Another Day, Another White Guy at Marvel: Benedict Cumberbatch to play Dr. Strange
Well, Marvel made it official, Benedict Cumberbatch is billed to play Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange in the upcoming Dr. Strange movie. I’m caught in a mix of emotions ranging between mad, bitter, and disappointed. Mostly disappointed. I had hoped that Marvel execs’ statement at their last press conference denying Cumberbatch’s involvement in Dr. Strange, along with the controversy the original casting news caused would lead to a reveal that they cast an Asian man in the role. Instead, just as many were when the original rumors came out, we’re left asking.
Why another movie with a white guy Marvel?
There’s no question that Marvel’s current movie properties are overwhelmingly white and male. Even with the recent inclusion of Captain Marvel and Black Panther the rest of Marvel’s cinematic franchise is very, very white. Andrew Wheeler made a humorous – yet very poignant – point that if Marvel releases Thor 3 before Black Panther, “[Marvel] will have made ten movies headlined by blond white men named Chris before it makes one movie headlined by someone who isn’t even white.”
As we now know, Marvel is releasing Thor 3 before the recently announced Black Panther. So Wheeler’s point has become a startling premonition. Currently Marvel has a released ten movies, and one show; all featuring white men as lead. Their upcoming line-up is a staggering eleven more movies and another five TV shows. Out of those sixteen new properties, three featuring women (Agent Carter, Captain Marvel, and Jessica Jones), and two featuring people of color as leads given the current casting (Luke Cage, and Black Panther).
Lets do the math: Marvel has a total of twenty-seven live action properties, out of that twenty-seven, two have a person of color as lead, and three with women, totaling five movie and TV properties that don’t have a white male lead out of twenty-seven properties total. Five, out of twenty-seven.
Seeing these rather upsetting statistics, fans saw the casting for Dr. Strange and took to Twitter in protest. Various new hashtags were born to support the casting of an actor of color playing the Sorcerer Supreme. The popular choices being Oded Fehr (The Mummy), and Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones).
— Camille B. Naredo (@camillenaredo) October 28, 2014
This push for an actor of color to play Dr. Strange also due in part to Dr. Strange’s ambiguous race in the comics and the heavily Asian themes and culture surrounding the character. But given the numbers we’ve just crunched it’s clear fans have a thirst for more representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that doesn’t require canon or history to be on their side It’s a shame that this thirst will have to wait another three years until Black Panther comes out.
While fans typically view Dr. Strange as white in the comics, he is often drawn with a darker complexion; probably to emphasize the mystic or exotic nature of his heavily Asian coded powers. Nowhere in the comics is it specifically stated whether he is or isn’t white; rather, it’s merely assumed. So it wouldn’t have been a stretch to cast an Asian man in his role over a white man.
Futhermore, Dr. Strange is a character that is heavily coded in various Asian themes and culture. Strange’s origin is a story similar to that of Tony Stark’s from the movies. Greedy, pompous and uncaring, Strange eventually is the victim of a horrifying accident that takes away his ability to use his hands. Now a former surgeon with no one in his life, Strange seeks out the help of the Ancient One in the East. He ends up at a Tibetan palace and learns the secrets of their mysticism. Eventually Strange surpasses his Tibetan teachers and becomes the Sorcerer Supreme. He even ends up with servant Wong, who, in some stories, is regarded as a friend.
Dr. Strange was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1963. The ignorance towards Asian culture that exists in Dr. Strange’s mythos is expected given the time period of which he was first created. However we’re five decades into the future since Dr. Strange’s inception. Fans wanted to see that change reflected in the movie. Since Dr. Strange’s origin heavily follows the mighty whitey trope, where a white character is placed in a foreign society, adapts the natives way of life, teachings, and skills, only to eventually surpass them in every aspect of their own culture and lifestyle. Very often this ends with the interloper saving the indigenous population using the skills the natives taught them. Think the entire story of James Cameron’s Avatar but with real people instead of blue cat aliens.
The racist implications of Strange’s origin are only exacerbated when you throw Wong — an actual Asian man — into the mix as Dr. Strange’s servant. And now we’re all going to get to see this on the big screen. Understand my disappointment?
Another character that is heavily steeped in Asian culture and follows the mighty whitey trope is Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist, soon-to-be starring in his own Netflix show. Co-creator, Gil Kane, stated that Danny Rand was inspired having just seen a kung-fu movie for the first time. The reason for Iron Fist’s existence is an Asian movie, starring Asian people. Yet the actual character of Danny Rand is a blonde white man.
Fans have urged Marvel to cast an Asian man. Nerds of Color have written in detail about why Marvel should cast an Asian man to play Iron Fist. 18MillionRising started a petition calling for Marvel to cast an Asian man in the role. Clearly there is a strong desire to see these characters not only updated past their racist origins, but also for more racial and cultural representation American superhero movies.
Fans want to see these characters racebent for the better.
Racebending is a term originating from the popular website and was used as a term to describe a situation where a studio or other media creator changed the race or ethnicity of a character. The site was created in response to the whitewashing that occurred in M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Avatar the Last Airbender, popular cartoon that aired on Nickelodeon and featured a full cast of characters of color. The show also employed voice actors of color, such as Dante Basco as Zuko and Mako Iwamatsu as Iroh. In the movie the main cast was white, with various actors of color as victims of the — now brown skinned — evil Firebenders. A cartoon about people of color became a movie about three white kids fighting the evil brown skinned terrorists of the world, saving the helpless people of color from destruction.
This practice is called whitewashing; a racist practice that takes characters of color and casts white actors to play them in adaptations.
Racebending can be a force of good in modern day storytelling by updating the source material to better reflect modern day society. While whitewashing does the opposite as seen in Avatar.
The CW’s popular new show The Flash showcases a great example of positive racebending in the form of the West family. Both Iris and Joe West (Candice Patton and Jesse L. Martin) are black, while their original comic book counterparts are white. Marvel’s decision to include Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the MCU, where his main universe counterpart has always been white, is another positive example of racebending.
Unfortunately positive racebending isn’t all that common in Hollywood, and when the practice is done, it is met with much ire.
When the announcement that Michael B. Jorden would be playing Johnny Storm in the upcoming reboot of Fantastic Four the decision caused controversy. Many claimed it was detrimental to the characters origins, and a disservice to the source material. Jorden responded to the controversy at an event, “You can’t make everybody happy. You just gotta accept that and know. I’m an actor, I have to do my job.”
Casting Jorden, Idris Elba in the Thor movies, and now Will Smith as Deadshot in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie has been met with cries of resistance and accusations of disrespecting comic canon, yet there was no major controversy when the cast for The Dark Knight Rises was announced and three white actors were charged with playing three characters of color. Bane (Latino), Taila Al Ghul, and Ra’s Al Ghul (both Arabic) were all played by white actors. This is a clear cut case of whitewashing, and both fans and the media were more inclined to ignore it or excuse it.
Why are these casting choices racist while the reverse isn’t the same for Jorden, Patton, or Martin? Simple, whitewashing is a racist act in itself. It is the purposeful erasing of characters of color in favor of more palatable white actors instead. It denies real life people of color the chance to see them reflected in their own media and for actors of color to expand their body of work beyond the stereotypes of “thug #1” or “gang member #3” or “exotic woman #2”.
This includes playing villains when those villains are nuanced, well rounded characters. The best part of Nolan’s Dark Knight series — arguably — are the villains. These three roles — a brilliant Latino man who “broke the bat”, another man of color who ran his own super organization and trained an entire league of elite assassins, and a woman of color who ran that organization after her fathers death — could have been characters that furthered the representation of people of color in the mainstream. Instead, three person of color characters were erased when white actors were cast to portray them.
Villainous characters are only harmful towards people of color if they’re played as caricatures instead of people. Youtube personality Shyaporn touches up the importance of including people of color (specifically Asian people) as nuanced villains over stereotypical ones in his video, Asian Heritage Month or Fun with Hollywood Whitewashing!
Think of the difference between the scary Asian men in Scarlet Johanson’s Lucy, to Khan from Star Trek: Wrath of Khan (who was Indian Sikh but due to Hollywood racism in the 60s had to be incorrectly cast). The Asian men in Lucy are thugs, drug dealers who take advantage of various white people without remorse or care. They have no interesting motivations, or a sympathetic backstory. They’re just scary forgien men hunting the white heroine.
In retrospect, the character of Khan is sympathetic; his reasons for villainy are complicated, he is smart — a genius even on the same level as Kirk and Spock. Khan is a brilliant character and one that is remembered and revered even now by fans.
He is also a character the recent Star Trek franchise had a hand in whitewashing. Though Latino actor Ricardo Montalban was cast as Khan in the original movie, that was only because Gene Rodenberry wasn’t able to appropriately cast an Indian actor. This isn’t a problem in today’s Hollywood. There are plenty of working, able Indian actors. Heroes actor Sendhil Ramamurthy, for example, was a popular fan choice for the part of Khan before Benedict Cumberbatch had been revealed as the famous Indian character.
Rodenberry wasn’t able to cast an Indian actor as intended back in the ’60s, yet JJ Abrams and the minds behind the new Star Trek franchise aren’t restricted as Rodenberry once was in the past. And still, instead of properly casting an Indian actor, or even a man of color as Rodenberry did, they went with a white actor.
Hollywood is willing to cast people of color as villains, as long as they’re not sympathetic or with depth. There was a joke I heard once: Hollywood was able to find plenty of Middle Eastern actors to play terrorists in Zero Dark Thirty, but when it came to Khan suddenly they were out. Whitewashing locks actors of color outside of roles that are sympathetic, heroic, and yes, even villainous — unless it’s simple villainy.
Viola Davis of the hit series How To Get Away With Murder has talked about the troubles of getting roles as a black actress that weren’t “downtrodden, [or] mammy-ish.” Case in point her role in The Help. Lucy Liu (Elementary) also spoke about being racially typecast for many of her roles.
“I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion,” she told Net-A-Porter’s magazine.
You see the same thing happening to upcoming actress Jamie Chung who’s known for roles like Miho in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and Lady Silk (where she starred opposite Lucy Liu’s character Madame Blossom) in Man with the Iron Fists. Miho is a sword welding Asian prostitute with major smokey eye who never says a line in the entire movie. Lady Silk is another beautiful Asian prostitute whose main purpose in the movie is to fit the china doll stereotype and then die.
In terms of superhero movies there’s a subtler form of racism in that characters of colour — the few that their are when they’re not being whitewashed — are regularly regulated to sidekicks or supporting players in the white heroes storylines.
I want you to think of — off the top of your head — five male white superheroes from movies you’ve seen. Now think of five black male superheroes. Now five black women. Now five men of color who aren’t black men. Now five women of color who are not black. Can you?
Can you name five black superheroes from the movies? Off the top of my head there’s Nick Fury, Sam Wilson, Rhodey, and Blade. That’s four. With the addition of T’challa, aka Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Victor Stone, aka Cyborg, that’ll bring the total to a whoping seven total. The only black female onscreen heroes are Storm, and Catwoman, both of whom were played by Halle Berry. For villains, Eartha Kitt played Catwoman in 1967. That’s a total of nine black heroes from live action franchises and only five of them were — or will be — stars of their own properties. Compared to the twenty-two movie properties starring white men as leads from Marvel studios alone.
Darn that pesky math: it strikes again!
Current Asian characters on TV include Nyssa Al Ghul (Arrow), Hogan from (Thor), and Melinda May and Skye from Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Current Latino characters in superhero franchises include Sitwell (who’s dead) and Camilla Reyes (who’s dead) from Agents of SHIELD, Renee Montoya (Gotham) and Cisco from (The Flash). Agent Sitwell and Camilla were also evil double agents. Everyone else from either of the Big Two live action franchises has been very, very white.
This is why racebending original white characters into characters isn’t the same as whitewashing. Whitewashing takes away. Racebending can give back.
Without the inclusion of Heimdall, Johnny Storm, Iris and Joe West, we’d have four less black characters for people of color (particularly black people) to look up to. We’d also have a very white cast for Flash.
DC and Warners Bros are following similar suit by casting Native Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa as Aquaman. CW’s Arrow cast Manu Bennet, who is part Maori, to play Slade, and most recently Nick Tarabay, who is part Arabic, to play Captain Boomerang. There’s also the recent addition of Will Smtih as Deadshot in the upcoming Suicide Squad.
These are all examples of positive racebending practices. Decisions that open up more positive roles for actors of color and spread more visual representation on television. These decisions affect viewers of color who can be inspired by these visual representations. To some people, whitewashing isn’t a big deal nor is it harmful. It’s all part of the capitalist system that runs Hollywood or the best (white) actor always gets the role. So get over it.
Lets get one thing straight: representation matters.
There’s a wonderful story Whoopi Goldberg and what Star Trek — and more specifically the character of Uhura — meant to her as a child. When she met with Roddenberry he had asked her why she wanted to be on the show so badly, and Goldberg had responded:
“I said, ‘Do you not know that, prior to your show, there were no black people in any sci-fi, anywhere?” She told him. Roddenberry, baffled, had investigated and found that she was in fact correct. Before Star Trek aired and introduced Lt. Nyota Uhura to mainstream audience everywhere. Goldberg continued, “When I was a little girl, it was like, ‘Oh, we are in the future.’ Uhura did that for me. So I want to be on your show,”
Racebending doesn’t harm anyone, save for the delicate feelings perhaps of certain fans. Whitewashing does harm. Whitewashing contributes to the history of erasing people of color from media. It’s this generations version of black, brown, or yellow face. It’s denying people of color the right to tell their own stories, to be a part of telling stories that humanize them, to get work in their chosen profession.
Geek famous screen and script writer Dwayne McDuffie talked about the struggles of being black and working in comics. McDuffie is most well-known for writing many of the scripts for Justice League, Justice League: Unlimited, and Static Shock. In 1992 he established Milestone Media as a way to give more creators of color a place for their own visions to flourish. Something they couldn’t do under the eye of a majority white male run company.
On McDuffie’s website he wrote, “Anytime you’d have a couple of black guys get together and stand around in the hall, they’d start talking about what they couldn’t do that they wanted to do.” Even now with Marvel earning praise for their inclusive line of heroes such as Sam Wilson as Captain America and Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel there are currently no black writers on staff at Marvel. [EDIT: I’ve been informed of an error on my part, currently there is a afro-latino writer at Marvel named Felipe Smith who writes All New Ghost Rider]
On my bookshelf I have an entire row and a half dedicated to nothing but superhero movies and TV shows. Out of all of them, all forty-eight DVDs I own, three aren’t about a white man. Blade, Hancock, and DC’s animated movie Wonder Woman. Hancock starring Will Smith isn’t even based on a comic, it’s an original property. Three, out of forty-eight movies total. I’m breaking out all the math today.
If Marvel hadn’t decided to go with the Ultimates version of Nick Fury over his white 616 counterpart, the Avengers movie would have had an all white cast. The same case would have occurred if Heimdall and Hogan weren’t cast with actors of color.
The casting of these actors and their characters importance can be measured by the backlash they faced. Comic Alliance reported that certain pockets of fans created a boycott-Thor webpage — now taken down — because of Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall. Elba even had to defend his role stating in an interview with TV Times, “Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?” The same racism Jorden has faced with his casting as Johnny Storm, Elba faced as well.
This backlash shows how racism is still alive and well within our western society. Even within the supposed inclusive geek community.
The new Fantastic Four would have also had an all white leading cast had not Jorden been hired. The original Fantastic Four did feature Jessica Alba, who is Latina of Mexican descent, on their team, but viewers are content to ignore that since Alba can pass for white. Such things aren’t as easy with Jorden’s casting. DC’s Justice League could have had a token woman and a token black character, instead they racebent Aquaman making the overall cast more diverse.
Avengers: Age of Ultron has two known characters of color in the film, Nick Fury and Rhodey. Out of a cast of about ten leading actors, two of them are people of color. When the movie could have at least had four had Wanda and Pietro Maximoff not been whitewashed.
People today still used the word gypsy – a racist slur used to define Roma people. Romani people have faced a history of segregation and racism that still continues today in Europe that gives the word weight.
Amnesty International reported that hundred of thousands of Roma citizens are forced to live in settlement camps throughout Europe, while thousands of Roma children are sent to segregated schools. CNN also did a report of the continuing discrimination Romani people face today in Europe including the ability to get jobs, housing, and healthcare.
The discrimination Pietro and Wanda faced in the comics because of their Romani blood reflects in our real world society. Here was a chance to showcase two characters of Roma descent as something other than a stereotype and as heroes. Instead they’re being played by white actors.
This is where the strawman argument used against racebending white characters into characters of color falls apart. The argument being, why racebend Johnny Storm, or Iris West when you could just make stories with characters of color that already exist?
Studios do, they just whitewash them. Even when characters are people of color in their origin, studios still cast white actors to portray them. In this piece alone I’ve named five characters of color that were whitewashed in the movies. That’s not including various other movie adaptions of the non-superhero variety that have whitewashed characters of color.
Racebending a white character doesn’t do that. If you don’t like a black Johnny Storm, there are two movies and fifty years of comics featuring a white one.
If fans want to racebend the Harry Potter characters or imagine Dr. Strange and Danny Rand as Asian men because of their origins and cultural symbolism, they can’t just go into the comics and see themselves. Given the news about Dr. Strange, they can’t even look to the movie. Things aren’t looking to good for Danny Rand at this point either, given Marvel’s well established history. There’s no live action version of Talia Al Ghul being played by an Asian woman or of Bane played by a Latino man. Now there’s no live action version of Wanda or Pietro played by someone who is Roma. Whitewashing is a racist practice that is simply an updated form of black, yellow, or brown face. It is specifically used to erase characters of colour and deny opportunity to actors of colour.
Not much has changed since Elizabeth Taylor played Egyptian queen Cleopatra in Cleopatra to today with Ridley Scott’s lily white retelling of Moses and Ramses. The irony of Scott whitewashing the main cast in a movie about slavery and racial oppression isn’t lost in translation. Originally Scott had stated in an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment that, “we cast major actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture, from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs.” And yet from the pictures it becomes strikingly clear that the non-white actors were regulated to roles of background coloring.
Yet in a follow-up interview with Variety Scott candidly stated, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
So the argument that producers, and directors chose the best actor of the bunch is obviously not true. At least in Scott’s case since he didn’t even consider casting “Mohammad so-and-so”. Scott didn’t even bother. It wasn’t even a question on whether or not to properly cast people of color in a story about people of color.
Even when stories are made about people of color they are erased, denied access to be told and respected. Instead keeping up the status quo that white stories are the default, and the only ones that can be respected and represented. Whitewashing is a racist practice, period. It denies people of color a chance to be viewed as heroes or complex human beings within fictional media. Racebending gives that chance back.
It’s an unfortunate fact that Marvel has chosen to continue with keeping up that status quo by officially casting Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange instead of an Asian man. Marvel had a chance to add to the current five total properties they have planned or airing that didn’t feature white men. They didn’t take it. We can only hope other companies — such as DC and WB — will continue to racebend in the future. Adding to representation instead of taking it away, or ignoring it all together.