Why Race-bending Characters Is Important
Here at Geeks of Color, we are committed to representing diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry and want to see every facet of that inclusion, both on screen and off. We’ve already told you about the difference between whitewashing and race-bending. Now, a different discussion is emerging. With a flurry of new opportunities for talent of color, people are beginning to wonder if creating original roles for people of color is preferable to “race-bending”, or taking an originally white role and giving it to an actor of color. The idea that “race-bending” is trying to insert people of color into white spaces is dated and frankly tired, and here I am going to explain why.
First, I’m going to give three examples of popular characters who were originally white in their source material but are played by actors of color in adaptations. The first example, and possibly the most noteworthy, is Aquaman. Jason Momoa will play the character in his upcoming solo film at the end of 2018, which most of us are eagerly anticipating. Momoa is Native Hawaiian, making him the first Native Hawaiian superhero in a major blockbuster. Aquaman has always been drawn in the comics as blond-haired and blue-eyed, but Batman v Superman and Justice League director Zack Snyder made the choice to cast Jason Momoa regardless of his race.
The second example is the controversial casting of Atlanta actress Zazie Beetz in the role of Domino. In the comics, Domino is portrayed as a character with porcelain white skin and a black patch over her right eye. In the film, they’ve reversed that effect- her skin is black, and her patch is white. Fans of the character were angry over this change, saying that it’s “inaccurate” to the way she has long been portrayed in the comics. You can catch Zazie in the upcoming Deadpool 2 film, which slices its way into theaters on May 18.
The third and final example I’m going to give here is the casting of Will Smith in the role of Deadshot, an assassin and killer, in DC’s Suicide Squad film in summer 2016. Deadshot is also a character who has been consistently portrayed as Caucasian in the comics (he’s still portrayed that way in some forms, which is a bit strange to me). He’s got style, swagger, and he kills expertly. In other words, it’s a role that was pretty much written for Will Smith.
In all these cases, major studios took major characters for their upcoming tentpole superhero blockbusters and race-bended them, casting actors of color for the roles. Why? In most cases, the reasoning was that these actors were simply the best for the roles. And that may very well be the case. But in the past, actors of color wouldn’t have even had a chance to audition for the roles in the first place; the only roles they would get would be background or supporting if they were lucky.
There is still a big disparity between white actors and actors of color in Hollywood. In 2014, it was reported that nearly 73% of lead roles in Hollywood films went to white actors. Only 33 films that year had actors of color in starring or co-starring roles. And the numbers for directors of color are even worse. Some may argue that this simply reflects the makeup of the country, but more and more people of color are coming to the States every day. By 2050, nearly half the country will be at least biracial or descended from a person of color. If that is the case, why is it so difficult to cast a person of color in a leading role – especially roles that are not required to be any specific race?
Take James Bond. Over the course of fifty-six years, there have been twenty-four films about the British suave spy. And every actor who’s put on the tux and portrayed 007 has been white. When you look at the Bond role, is there anything that specifically calls for a Caucasian actor? He’s a spy. He kicks butt. He has money, and he means business. All traits that I could easily see Idris Elba, Benicio del Toro or Donnie Yen taking on with no problem. Yet every time the Internet suggests a non-white actor as Bond, they’re treated as if it would be some great sacrilege in the name of the character.
Also, take Spider-Man. Back in 2010, Donald Glover campaigned hardcore to play the webslinger. He was rewarded with not only a role in Sony’s Spider-Man Homecoming as Aaron Davis, but with a character inspired by him–Miles Morales, who is set to make his big-screen debut in Sony’s animated film Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse this December. Glover’s argument was that the only reason he couldn’t be Spider-Man and don the spandex is because he was black. And when you think about it–there’s really nothing in the character of Spider-Man that calls for a white actor.
In situations where the race is important to the character, you need to cast people of specific races and backgrounds in the roles. For example, you wouldn’t want a white actor playing Martin Luther King or Michael Jackson (I’m looking at you, UK TV) because those are two noteworthy African-American men who really existed. You also wouldn’t want a Black actor playing Thomas Jefferson or George Bush, because it wouldn’t make much sense–not only because of the racism of the time period but because those men both lived and were white.
Or with fictional characters: if your story is set in Africa, you’re likely going to have a largely Black cast (which is why Black Panther does). Or if you’re telling a story about racism in the projects of Chicago, having a white protagonist wouldn’t make much sense (unless you’re going to tell the story from the perspective of the racist). If you need a story about Mexico, more than likely your characters will be Mexican, and so on.
But if there is no precedent or bearing for your character to be any specific race, creators can have the freedom to cast whoever they want in the roles. And since white actors are dominating in Hollywood so much and can easily find another role if they’re turned down, why not give an actor of color an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise?
A brilliant example of this is A Wrinkle in Time, Ava’s upcoming fantasy film. Meg Murry, the film’s protagonist, is Black. She could’ve been Asian or Latina or Native American, though, and the story would’ve progressed exactly as it does. Her race has no immediate bearing on the events of the story, and the timeline would not be altered by changing it.
In Black Panther, however, if T’Challa was white, the story of an African king wouldn’t make sense or feel authentic. Seeing Wakanda and Africa at large as it truly is makes the story feel more real, and isn’t that the goal with all art forms–for the characters to feel like they could leap out of the screen and start a conversation with you?
White Hollywood seems to feel that stories about people of color are specific to that group, not universal. White is the default; Black is the minority. For some reason, even though it’s been proven that diverse films do better at the box office, they seem to be under the impression that a white moviegoer can’t enjoy and engage with a story about a Black protagonist, that has nothing to do with their Blackness. And that notion is utterly ridiculous.
It’s about time we stopped splitting hairs and focused on the real issue–that people of color are seen as subcategories, and their stories are supposed to only matter to other people of color. By racebending roles, we are allowing representation on a large scale that transcends race and shows that in the situation at hand, anyone can be the protagonist.