word out of Twain. It's a dirty, evil, useless word, but pretending it isn't a part of our history, even if a shameful one, is just terribly disingenuous.

DEZMOND said...

I'm with you, Eric. I'd actually call it a racism when they put black actors in roles which are traditionally white, especially when the stories are part of tradition or folklore, like putting a black actor in THOR or putting a black actress in BBC's MERLIN. It's pure racism. You'd never see a white actor play for example Martin Luther King, which is right, and thus it shouldn't be the other way around either.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I agree with Dezz. It's like when Will Smith was cast as the lead in Wild Wild West. Sorry, I was a big fan of the series and James T. West was a white guy.

Eric said...

Matthew -a great example. That particular one also set my temper flaring.

Dez - It is racism, but even avoiding that entire argument, it's just wrong because the story itself no longer even resembles the original. So why do it then? You are right though. If we made a biographical story about MLK and cast a white person, all hell would break loose.

Alex - yeah, I used to be a fan of Will Smith but anymore I think he's just trying to truly wear the crown he envisioned on his head back when he was the Fresh Prince (and I don't think he's earned it). You picked another great example though. That movie was horrendous.

msmariah said...

Hi thanks for the follow. I'm following you now. You have a great blog. I've enjoyed going through it.

I'd like to play devil's advocate with regard to your post. I understand where you and the other posters are coming from. However, if film producers did what you suggest, many minorities would be restricted to films exclusively about minorities, i.e. Carmen Jones (1954). There wouldn't be much diversity in entertainment, which is not reflective of modern times.

I love Superman...love, but I don't have a problem with Perry White being African American b/c this comic was written 70 years ago. There was very little representation of any type of diversity newspaper rooms, among many other areas. In 2011 you simply don't see all-white staff at a major newspaper anymore. Times have changed. Movies should reflect the time that they're in.

If Superman was set in the 1930s or 1940s I would agree w/ you, but not for a movie set in 2012.

Needless to say, we don't live in those times anymore. If we stuck to the script of those times with the same lack of diversity that existed 70 years ago, it would be inappropriate b/c those times no longer exist.

Obviously if we're watching Pride & Prejudice, I expect an all-English (English-looking) cast. Superman 2012 is not Pride & Prejudice and neither is Thor.

In this instance, with 100 years of hollywood primarily focused on white actors, the charge of racism when Laurence Fisburne is cast as Perry White, is rather bold.

I mean no offense by this. Just my opinion. This is one of the reasons I enjoy blogging. I enjoy seeing other folks opinions.

msmariah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
msmariah said...

Sorry accidentally double posted.

Windy Aphayrath said...

Thank you, Eric. I found your post enlightening and genuine. No apologies for offense needed. I completely agree with you that no matter what color, creed, sex, etc, the characters should be true to the story.

One of my current projects has a minority MC and for the most part, the feedback I've been given has been great, I still did have a few readers come back and say something that basically translated to "if your MC was white, this story would be better." I was appalled that in this day and age we'd still be dealing with this, but somehow, I can't be completely surprised. And honestly, I tossed out their input because when it came down to it, it would not have been true to the story.

Bravo to you for speaking out, Eric.