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.