When Is An Actor’s Race Integral to the Portrayal of a Fictional Character?

So, if you follow movie news, whether devotedly or as a passing interest, you might be aware that The Powers That Be have decided to “reboot” the Spiderman movie franchise. As Spiderman 3 did not fuck the series up nearly so bad as Batman Returns, Batman Forever, or Batman & Robin did theirs, I’m a little confused as why they want to throw the baby out with the bathwater (what does that even mean?), but what the hoot ever.

There’s this actor who wants to play Peter Parker. His name is Donald Glover, and, oh yes, he’s black. I don’t actually know why this is news, except apparently some people think some other people would be confused if Peter Parker was played by a black guy.

And by some people, I mean Stan Lee, who is really only significant because he created the character to begin with.

“Here’s the point: We’ve already had the Kingpin in ‘Daredevil’ portrayed by a black man, where he was white in the comics, [and] we’ve had Nick Fury portrayed by a black man where he was white in the comics,” said Lee. “But not that many people had seen these characters — not that many moviegoers are familiar with them.”

“Everybody seems to be familiar with Spider-Man, so I say that it isn’t that it’s a racial issue — it’s just that it might be confusing to people,” he explained. “But that’s a matter for the people at Marvel to take into consideration. I certainly don’t want to weigh in on it in any way, except to say I think [Glover] is a fine actor.”

There are some roles where race is integral to the character, yes: could you recast Roots with a white guy playing Kunta Kinte? Please. What about a remake of 1776 with an all black cast, or Malcom X with a white dude playing Mr. X? Give me a break. (Actually, 1776 would probably work, since it’s pretty much a light hearted romp — the slavery song number would be awkwaaaaard, though).

But when it comes to characters like Spiderman or Batman or Superman … I’m sorry, but ethnicity is not a key part of the character. The core of the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is not the color of his skin — it’s his incredible intelligence (world’s greatest detective, remember?), his vigilante mindset, and his gigantic fortune. Superman needs to be an alien. White, black. That part is irrelevant.

Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of Spiderman. I enjoyed the first two of Raimi’s movies. If I find anything “confusing” about this reboot, it won’t involve an African-American actor portraying Peter Parker.

(After all, I don’t think there were any black guys in the cast of the last Spiderman and it confused the fuck out of me.)

3 thoughts on “When Is An Actor’s Race Integral to the Portrayal of a Fictional Character?

  1. I was disappointed by both the Kingpin and Nick Fury. Admittedly, Jackson does a nice enough Job (and there’s a black Nick Fury in the Ultimate universe) but I’d rather they stick with the comics. There are lots of characters with an African-american origin – just start with Black Panther, Luke Cage, War Machine, or Storm and Forge from the X-Men. Or they could adapt Blade to the big screen. Damn, they already did that, didn’t they?

  2. The only obvious time to me is in the case of a known historical figure (Lincoln, Washington, etc.) The Folger once did a staging of Othello with the races of Othello & Iago reversed, which seems to me to destroy one of the fundamental underpinnings of the story, but otherwise I can’t think of anything offhand. Even Hamlet or Macbeth, e.g., could be played by actors of color; one assumes that great acting chops would cause viewers to forget about color for the duration….

  3. “(what does that even mean?)”

    Back in the olden days, when my Dad was around 40 or so, you would take a bath indoors in a wash-tub. So as not to waste water, the Dad would bathe first, then Mom in kinda clean water, then probably the boys, then last the girls, because girls are yucky and gross. Finally the baby, because… Babies, you know… Stink!

    Anyway, by the end, the water’s not clear anymore it’s kinda gray, or black. You run the risk of leaving the baby in the tub and throwing the baby out when you empty the wash-tub.

    The more you know…

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