It wasn't that long ago that I used to have a real problem with Halloween costumes. It wasn't that I couldn't find any to wear to a party or anything like that, I just had a fundamental issue with them personally. I'm one of those people that can't just randomly dress up as anyone. I have to be a character that I know and like on some level, even if they're an enjoyable villain, and I'd like it to be someone that I don't have to explain all night to everyone who it is. In other words, someone that people generally know.
The problem I had is that most if not all of those characters were not black and I am, so dressing up as one of them meant swapping my race for a night or creating my own black interpretation of that character just for the sake of Halloween party canon. It's a lot different to do that when you are just a fan, because then a lot of people don't know what you are trying to do, and those that do know are going to have the uncomfortable question rolling around in their head: "You're supposed to be Luke Skywalker, but isn't he white?"
That's why Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu was so important to me. I always wanted to be a Jedi and I love Luke Skywalker, but I wasn't like him and he wasn't like me, and as much as I would love to just be him for a Halloween costume, it just wasn't going to work with that different skin tone, and that's not being limited, that's just the truth of the matter. If you see a little brown boy wearing Jedi robes and carrying a lightsaber, you're not going to think he's Luke Skywalker and before 1999, you would have wondered who the hell he was supposed to be.
Now that boy can wear a brown bald cap, make his lightsaber purple and be Mace Windu. How awesome is that?
It's incredibly awesome and it's just one of the reasons why diversity in these kinds of movies is so important. Every kid needs a character that's kind of like them that they can dress up as on Halloween. It's just an inclusionary thing. Say one of those little brown boys is a huge fan of the Captain America movies. While the other white kids can see Chris Evans as Steve Rogers and have his image for them to gravitate toward, that child can see a hero just like him in Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson, or in the case of Civil War, Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther. Now no one is left out on Halloween for dress up.
I know, it sounds like such a simplistic and superficial thing to a lot of people but it really isn't when you think about it, and the fact that the debate over race and comic book characters comes up every time one is changed or cast a different way illustrates just how not simple the situation is. I remember the outrage long ago over Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin in the Daredevil movie. Never mind that it was a bad movie, what the hell are they doing making Kingpin black? A travesty and pandering at its best, some said.
That rhetoric continues today for sure, lately with Candice Patton playing Iris West in The Flash TV show on The CW, and now it will continue on with the official announcement of Kiersey Clemons as the same character in The Flash movie. It didn't take long for the Internet to react to it, not all of it good:
Ok, lets address this with a little history lesson:
Iris West first appeared in Showcase #4 in 1956. At that time in American history, civil rights was a major issue and all media was dominated by white characters. Diversity at that time wasn't even an afterthought, it was a dogfight. It would be another ten years before Nichelle Nichols' Lieutenant Uhura would even grace televisions with her presence on a diversified Star Trek cast.
So any little brown boys or girls that were lucky enough to have a television in their home at the time would almost never see anyone that looked like them on it, at least not as a strong principle character. The same could be said for the comic books as well. In fact, publishers and editors openly rejected the idea of any black characters in positions of authority. So when you talk about respecting the character, you're also talking about respecting the bigotry and hatred that went into shaping how that character was written. That's not saying Iris West is a racist character, it's saying that the option was never there for her to be anything other than white when she was created, and that was how she stayed for 58 years.
Now people are upset because after 58 years of being white, Iris West is black on TV and now in cinema, and the same people who claim that racism and civil rights are a thing of the past and tout all of the change that has happened over the decades, don't want to acknowledge that change by accepting the change of a fictional character to better exemplify how the world has changed. You can't have it both ways. If you're going to say that these things don't need to happen because of how far we have come as a people, you can't ignore what that change has done to precipitate the new thing that is happening.
I got into an argument with two people on Twitter about the subject of representation for black people in movies and TV and here's a taste of what one of them was saying during the conversation:
So wanting to see someone of your own ethnic heritage and cultural background represented in movies and TV is stupid? Ok.
So what are you supposed to do when your merits have been constantly downgraded and tossed aside for decades even after the end of slavery, just BECAUSE of your race?
That's very easy for someone who has never had a representation issue in movies and TV in his life to say. Around this point, he shared a picture of himself to identify his race:
He was indicating to me and another person arguing with him that almost half of his ten favorite comic book superheroes were black, which was part of his point that black people do not need more representation in comic books because they have plenty. Our point was that it was still small in relation to white superheroes and none of them had their own movie yet, not until Black Panther in 2018. I then tried explaining to him that this was because of civil rights and segregation in the past not allowing a character like Iris West to be black in the first place and that this new casting is an opportunity to change that initially culturally insensitive standard.
Expectingly, he fired back with the whole "Let's just make Black Panther white then too" defense, which I explained wasn't viable because that character was actually created out of a racial component of him being African and was a response to the absence of black superheroes in comic books at the time. For the record, Black Panther appeared 10 years after the creation of Iris West, who never had any racial component tied to the creation of her character.
I questioned whether or not he understood the racial history of the United States, to which he responded:
At this point, after a solid hour of going around in circles with him and getting nowhere, I left the conversation and blocked him because I was done trying to explain things to him. Apparently he didn't take that well:
The scary part about this situation is that there are lot of white people who think the same way this guy does, that we have reached a point in society where race is meaningless and shouldn't be acknowledged in media at all because to do so would be racist against white people and other minorities. I couldn't help but think that this is the definition of "All Lives Matter," the idea that saying "Black Lives Matter" is propagating some form of supremacy for black people, completely ignoring the generations that have been present for a large amount of white supremacy and white dominated media to this day. When you comprise 77 percent of the American population, you don't have a representation problem. You are well represented everywhere. When you are 12 percent of the population, you're going to feel vastly outnumbered and considering you have a history of being persecuted and treated horribly for generations, you might just say enough is enough and ask for the same hope and representation that white people have always had. That's not asking for superiority, it's asking for equality.
For 58 years, little white girls could pick up a comic book and see themselves in Iris West all the time. They had that privilege, that opportunity and it was always there for a number of generations. Now, since late 2014, for just two years so far now, little black girls can turn on the TV and see themselves in Iris West, and when they go to the movies they can see the same thing, whereas little black girls from 1956 to 2014 didn't have that privilege, that opportunity.
If you really have a problem with that, then you simply don't understand the situation and I don't know that anyone can help you with it. The world is more diverse now, even with the numbers still being disproportionate, than it ever has been before, and that is because tolerance of minorities actually exists where it didn't decades ago. To accurately represent the cultural diaspora of today, characters that were not tied to a racial component, but were traditionally locked into being white as a result of old systems and prejudices, can be changed to fit the current generation. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, but it's only fair, considering that there was never a chance for that in the past.
Tell you what, if you really think this is stupid and unnecessary and you really think that we no longer live in a time where race and ethnic culture are important to people, then pay attention to social media a bit more now. Specifically, go look at some of Candice Patton's tweets and responses from people about her being Iris West on The Flash TV show, or what Leslie Jones recently dealt with on Twitter from the Ghostbusters movie. Kiersey Clemons is certain to get some of it too, unfortunately. Take a good look at it all and if you still think that race doesn't matter today, then you are truly and dangerously lost.
Fortunately for the world, the comic publishers don't appear to be lost at all and seem to be recognizing the importance of diversity in their media as well. There's the Marvel comic Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which features a nine-year old genius level intelligence Inhuman female who is black:
Then there is also Riri Williams, the fifteen year old female MIT student who will be the next Iron Man, also black:
So as stupid and backwards as some people may think these moves toward diversity are, the companies at the end of the day don't seem to agree with them, and now an entire generation of little brown-skinned children can read a comic book, turn on the TV or watch a movie and feel the same way white people have always felt: There's someone like me out there that I can relate to. That world really does have a place for someone like me.
And fortunately, David Ayer director of Suicide Squad, which has one of the most multicultural casts we have seen in a comic book movie to date, agrees with this:
Thank you David Ayer, DC and Marvel Comics publishers and everyone else that sees the importance in diversified casting. The world has changed, and you understand that. Here's hoping one day that we all do.