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A Black Norse God, Or: Character Race and Adaptation

A small storm of controversy has sprung up around the casting of Idris Elba, a black, British-born actor, as a Norse god in this Friday’s summer blockbuster, Thor. Anumber of news sites have covered this story, and one web site has even been set up to advocate a boycott of the film on the grounds of its supposed “left-wing social engineering.” According to interviews with the actor, while some of these complains come off as legitimate questions of character fidelity, other complaints contain the ring of unadulterated racism. Many commentors on other sites have likewise drawn this distinction, but with little qualification as to what distinguishes one argument from the other outside of tone. Most of them also never admit that there might, in fact, be substance behind the questions raise by the detractors. Quickness to label someone as a racist for expressing their opinion about the casting of an actor is dangerous, as it limits our ability or desire to discuss artistic merits of such a question.

The thing is, as Hollywood and the world in general becomes more and more color blind, the world of movie casting might become the only place where ‘discrimination’ can still be legitimately defended. For all of the talk about inclusiveness and equality, roles in movies do call for specific physical and cultural traits that cannot be simply glossed over. To choose to pretend that anyone can play any role not only discounts the inherent differences in character experience, but actually causes hard to the cause of racial equality in general. Racism is universally bad, but ignoring a character’s race for no reason other than the desire to be inclusive is equally as small-minded and damaging.

Of course the primary concern of any casting director should be to cast the actor who is most capable of bringing the character to life, and so in most situations a character can be approached with a kind of racial neutrality. I would argue that almost any movie set in the modern day that isn’t directly about race relations could be cast with a color blind eye. We live in a world where professions, schools, cities, states and countries are all integrated to the point that no one would be surprised to see various races portrayed in most situations. Obvious exceptions exist – no one would expect a white man to portray a member of a sub-Saharan tribe- but on the whole the one concern that would arise from this inclusiveness would be self-consciousness of casting. By that I mean, of course, a group of friends that is cast to be comprised of one member of every marketable race for the purpose of increasing revenue.

Still, there are moments in which race should be considered and used as a casting mechanism.

The difference, it seems to me, between an act of groundless discrimination based on race and a legitimate casting choice based fealty to character is rooted in the core aspects of the character itself. For instance, a character who is a slave in the American south trying to escape to the north in the run-up to the Civil War would most likely not be cast to be played by Tom Hanks. Likewise, a medieval member of a royal family becoming a masked theif for the good of the poor in the 14oos would most likely never be played by Will Smith. These are characters whose experience and existence is informed by their racial and ethnic background, and whose artistic truth would be compromised by a change in their racial makeup. Even though the actors named are at the top of their craft, their skill as an actor is not enough to warrant ignoring character race for the sake of casting.

In the case of Mr. Elba portraying the character/god of Heimdall in Thor, the question becomes whether or not the character of Heimdall is defined enough by his race/ethnicity to warrant casting an actor with race taken into consideration. As a deity created by a group of people, Heimdall was given specific traits that made him like those who believed in him. He was to have been a part of their world, and their world was that of the white Nordic people. These traits they gave to him, and their perception of him as a ruler, were informed by their racial and ethnic background. Likewise, in the comic book, he was also portrayed as white. In this case, the primary source character for the movie – the comic character – is white, and is informed by a mythological character built by a white civilization not out of racial hatred, but because that was the manner in which they interpreted their world. To wit, ‘updating’ this character to be black makes no sense except as a means of either marketing to a demographic or attempting forced inclusiveness in casting.

I would point to similar controversies that occurred during the casting of Memoirs of a Geisha and Prince of Persia. These are films rooted in racial and ethnic identity that chose to cast as their leads actors who were not the same race or ethnicity as the character they were portraying. As such, they fell under fire almost immediately for bowing to marketability and racial prejudice. No matter what the reason, they betrayed their characters’ central aspect, that of their origin and identity. The same is true for the decision to cast Mr. Elba.

One might argue, though, that those two movies had more of a claim to desiring racial integrity in their characters because they were grounded in the real world, and not in fiction. However, The Last Airbenderfell under a similar shroud of controversy last year due to M. Night. Shyamalan’s casting of white actors in what some found to be Asian roles in the television show, while making the Fire Nation almost entirely Indian. Accusations of racism and ‘whitewashing’ were leveled at Shyamalan, even though the animated show took place in a separate reality that drew from no real world analogue, unlike Heimdall from Thor, which undeniably has his roots in Norse mythology.

Each of these cases – Geisha, Persia, Airbender and Thor- all carry the same basic traits to them: a character with an accepted national/racial/ethicnic background portrayed by an actor who does not conform to those traits. All of this, of course, depends on those races/ethnic groups still finding meaning in the existence of said character. By the time Will Smith was cast as Jim West in Wild Wild West, the character had become so obscure that no one much noticed when Mr. Smith was cast in the role. The ambivalence toward his character allowed for revamping without backlash.

So are well-known character races always immutable? Once cast and still relevant, can a character ever lose their skin color or national origin and be born anew? Nick Fury, from The Avengers, has been portrayed as both black and white, as has Harvey Dent from Batman. Last year Donald Glover, a black actor, expressed his interest in playing Spider-Man and was met with fan outcry. However, looking at these three characters, one can see why the change in their race would be not only expected, but almost inevitable. Nick Fury and Harvey Dent are not defined by race but by profession, professions which are integrated to the point of non-comment. Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker, is a youth from Queens, New York, an area about as racial diverse as one can get. Parker’s identity as a white male is hardly an informer of his character, and I would go so far as to speculate that so long as he remained male – the puberty metaphor for Spider-Man as a male is well-known – he could be any race.

This is of course leaving out mention of completely different adaptations of source stories. Romeo and Juliet are two characters who have been portrayed by every race in seemingly every way possible. Their characters and their story have become archetypal, and therefore no longer remain grounded simply in fictitious people but have been absorbed into our basic storytelling DNA. At this point, nothing matters anymore save for the narrative beats that create the archetype of star-crossed lovers.

In the end, when people enter the theaters this weekend to see Thor, will even a small minority understand or care the controversy surrounding the casting of a single actor? No, probably not. But this single casting call serves as an occassion to examine race in film, epecially as it pretains to casting and character construction. There will never be hard and fast rules for when and where a character can undergo a racial-reassignment. As time goes on, and as race becomes less and less of a defining issue in our lives, modern characters will be made with almost complete racial neutrality. However, some older, ethnically or racially rooted characters both from real life and fiction or mythology will – in all likelihood – never enjoy this level of racial amorphousness. Their very character is infused with their national or ethnic roots, to the point that changing their skin color would cause a clash of character and actor that will actually be detrimental to audience connection to the story. Such is the case with Heimdall, who was, after all, known in Norse mythology as “the whitest of the gods.”

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