A new report that Michael B. Jordan will be playing Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch, in Fox’s upcoming Fantastic Four reboot has once again sparked heated debate. Many are praising the color-blind casting choice as a sign of progress, while others espouse racism under the guise of upholding the ever-sacred source material (which is itself a product of 1950’s racism).
I’m not going to bother directly addressing all the racist arguments because they’ve already been discussed and discredited ad nauseam. (If you need that discussion, allow me to recommend starting with The 5 Most Insulting Defenses of Nerd Racism.)
However, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the alleged progressiveness of color-blind casting. Is color-blind casting inherently a form of positive representation?
No, not inherently.
This is a given. If you’ve read my blog or heard me speak then you know that I’m a strong proponent of greater representation for women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals in media. However, I’m not just fighting for greater representation but also better representation.
Not every depiction is created equal and to blindly assign a character’s race can be very hazardous.
To explain, let’s look at a couple other examples of color-blind casting from other Marvel movies: Kerry Washington as Alicia Masters in Fantastic Four and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Micheal Clark Duncan as Daredevil‘s Kingpin.
Washington’s Alicia Masters vs Duncan’s Kingpin
Alicia Masters is a kind, talented, intelligent, capable, and independent woman. None of these defining qualities are associated with any racial stereotypes and her cultural identity is not an integral part of her character.
This combination makes Alicia a perfect candidate for color-blind casting. (Washington’s casting as Alicia was one of the very few things those movies got right.)
In stark contrast to Washington’s Alicia, we have Duncan’s Kingpin.
Duncan did a fine job with the role (probably as good as anyone could have done under the circumstances) but with his casting, Kingpin suddenly became one big nasty stereotype.
The Kingpin is a big, scary, money-grubbing criminal. With Duncan in the role, Kingpin became a big, scary, money-grubbing Black criminal. This problem was compounded by his character being the only Black character in the movie. (The director’s cut included a subplot involving a Black drug addict played by Coolio, so we were almost treated to two horrible Black stereotypes.)
That’s the problem with “color-blind casting.” Just because the casting director “didn’t see” the actor’s race doesn’t mean that the audience won’t (or that the audience shouldn’t).
That’s not to say Kingpin’s role needed to be off-limits to Black actors. Duncan’s Kingpin could have been amazing if handled carefully and with respect. The filmmakers could have cast a heroic Black character to help offset Duncan’s Kingpin. Or they could have not introduced the only Black character to “Lapdance” (one of only two hip-hop songs from the soundtrack).
But these would need to be deliberate changes made consciously to accommodate the casting choice and avoid harmful stereotypes.
Multicultural Casting vs Color-Blind Casting
The term “color-blind casting” implies a total disregard for and a willful ignorance of a character’s race. Ignoring a character’s race makes it impossible to avoid (or even acknowledge) problematic stereotypes and it negates the character’s racial experiences.
What I’m calling for is multicultural casting. I want casting that recognizes and values the differences in people’s cultures and experiences.
A character’s race shouldn’t be assigned blindly.
Jordan’s Johnny Storm
So where does that leave Jordan’s Human Torch?
It’s already been pointed out that “it’s a little cliché to cast a Black man as the team’s swaggering hothead” but the potentially problematic nature of Johnny’s color-blinding casting runs much deeper than that.
Johnny also happens to be arguably the least intelligent member of the Fantastic Four. (Reed is a super-genius, Ben is a former NASA astronaut with multiple advanced degrees in engineering, and while not as highly educated as Reed or Ben, Susan has demonstrated considerable intelligence as a teacher and leader.) He is also an immature, irresponsible womanizer primarily concerned with fame and money.
When “Black” is added to the mix it makes for a nasty stereotype, and I don’t want to see a movie where the Black man is depicted as an ignorant, angry, over-sexed Black guy whose main goal is getting money, fame, and laid. I’d call that a bit more than “a little cliché.”
That’s not to say that Jordan was a poor casting choice. On the contrary, I applaud Fox’s decision to add some much needed diversity to a team created during segregation and Jim Crow.
All I’m saying is that we need to be careful equating “color-blind casting” with positive representation. It could still go either way. The filmmakers need to tread carefully if they want to treat’s Johnny’s race with respect and that’s a hard thing to do blind.
Here’s hoping this represents a multiculturalist approach to casting rather than a “color-blind” one.