I hope I don’t end up inadvertently offending anyone here. I don’t talk about race that much because I’m white and I am aware of my privilege and that I know so little about being an ethnic minority and none of it is first-hand knowledge. But this is something that I was thinking about recently and I wonder if anyone has thoughts on this:
When they made the Daredevil movie a decade ago they cast the Kingpin, a white character, with a black actor. And it worked. There was nothing about the Kingpin’s character that was conditional on him being white. Michael Clark Duncan was a good actor with a physical presence that the Kingpin is supposed to have. Likewise, casting Idris Elba as… Heimdell? Heimdall? There was nothing wrong with that. Damn good actor. Did what was needed of him.
And recently there was the idea of casting… Donald Glover? Is that his name? as the Human Torch. And the racists are angry, but fuck them. The chief things about the Human Torch are that he’s rash, cocky, the one member who possibly loves what the gamma rays did to him. There’s nothing about his core character that says ‘Whites Only.’
So I was thinking recently, is there any character who couldn’t be cast as black or Asian or Hispanic?
And I think there is one: Superman.
Here’s my reasoning. It has nothing to do with a black person not being able to be heroic and virtuous and clean-cut to a fault. There are plenty of black heroes (even some who don’t have the word ‘black’ in their name). It’s that Superman’s purity, to me, stems at least partially from him having such a privileged upbringing and life.
Yes, he’s technically an orphan, but he didn’t learn that until he was a teenager (in most versions of his origin story, as I understand it). Before that he was raised in the most charming, quaint, well-adjusted life imaginable. The Kents aren’t wealthy, but he had such a loving environment and didn’t want for anything.
We can carry that to his powers. He’s so strong and so fast and his senses are so sharp and his mind operates so fast that his problem is more he knows everything bad that’s happening but he can’t be everywhere at once, rather than he continuously ends up in situations that overwhelm him. It’s the problem of choice rather than a problem of lacking.
That’s a sign of privilege. He’s had a privileged upbringing and power set and it’s easy for him to want to protect everyone and be absolutely virtuous when so much has just been given to him. I’m not complaining just about Superman being too powerful, because it’s certainly possible to come up with stories that test his limits and abilities. People have been doing it for 75 years or whatever. But every aspect of his life is blessed, to a fault.
When I think about Kal-el being black and landing in Kansas, I can imagine the Kents taking him in, raising him as their own and instilling the same values the actual Clark Kent has. But at the same time he would have experiences White!Clark Kent never had, and I think that by the time he became a man and would begin his superhero career, he would have been stopped by police officers a few dozen times, gone into a hundred stores and felt the eyes of the cashiers watching him… Maybe I’m overstating that, but Black!Clark Kent would not have been as shielded from man’s worst traits as much as White!Clark Kent was. And I think Black!Superman would kind of struggle with the responsibility he has to humanity and the experiences of subtle (or not-so-subtle) racism and prejudice he would experience as Clark Kent.
And like I said, it’s not that he wouldn’t still be a hero and save people, but I don’t think he would be the ultimate Boy Scout, the cheerful, incorruptible symbol of purity and hope Superman is held up as. I think Black!Superman would be a bit more cynical, a bit wearier of humanity’s failings. Maybe he would even be closer to ‘Kal-el is the person, Superman and Clark Kent are just masks he wears to interact with humanity.’ His ‘otherness’ would be heightened, whereas White!Clark Kent is the person and Superman is the mask (as I see it, fuck Tarantino and his bullshit theory). I think White!Superman can be the often cartoonishly optimistic figure he is partly because of, as I said, white privilege.
Am I wrong? Would a black Superman with the overwhelming optimism and faith in humanity not cause any kind of dissonance?