Imagine this: you’re scrolling through social media and you see your favorite novel or comic is being adapted for the screen. This is breaking news, however, due to the fact that a black actor is reviving the role of a white character. This sight isn’t odd, nor uncommon especially as Hollywood takes steps to be more inclusive and tell more diverse stories. With everyone on board for more inclusive storytelling there shouldn’t be any backlash, right? Sadly, that’s not the case.
We’ve seen this outrage time and time again, with the usual defense being ‘well if the character is black how will other people identify with them?‘. Honestly, not only does that defense falls flat, generations of kids of color have been identifying with characters who look nothing like them for ages. In the world of comics where there’s a history of changing characters’ races and ethnicities (not to mention bringing them back from the dead) has ironically seen this outrage. When Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in the latest Fantastic Four adaptation, ‘fans’ were adamant that a black Johnny Storm would “ruin” the franchise. Idris Elba’s role as Heimdall in the Thor franchise, provoked boycott threats; and don’t even get me started on Marvel’s introduction of Miles Morales or Riri Williams.
Not to be outdone, when DC announced Teen Titans was getting a live action show, and it was announced that Starfire was to be portrayed by actress Anna Diop, social media went into a frenzy. Before Anna could be judged by her performance as Starfire, she was judged by her skin; ‘fans’ once again swore this decision would ruin the franchise and that she looks nothing like Starfire. Cut DC some slack—there aren’t many Tamaranean actors in Hollywood.
So, if you’re wondering ‘can Black Panther be white?‘ the answer is a resounding no. Characters whose racial identity are deeply embedded into the DNA of the character, can’t be swapped. Certain experiences and nuisances from specific cultural upbringings can’t be taught. In other words: Pocahontas must be Native American, Mulan must be Chinese plus characters like Starr Carter, Luke Cage and T’Challa must remain black because their culture deeply influence the characters’ point of view.
Like many black kids, I grew up adoring characters who looked nothing like me, characters like Hermione, Raven, Azula, Mulan, and Mystique. I saw myself in their character arcs, shortcomings and everything in between, but that doesn’t have to be the only way to be represented. Characters such as Tinker Bell, Ariel or Spider-Man are iconic, but their legendary status aren’t tied to their whiteness. These characters are beloved by many because of their reliability, struggles and personal quirks. The story of The Little Mermaid works not because Ariel is white, it’s a great story of a girl finding her voice; this doesn’t change no matter what race Ariel happens to be, and Chloe Bailey doesn’t make the story less relatable. Jenny Jules as Hermione Granger or Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell doesn’t ‘ruin’ a franchise, but in fact adds dimension to a long-lasting legacy.