While promoting Hobbs and Shaw, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson talked with Variety about the rising diversity in superhero films. While praising Marvel, and then quickly remembering that he is going to be in Black Adam—a DC movie (awkward), he said that he thinks we’ll soon see a black superman (and that you’re looking at him). Of course, one of the funniest clips in the Hobbs and Shaw trailer is Idris Elba saying, “look at me, I’m black Superman” and Hobbs later agreeing. So, is it time we see a black Superman? Hell yeah.
Black Superman Doesn’t Break Continuity
Superman was in the news recently, with DC Zoom! announcing Gene Luen Yang’s Superman Smashes the Klan. We talked about how Superman has a history of taking on racism and intolerance, dating back to the 1940s. But as pop culture progresses, we need to do more than see these classic characters condemn bigotry. We need to see them as other races, genders, sexualities, etc. These characters are rarely bound by race. Some, like Storm and Black Panther, are deeply rooted in Africa. But for the most part, all white superheroes don’t actually need to be white. Sometimes it does work—especially for characters with much more inherited privilege, such as Iron Fist and Batman. That’s not to say they still couldn’t be portrayed by actors of color, though.
But characters like Captain America, Aquaman (as we see played by a mixed-race actor), Charles Xavier, and, hell, why not John Constantine—there’s nothing that really ties them to whiteness. There could be arguments for some. If used well, The Punisher’s Sicilian roots could enhance a story. What if Frank Castiglione—his actual real name—took advantage of Italy’s jus sanguinis law, which states that Italian nationality isn’t based on birthplace, but on ancestry? However, even that doesn’t mean he has to be white. In fact, it’s still debated if white Sicilians are white. However, if there was ever a character where black or white or brown didn’t matter, it is Superman—he’s an illegal immigrant from space, remember.
Superman should be Black, According to Science!
It’s great when scientists and other professionals analyze superheroes. They find the plausible in the unreal. That’s what JV Chamary does in his article for Forbes. I’m half-convinced that the article is meant to trick us into learning about photosynthesis, but Chamary’s argument is solid. The most obvious part of his argument (or obvious once you read it and have that “duh, why didn’t I think of that” moment, is that the best pigment color for absorbing solar radiation (which is what powers the Superman, after all) is black:
Light-capturing pigments act as antennas tuned for picking-up photons with a particular energy, and their colors – how they look to our eyes – is determined by which photons they absorb. Blue photons have more energy than red photons, but few manage to reach our planet’s surface.Forbes
In fact, a black Superman would probably be more powerful than a white Superman, based on how his powers work.
Black Superman Controversy Would Be Meaningless.
#NotMyMJ, #NotMyAriel, #NotMyWally, #NotMyHumanTorch, and all the other hashtags that come out when a person of color is cast for a traditionally white role, are just pointless. First, none of these characters are real. Second—Ariel is half fish, so if the problem is accuracy, we should find an actress who is also half fish, #sticktothestory! Most of the people posting anger-filled rants about the casting say they aren’t racist, but “sticking to continuity.”
Well, they are racist—the skin color has nothing to do with continuity. It doesn’t change the stories at all. However, there’s a better example that exposes their racism. Many fans were irate that Rue, from The Hunger Games, was played by a young Black actress in the film. Except, well, Rue was also black in the book. Susan Collins described her as “…And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that’s she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor.”
Super Messiah Complex
Superman is a messiah character, a savior, which may be another reason people would go against the idea of him being black. They’re used to seeing their messiah’s as white…even though they aren’t. Yes—this is about Jesus. Jesus is continually portrayed by white actors, but while we may be used to images like this:
When Jesus would have looked more like this:
Or maybe this:
Definitely not this:
So, if we can change the race of Jesus to white, why not Superman to black? Or, as is rumored, make the next 007 a black woman?
The “Make a New Character” Defense
This is one of the worst defenses regardless of who’s making it. The sentiment is nice, but ignorant. “Just make a new character” hardly works because new characters don’t sell. The last new character to gain success was Kamal Khan, but she still had the Ms. Marvel moniker, borrowing from a legacy character. People go to superhero movies and buy the comics mostly out of name recognition. Marvel is starting to change that. The Guardians of the Galaxy certainly had no name recognition before it came out. But what are the chances of Marvel or DC creating a new leading superhero for the big screen before the comics? They want stability, and Superman has stability as a character name, black or not.
“Don’t Call Me Racist!”
Fair enough, for those who are thinking this. But first, think about why you are so offended by the idea of a Black Superman, or Ariel, or MJ, or Human Torch, or Star Wars character. It’s not “political correctness” to cast more heroes of color, it’s just a better representation of the world we live in. Would it be a money grab from the studios? Maybe—but that’s not bad. That’s just recognizing that people of all races watch movies. And when the character is white, it’s still a cash grab. If a black Superman is less inspiring to you, consider why that is? If a non-white Jesus feels weird to you, consider why that is? The answers may not be racist. There’s a lot of media-conditioning here.
Most importantly, when we live in times when people in power spew racism casually, we need to see more powerful minority characters. It’s what Superman would want.
A side story to end on hilarity, not about black superman, but Middle-Eastern Jesus. When my students and I were discussing this topic, I reminded them that not only was Jesus Arab, but he was also a carpenter in an ancient world—so he wasn’t the skinny hippie we usually see. He was probably jacked and looked more like Sayid (Naveen Andrews) from Lost. And I showed the picture. The first response? A girl commenting “Woah, Jesus was like totally hot.”
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below or by sharing the article on social media.
Featured image by Guilhem Vellut via Flickr
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.