Superman's Perry White is black. Why do we care?
Perry White and Spider-Man are both black now. Well, kind of. Laurence Fishburne will play the editor of the Daily Planet in the 2013 Superman reboot, and a mixed-race teenager named Miles Morales is taking over webslinging duties in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe. Now, you could argue that these changes aren’t “real.” (If you pick up a typical Spider-Man comic book, Spidey’s alter ego is still the indisputably caucasian Peter Parker. If you pick up a Superman comic book, Perry White is still very much his last name.) You could also point out both Perry White and Spider-Man are fictional creations who have never existed, so technically they could be played by unicorns with German accents, and the characters wouldn’t care, because they are not real people. You could even note that race is an illusion, since in another couple hundred years we’ll be multi-racial Vin Diesel lookalikes, except for the anxious white people who will leave Earth to colonize Neptune and rename it “Planet Bob Jones,” which will have great food and terrible music.
But a quick tour through the EW comment boards indicates that people do care — and they care hard. Some commenters make decent, arguable points: “Changing Spider Man’s race smacks of Political Correctness gone uber-wild,” says Ken. But there is also an intriguing gut reaction that pops up whenever matters of race pop up in the comic book world — a kind of strict-constrictionist defense. Here’s a typical comment, from a commenter named Kagome:“What is this rush to take good characters and change their color? How would the powers that be like taking Malcolm X and making him white? That movie would be killed before it started.”
Now, this is a silly argument, but keep in mind: We are talking about rather silly things. Perry White is not really a “character” at all, at least not the way that Jay Gatsby is a character, or Michael Corleone is a character. White has appeared in comics for over 70 years, which means that literally generations of comic book fans have enjoyed his fictional presence. When I was reading comics in the ’90s, there was an extended moving subplot in which White battled cancer — there was an incredible issue that was just about White experiencing the terrors of chemotherapy.
But the cancer went into remission, and White returned to the Daily Planet. Like most mainstream comic book icons, White is essentially just a collection of unchanging personality traits — irascible, faintly annoyed, old-fashioned — that can be plugged into an infinite array of contexts. Make him African American, make him gay, make him a woman — none of it fundamentally alters his DNA. There are irascible old-fashioned black lesbian newspaper editors in this world, after all. (And who cares if there aren’t? Great art very often invents people who don’t exist yet.)
I’m basically repeating what Idris Elba said last year, after there was a mini-uproar online over his casting as the classically-white Heimdall in Thor. “Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the color of my skin is wrong?” Elba later told EW’s Mandi Bierly, “I just had to comment on [the uproar] because I found it so ridiculous.” It’s obvious which side of the debate I fall on — I’m the guy who thinks Beyoncé should play Wonder Woman.
But I realize that this line of argumentation drives strict-constrictionist comic book fans crazy. So allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a second and note that there is a larger problem with color-blind casting: The blindness thing. Because even if we want to deny it, it does mean something that Perry White is a black man. Laurence Fishburne was born in 1961, which means that the version of Perry White who appears in Man of Steel grew up during the era of the Civil Rights Movement.
If we assume that he has been working in the media for most of his adult life, that means that Perry White has been a journalist during landmark moments in the history of American race relations. Journalists are opinionated loudmouths. White probably has an opinion about the Rodney King beating, and about the election of Barack Obama, and about the horrible statistics about African American men in prison. But none of this will come up in Man of Steel, because it is a movie about
an illegal alien who wins over the American public by virtue of looking handsome a superhero. The well-intentioned M.O. of Hollywood entertainments is to essentially pretend that racial differences don’t exist.
Maybe that’s a good thing — a helpful lie that we can all agree upon until humanity evolves beyond racist grandmothers and controversies about horrific language in literary masterpieces. What do you think, PopWatchers? Don’t be shy — we’re all friends here.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich