Many accuse this practice of demeaning characters' identities, and some would argue that this is just tokenism, while others argue that minorities need more representation in the media, and the whole thing eventually degrades into the usual badly-spelled internet arguments.
I'm not here to discuss the practice in general. I'm here to look at three specific examples from recent times and see why they happened, general reaction, and if they worked to the benefit or detriment of the character. Let's begin.
When it came time to adapt Thor's comics to the big screen, Heimdall was more of a blank slate compared to other characters. Mostly because his claim to fame was staying in one place and watching stuff. So they decided to give the character a demeanor that stated "He watches everything. If he doesn't like what he sees, then run." as well as the wisdom that comes from looking at countless worlds for hundreds of years. For the kicker, they cast Idris Elba in the role, raising some hackles.
The director of Thor, Kenneth Branaugh, had this to say:
"If you have a chance to have a great actor in the part, everything else is irrelevant. "
And that's a good argument.
"Why would Norse gods be black?" was the most common rebuttal.
An excellent point, and one that the movie itself subtly answers. They're not Norse gods. They're basically aliens; extra-dimensional beings that the Norse decided to worship as gods. And if there are not only black Vulcans on Star Trek, but, lest we forget, black humans, then why not black Asgardians? On top of that, Idris Elba gives a mighty fine performance with the material he's given, turning a minor role into what probably would have been the breakout character, if not for Tom Hiddleston as Loki.
|I mean, just look at this guy. And the character is just as cool as he looks.|
All in all, making Heimdall black was a change that was complemented by the superb casting.
In the comics, Nick Fury is white. But that only holds true for the main Marvel Universe.
In 2002, Mark Millar gave us his alternate-universe tale The Ultimates. There were some... changes to the characters. The Avengers became a government-sponsored military superhero team, Captain America was more militaristic, Tony Stark continually drank to dull the pain of a brain tumor, the Wasp was an Asian mutant, Giant-Man was a wife beater (as opposed to a single accidental slap in the main universe), and Nick Fury was black. In fact, he had been intentionally designed to look like Samuel L. Jackson.
Now, making comic characters look like people has been done since the beginning. Shazam (formerly Captain Marvel) was designed to look like Fred MacMurray, an old-timey actor you kids have never heard of. Marvel made a deal with Jackson to get permission to use his likeness on a couple conditions. Not only did Jackson get some original artwork, he became choice number one for a live-action Nick Fury, whenever that happened.
|And happen it did.|
Johnny Storm, the Human Torch
Now, this movie hasn't come out as of the time of this post, so please take the following with a grain of salt. Let us forget about the teaser trailer. Let us forget that the Fantastic Four are teenagers in the upcoming film. (Like the reason Nick Fury's black, that has to do with the "Ultimate Universe" of comics.) Let's also forget about the leaked supposed plot synopsis and focus simply on the choice to cast a black actor in the role. Let us look at this choice with an open mind and as little preconceived notions and/or baseless speculation as possible.
|Time to tread carefully.|
Sorry, let's not get into pre-film speculation and stick to the facts.
Johnny Storm. Michael B. Jordan.
Of all actors, why Michael B. Jordan? It could simply be that Michael B. Jordan gave an amazing audition and fits with this reimagining very well, in the same way Heimdall did for Thor. Or it could simply be that the filmmakers just want to ram some diversity into the film. It could also just be nepotism, seeing as how the director had previously worked with Jordan to make Chronicle.
Let's try not to point fingers. Like I said, this movie hasn't come out yet. So instead of fruitlessly predicting how the movie will pan out, I'm going to go over the three obstacles that Johnny Storm's race lift presents.
Possible Problem 1
Race isn't a personality trait in and of itself. If the character is poorly written, than a race lift isn't going to fix that. If the Fantastic Four's "personalities" end up being "the geek," "the athlete," "the chick," and "the black dude," then there's going to be more than a few issues even when you disregard the issue of race.
Possible Problem 2
On the flip side, race isn't a non-issue either. Whether you're black, white, or green, your race is a part of who you are. Treating it like something unimportant that can be switched out on the writer's whims seems a tad disrespectful.
Possible Problems 1 and 2 are very difficult to both solve.
Possible Problem 3
The Storms' race lift seems to be indicative of an abandonment of the canon. The actors are being specifically advised to not read the source material, and some of the ideas being leaked seem to be leftovers from Chronicle, the director's previous work. This could easily end up being the loosest Marvel adaptation since the Generation X series that changed almost everything except the use of the word "Mutant." Of course, if the trailer's any indication, then this film will be based on a different continuity than the standard one... But like I said, take it with a grain of salt. Fant4stic has yet to be released. And I'm getting way off topic.
The race lift of Johnny Storm is certainly the most questionable one of the three at this time (like I said, hasn't been released, blah blah blah), but it doesn't automatically equate with awfulness, either.
All in all, race lifts aren't inherently bad. It all depends on whether you change a character's race as part of the plan for creating a fleshed-out character, or if you say "Make him a black guy!" and call it a day.