A couple of weeks ago, news of singer and actress Zendaya’s casting as Mary Jane hit headlines; and people got pissed. How could a traditionally white, red headed character suddenly be biracial and brunette. Sure, they have a point, when a character from a comic as beloved as Spider Man suddenly switches it’s MO, it can be a little bit jarring, and well, white fanboys are jarred. Responses to the news ranged from sadness and disappointment in Hollywood’s “poor casting decisions” to complete outrage, as a man called for the next biopic on MLK to feature a white lead. Justifications for such outrage come from the simple fact that we shouldn’t mess with a good thing. If MJ was written as a white girl, why change it now?
The anger and frustration surrounding producers decision to cast the popular actress is not the first time that a traditionally white fictional character was cast as a black person and the world lost it. In 2015, word of yet another reboot of the Fantastic 4 franchise hit the news, and bubbling under the surface was their decision to cast Creed actor Michael B. Jordan in the role of the Human Torch. Originally played by Chris Evans (today’s Captain America) in the 2005 release, people were angry and more than a little bit confused. Because the Human Torch and the Invisible Woman are supposed to be siblings, people threw themselves into a tizzy trying to justify how the entire comic had been ruined because of an actor with some melanin. Excuse me for saying this, but Fantastic 4 would have sucked anyway.
Similarly, the decision to cast a black Hermione in the play production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child sent Potter fans scanning through books for evidence that Hermione was in fact a white person. At least we’re still using our critical skills from English class I guess. Even after JK Rowling herself tweeted that she never specified the color of Hermione’s skin and loved the casting choice, angry Potter fans continued their attack on the actress. After Emma Watson’s portrayal of the character, people were set in stone: it ruined the story by having Hermione be black.
Ironically enough, these spikes in anger and frustration towards Hollywood do not always occur. Just in this past year, several movies have been released in which characters that should have been played by people of color were replaced by white actors, almost always with no media backlash. Examples include The Forest (Japan), The Great Wall (China), and Gods of Egypt all released in 2016. The difference here, however, is that these movies, based on fact or set in real life locations (the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, an actual forest in Japan with a suicide epidemic etc.) do not accurately represent the realities of such places. Whether we like to believe it or not, the world is not whitewashed, so why is our cinema?
The reason all of this matters is because the frustration is misplaced. Our country alone represents a myriad of races, ethnicities, and nationalities, and yet, according to Huffington Post, in the films we create, 75.2% of roles are given to white actors regardless of the premise, the location, or the plot. So why do we care so much about comic book characters being cast “correctly” but not about an entire movie based on ancient Egypt being played by white people? So far, the only movies people of color have been welcomed into are the movies that traditionally fit white stereotypes towards these people. Instead of casting an Asian actor in a movie about the diversity and intricacy of different Asian cultures, we choose for popularity's sake only to cast him in the role of a high school nerd genius, as seen in the Goonies, or in karate/ninja/kung fu movies such as Karate Kid, and in neither instance is he given a lead role.
So in our tradition of fighting representation in fiction, but denying representation in reality, America has made it abundantly clear to actors of color: you are only welcomed if you play our cliché. The answer is not to cast based on color alone, but rather to allow for changes in the creative process when it comes to fantasy, and accuracy when it comes to reality. Just as adamantly as we demand our comic book characters and our book-to-movie characters be represented correctly in their fictional realities, shouldn’t we also be demanding the the movies we make about the dynamic beauty of this world also be represented with a dynamic array in talent and background? The more we allow for the diversity of our world to bleed through into the diversity of the films we create, the more we will learn to appreciate about others and the contributions that, regardless of race, we can all make to our world.