The new blackface
A couple decades ago, a filmmaker friend and I were talking about racial stuff, as you do. He said how much he appreciated that now he could watch films in which it made no difference whether the hero was black or white, citing the recent Crimson Tide. I mentioned the moment in which the captain, played by Gene Hackman, slaps our hero played by Denzel Washington in the face, who visibly controls himself and doesn’t hit back. My argument being that, although no explicit reference is made to the ethnic difference between the two, said difference is highly evident, relevant to the audience, and relevant to the characters. That although he (my friend) was citing the scene as “not about race,” by contrast, I thought it would be a very different scene, and story, if the characters had both been German-Anglo.
That cultural moment, mid-1990s, bumped a question into the foreground: the difference between ain’t no thing vs. doesn’t exist. As I see it, the former means because it ain’t no thing, the existing injustices are all the more important to correct, whereas saying it doesn’t exist is an excuse not to do so. The intervening years have done us no favors, with terms like “post-racial” falling squarely into the latter.
Here’s Jerry Grayson providing the one-two in his G+ post about the new Iron Man or rather Woman (’cause I don’t know what they’re actually going to call her). It’s a public post so anyone can read it, but here’s a little bit:
I applaud the infusion of people of color but I’m so tired of it being essentially a “blackface” version of an existing character. What would really turn me on is a new character that’s just as interesting. It’s not like it hasn’t been done in the past and I get why they’re doing it now.
I don’t need a black Batman (Batwing)
A Black Spiderman (Miles Morales)
Doctor Strange (Brother Voodoo)
Ms Marvel (Kamala Khan)
Black Captain America (The Falcon…who, by the way, is a legitimate and cool character on his own)
And before someone pipes in with how cool these interpretations are, ask yourself if they would be just as cool if they didn’t carry the mantle of an existing white character. If the answer is yes, then why do we need the legacy baggage?
If someone can give me a reason to be excited or a different perspective that doesn’t include the phrase “well, it’s a start and we’ve come a long way” I’d love to hear it. I want to love this but I’m coming up cold.
I come up cold too. In fact, I’ll go one more and say the very idea is classic midline-liberal Bigotry 102. All you need is to see the paternalism in the image. Why the fuck is Tony Stark even there?! You know why as well as I do. My God, it’s the Little Lebowski Urban Achiever Iron Man.
Jerry nails it in the comments of his post:
I do have to hand it to Stark. When he runs into problems he just puts black folks in his armor , so there’s that…
That’s truth spoken to power. Rhodey doesn’t bat it out of the park and become the necessary and sufficient Iron Man henceforward, who’s exciting for what he’ll do next. The policy is to take credit for doing that while instead, letting him have it for a moment until the actual guy gets it back. Rhodey was a jobber, there to be second-best while Tony ran the numbers through his “isn’t he tormented, folks, give’im a big hand” Man with a Golden Arm Oscar bait.
When I posted Man of steel, someone at G+ concerned-trolled me regarding my disdain of the NAACP’s long history of compromises, warning that “people” might respond with “angry posts,” no doubt expecting me to flinch at the very idea. It so happens that my fear of as-yet absent, anonymous hordes of disapprovers is nil. I’ll say it louder here in case whoever-they-are missed the memo: black civil rights are thirty-five years into a profound systematic betrayal, specifically by those very representatives and organizations who purported to “change it from within.” Black Americans, especially men, are profoundly worse off now than they were then, when I was in high school.
There are a few instances or ideas here-and-there which tweak me a bit differently, like J. M. DeMatteis’ proposed notion that Sam Wilson become Captain America, then get shot and killed by the anticommie 1950s Bucky, and then the new Captain America, permanently, is the Native American former Black Crow. However, damnably, this and a couple other ideas take on their final meaning because they emphatically didn’t happen.
Here’s something else to check out: Heroes for Ghosts by Michael Hayden. It’s far-future SF with the mild implication that people have been mixing-and-matching globally for a lot longer than the U.S., say, has existed as of the time of this writing. Internal justifications aside, taking it as a contemporary comic being read by humans alive right now, it offers the best range of black (to use the term loosely) characters, themselves featuring a wide range of genuine diversity, that I can think of in comics.
Hayden’s showing how to do it this way, to illustrate “it ain’t no thing.” Among other things, instead of one character to show what we (the creators) say or claim, and piling anything-to-everything we-the-creators want to be credited for onto this one dude, many characters showcase appearance-variables across real-world diversity and they hold a variety of views and personal goals. Another: these appearances are real-world – they’re not mashed into a single “one fits all” look nor edited into some strange manga-looking no-actual-ethnicity aesthetic.
The effect as I see it anyway is to jar and move the reader instead, to see beauty in what we humans, meaning the full range of “we,” are like. The characters in Heroes for Ghosts are not there for “representation” or token anything, all the while being uncompromisingly real-world ethnic humans (as are all humans). I think that matters.
Next comics: July 26, Sword of God; July 28: One Plus One
Next column (August 1): Crawling & trawling
Posted on July 24, 2016, in Gnawing entrails, Politics dammit and tagged bigotry, Black Lightning, blackface, Crimson Tide 1995 film, Iron Man, Jerry Grayson, NAACP, post-racial. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.
I’d like to think we all know the reason for this: the companies don’t think original black characters (or perhaps women characters) will sell, so to garner fan interest the companies have someone ride the coattails of an existing star character.
Black Goliath, Falcon, Storm, Monica “Captain Marvel” Rambeau, Rage, Sunspot, Cloak (& Dagger), Misty Knight, James “War Machine” Rhodes, Bishop, Brother Voodoo, Prodigy, Patriot, and Night Thrasher have never been able to hold their own books for more than a 4 issues or so.
Luke Cage obviously had a long run beginning in the mid-70’s to the mid-80’s but disappeared in the middle of the 80’s and didn’t come back for a long time, and so far as I can tell hasn’t held his own title since, though he’s been a very prominent part of various Avengers line-ups in the Bendis period and after.
I don’t *know* if Blade’s ever had his own title, but God, he really earned it: everyone talks about how the 2000 X-Men movie made super hero movies possible, but it only happened because a black guy came along as an expendable test case and showed there was some money to be made on this whole super hero thing.
Like, it’s not that these characters don’t exist. They do. And I could TOTALLY dig Falcon, Black Goliath, Captain Marvel, Brother Voodoo solo series if it were done halfway competently and not obviously set up so that “the real guy” takes over later on. But I think, to be at my most charitable, they’ve read the marketplace and decided it’s not worth it when you could print a tenth god-damn Avengers book instead.
The one character that Marvel has made a sustained effort on is the Black Panther, who (again) never seems to be able to hold his own series for very long but they keep bringing him back, justifiably. I’d really like it if the Coates version of the book finally gets this dude some staying power–apparently it sold like crazy. Hopefully that will have a down-ticket effect on giving more airtime to original minority characters.
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Separated out: this phenomenon does happen to white-male stand-ins as well, though of course it’s nowhere near as offensive or as disappointing.
Kyle Rayner as the “real” Green Lantern, Guy Gardner as the “real” Green Lantern, Dick Grayson as Batman, Bucky Barnes as Captain America, Ben Reilly as Spider-Man, John Walker as Captain America, Clint Barton as Goliath, Eric Masterson as Thor, Rachel as Phoenix, what’s-his-name Munroe as Nomad, etc.
Just about the only one who has really stuck on the Marvel side is Scott Lang as Ant-Man II.
Identity changes / legacy characters / jobbers, are, for better or worse, part of the medium. And it’s annoying. Either don’t change the character, or replace him, but don’t play both sides of the fence. (I think
Whether casting minorities as jobbers is tokenism, showcasing, or just plain racist (probably all three), I think I’d almost rather have a short-term Latino Captain America than a never-ending chain of white stand-in’s.
I really wish that the whole “illusion of change” thing had died on the vine. I can’t imagine how much better some comics would have been if the events, you know, had actual consequences.
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There’re three separate issues, I think.
1. The “new man under the mask!” plot event, usually embroiled with “our guy under the mask is torn by doubt and whatnot.” The point being that the story was always about “our guy” and overcoming his doubt-and-whatnot is the real conflict. However, he has to take off the mask in order to express the doubt/etc properly, therefore in order to keep the comic about, for instance, a guy in a metal costume blasting things & people withe repulsor rays, someone has to wear it in the meantime.
With the subset, certainly, of shucking the younger and more gullible readers who haven’t been through this once before. Also withe subset of our guy ostensibly dying rather than just being torn by doubt and whatnot.
This story model doesn’t have to outright suck. The “whatnot” can be reasonably relevant or edgy, e.g., Watergate and alcoholism, to pick the two best examples I can think of. And the sub guy can be engaging enough to be worth reading, but therein lies the trap – it’s important for him to be merely competent, at best, and to prompt no special reader investment in what this guy might actually do next issue. Therefore a certain jobber quality is inherent to the model even if the new guy isn’t billed/shown to be outright poorly qualified.
2. Movies vs. comics. I won’t go into my standard ranting about this, but “new man under the mask” is arguably a very different thing in each medium. The movie is, basically, aiming at the leading ROI – first weekend box-office returns. Getting more, i.e., insta-funding for a sequel, as well as the slightly more tricky feat of managing fan and social media response so they’re saying what you want better than you could have said, is deeply desired, but it’s not the One Thing that must happen or else.
The one rant-topic quality I do want to highlight for movies is the presumed higher priority of profitability and meme-creation over any other aspect of the story we might say is entertaining or skillful or valuable. The cutting rejoinder whenever a non-franchise-centric aspect is raised is, “But that wouldn’t be box office,” as if that were a meaningful statement. It’s meaningful insofar as that’s why the production itself and the bulk of canned buzz about are the way they are, but not otherwise. There’s no reason it has to be important to me.
3. Shifting ethnicity, with the trenchant and maximally charged issue of middle-class white vs. working or underclass black; American versions only. Here there are two version to consider as distinct: (i) simply switching the character “over” with no explanation or indication of change, as with Nick Fury; (ii) having it be a plot thing full of alleged plot events and consequences, which is pretty much the only thing I was posting about.
But it’s instructive to consider the first case, which is clearly a matter of jumping media and target markets – the point is to garner this-many viewers, meaning, Samuel L. Jackson brings in this-many viewers simply by being on-screen. Thus, the current comics fans either have to suck it up and lump it, or (more likely) they see the way the wind is blowing and in their usual worship of cinema, say how much they like it and had kind of wanted it to be this way all along, mysteriously suspending their vaunted fanaticism about “Marvel history” or whatever.
I don’t quite have a take-home after outlining those, but they do seem to be different issues with various intersecting points per example, and I feel better for laying it out to make sure which bit one of us might be talking about, per post or reply.
Y’know, on a similar line is the whole Idris Elba thing; I love Idris Elba and think he’s a great actor, but he is done a terrible disservice by being the go-to actor whose name people trot out every time folks want to race-swap troll a property’s fanbase. “Whitest of the Gods? Let’s cast Elba!” “The Gunslinger? Let’s get Elba!” “James Bond? Why not Elba?”
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“No difference whether the hero was black or white” in Crimson Tide? Aboard the USS Alabama? The oh-SO-subtle “Lipizzaner’s are born white/black” dialogue? And in the scene you cite, Ron – can we add that Denzel’s character was established as a skilled boxer, and remember Ali? No, not “no difference.” Try somewhat restrained but brilliant (well, for Hollywood) use of real racial/racist dynamics …
An Idris Elba Bond could be brilliant, too – as long as they did NOT ignore that a black man as servant-killer for the British Empire would MEAN a LOT. And I suspect they’d need to show some understanding of the differences/similarities between Black-in-the-USA and Black-in-Great Brittan.
Which is maybe just to say “this post makes sense to me.” As just another white guy of similar vintage, I guess that’s not surprising.
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