Jordan’s Human Torch and Representation: Multicultural Casting vs Color-Blind Casting

Michael B. Jordan will play Fantastic Four's Human Torch aka Johnny StormA 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.

Representation Matters

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.

Kerry Washington in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer vs Michael Clarke Duncan in Daredevil

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?

Fantastic Four's Human Torch is an ass

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.

Human Torch with Scarlet Witch and Storm cosplayers

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.

5 Responses to “Jordan’s Human Torch and Representation: Multicultural Casting vs Color-Blind Casting”

  1. 1 J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins) February 25, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Interesting piece. I certainly agree that cross-racial casting in the new Fantastic Four reboot has sparked controversy, but I’m not sure that the possibility for negative representation of racial minorities opened by cross racial casting presents a sensible reason to reconsider support for such casting choices. Actors of color (everyone really) should have, according to their talents, the opportunity to portray the full range of human emotions and perspectives, even the criminal and violent ones; would not a reluctance to cast people of color as super villains lead to a minor form of artistic redlining?

  2. 2 spencerfsu15 February 28, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    I feel comic book fans might be put off by this simply because the character has always been depicted as a white man. Traditions die hard, but I Michael B. Jordan is a more than capable actor to fill this role, especially when you consider others who have been cast as Johnny Storm. Though his character may be seen as stereotypical, I think casting a black man in that role and just ignoring the archaic typecast will help bring people out of that mind set, that is, that black men are dumb womanizers, as suggested in the article. I’m personally excited to see the movie and can’t wait to see a better treatment of the source material than the awful Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

  3. 3 melichios April 10, 2014 at 5:34 am

    My problem with the casting of Michael B Jordan isn’t his race, it’s the that they have cast a white woman to play Susan. To me, the familial relationships are the most important part of the team dynamics of the Fantastic Four, and making the storm siblings different races means either they’re no longer sibling, or giving one of them one of hollywood’s beloved adoption subplots. I have no problem with changing the race of characters, as long as they bear in mind the backstory of the characters when doing so. (If they wanted to make a character black, Reed would have surely been the obvious choice).

    • 4 melichios April 10, 2014 at 5:52 am

      (I do realise that both siblings, or only one, might be mixed race in this new version, but knowing Hollywood that seems unlikely. I also realise Jessica Alba isn’t white, but thus far the only Hollywood director who seems to be aware of this is Rodriguez)

    • 5 Daniel Amrhein April 12, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      I suspect they’ll still be siblings. Having them as half, step, or adopted siblings doesn’t have to change the dynamics in the least. I have both “full” and “half” siblings and my relationships with them are no different for it.

      I completely agree about Reed. Black scientists characters are few and far between. That would have been excellent choice.

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