Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ethnicity in Entertainment

Here’s a subject that has long been a debate: Whether to maintain the ethnic origins of literary characters in their screen adaptations. A lot of people scream for ethnic diversity in films, and for ethnic updates to iconic characters (I am opposed to this last part for reasons I will not go into here).  For me, it’s not a black and white situation (no pun intended). It’s really a case-by-case decision.

This whole thing started over a friend posting an article that called for Gina Torres (Firefly) to be cast as Wonder Woman. Ok, first, let me say this, Gina Torres is awesome. She is gorgeous, talented, and can portray a commanding female character quite well. The only problem is, she’s black…er, excuse me…African American. Why is this a problem? Because Wonder Woman is not black (sorry, it’s easier to type).

Here’s my view on why this is a problem. When you are translating from one visual medium (comic books) to another visual medium (movies) you should not mess with the visuals. That being said, artistic license is ok, and re-imagining is fine. But at the core, the character has to be recognizable as the same in both.

For instance, there have been many actors to portray Superman. And all of them have been fair-skinned white men with black hair and blue eyes (well, a couple of them didn’t have blue eyes). If one were to cast Denzel Washington as Superman, how would people feel? He could do an amazing acting job, and he could make a great Superman. But he would not be Clark Kent/Kal-El Superman. He would be someone else.

Similarly, Gina Torres could do a wonderful acting job, and could make a great Wonder Woman. But she wouldn’t be Diana Prince. She would be someone else. To try to portray her as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman would be an insult to the fans of the comic book. And, IMHO, that’s who superhero movies are supposed to be made for. Yes, we want them to have a wider appeal. But honestly, is having a black Wonder Woman going to broaden her appeal enough to offset all of the pissed off fans?

All of that being said, there is a sliding scale on this point. The more iconic the character, the more close to the original they should be; the less iconic, the less strict. Case in point, the best part of the Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck was Michael Clark Duncan as the Kingpin. In the comics, the Kingpin is basically a white guy with the build of a sumo wrestler. However, by making him a black guy in the film, they were able to give him a more realistic “criminal rags to riches” background. Let’s face it, street gangs are not populated with white folk. And that’s not a call for social commentary, that’s just a statistical fact. And it worked because, outside of comic book fans, and fans of the 90’s Spiderman cartoon, no one really knows who Kingpin is. Therefore, less iconic character = less strict adherence to the source material.

And even so, the studio got a lot of flak for his casting. It was just that the film had so many other flaws, that that one was pretty minor in the grand scheme.

In my opinion, the bottom line is this: when dealing with iconic characters, either stick to the source material as closely as possible, or re-invent the character to be someone else. So, Gina Torres could make a very good Amazon, but she would have to be someone other than Diana.


Paul R. McNamee said...

But, could we get Gina Torres in a Wonder Woman costume, anyway? Because I would like to see that, even if she doesn't get the role. ;)

Tom Doolan said...

You, sir, are a visionary.

Paul R. McNamee said...

Internet photoshopping doth provide;

(still like to see the real thing, though)

The Happy Whisk said...

That picture doesn't look like Torres. Torres is gorgeous and I'd welcome her as Wonder Woman.

She's kick ass at it.

Just don't make the frickin' boots blue. That, I care about.

PS: That girl from Friday Night Lights did not have it. No way.

Charles Gramlich said...

For me it depends on how much I know about a character. I'm having a bit of a hard time with Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury of Shield. He's a great actor, but far away from what I had in my mind for that character.