Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Sanford &, Uh, Daughter, and more caterwauling about black superheroes

Remember that donnybrook with Jason Sanford a while back?  Well, as seems to always be the case, there are repercussions.

I discovered today that there is a re-make of Conan the Barbarian that will be released this summer.  This is just the latest in a long line of movies that are being remade–and for which I have no idea why anyone thought revisiting them would be a good idea.

From a NYTimes review of the original:  ’‘Conan the Barbarian” is an extremely long, frequently incoherent, ineptly staged adventure-fantasy set in a prehistoric past.” Yep, pretty much.
As Sword and Sandal movies go, Conan is actually kind of fun in a campy way.  The musical version of Conan uses the famous “lamentation of the women” phrase as a song refrain, and is made of win.  But–did this movie really need to be remade into anything other than a fun 3-minute YouTube parody?
I will admit that casting yummy Jason Momoa in the role of Conan–since the original author of the book was un-subtle about his whites-as-supreme-race ideas–was a good move.  An example of Howard’s tedious prose:
“The dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”
Robert E. Howard (“Wings in the Night”), 1932
Knowing that casting decision may be making Mr. Howard spin in his grave isn’t enough to make me think a 3-D version of this old cheeseball is a good idea, though.

My response, in case it doesn't turn up:

First of all, this isn’t a remake: it’s a new film starring a character created in 1932 by Robert E. Howard. The fact that you actually seem to know this per your discussion of Howard’s “tedious prose” makes it all the more perplexing that you’d call this a remake over, say, a new adaptation. Was Batman Begins a remake of Burton’s Batman? Were the innumerable Three Musketeers films “remakes” of the old silent serials? This isn’t any more a remake than those.
Secondly, you’ll notice in that very link that Sanford’s article was problematic.
Here’s the straight dope: racism was normal in the 1930s. It was normal for white people to think they were inherently superior to black people. In this regard, Robert E. Howard was normal. Nowadays, racism is considered to be a truly horrible, twisted thing that nobody in their right mind would even entertain: back in the 1930s, it was par for the course.
You quote that line from “Wings in the Night,” which apparently shows Howard’s virulent racism being unusual for the time. You don’t mention the fact that the plot of that story is about a Christian, Solomon Kane, who’s seeking to protect an African village from the predations of an evil race of vampires, and that when he fails, he is as stricken with grief and anguish as he would if he had failed to protect any of his charges, white, black or otherwise. Apparently, one single paragraph taken out of context trumps this story that treats black people as human beings equally as deserving of help as any of the young white girls in other tales. It gets frustrating, sometimes.
But I’m basically repeating myself: I’ve already responded to Sanford’s essay, and to his credit, Jason was accomodating and erudite in his responses:
I’m just going to repeat some lines from “Double Cross,” a Robert E. Howard story:
“A prophet is not sure of honor always in his own land. The people in Ace Jessel’s hometown, with their hot, fierce Southern pride and class consciousness, looked upon Ace as more or less of an upstart, a black man who had forgotten his place. They resented his victories over white pugilists and felt as if the fact reflected on them, somehow. This hurt Ace, hurt him cruelly…
John Taverel, himself a Southerner, was the buffer between Ace and the rest of the world. He knew that underneath that black skin there beat a heart as loyal and honest as any man’s, black or white. Through all the long years of their association, Ace had never addressed nor referred to Taverel as anything except “Misto John” and had maintained toward him a consistent reserve and respect. Honesty without insolence, respect and courtesy without servility – that was Ace Jessel’s attitude toward everyone, and no man, in or out of the ring, could say that the great Negro had ever fought a dirty fight, or had ever given any man a crooked deal.”
Ace Jessel is the hero of the story, as written by Robert E. Howard.

Bug-Girl later comments:

I sincerely HOPE that they are re-writing the script–it was hilarious with Schwarzenegger’s delivery, but I’m sure that wasn’t the desired reaction.

It’s still a “remake” in the way that the new StarTrek was a remake–it built upon an existing brand.
Howard and his friend Lovecraft definitely held views that were racist. Howard grew up in Texas in a time period where the Klan was very active, so it’s not surprising. But…why is it a problem to acknowledge it?
It’s a reality of a lot of fiction of that time period, and both before and after.
Some works of Piers Anthony are quite misogynist.
I think it’s important to call things like that out, and rejoice in the little victories.

My second response:

The 1982 script has absolutely nothing to do with this film. This film has started from scratch: aside from the idea of Conan going on a Quest for Revenge against The Wizard Who Killed His Faddah, there’s nothing from the 1982 film.
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the sad fact that Howard couldn’t be some sort of forward-thinking visionary who would further ostracize himself from society by being the only person in the state who didn’t use the word “nigger” in casual conversation. The problem is that this is the stuff that made Howard normal, average, like everyone else: I think it’s much more worthwhile to note the times he rose above the typical thinking of his time and place.
Case in point: Ace Jessel. I think it’s far more amazing and interesting to note that Howard wrote about a sympathetic, intelligent, considerate, brave and independent black man, than that he wrote a bunch of other black characters that conformed to contemporary stereotypes. Same with N’Longa, Nakari, Saul Stark and others. For that reason, I think his feminist creations like Valeria, Dark Agnes, Zenobia, Zelata, Tarala, Yasmina and the like are much more worth acknowledgement than cringing slave girls like Natala who are dime-a-dozen in pulp stories.

From that point of view, I’d say it would be a better “little victory” to concentrate on those element that made Howard better, rather than the things that made him a relic of his time and place. Like an Ace Jessel movie. But that’s not going to happen, is it?

I can't help but feel that the idea of casting the "Aryan barbarian" (conveniently forgetting that said speech didn't have anything to do with Conan) with a Hawaiian being treated as a "little victory" as a bit repellent: that it's perfectly alright to recast a white role, or even a "sort-of" white one, with a non-white role, but heaven help you if you try the reverse.  Hence:

Casting a Hawaiian as Conan in Conan the Barbarian: ACCEPTABLE*
Casting a black man as Heimdall in Thor: ACCEPTABLE
Casting a Brazillian as Xerxes in 300: ACCEPTABLE
Casting a black/Samoan as an ancient Akkadian in The Scorpion King: ACCEPTABLE
Casting a white woman as Cleopatra in Cleopatra: UNACCEPTABLE
Casting white people as Inuit-inspired characters in The Last Airbender: UNACCEPTABLE
Casting a blue-eyed American as Ged in Earthsea: UNACCEPTABLE
Casting a white/Jewish actor as a Prince of Persia in The Prince of Persia: UNACCEPTABLE

(I'm specifically leaving out characters whose ethnicity is not absolutely essential to their character, though the idea of Michael Clarke Duncan's Kingpin and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury bother me at least as much as casting Casper Van Diem as Jonnie Rico and Sean Astin as Twoflower.)

To this I say: NO. Either it's acceptable to recast any role with any ethnicity where it's an integral part of the character, or no role can be cast with a different ethnicity when it's an integral part of the character.

I refuse to say it's alight to do this with some ethnicities, and not others. Much like my man Charles Saunders, I believe that when ethnicity and heritage matters in a work, then that should be respected in an adaptation. Crucially, I also believe that multiculturalism in films with largely white characters is a pretty good thing - if done respectfully and effectively.

Take a gander at this Penny Arcade cartoon:

Initially, I was irritated by the implication that anyone saying Heimdall shouldn't be black is racist, because it's the sort of lazy, deplorable strawman I truly despise. Plus, to call those bothered by the casting of Idris Elba racist would be to call Charles R. Saunders racist. Which, breathtakingly, some people kind of have - from Salon, no less - what is it with that site!?!  I really need to talk more about Saunders, Imaro & Dossouye outside of controversies about race and fantasy.  But I digress.

The problem is that the graphics chart is still technically correct.  Heimdall is one of the only black characters in the entire film: the only other I can recall is some nameless security guard who exists for Thor to beat up for about twenty seconds.  There may have been a few black extras, but I'm damned if I can remember them.

This is what irritates me about Heimdall's casting in Thor.  Forget about the fact that Heimdall's meant to be white for the simple reason that Heimdall was white.  Making Heimdall black necessitates further changes: the presence of other black Asgardians so that Heimdall isn't the only brother in a sea of crackers (and one Asian), and casting a black woman as Sif, his sister.  In addition, perhaps including more black characters aside from Heimdall on earth would be good.  We see cameos from another Marvel character (which I won't spoil) in the film: this would be a fantastic way to include some of the black Avengers, like Luke Cage or Falcon.  After all, they're talking a big talk about being more diverse, so it should stand to reason that Elba and the Black Security Guard would be joined by other black actors.  Thor didn't do any of this.  Thor didn't make the supplementary alterations, and they didn't take any more measures to increase cast diversity than the bare minimum.

Heimdall is the only black man in Asgard.  This raises the very reasonable question: where did Heimdall come from?  In Marvel Mythology, Heimdall's parentage is unknown, but we know he has a sister: Sif.  This is Sif as she appears in the film:

Does it look remotely possible that Elba's Heimdall and Sif could share even one parent, let alone two?  Why didn't they cast some badass black chick as Sif - had they already filled their quota of Token Black Actors, what?  If you're going to make a Norse God black, you might as well be freakin' consistent with it and make his sister black too.  (For that matter, they needed to do more with Sif in the film, she was fantastic.)

I could accept Asgard being full of white people due to its nature as a civilization of largely white-looking aliens.  I cannot, however, accept the same of earth, which is pretty solidly White Man's Land with a few of the most minor exceptions.  And the setting of Thor is New Mexico.  New Mexico doesn't have a lot of black people, true, but it has the highest number of Hispanics in the entire United States - almost half the population!  Where the hell were all the Latinos?

Oh, and a final thought.  Racism is one of those understandably touchy, emotional subjects, so it's very easy to push people's buttons.  One method of emotional manipulation is to see racism in everything, stretching things to the point of absurdity.  Why do they call it a Black Hole?  Because astronomers are racist.  Why do the white pieces go before the black ones in chess?  Racism.  Well, take it to that logical conclusion, and I bet I could make the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall to look racist:

Heimdall is the only black man in Asgard, and he's the guy who has to watch the door, and decide who gets to go in or out of the joint.  At best, it's the stereotypical black bouncer; at worst, it's the Uncle Tom black manservant.  What's more, Heimdall is bound to obey and serve his master (the king) without question: doesn't that sound a wee bit racist to you?

You see how ridiculous it can get?

No, I refuse to consider Idris Elba's casting as Heimdall as anything other than the shallow, worthless, meaningless token casting decision that it is.  All this smug, self-congratulating "look how colourblind we are, casting a black man as a Norse god, I choose not to see actors by the colour of their skin" nonsense is revealed to be utterly hollow and pointless when that black man is the only major character of that colour in the entire film, and seemingly the entire world. Why did they stop at Elba?  Were there no black actors "right" for the rest of the roles, even ones that would be perfectly logical?  What does that say about the quality of actors available, or the intent of the casting directors?  Tokenism, and nothing else.

And, in case there is anyone out there who still thinks I'm being a "little bit racist" for wanting certain roles to be restricted by ethnic backgrounds - again, this isn't because there's a black man in a movie about a white superhero.  I'm getting tired of having to say "I have different reasons to dislike the casting decision than thinking black people shouldn't be allowed in Our People's movies." I fully endorse the inclusion of black superheroes in Marvel movies.  I even think they didn't go far enough, for Christ's sake!  It's just Marvel's Doing It All Wrong.  They're really missing a trick.  This could've been an opportunity to introduce some of the awesome black superheroes of Marvel's roster: instead, they added another white dude in the cameo, making the Avengers nearly all white.  But they have Nick Fury, so they have their token black guy.

Here's how I would have included a black character for Idris Elba in Thor, in a way that is respectful to the original mythology (Marvel and Norse) while also injecting a little colour into the cast. And, of course, including Idris Elba, who is awesome.

Thor goes into some detail about the Nine Worlds, discussing Bifrost as a connection between multiple planets.  We see Asgard and Jotunheim, but we know there are others.  Well, why not explore the idea that other world mythologies may have been based on Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: we've already seen such in Stargate, but Marvel got to it first. And, wouldn't you know it, they have the African pantheon represented!

I see absolutely no reason why Asgard couldn't be host to visitors and ambassadors from those mythologies for the purposes of the film. One of these could be Shango: as Charles said, Shango is in many ways an African counterpart of Thor, as the Yoruba God of Lightning:

Instead of Heimdall, Elba could perhaps have played the West African deity Shango. Like Thor, Shango is a thunder god. He could have been depicted as a friend of Thor's in mythological circles, come to lend the Asgardians a hand in their hour of need. I certainly would not have had any objection to that, and if the likes of the Conservative Citizens Council had raised a ruckus, I would not have found even a hint of common ground with them.

From the Marvunapp:

Shango presumably possesses greater powers than most of the African gods, perhaps even greater than  Lusa or Nyambi himself. He has superhuman strength (Class 50 or greater) and stamina. He also has certain mystical abilities to fly on clouds and some sensory awareness through his ofo rod, a mystical plant which takes on the characteristics of the world around it.

It's also noted that he wields a double-bitted axe.

Holy carp, I just realised. He's black Thor.

Black Thor.

Tell me that doesn't sound freakin' awesome.

Look at that bad Mamajambo.

That said, I perfectly understand that not all people who support the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall are belligerent idiots who see racism where it doesn't exist.  Some people just think Idris Elba is awesome.  And that's fine!  I only take issue with those who take the unnecessary, offensive, racist-in-itself step and accuse all those who weren't happy with the casting as one and the same with the Council of Conservative Citizens.

All said and done, I would've been over the moon to see more black superheroes in the Marvel movies.  Why not have Luke Cage (played by Isiah Mustafa, naturally), hero for hire, act as a wild card in the Avengers movie or one of the sequels, only to become a fully-fledged Avenger?  Why not expand that Black Panther Easter egg in Iron Man 2 for the sequel where Stark has to work with T'Challa to take down the Mandarin, leading to his own film down the line?  Why not have Captain America team up with the Falcon in Captain America 2?  Hell, let's not leave the girls out of this: why not include Misty Knight as a sharpshooter with a cybernetic arm provided by Stark Industries?  Why not have Wildstreak help out S.H.I.E.L.D. against Hydra? Why not introduce one of the few female Avenger leaders, Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau, not Billy Batson)?

I'm asking seriously.  Why not?  We have War Machine and Nick L. Fury, so there's obviously no Fear of a Black Marvel Universe.  We have Storm, though she isn't in X-Men: First Class for some reason. Why not, Marvel?  Why not put your money where your mouth is, and bring in more black superheroes?

Why not?

*The asterisk here is because people are strange when it comes to Jason Momoa.  Momoa is - roughly speaking - half Hawaiian, sixth Irish, sixth German, sixth Native American, born to a Hawaiian father and an Irish/German/Native American mother.  When it comes to people of mixed heritage, for whatever reason, the non-white heritage always takes precedence.  Hence how Barack Obama is black despite being having a pretty white mother.  Thus, even though Jason Momoa is a quarter-way to ideal for Conan (and if you add German for "northern european" more than half way), everyone calls him Hawaiian, as if he was pure-blooded Polynesian.  It's only when the person is of multiple non-white enthicities that there seems to be any conundrum: Dwayne Johnson, for instance, is rarely referred to as black or Samoan.   Doesn't this strike anyone else as incredibly racist in itself?


  1. I'd love to see a Shango movie, I enjoyed Blade thoroughly, and have thus far been disappointed that Snipe's hasn't been able to get The Black Panther off the ground. I felt that Storm was criminally underused in the X-men movies considering the verisimilitude of Halle Berry. Why even cast an academy award winning actress if your only going to give her the line "You know what happens when a frog gets struck by lightning " GAG..

    I was among those who were absolutely livid at the changes to Earthsea. It was oddly the first Fantasy novel I'd ever read (apart from the ones that mainly or exclusively feature talking animals) that didn't feature an entirely white cast. Ged is one of my favorite characters simply because of how human he is.. I feel the least that hollywood could do.. after putting elves at helms deep would be to get Ged right.. but I would be mistaken. What I'd really love to see is an Imaro movie. but I have the odd feeling we would probably get Channing Tatum as Imaro.

    Much like when people raise the spectre of racism in Tolkien.. they clearly need to learn how Geography works. You don't simply have spontaneous multicultural populations. Even today, outside of the western world, there aren't that many of them. The West is open and inviting to others, but I don't see China taking a load of African refugees who are fleeing religious persecution.. why would they.. when they do it themselves!

    It's taken thousands of years to have the ease of travel we enjoy now. I can drive 45 minutes, get on a plane, and be in London in 8 hours. 200 years ago I would have had to have traveled to Savannah or Charleston (The nearest ports) this would have taken me probably a week to do.. and then spend months on a sailing ship to get to Portsmouth.. and then another 2-3 days to get to London. So why is it surprising that in Middle Earth, or Scandinavia, that there are only the indigenous peoples? Clearly some Arabs traveled to Scandinavia, but I feel the fact that we still talk about the two examples of that shows just how rare it was.

  2. I put my two cents in. I'm betting I kill the thread.

  3. oh, Right, forgot.

    Steptoe and Son > Sanford and Son.

  4. Love your passionate responses, Al!

  5. With Thor and Heimdall and Sif, the movie's not following Norse mythology anyway. They're not Norse Gods but only perceived to be. They're also not following the comics completely since they're keeping it simple for new viewers. Also, I think I saw some regular black Asgardians and the one Asian is in the comics.

    But I also doubt that tokenism didn't play even a smidgen of a part in getting Elba. Sure, he may have been chosen since he completely owned the role in audition, and whoever cast him may simply have been color-blind in good faith, but still... he arguably gets Sif's spot on the poster. Or not.

    About unintentional negative implications about casting a black man for a sworn servant - yikes. But still, the first thing Heimdall did when Loki released him from his oath was to attack him.

    With the Prince of Persia, the Emperor of Persia, and the Scorpion King, their movies are fantasies despite the slim historical flavor and being set on Earth. But wait... so is Conan. Arghhh.

    Perhaps there were no actual Iranian actors viable for the Prince and Xerxes, and duplicating the look was more important than ethnicity (...just like Conan). The Scorpion King was a vehicle for the Rock (though if Iraqis made their own historical epics, I'd watch it).

    With Momoa, I guess no actual predominantly Irish or Scottish actors got far enough in auditions to be considered. Momoa is what we got. At least he isn't Ronald "Arnold's Clone" Kickinger, and he's looking a lot more like Howard's Conan right now than I think anyone could have dreamed of in January 2010.

    Being played by a thickly-accented Austrian (thus German, thus Aryan, the way people's minds work) did Conan no favors on many levels. Which brings us to the first part of your post. How many people since Arnold was Conan have since casually looked at that out-of-context paragraph and put two and two together?

    Still, I find it hard to reconcile the Howard who wrote about Ace Jessel the way he did with the Howard who wrote racist stuff. There's also a disconnect between the Howard who wrote about Dark Agnes and that "proto-feminist" letter you've discussed in the past with the Howard who wrote of heaving white bare bosoms. Why? Was he pandering to the tastes of the time, especially with the women?

  6. Wrong link above


    This is one of the best shots of Momoa right now. Besides the physical traits he gets right (except for blue eyes) I can't even remember Arnold ever grinning like that. They should have released it instead of that shot where people claim he's wearing eyeliner.

  7. I think what irritates me the most in this exchange is the sort of smirking comments that imply that anyone defending Howard must be a racist too. I'm going back to Mark Finn's manifesto on this. Al is just quoting facts. He's not making a strident plea to be nice to REH or to ignore the uglier parts of Howard's writing. But he is asking for reasoned debate based on evidence as opposed to "Well I say Howard is a racist and if you disagree you must have some agenda."
    Yeah, well I say bring some well researched discussion to the table or go home. Don't make me invoke Harlan Ellison again...

  8. Since Marvel's Heimdall isn't human, much less a real Norse god, his skin color isn't integral to his character. Aliens (who've perhaps undergone parallel evolution to us outwardly) can look whatever they like.

    But then the same necessarily applies to all Asgardians. Yet nobody would want a black Thor unless it's a counterpart like the obscure(!) character above. But a black Thor wouldn't be Thor. at least not the classic Marvel one. But then Heimdall is less important.

    Sigh... one can't win. maybe it is just color-blind (or ethnicity-blind) casting. Like black Kingpin (and Momoa, and even Arnold) with the actor chosen being the best one available for the role, regardless of ethnicity or the importance of it to the character. Branagh did cast Denzel Washington as Keanu Reeves' brother in Much Ado about Nothing after all.

    Elsewhere people commented: why did the "love interest" Jane stay white? Obviously to hire the likes of Natalie Portman, but now there's a character whose ethnicity definitely means absolutely nothing. Nobody complained when the Thing's love interest changed her ethnicity.

    On the supposed "little victory" over Howard: I doubt Conan's Gaelicness and any candidate's own ethnicity were even considered. The film people were probably just looking for someone who could act and look the part. Would Howard have objected to a "mixed-race" guy playing Conan? Possibly, but his being a Celtophile has to be considered. Wouldn't he have also objected to an Austrian guy playing Conan?

  9. Nick Fury actually is black in the Ultimates Universe, so they have some grounding for that one.
    A good point about Asgard having guests from many realms--Hogun, IIRC, comes from one of the other lands around the domain.
    I did wonder when that black guard went up against Thor if he wasn't meant to be Cage or someone of the sort, since he held his own longer than anyone else (and Thor did seem to have exceptional strength even without his full powers).

  10. I think that Luke Cage A.K.A. Power Man's film rights are currently in the hands of the same people who have Spidermam and Ghost Rider.. so its unlikely it would have been anything but an homage to the character.

    If it weren't for the fact that Nick Cage places ghost rider.. I'd say a team up film between Luke Cage, Ghost Rider and Spiderman would have the potential to be really good..

  11. I like the guess the ethnicity game...
    Eliza Dushku
    Scarlett Johansson
    Mena Suvari
    Eva Greeen
    Kim Kardashian

  12. Cleopatra might have been blonde.