Only in America can the skin color of someone who spends much of his waking life on fire supply the basis for a spirited pop-culture controversy.
That’s the grim lesson of the media run-up to the latest in the long line of lumbering comics franchises’ superhero cash-cows bound for a return engagement on the big screen—a reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise scheduled for release this fall. Michael B. Jordan, who was cast last year as the uber-quartet’s combustible Johnny Storm, had been fielding flak ever since for violating the putative ethnic purity of the historically all-white crime-fighting cabal.
So late last week, Jordan published an open letter vindicating his right to be set on fire for the titillation of a mass audience, in that great arbiter of American public mores, Entertainment Weekly. His broadside bore a confrontational title, “Why I’m Torching the Color Line,” but it was a far cry indeed from Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (let alone The Autobiography of Malcolm X). Indeed, not unlike the bloated blockbuster at the center of the controversy, Jordan’s letter felt like yet another overhyped entry in a long train of unresolved sequels all but designed to exasperate any onlooker expecting a genuinely substantive denouement. Only in this case, the franchise in question is “The Never Initiated American Conversation About Race” instead of “The Fast and the Furious, Part the Twelfth.”
Far from arguing for truly colorblind casting, or defending the integrity of black actors who are cast against skin-color (stereo)type, Jordan mainly betrayed a callow naïveté about the tangled racial politics of the American entertainment colossus. It also didn’t help matters that Jordan seemed almost willfully ignorant of the rabidly purist comic book culture that his film is seeking to cash in on. Instead, Jordan’s cri de coeur was steeped in awkwardly non-sequitur flourishes of earnestness. To wit: “I know I can’t ask the audience to forget fifty years of comic books. But the world is a little more diverse in 2015 than when The Fantastic Four first came out in 1961.”
The multiracial actor Zoe Saldana then compounded Jordan’s salvo via a Facebook post that revisited the history of white actors playing non-white characters—as though that redoubtably racist tradition had any direct bearing on casting mass entertainments in deliberate defiance of received racial expectations.
Saldana and Jordan are both unassailably well intentioned. But that doesn’t really matter. For any cursory look around the death-ray-blasted landscape of the superhero pic shows this same retrograde debate surfacing again and again—which is its own eloquent indictment of how pitifully our entertainment industry has performed in carrying out its oft-intoned mission of improving its track record in matters of race and gender representation. Sure, there are occasional bursts of righteous fair play, be it the one-eyed grit of The Avengers’ Nick Fury or the Charlize Theron-led convoy of women dominating the arid landscape of Mad Max: Fury Road. But these are very much the exceptions that prove the rule. (It’s a separate semiotic conundrum, too vast to contemplate properly here, that these touch-up jobs occur in such close proximity to the word “fury.”) And it’s especially perplexing that people who are professionally committed to remaining in the public eye don’t seem to grasp that these set-tos over authenticity and racial identity are destined, regardless of how many thoughtful famous people intervene, to flame on, as the catchphrase of Jordan’s on-screen alter ego has it.
Why, after all, should people such as Saldana and Jordan, who have suffered involuntary crash courses in the systematic racism of Hollywood, by simple virtue of who they are, profess surprise that the hoary conventions of racialized casting survive in the enlightened age of 2015? It’s an especially unpersuasive stance when it comes to the fundamentally conservative outlook embodied in the mainstream comics industry, which has been yoked to a crudely schematic, panel-by-panel vindication of uncritical Americanism ever since the Kefauver committee declared comic books sinister bibles of antipatriotic youth revolt in the 1950s. Jordan’s letter tries to engage with the torrent of online racism unleashed in the wake of his casting announcement, but he can’t help but fall back on the self-congratulatory cadences of a Unitarian sermon—or, perhaps more to the point, a disbelieving NPR report: “Get your head out of the computer,” he counsels the racist army of comics trolls. “Go outside and walk around. Look at the people walking next to you. Look at your friends’ friends and who they’re interacting with. And understand this is the world we live in. It’s ok to like it.”
But a sober look around confirms that the world we live in is still rife with racial pop-cult reaction. When Idris Elba was cast as the Norse god Heimdall in 2011’s Thor, the white supremacist group Council of Conservative Citizens loudly protested, with the ludicrously surreal claim that Marvel had “inserted social engineering into European mythology.” White fans of the dystopian Hunger Games series like objected to the casting of a young black girl in the role of Prim—even though Suzanne Collins characterized her as dark-skinned in the first entry in the Hunger Games book trilogy. And when it was again reported that the producers of the next James Bond series were considering Idris Elba to play Agent 007, the speculation was met with bursts of fan outrage.
Captain America, one of the first comic book superheroes (and star of an active franchise) began as a patriotic super-soldier. The character was developed during World War II as a way to galvanize youth against the Axis powers. That the grand-daddy of American comics is a super-white myth, who’s still bankable despite the ways in which the country has changed, should help to explain at least part of the popular uproar—in 2015!—over the appearance of more women and nonwhite actors in mainstream superhero flicks. With this kind of backstory you can’t help but understand Michelle Rodriguez’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion that her fellow actors from diverse racial and gender backgrounds are probably best advised to “stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes.” (And as Jill Lepore shows in her recent book, Wonder Woman is both a notable exception to, and disturbing proof text of, this same dictum.) Or, as a sick sort of corollary: It’s hard to position a human torch as a beacon of enlightenment.