Aang vs. Heimdal vs. Racism

Friday night I was talking to a friend, and the conversation turned to a link I had posted about the racial casting controversy in the new Thor movie; briefly summarized, one of the Norse gods in the upcoming movie is played by Idris Elba, a black actor, and there are some very racist people getting very humorously upset about it. My friend agreed that these people were obviously morons, but then he raised a profoundly fascinating question: isn’t this casting issue with Thor more or less the same as last year’s casting issue with The Last Airbender? In both cases, a character who originated as one race was being portrayed by an actor of a different race, and yet in one instance we’re all cool with it and in another instance it sparks a worldwide argument. Why the difference? At the risk of making everyone on the Internet hate me, I’m going to take a look at that question today. So: why is it okay to wish Aang was asian, and not okay to wish Heimdal was white?

1. Spokesperson Association
Let’s get the obvious point out of the way first: the principles behind an issue can get very confused, or downright glossed over, when the people presenting that issue are obviously idiots. This is the same problem Wikileaks is facing right now: it’s hard to focus on the “freedom of the press” issue when the man spearheading the whole thing is under arrest for rape. Julian Assange’s rape charges have nothing to do with whether or not Wikileaks is good or bad, but the two topics get inevitably tangled, and the conversation becomes hard to continue. In the same way, the fact that the people protesting the Thor casting are a recognized hate group makes their actual message incredibly easy to mock. Boiled down to its roots, though, the message is more or less the same as the one from The Last Airbender: “we disagree with your decision to cast this character with an actor of a different race.” If the complaints are essentially the same, does that imply that the complaint itself is not inherently racist, even if one of the complaining groups is? I believe that there are many other issues at play here, but this is our necessary starting point, and we need to keep it in mind.

2. The Best Actor for the Job
Both movie studios have defended their casting by saying that the actor(s) chosen were the best people for the job, regardless of race; if we can’t separate the role from the race then WE are the racist ones, and we need to get over it and embrace the multicultural future. Now obviously we can’t judge Idris Elba’s performance as Heimdal until the movie comes out next summer, but it’s easy (by which I mean excruciatingly painful) to look back at The Last Airbender and see that the white actors in asian roles were obviously not the best people for the job: their performances were flat, lifeless, and almost universally derided as the worst part of one of the year’s worst movies. The question is, does terrible acting prove the complainers’ point? The casting decisions were clearly wrong, but being wrong because of talent doesn’t necessarily mean they were wrong because of race. If we say that a bad performance proves that they should have hired asian actors, we’re also saying–by the same logic–that a good performance would have meant they were right to hire white actors, and somehow I don’t think the people complaining about the casting would agree with that point. Put the best non-asian actor ever born in the role of Aang, and it wouldn’t change the fact that Aang was not played by an asian; very few, if any, of the arguments against the casting were based on talent, as evidenced by the fact that the arguments started long before anyone had ever seen the performances. By the same token, if Idris Elba turns out to be the best Heimdal ever, the group opposing him is not going to smile sheepishly and say “well okay then, you got us, he was great and we take it all back.” I think we have to say, for the purposes of our discussion here, that talent is beside the point: this is about race and nothing else.

3. Cultural Context
The article I linked to earlier, mocking the anti-Thor group, bases much of its mockery on the idea that since Thor never actually existed (a bold claim to make about a religious deity, by the way, but that’s a topic for another day), complaining about his race is ridiculous from the start. Okay, we can grant you that point if you want, but it applies just as strongly to The Last Airbender. Here’s the first paragraph of that essay, word for word, with only the races and character information replaced:

Did you know that the totally made-up-by-cartoonists characters of The Last Airbender were all asian? Literally none of them were white. We didn’t know that, but thanks to the prodigious efforts of the [people complaining about it], the truth has been revealed: Aang, the last airbender, was asian and Zach Tyler, the American actor hired to portray Aang in The Last Airbender, is white! WHITE! More on this scandalous development after the jump!

Somehow it’s funny when they’re talking about the anti-Thor guys, but put the same arguments into this context and they kind of come off as jerks. Why is that? It reminds me of 30 Rock, when Jack was dating a Puerto Rican and they couldn’t figure out how to refer to her race; she kept saying “just call me Puerto Rican,” but the white characters couldn’t do it because they felt racist just saying the words. We’ve become incredibly sensitive in American culture to any kind of discussion of race–so sensitive that Barack Obama had to hold a special conference during the last election just to say “it’s okay, I’m black, you can talk about it.” Race is such a huge issue, and so ripe for misinterpretation and offense, that we almost don’t dare to touch it. The most insightful voice in the modern racism discussion was Dave Chappelle, who skewered every side of the issue on his TV show, and even he gave up after two seasons because he reached a point where he felt people were laughing at him, not with him.

Part of the problem with discussions of race is that white people in America still outnumber every other group by a huge margin, which colors (if you’ll excuse the term) every other aspect of the conversation. A group complaining that an asian acting job went to a white actor is seen as a scrappy little minority standing up for their rights, but a group complaining that a white acting job went to a black actor is seen as an oppressive majority trying to reduce the rights of others. Is this disparity in the races the thing that makes us accept the Last Airbender complaints and laugh at the Thor complaints?

4. Role Models
Most mainstream heroes, either in cartoons or movies or comicbooks or whatever, are white, which means that asian kids (for example) can’t look at most of them and see themselves reflected. One of Chris Rock’s stand-up acts included a sequence where he joked that he wanted Obama to become the president just so he could stop telling his children “you can do anything you want.” White parents, he said, never have to say that to their kids because it’s obvious–white kids grow up knowing that they can do anything they want, but black kids always have to be reminded. Having a black president changes that because it gives black kids an obvious role model; it foundationally changes the way they perceive the world and their own role in it. Aang, in many ways, served a similar purpose for Asian-American kids–it allowed them to see, often for the very first time, a version of themselves that was not a sidekick or a villain but the hero. I believe very strongly that this is a important, and that casting Aang as a white kid took something vital away from every asian kid who loved the show; I honestly don’t think most white people can understand just how important that is, because we have never not been the heroes of our own mythology. Following this logic, is it okay to change Heimdal’s race to something non-white because white kids don’t need him as a role model? Following that logic further, are we obligated to multiculturalize our movies to help create new role models? Donald Glover has been running an ongoing campaign to get himself an audition as Spider-man for the upcoming reboot movies, despite the fact that he is black and Spider-man has always been white. I love Glover; I think he’s one of the funniest actors on TV, and I think he’d be fantastic as Spider-man, and I know many people agree. What does that say about our discussion here? Are we more accepting of non-white actors in traditionally white roles because white culture is simply so dominant that we don’t feel threatened by the change? A white Aang is a big loss for the asian community, but a black Spider-man is a new twist on an old idea; it’s the same thing happening in both cases, but we perceive it in two different ways because of the overall racial context. On the other hand, is this just a form of affirmative action? On the other other hand, does that make it good or bad? It may be that the people complaining about the Heimdal casting are the ones who DO feel threatened by change, but whether they’re threatened by the loss of a white role model or the rise of a black one is not for me to say.

5. The End Game
What is our goal, racially, as a society? Do you long for the world of TV commercials, where demographically identical people of many different races all hang out together, seemingly blind to color? Do you want a world where all the races have mixed so thoroughly we can’t tell them apart? Do you want a world where the races keep themselves to themselves, living in the same country but never really interacting–separate but equal? Do you want the world hypothesized in the anti-Thor boycott campaign, where even black people complain about Idris Elba as Heimdal because the races should never, ever mix under any circumstances? There are some people who want the races to be separated not just culturally but geographically, making racial identity synonymous with national identity (and, in many cases, religious identity), but I like to imagine that most of us aren’t nearly that extreme. I honestly don’t think most Americans really know what they want in the long term, and I worry that many of the things we do want are impossible. We want the races to intermingle, free and friendly without any barriers, but at the same time we want to preserve our cultural identities–I don’t know if those are both possible at the same time. We want our children to play with all the other kids at recess, innocently blind to color, but very few of us, statistically, are prepared for that color-blindness to extend into dating and marriage. We talk boldly of equality, and yet the election of a black president has divided our country more thoroughly than anything in decades.

Why is it okay to wish Aang was asian, and not okay to wish Heimdal was white? I have no idea, but I wish I did. It’s a question at the heart of what it means to be an American.

37 Responses to “Aang vs. Heimdal vs. Racism”

  1. Excellent thoughts, and good questions.

    Right after Obama was elected, Attorney General Eric Holder called us all a ‘Nation of Cowards’ because we couldn’t deal with race. As a happy coincidence artist Sean Delonas (okay, maybe it wasn’t happy for Sean) was fired from the New Yorker for depicting the president as a monkey. Al Sharpton (of course) got into the mix calling it offensive, violent, and racist.

    We do have a hard time talking about race in this country, but that is because we’re so quick to throw around the word ‘racist’. And often once somebody is labeled as a racist, their reputation, and possibly their career, is washed down the toilet. We become hesitant to talk openly about it, simply because we’ve seen what happens to those that do.

    Dealing with these issues is a lofty goal, but one we should attempt. And, as with most lofty goals, there are no easy solutions.

  2. Bryce says:

    I really enjoyed your article, but I think you might be overthinking this one a tad. It’s not considered PC for the race of the majority (white) to change the race of a minority character (such as in Aang’s case). To change the race of the character from that of a majority to that of a minority has no such backlash–or at least no PC backlash. Of course, this whole argument really only has traction in places where being PC is considered important. My time in Europe never showed me one instance of people being so wound up in being PC over there. Historically speaking, the Norse gods would most likely all have been white, because, well, the Norse people are white. Can they be upset that one of their gods is then portrayed as being of another race? No clue–but if they really believed in those gods, maybe they’d be a bit more peeved that some comic company decided to make a buck or two out of them.

    If Hollywood were to make a movie based on a popular comic that used African deities as its basis–and then made one of those deities white–I’d imagine there would be no small amount of backlash from many different sources. But I’d still see it as an outgrowth of the PC movement,

    Anyway–thanks again for the thought-provoking article.

  3. Mike L says:

    Interesting blog post, Dan. Thanks for sharing :)

    “Put the best non-asian actor ever born in the role of Aang, and it wouldn’t change the fact that Aang was not played by an asian”
    Thus the controversy over the mere possibility of Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra. Not a bad actress at all, but the talent isn’t seen as the issue.

    As for Assange, he hasn’t actually been charged with anything. But to further elaborate your point about Spokesperson Association – When’s the last time you knew of someone who was only wanted for questioning in a sexual assault investigation, who turned themselves in, only to be held in isolation for two weeks before being released on 200K bail?

  4. fardawg says:

    I wonder is a character like

  5. LEC says:

    You bring up a ton of good points in your article. I grew up in an environment (an International school in Europe) that encouraged this sort of dialogue about differences, especially race and culture, and of course pushed us to accept them in each other. Even in such an evironment, it was interesting to notice the barriers that still existed and the step-toeing that went on to avoid insulting one group or another.

    But at the end of the day, things were never as tense as you describe them being in the US (which I’ve witnessed personally) and despite the apparent barriers and niceties there was in absolute fact very little racism. In fact, I remember my friends and I making racists jokes and comments – without meaning them – as ways of showing how ridiculous racism could be.

    But I feel I’m going off on a tangent. To come back to the topic of your article, I find it difficult to accept any sort of change in racial change in casting and the like. To me it’s as unacceptable that they cast a black Heimdal as they cast a white Aang. You mention being accepting of other races while preserving our cultural identies and also how you believe that those may be mutually exclusive things. I don’t think so and this upholding of racially correct heroes is just a way to do it.

    If the Spider-Man or Heimdal is white, let him be played by a white man. Not to is as preposterous an idea to me as having him be played by a woman. That’s not to say I’m sexist. At the same time, if Aang is asian, let him be played by an asian. To those that complain that there is more white mythology and that they don’t need that much so they should spread it to other races I think they lose focus of that mythology’s origins. The US was settled by people of racially close backgrounds and so it stands to reason that it’s mythology features heroes of that race. But if asian-americans feel they can’t relate to these heroes, I feel they should look to Asian mythology – there’s plenty of it out there.

    Otherwise, instead of having other races make ‘white mythology’ their own by having other race actors portray their heroes we should encourage them to develop their own new heroes, because it would be just as unfair to white children to steal their heroes from them. What I’m saying, I think, is that instead of trying to decrease the cultural heritage of one race in favor of racial minorites, we should attempt to increase the cultural baggage of these minorites so that it can rival that of the majority. So cast white people for white characters, and encourage the development of asian/black/whatever characters so that asian/black/whatever actors can be cast in those roles.

    Did any of what I just said make any sense?

  6. fardawg says:

    That last comment posted before I was finished.

    I wonder if it was a character like Spawn or Blade being replaced by a different race if the people against the change would be called racist? If the character is a Norse god then he wouldn’t be black. That is a simple fact based on the mythology. I don’t care if the change is to a character where race isn’t a factor, it’s when it goes against logic that it becomes a problem. What is African gods were being portrayed and one or more were white? Would that make sense?
    By the way, I would be upset if Blade or Spawn were cast with a different race since it is a big part of their origins. I have a theory that the people who are quick to call “racist” are in fact the real racists.

  7. fardawg says:

    Funny side note: Heimdal was actually called “the White God” in Norse Mythology.

  8. fardawg says:

    I really wish there was an edit button.

    Just to be clear, I actually have no problem with the guy they picked. I dislike Natalie Portman being in it more. She is annoying IMO. I won’t see the movie, however, unless I hear from the right people that it is worthwhile. It doesn’t look like a good movie from what I’ve seen so far.

  9. freakofunature says:

    You know, I’m not sure it’s as illogical to cast a black guy as everyone seems to think. I know the stereotype of the Norse is of these stocky blonde-haired blue-eyed Scandinavian men in horned helmets–but in reality, a lot of that is propaganda and Wagner. In reality, Vikings traveled a lot, and they picked people up where they went. The Norse were a more multi-cultural group than we usually give them credit, even if the majority of them were still white, and it doesn’t seem to me like that much of a stretch of the imagination that some of their deities could have looked different.

  10. Grant says:

    Yes, there are politics wound very tightly into these controversies, but when it comes to casting for a movie it really should be about being honest about the character. If a character is previously defined as being white, then you need to cast a white actor in that role. The same goes for any other ethnicity. When it comes to real life race politics, we’re not sure what we want, but when a character has a certain ethnicity, that is a part of that character just as surely as it is in reality. Just like a white actor wouldn’t be considered to play Martin Luther King Jr., they really shouldn’t cast a black actor as a white Norse god or a white kid as an asian martial artist. We need to respect race in fiction just as we would in reality, by being honest about it.

  11. Grant Edmunds says:

    I find myself unable to relate to the argument that you can’t look up to a hero because he isn’t of your race. Admittedly I am white, I, as you pointed out, have never had a shortage of role models that share my race. However, I have several black role models and that doesn’t seem at all strange to me. I would also note that movies aren’t a very good source of role models anyway. The majority of mine are from real life.

    I would say when you know what race a character should be you should cast them that way, and in any historical or mythological movie race is not going to be a non-issue to the characters in that time/place/world, it’s going to mean something to them. If you’re making a movie set in America in our day you could completely ignore race make it non-issue for your characters and that would be fine, because that situation could exist, but when you make a movie you have to take into account the context. What are you basing this movie on? Where does the setting come from? Unless you make it contemporary, fantasy, or sci-fi then race is going to mean something to the characters and you’re not being true to the characters to pretend it doesn’t. And even in contemporary, fantasy, and sci-fi stuff it can mean something, it just doesn’t have to, you get to choose when you write the story.
    So, if all you know about your character is that they are a cop in an ambiguous city in America, then you can make them male/female/black/asian/white, whatever you choose. And that may or may not, depending on what you choose to write, mean something to the story. But if you are dealing with mythology, or something set in a certain part of the world at a certain time, than in most cases it’s going to be obvious what race the character should be. It will be dictated by the setting of the story, and that should be adhered to in casting.

    Hm, I think I just completely ignored the question you were using the situation to explore. Sorry about that, this is my opinion on the less controversial storytelling aspects of the situation. Though I imagine there’s still plenty of controversy to be had in that discussion.

  12. Jeff says:

    I agree that you make a lot of good points. Though I would add that white American also have a desire to make amends for being the majority. A lot of white Americans realize that because they are in the majority, those in the minority often do not get equal treatment.

    Now, logistically, there is no way for white Americans to fully amend for the inequality. And even more so, often when attempts are made, it ends up perpetuating the victimization of minority groups rather than equalizing.

    I think providing heroes for all groups is a helpful. Yet, at times, providing only a token hero that is full of stereotypes is actually harmful.

    It’s a complicated topic and I think that is why so many Americans avoid it.

  13. SaintEhlers says:

    *flexes muscles and prepares to show off Comparative Literature degree*

    I find it interesting, that as a writer (artist) your arguments are entirely political in nature. What about the artistic component?

    Making a movie based on a comic or cartoon series (or another movies, or a book, or whatever) while dependent on the source material for some meaning (or else why adapt?) are still entirely separate works. And, ideally, these new works should be capable of interpretation and understanding without the viewer having experienced the source material.*

    The adaptation being an independent creative work, then, means that there will be interpretive changes – to the structure, to the characters, to the conflicts, to the fundamental meanings and reasons for creating the work. For example, _Man of la Mancha_ has very little, thematically, to do with the concepts embodied in _El Ingenioso Hildalgo Don Quijote_ though most of the plot events are lifted directly from it. Does this lesson _Man of La Mancha_ in any way? I would be hard pressed to think of a legitimate argument for why it would.

    This is why I got so frustrated with the kerfuffle over _Last Airbender_. Shayamalan reinterpreted a work. In his judgment, it made sense to chose a white kid to act the part. If that judgment was poor, it was an artistic error, and accusations of political or social error need a lot more substantive evidence before they have any real traction. When you accuse a man of racism, you better be prepared to explore his motive and reasoning — the action itself is hardly evidence enough to convict.**

    This is the same sort of thing that bothers me about Ursula LeGuin, who gets her panties in a knot if there’s any THOUGHT of making Ged, hero of _A Wizard of Earthsea_ anything other than dark skin. I see little cause for the uproar. If anything, people casting white people in that role make more sense. Yes, LeGuin identifies Ged as black plainly. Yet, nothing else in the book seems very much non-white to me. The dominant cultures are very Eurocentric. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any Polynesian natives building academies and castles before industrialization.

    (that’s the end of my off subject rant for now).

    So, black guy as Heimdall? I’m good with it. If you’re a follower of Norse religion, I still think you should be good with it. Jesus has been played by persons of Germanic stock often enough. Heck, even by black people. He wasn’t either. The historical man Jesus (whether or not you revere him) was Jewish.

    I’m ok with this. Cleopatra has been played (well) by many white actors (do we know she wasn’t white really? I mean, Egypt is on the Mediterranean and had a lot of intercourse with Rome and Greece) and.*** Alec Guinness and Antonio Banderas have both played Arabs to accolades. Women’s roles have been played by men many times, and I’ve seen the reverse as well, and while that certainly makes a statement artistically (whether the producer means it or not) it doesn’t mean that the creator has ruined everything.

    Now, there is a strong argument to be made about the good showing minority protagonists is. Dan has made the start of one, but wasn’t very thorough about it. And I agree. Merely declaring that Ged is black, Aang is Asian, and Jesus is Semitic goes a long way to showing worth to people who often feel they are on the outside.

    I agree with these arguments.

    What I disagree with is that the creator of an artwork is inherently responsible to give this sense of inclusiveness. Would it be good to? Yes. Is it necessary to do so? Hardly. And, in fact, striving to do so may distract from the power of a work. I’m not saying this is the case with either _Thor_ or _The Last Airbender_ (obviously, I’ve not seen _Thor_, but I’ve read some of the comics and am familiar with Norse myth; I’ve seen neither _The Last Airbender_ nor any of the cartoon episodes on which it is based — thus I am not qualified (or willing) to make that call).

    Thus, while it makes me unpopular, I’m more than willing to laugh at the idiots protesting the casting of Heimdal, and equally willing to roll my eyes at the people making the same statements about Aang.

    * – note, this doesn’t mean that any work of art, let alone an adaptation, exists in a vacuum. If the work is an adaptation, surely familiarity with source material brings something to the experience of the adaptation. I’m simply arguing that if familiarity with the source material is REQUIRED to understand the adaptation at all, the adapter has failed entirely.

    ** – Except in the court of public opinion, which is easily swayed by the titillation or rumored scandal. Really, we’re talking about the same public opinion that prompted news organization to list Snooki as one of the most influential people of the year. The public, as a deciding force, isn’t necessarily using many neurons.

    *** – The Actor’s Guild doesn’t acknowledge a title difference between male and female actors, though the Motion Picture Academy clearly does

  14. Brit Mandelo says:

    “Why is it okay to wish Aang was asian, and not okay to wish Heimdal was white?”

    This is a pretty easy question to answer.

    Because institutional whitewashing, the erasure of role models of color, and the erasure of people/characters of color in entertainment is a huge damn problem, still. The position of power in the west is held by white men. That’s not disputable. Changing a minority character, be they a person of color or, say, female, to a character who is of the power-class is extremely problematic because it is an act of erasure, of removal. There are so few of women, POC, queer folk, etc and so many white straight men, it’s not the same thing at all.

    It’s a matter of examining privilege. Wishing that a POC hadn’t been whitewashed, wishing that they had been allowed to keep their racial identity and stand as a potential rolemodel for children of color, is very different from wishing to get rid of a black woman in a film.

    As for wishing Heimdal was white, the people who are complaining are not sane fans arguing about “accuracy”–they are a racist hate group. So. Equating those two things is also deeply problematic.

    The dynamics of power–who has it and who doesn’t–are what should be taken into account here.

  15. Brit Mandelo says:

    Er, “man.” Not “woman.”

  16. david says:

    WIth Airbender, on top of the asian portrayal of the characters in the animated series, the setting is so heavily influenced with southeast asian culture, that the only logical solution would be to cast asian actors for the live-action film.

    Had the series been less steeped in asian mythology with a more generic or placeless world where the setting isn’t inherently linked to any race of people, changing the race of the character is of less importance because race wouldn’t be tied to the believability of that world. This is why changing Aang into a white kid is a much worse offense than changing the card counting protaganist of the novel, 21, into a white actor in the film. In that film, anyone could be a card shark, and anyone could be an MIT student. Race isn’t in any way linked to the setting and its influences on the character.

    I’m not to familiar with Thor, but it seems only superficially based on Nordic mythology and a heck of a lot more based on the anachronistic marvel/superhero mythology (he even fight The Hulk).

    One last thing about Airbender, reading the casting call and knowing the history of asian portrayals (or lack thereof) in Hollywood makes it all the more heartbreaking that none of the main protaganists were asian.

  17. Parzival says:

    SaintEhlers’s point that it would be absurd to cast a white actor as an African mythological god may be the most logical response I’ve read. Heimdall is a Norse god; ergo Heimdall as imagined by the Norse would be a Scandinavian white male. They would never have perceived him as African (or Asian or Italian or any other ethnic group). But that’s just a statement of literary fact, not a statement of racism, any more than it would be racist to insist on casting a tall, thin, black-bearded white man as Abraham Lincoln over a female Pygmy. If one wishes to do an avant garde staging or filming, then one might alter that choice for the sake of surrealism, but that’s a question of art, not politics.

    Of course, in the case of Marvel’s Heimdall, he isn’t actually the Norse mythological god, but rather an immortal alien who, along with Thor, Odin, Loki, et al., apparently traveled to Earth in the distant past and were perceived as gods by primitive humans. In this case, Heimdall could easily be any race or even no recognizable human race at all! The question merely is how much of a distraction is the casting based on how the character was portrayed in the comic book. Not being familiar with Marvel’s depiction, I don’t know. It doesn’t bother me one bit to learn about the casting, though I have to admit if I first discovered it when watching the film, I’d probably have had the reaction “What the hey? They’ve got a black guy cast as a Norse god?!?”, merely because it would look odd to me. As a sometime director and actor myself, I question any decision that risks taking an audience “out of the moment,” like when blood or dirt hits an obvious camera lens in a historical epic. There had better be a darn good artistic reason to make a drastic visual or audio change or a director is kicking the audience in their suspension of disbelief. To me, that’s an artistic no-no. Politics has nothing to do with it.

    Finally, two points: I think the politic division in America has far more to do with the president’s policies than his race— race is just the excuse used to avoid discussing whether or not his opposition has valid criticisms to level against his political positions and administrative actions.

    The second point is regarding Cleopatra. She was not racially African, or even truly Egyptian, but Macedonian Greek. Her dynasty was founded by Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Companions and Successors. While Ptolemy and his descendants may have married with Egyptian royalty to cement control (I don’t know one way or the other), by the time of the Alexandrian conquest the Nubian pharaohs were long dead and gone. The concept of Cleopatra as black is a misguided modern effort to create a false history of recognizable “name” Africans— a PC mythology if you will— which in the long run does more harm than good. (Not that I can figure out why anyone would want to lift Cleopatra up as a role model— she was a poor leader, an abysmal general, and a disastrous diplomat who allowed her country’s future to be decided by her domineering foreign male lovers rather than herself. When that all collapsed, she committed suicide. To me, she’s not so much a heroine as a doormat.) But all that is aside from the discussion of the film.

    Excellent thoughts, and thanks to Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary for sending me this way.

  18. Hendrake says:

    The only thing that I thought when I saw that they’d cast a black guy as a Norse “god” (or whatever those people actually are – the trailer suggested that they’re essentially a super-advanced civilization and I read somewhere that when they last visited earth they encountered the Norse people who figuted they were gods) was a passing, “I wonder who/what he is?”

    When I found out that he was supposed to be Heimdall, my response was essentially, “Oh.”

    Then I didn’t think about it again until I randomly followed a link here from Schlock Mercenary.

    You write a lot – it seems kinda stupid to get so worked up about it.

    Oh, and Aang always looked white to me in the the cartoon series but if they’d found an asian kid to play that role that would have been fine too. I didn’t mind the kid’s performance though – me and mine actually enjoyed that movie (it could have been better, obviously – but almose everything can).

    Anyway, I won’t be back. Good luck and all.

  19. Cro says:

    @SaintEhlers: When it comes to the portrayal of race in media, artistic decisions always have a political component. Its just that usually that component is insignificant enough to be ignored. However, switching a character’s race between adaptations always has some political significance. Race is inherently political; it is a largely political construction whose significance changes under different political conditions.

    I say this as a writer myself.

    So, once we’ve determined that switching the race of a protagonist is a political act… what is left is to respond to that act.

    What Heimdall’s race means in the film’s context will depend on the decisions the director makes.

    What Aang’s race meant in that film’s context… was not pretty, delving deep into UnfortunateImplications territory. The real sin was trying to keep the rest of it the same.

  20. Andrew says:

    Personally, I like Penny Arcade’s take on the subject: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/12/20/

    If you have 15 minutes, they also did a PATV episode where they discussed this, and brought up a lot of similar points, trying to figure out why it’s okay to be mad over Aang being white yet also laugh at the racists for being mad about Heimdall: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/pa-the-series/205/

    As for my own personal take, here are a couple other things to consider:

    1) Heimdall is a side character, and casting him as a black dude is less significant than, say, casting Thor as a black dude. If Thor was black, I might be more inclined to agree that the racists have a point.

    In the Last Airbender, which I did not see, my understanding is that most of the main characters were switched from Asian to white. That’s a big change– like if most of the gods of Asgard were switched races, and Odin was played by Morgan Freeman.

    2) Casting all the Asians in Last Airbender as white folks took a lot of opportunities away from Asian-American actors, who have historically had more difficulty getting leading roles in movies than white folks. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that there is a shortage of good roles for white folks in Hollywood… that argument could, however, be made for Asian-Americans.

    3) Like it or not, it does have something to do with who’s in the majority. For example, if a version of Thor were produced in China where all the gods were Asian-American, that would look more racist than if a similar thing were done in America.

    In fact, one can’t even imagine such a thing being done in America, because it would make no sense to do it. If characters in a movie are switched TO the majority race, it seems racist and insensitive; if characters are switched AWAY from the majority race, it’s encouraging diversity. And despite the apparent hypocrisy, I tend to agree with that.

    The majority (whether it’s whites in America, the Chinese in China, or the Persians in Iran) have, in my opinion, a burden to ensure that minorities and their cultures are respected. This is just one somewhat-frivolous example of that.

    And just to back up what the original article said: Heimdall DOES look totally awesome, and that helps mitigate any desire for outrage. Idris Elba, despite the color of his skin, (from the few seconds in the trailer) seems to do a mighty fine job portraying a godlike warrior. I guess my point is, there are other aspects to consider in casting besides skin color. If Idris Elba fits in the role, why deny him a chance to play a Norse God?

    Similarly, if Aang had been totally awesome, I submit that Shyamalan would have been at least somewhat vindicated. But he wasn’t, and the complaints of racism looked even more legitimate.

  21. Andrew says:

    In that previous comment, I should have said “if a version of Thor were produced in China where all the gods were ‘Asian'”… not ‘Asian-American.’

    Asian-Americans are not exactly a majority in China.

  22. Andrew says:

    And THAT comment is going to look out of place because my first one got sent to the moderation queue for having a link.

    Meh. I’m going to bed.

  23. SaintEhlers says:

    I went ahead and approved comments, because they were all of quality content. Hopefully mr. Cleaver doesn’t perceive me as a demon for this. Just in case, I’m barricading my door.

    @Cro, true, it’s political, but only to the extent that we invest it with politics. And on top of that, it’s a political act, but it’s not ONLY a political act. So what’s left is not simply to act on it, but to determine HOW MUCH of it is political and how much is artistic, and how much of it is just not paying attention to what you’re doing. As a public, we automatically assume that it’s primarily political, and in my opinion, our recent outrages might have been misdirected.

    Granted, the audience WILL invest it with politics, thus creators need to be aware of the consequences changing character race will have. If Shayamalan went into _The Last Airbender_ not aware that people would fuss over the casting choices, there are 3 possibilities.
    a) he did insufficient source research and assumed from limited viewing that the kid looked white and thus must be white. This is an artistic error, and pretty much an unforgivable one.
    b) he has no idea what he’s doing. Shayamalan isn’t white, so I have to assume that he’s at least basically aware of racial issues in America, since he WAS raised here. So I kind of reject this option — though it would be both political and artistic in type of error.
    c) he doesn’t think about what he’s doing. This I find most likely, though probably in combination with a). He was thoughtful about what he did in _Sixth Sense_ and _Unbreakable_, but much less so in subsequent films. He’s simply not careful about his creation. Thus I doubt he considered many political OR artistic consequences of his artistic choices.

    As for _Thor_, again, we don’t know, but there are some possibilities.
    a) The guys who are making the movies aren’t doing source research. I think this very unlikely. Comic nerds are matched in their detail obsession only by Star Trek nerds. Marvel has shown they know this, so I doubt there aren’t any people who know the source material working on the film.
    b) The guys making this film don’t know what they’re doing. The cynic in me labels this as the most likely of choices. Marvel, historically, has made some very horrible movie decisions. Enough so that when X-Men first came out, despite the casting of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and despite the excellence of the slightly earlier Spider-Man, I was more than a little doubtful of its potential. While I was wrong on that title, Marvel still hasn’t shown the best track record in film adaptations. Yes, there’s Iron Man, Spider-Man, and X-men, but there’s also Fantastic Four, Elektra, Ghost Rider, and Punisher. So yes, I think this is probably a case where we’re ascribing motive too early. The creators don’t HAVE sufficient motive. They’re doing a lot of shooting wildly and relying heavily on Marvel’s popularity to make a few bucks on the movie.
    c) The creators aren’t thinking about what they’re doing. This is also pretty plausible. Assuming I’m too harsh of my criticism in point b), then our most likely candidate is c). Despite the brilliant work both in comics and in film adaptation of comics in the last decade and a half or so, there is still a wide cultural perception of comics as “kids’ stuff.” People think you don’t have to think about it, so they don’t. Both audiences AND creators are guilty of this.

    If a creator is erring because he doesn’t know what he’s doing or because he’s not thinking about what he’s doing, then frustration and correcting the creator are valid responses. If a creator is making changes deliberately and not as part of a political message, but he is still aware of that political context, then our anger is very misplaced and we are guilty of prejudice. The artist in this last case deserves consideration. I think that too often we fire off our angry rhetoric (or even just our “you’re doing it wrong” rhetoric) before we understand the issue.

    But I’m going to back up my original point, yes, there are political considerations, but making the decision ONLY political is a severe lapse on our part. Again, I don’t think that creators are under any obligation to make a goal of racial parity in any given artistic work. I think imposing that obligation is tantamount to censorship. I think imposing that obligation is the reason why we have such a hard time talking about race in America. If you have the wrong view, you are shamed into silence. We can’t have a decent discussion of race if people aren’t free to be “wrong.”

    And I want to point out that this very discussion thread is guilty of it.

    Though before I proceed, I want to point out that I think the point of view of white supremicists are reprehensible. My view that we are too careful when talking about race in no way indicates that whites, or ANY other race, are superior and deserve more privelege. Nor does it indicate that races should be segregated. It’s what it is, and it doesn’t go any further.

    But by marginalizing these white supremecist groups we perversely give them more voice. We fuel their outrage. But more importantly, we damage the race discussion. We limit what people are free to speak about, and thus we foster an atmosphere where “political correctness” thrives and people ahve to be careful what they say rather than communicationg what they really mean. Should these groups be allowed to terrorize or commit violence? Not at all. However, they ARE free to say what they want.

    Basically, unless an artist can portray a character as any race they prefer without being shouted down, we can’t make much progress in our dealign with racial issues. We do make some progress. When Denzel Washington played Don Pedro in _Much Ado About Nothing_ I don’t remember hearing a lot of complaints. BBC’s recent Robin Hood series had a lot of problems, but its decision to cast black people in English roles wasn’t among them.

  24. SaintEhlers says:

    oh, and @Andrew
    For the record, I have to believe that Morgan Freeman would make a very non-lame Odin.

  25. Andrew says:

    @SaintEhlers: Oh, I totally agree with you. Just saying that’s a major role that might be more of a… what? continuity breaker? than black Heimdall. (Although I could be wrong, having not seen the movie.)

    Maybe the analogy would have been more apt if I had said Eddie Murphy.

  26. Max Moseley says:

    I know that this is a rather random point to make–especially on a post such as this–but Zach Tyler was the VOICE actor to play Aang on the TV show (which was unbelievably /awesome/). Noah Ringer was the boy cast to play him in the (ugh) movie. Just saying…

    But I agree. In movies such as The Last Airbender or Thor, where race is such an issue, apparently, it should depend more on who is best to play the part than the race of the actor. If Noah Ringer had been an awesome actor, I wouldn’t have minded if he were white while Aang is, I suppose, Asian. And if Idris Elba is an awesome Heimdal, I won’t mind if he’s black. (And really, I don’t mind that he’s black at all.) But I guess people just don’t look at it that way…

  27. Lots of comments, so I will sum up my thoughts:

    1. Your final question asks about one thing being ‘okay’ and another not. That’s the crux: the meaning of the word ‘okay.’ Are we talking morally right? Socially acceptable? To really get at the heart of the matter (thanks, Mr. Henley), we have to define what ‘okay’ means.

    2. Donald Glover is my pick for Spiderman. I would love to see that story taken where he would take it. Yes, he is one of the funniest people on TV, as long as he’s with Danny Pudi.

    3. I don’t want my kids to be color blind. Why would I? I want them to be color-open, not color-timid and overly sensitive. I want them to go up to a kid of Asian descent and say, without guile, things like, “Why is your skin that color?” and to say to a black kid, “Hey, your skin is really brown.”

    If we could be open with our curiosity, not browbeat and bully people into fear of discussion of differences that will always exist, and take the chips off our shoulders, it would be better.

    Not color-blind. The color is there and is fabulous. Color-appreciative.

  28. Nate Hatfield says:

    “…the election of a black president has divided our country more thoroughly than anything in decades.”

    Really? You’ve got to think we’re living in a serious dystopia to believe that Obama’s race has more than a miniscule role in the broad scope of our nation’s disagreements.

    I’m sorry I only comment when I read something in the blog that I think is pretty off the mark. But that’s OK – I’m basically evil.

  29. Personally I didn’t like it when they did it with Aang and it only made it worse that he wasn’t even trained in the martial art his Air Bending was supposed to be based off of (Yep, I’m showing off my Geek). I am not wonderfully happy that they’re doing it with Heimdall either, but again, that’s because we’ve seen what he looks like. For the record, I was just as unhappy to see that Nick Fury had been cast with a black actor.

    For me, it’s not about role models, but the fact that we’ve seen the characters before. If they want to make a Spiderman who isn’t Peter Parker and make him Black, I’m fine with that. But if they were to make Peter Parker Black, I would seriously ask why.

    I think that we should keep the characters as we saw them in the original reading material… New characters are fine to play with for Gender and Racial stuff, but keep the old ones as they were.

    Oh, I also have to mention, I finally got my copy of Mr. Monster for my birthday yesterday. That cover that you were raving about is even better with the embossing on the cut. I can’t wait to start reading it!

  30. SaintEhlers says:

    actually, in the Marvel Ultimates universe, Nick Fury is black. So… that’s not even non-continuity (flexes some Geek right back atcha).

  31. Butchie34 says:

    The answer (and this might cause some controversy) is that it not “cool” to be white. It’s not seen as being cool to wish that Heimdal is white because of the current psyche in the world. “Whites” have had the run of the world for centuries and modern sensibilities would have everyone rather be gray than a race.

    Therefore, it’s fine to wish that Aang was Asian because it is “righting” a centuries old injustice – while wishing that Heimdal was portrayed by a white actor rather than an African American would perpetuate past wrongs.

    The problem is that everyone seems to forget that the sins of the fathers shouldn’t be taken out on the children.

    I can also understand a little bit of the angst over Heimdal because he is a Norse God and the Norse were Northern Europeans. But then the movie is only a work of fiction, so get over it.

    Personally when I read I am Legend by Richard Matheson I always imagined Robert Neville to be white but didn’t feel betrayed/disappointed when Will Smith portrayed the movie character.

  32. Spudd86 says:

    @Mike L You know Cleopatra was Greek right?

    Not only that but Angelina Joli isn’t all that wrong on the skin tone to be Egyptian either (Ancient Egyptians did not look like Arabs, they looked a lot more like white people, but had a sort of golden skin tone, so really best look: white person with a tan)

  33. @SaintEhlers, was he really? I never mind having the geek flexed back at me. I’ll have to check that… I’ve only ever read the comics with him as a white guy.

  34. Mr. Fedaykin says:

    I’m all for a Glover Spiderman, his race never defined the character. But the thing about Norsemen is, they’re NORSE. It’s a movie about Germanic pagan gods. It’s befuddling to try to mix in multiculturalism in this context; completely incongruous.

    Wouldn’t having black Norsemen kind of be like making the movie Roots with white slaves?

  35. Arkaine Deao says:

    Just to add more insight to the “Asian actors do not get as many acting possibilities as White ones” issue, there are claims that, when the TV show Kung Fu was originally being written/drafted/whatever, Bruce Lee was the original choice for the main character. However, Warner Bros decided to star David Carradine instead because they felt that starring a Chinese hero in an American series was a business risk.

    Then again, there were also claims made stating that Carradine was chosen over Lee because the character of Kwai Chang Caine was envisioned as a serene warrior, which they did not see Bruce Lee as suited for.

  36. Kathiravan Isak Arulampalam says:

    But, this isn’t about the norse gods, per se, but about aliens, or whatever that was, who were assumed by the norse to be gods, in which case they could have any humanoid skin colour.

  37. Kathiravan Isak Arulampalam says:

    Oh, sorry, it turns out they weren’t false. But still, since they are actual gods, that means they can have any skin colour.

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