'The Image Of A Black Man On Fire'… Casting Michael B Jordan As The Human Torch
"You must let suffering speak, if you want to hear the truth" ― Cornel West
Hashim R. Hathaway writes for Bleeding Cool,
I'm a man of color…and I'm a fanboy.
When it comes to fandom in general, the stereotypical geek is presented as someone white; people of color are rarely, if ever, presented as part of the culture. We're the ghosts in the room, always watching, rarely reacting; of course that's nothing new. Sometimes, it feels like other voices overcompensate just a bit when talking about something that doesn't affect them directly.
From the minute Michael B. Jordan was officially Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot/exercise in rights retention, the Internet has been on fire with a mixture of derision and support. Like a fanboy who doesn't get their way, I took to the message boards to bitch; in doing so, I found myself on the uncomfortable side of the racists, traditionalists and other malcontents.
It wasn't about just wanting to remain faithful to source material anymore, now I was confronted with questioning why I was so bothered with a black actor portraying a white character in the first place. It wasn't until I read Louis Falcetti's take at Bleeding Cool that I realized why.
While the fanboy in me is tired of seeing changes made to certain properties just for the sake of making the changes, as a man of color, I'm put out that all these arguments about "diversity" are being made by…well…white people.
All I see are pieces from white writers and critics telling me why we should somehow be grateful that a black man gets to play a white role because, diversity. "It's a baby step" I hear. "It's better than nothing" I hear. Did anyone ask black fans their thoughts?
Of course this isn't the first time a black actor filled the role of a white comic book character. What started with Eartha Kitt in Batman '67 continued with Billy Dee Williams, the late Michael Clarke Duncan, Idris Elba and Samuel L. Jackson. So, what makes Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm so different?
Some wish to believe that we're in some post-racial era; we're not. Eartha Kitt as Catwoman certainly broke a mold, which is great for the actors getting paychecks, but where are our black heroes? Where is Luke Cage? Where is Black Panther? We don't have key characters up on the big screen, and yet somehow it's supposed to look like an achievement that white characters get to be played by black actors?
The number of original black heroes in their own films is scarce. Wesley Snipes has gone on record about the hell he had to go through to get Blade onto the big screen; while it was an achievement, and something that should've spawned even more…it hasn't.
Here's why I can't get behind Jordan as Johnny Storm: it's not enough. In fact, it's so "not enough" because what some, like Louis, would argue as a positive step only serves to highlight just how far away we are. Kate Mara, was cast as Sue Storm. Are they stepbrother and sister? Are they adopted siblings? Does it matter? In one way, it shouldn't matter at all, but in another way, the fact that it even has to be explained shows how diversity can be forced, because suddenly we have a token black guy on a team of white superheroes.
So what about Sam Jackson? Nick Fury is an iconic character, so why is it OK that he's black and I'm bitching about Johnny Storm, regardless of the reasons I just gave? For the same reason Michael Clarke Duncan being cast as Kingpin didn't change his relationship to Daredevil, a black Nick Fury doesn't fundamentally change his relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D. and thus, the story. Johnny Storm being black means there's some hitherto-unnecessary explaining to do in various other parts of the story.
How does this reinvention of the wheel make the overall story more compelling? If this were a story specifically about the relationship of a black brother and white sister…sign me up, because that's a story we haven't really had on screen, and it would make for the sort of social commentary compelling on its own. But you know that's not what's happening here at all, because this is a comic book movie. At most, it will be addressed in maybe a line or two of dialogue and that's it.
If you make Johnny Storm black, why not make Sue Storm black? Why not double down on diversity? If, as a film studio, if Fox is genuinely interested in forwarding diversity, then that would take a radical, yet positive direction.
But it isn't that simple, is it? Making Sue Storm a black woman brings with it the specter of interracial dating; while we, as a "post-racial society", should be fine with that, the backlash experienced as a result of a recent Cheerios commercial showing an interracial family says otherwise. Fox wants to sell tickets and preserve a franchise more than forward the cause of race relations. This is why the whole argument that casting a black actor in a white role is somehow a positive for anyone other than Michael B. Jordan is a joke.
This isn't so much about preserving the racial purity of a character to support some semblance of superiority, especially in the case of fans of color like myself who think such changes are little more than stunt casting. This isn't about "white being right." It's about taking something you know and changing it into something you don't. It's also about imagery. In this whole argument about accepting Jordan in the role, no one stopped to think about something this: at least in American society, the image of a black man on fire carries with it a connotation that goes far beyond a comic book character.
Burning slaves alive was a routine method of execution for those considered too dangerous or otherwise worthless. This is the intrinsic baggage that comes with such imagery, and it's unfair to say that casting a black man in the role of a character that burns perpetually is a mark of diversity without taking into consideration the very baggage it brings to the table. It may not have the same meaning for everyone, but it exists, and diversity with racial understanding can't be a piecemeal process. It simply can't.
It's unfair to castigate fans for defending the properties they love (even if some of the properties have dubious roots). The very reason that such properties are even viable as franchises is because of their popularity. What makes it easier to beat up the fanboy than it is to hold filmmakers accountable for making changes that are less about attracting a larger market and more about their own vanity of ideas?
I simply don't see casting Jordan as any sort of victory for diversity. What I DO see as a victory is seeing Anthony Mackie bring The Falcon to life, because that represents something far more tangible in terms of giving black characters that exist on the page a chance for new audiences, regardless of race, creed or color, the chance to latch onto them. That's a better representation of diversity than a collective pat on the back because black actor was cast into a certain role.
I get that people want to get beyond the idea of race as a barrier. As close as we've come, in many aspects, we're still farther away than we need to be. That said, forced diversity isn't always good diversity; when we can get that kind of honesty, that kind of clarity, then maybe, just maybe we'll be taking a step forward.
Hashim R. Hathaway is the host of the Never Daunted Radio Network, airing four nights a week at www.blogtalkradio.com/