Few things in the movie world are more divisive than colorblind casting. When M. Night Shyamalan did it with The Last Airbender fans responded in such outrage, that an entire website to the subject of race bending was created. When producers considered recasting the lead characters from the Asian anime Akira as white guys in the movie version, fandom erupted into chaotic accusations of racism. There’s a reason no one ever really took it seriously when the internet campaigned for Community’s Donald Glover to play Peter Parker. Because no matter how much we love Donald Glover, Peter Parker is always, well, he’s Peter Parker.
On the flipside there’s a reason no one really seems to care that Nick Fury, originally a white character in his comic book incarnation, is played by Samuel L. Jackson in Marvel’s movies. And it seemed to work out just fine when Kingpin was suddenly a black guy in Daredevil. And after everyone settles down a little, it’s probably going to be fine that Perry White will be played by Laurence Fishburne in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel.
Why does colorblind casting work for some characters and not for others? Here’s why Batman and Captain America will always be white guys and Akira had better stay distinctly Asian, but you should be just fine with Perry White as a black guy.
Let’s start with the new Spider-Man. This morning Marvel announced the creation of a new character to replace the recently deceased Peter Parker in the Ultimate Spider-Man comics continuity: a half-black/half-Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales. Created by Brian Michael Bendis, Morales exists because Peter Parker was recently killed and it’s pretty hard to keep making comic books about a guy six feet underground. The character is not a recreation or reimagining of Parker and has his own separate origin story. In this case, the question isn’t so much, “Why make Spider-Man half-black/half-Hispanic” as much as it is, “Why not?”
In this case, the best example to look at is John Stewart of the Green Lantern Corps. First introduced in 1972, Stewart was the first African-American human to serve as the Green Lantern representative from Earth and was one of DC Comics’ first black costumed heroes. Would critics of Miles Morales’ race criticize Stewart just because the three preceding Lanterns were all Caucasians? The answer is obviously no, so why should this new character be held to a different standard?
Scientists have estimated that 62% of children in the United States will be of a minority ethnicity by 2050. This country is a melting pot of cultures from around the world, so why limit our comic book characters to only those of white, European descent? Why can Robbie Robertson, editor of the Daily Bugle, be black but not Spider-Man? It’s not a matter of political correctness as much as it is a matter of progress. It works just fine, when creating a new character, as with this new Spider-Man. It’s only really a problem when you’re tackling an established icon.
Perry White, however, is not an icon. The character has existed in Superman comics since 1940, first appearing in issue #7. Traditionally drawn as a white man with grey streaks in his hair, he’s been portrayed by actors ranging from Jackie Cooper to Frank Langella. But for as long as he’s been around, White has almost always been a background character and, more importantly, one that in no way, shape or form has ever been identified by his race. While hardcore comic fans may be familiar with White’s background, for most of the world he begins and ends with his office at the Daily Planet.
Perry White isn’t Clark Kent, whose history, personality, and life we’re all not only intimately familiar with but deeply invested in. Changing White’s race might impact the way we view his background, since like it or not the color of your skin impacts your life experiences, but since so few actually have any real attachment to his history, then there’s really no reason to care if someone makes a slight alteration to it. In casting a character like Perry, it’s not so much what the actor looks like that matters, but the kind of performance he’ll give while playing him.
The perfect parallel here is Nick Fury, who has now appeared in three of the four Marvel movies portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. In 2008 there was plenty of uproar when it was announced that a black actor would be playing the part, but the ensuing continuity has made any argument completely moot as there’s no reason why the character shouldn’t be black [it should be noted that the Ultimate version of Nick Fury, which premiered in 2001, was actually designed by Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch to look like Jackson]. The same idea can be easily applied to Fishburne as Perry White. There’s nothing in either character to require any take on them be that rigorously specific. It works. If you can get a great actor like Laurence Fishburne, then you take Laurence Fishburne.
Physical appearance matters. It’s not just about race. You can’t cast Robert Downey Jr. to play Conan the Barbarian for the same reason you just can’t cast Derek Luke to play Clark Kent. Pasty-white Peter Parker is an icon, an indelible part of our cultural consciousness. Akira is and always will be Asian. But Perry White? Nick Fury? The Kingpin? Those are the guys who stand slightly to the left of those icons, Hollywood should feel free to have fun with them.
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Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.