OP-ED: The Other Way (My Mary Jane Is Black)
You want it to be one way.
You want it to be one way.
Man, I don’t want it to be —
You want it to be one way.
[losing temper] Man, stop —
[pulls himself together]
Stop saying that.
But it’s the other way.
– The Wire
Recently on the FanBros Show – “My Mary Jane is Black“ episode, the FanBrethren discussed how Spider-Man: Homecoming has cast the actress Zendaya as Mary Jane Watson (MJ) and the innanets cracked in half!
Here is the thing though – it doesn’t matter.
It does not matter one iota that Zendaya will be portrayed by a black actress because MJ’s race has never been integral to the character or the character’s history. Those are the only times when a big fuss should ever be made about a character when translating them to any medium.
There are plenty of white characters (most of them actually) that could be portrayed by actors of different ethnicities, because for the majority of white comic book characters their race is not important. From Hawkeye to the Human Torch, their race is not important. With a character like The Red Skull – his race IS IMPORTANT!
If a character’s origin or the stories told featuring the character deal in the role their race plays in their encounters and interactions with other members of society, then it matters. Plain and simple. THAT is when it matters enough for people to cry foul when Hollywood begins randomly swapping the race of characters. This is not to say that there should be free rein on casting every white comic character as another race or ethnicity when translating the property to film, but this is to say that less of a stink should be made about it when it happens.
Here are two prime examples from the Batman corner of fiction where race is a big enough factor that some dust SHOULD be kicked up (and was in relation to one of the characters listed below) when or if a change to the character’s race or ethnicity was to occur:
First and foremost is Bane. Bane is a character of South American heritage who was translated to the big screen as a lumbering Brit. It was a decent enough change for the purposes of the film, but it was not a faithful adaptation of Bane. It was not Bane because Bane’s origin ties him intricately to the Peña Duro prison colony on the island of Santa Prisca where he served out the prison sentence of his drug lord father, surviving by hiding a blade in his teddy bear, Osito.
In the process of establishing himself as a crime boss, Bane takes on the mask and attire of a luchador, an outfit that conceals his identity and serves as a link to his South American roots.
It is later revealed that while his mother is Latina, Bane’s father is an Englishman. This is all played out for the readers in the comic series. Stories are told that specifically center around Bane’s accent, his race, his mixed heritage and the part this played in shaping him into the man that he becomes, thus demonstrating that race is a key factor for this character.
The other character for whom race is important is that of Batman himself, Bruce Wayne.
Bruce Wayne being the product of generational wealth and a family that has built its name and reputation based building Gotham city is integral to his character and ties into his origin. The wealthy white people have wandered down an alley in the wrong part of town. Their affluence reflected in the repeated imagery of Martha’s pearls falling as her body collapses to the ground. Bruce being from a wealthy old WASP family is a key factor that plays a minute but integral part in shaping the actual character. And there were stories told that delved into how Batman was actual playing out a white privilege fantasy all the while not doing much to assist the downtrodden minorities of Gotham city. Bruce Wayne being an early forties white male is indeed an important component of his character.
For a character such as Tony Stark, his race is not remotely tied to his origin or integral to his character history beyond his interaction with his black best friend, James Rhodes. His being cast as a white character in the Iron Man movie is non-essential to the story told. In fact, in current stories it is revealed that Tony is not the actual son of Maria and Howard Stark, he is adopted. This development further opens the gate regarding how his race could be changed, his role played by any person of any ethnicity.
But before we get too full ourselves, we have to understand that here’s the rub:
War Machine could be a white dude.
Yes, James Rhodes could be played by a white person! Why? Because Rhodey is not defined by his race. It would be more egregious to make Rhodey a non-military man than change his race in the filming of a movie. His military background was established as a defining characteristic with his race only becoming more important in later stories. In fact, while the artist John Byrne is oft credited with the decision to draw Rhodey as a black man because the writers provided no instruction regarding his race, Byrne himself states that:
If you want to get technical, the real credit for making Rhodey a Black man should probably go to Roger Stern. I drew the issue in question sitting at a small drawing board in what was then Roger’s office at Marvel. When I came to the part in the plot where Rhodey first appeared I asked Rog “shall I make him Black?” and Rog said “sure!” As editor of IRON MAN at the time, Roger was the only one who could really make that call.
Source: John Byrne on Rhodey
This would never work in a portrayal of a character such as Black Panther or Luke Cage, so please dead those inane retorts of, “W-well what if…what-if…WHAT IF BLACK PANTHER WAS PLAYED BY A WHITE PERSON??”
If that happened, …well that would be some bullshit.
The Black Panther being the ruler of an African nation, facing down invading colonists and Luke Cage being a former gang banger, inmate, and resident of Harlem are integral parts of what makes those characters who they are. The stories told about those characters reflect their race and how their worldview, perception of the world, and the nature of how they are perceived by society are impacted because they are black. To change this key component by casting Caucasian actors in either role would be to fundamentally change the foundations of the characters.
While Luke Cage doesn’t rule, he is the streets. He is New York. He is Harlem. He is a black man in America that was a victim of the prison industrial complex which plagues African-Americans. He is a symbol of what you can become if you challenge the system, standing up for yourself and refusing to continue being a victim. The Black Panther is more than just a mantle, being Black Panther means that you not only rule, you represent and reflect the culture of the people as their leader. It would be asinine to attempt to reconcile changing the black royal family to a white family that is ruling an all-black African populace who are obedient and worshipful of them. Yeah, good luck with that.
So calm down.
Zendaya portraying Mary Jane Watson is not the end of the world, it is not even worth rage-tweeting about. Marvel is not going to suddenly decide to show her as a Black Lives Matter activist, Love and Hip-Hop enthusiast and black skin care product aficionado, the core of who Mary Jane is will remain untouched. No classic Mary Jane story will be altered or affected in the slightest.
You may want it to be one way, but slowly and surely it is becoming the other way. And that’s okay.
Here is a bonus tidbit for John Byrne haters that will definitely surprise some of you:
“One of my other crusades dating from the early days of my career has been placing as many “minority” characters as I can into important positions, usually as authority figures. Flip thru books I have illustrated, and notice how many times you see judges, doctors, cops, etc, who are Black, or Asian, or Latino.
Basically, if the script does not specifically call for a White character, I will likely make them something else. (Likewise, if the script does not specify male, I will very often make the character female.)”
– John Byrne