Leading up to last summer’s release of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, the film was praised for its diverse casting. Black actresses Zendaya and Laura Harrier, as well Filipino-American actor Jacob Batalan, were given featured roles, while extras of all races played students at Parker’s Queens high school.
The film’s impressive contribution to diversity in Hollywood led many to wonder why, if people of color could surround Peter, he couldn’t be a person of color himself. The answer lies in a Sony licensing agreement leaked in 2015, which set criteria for Parker’s film representation. It explicitly states “his full name is Peter Benjamin Parker; he is Caucasian and heterosexual.”
Mainstream Hollywood still struggles to give leading roles to Black actors. Only now, after multiple adaptations of “Spider-Man” and entire franchises for “Thor,” “Captain America” and “Iron Man,” can we expect a Black superhero movie in the form of “Black Panther” in 2018.
“Black Panther” arrives in the wake of heated debates on racism in the political sphere. The timing makes one wonder if Marvel Studios’ interest in this character is fueled by the profits it’ll make off a “socially conscious superhero movie.” While the hype surrounding Marvel’s first Black superhero film is necessary to ensure we get more of them, praising Marvel for doing what it should have done years ago feels a bit too forgiving.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has offered Black sidekicks, with characters like Nick Fury from Avengers (Samuel L. Jackson), the Falcon from Captain America (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine from Iron Man (Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle). It seems Marvel Studios and studios like Marvel are down for a version of diversity that sprinkles characters of color into the margins to prove to viewers that they do, in fact, realize we exist. What they fail to recognize is that marginalizing already-marginalized people reinforces the idea that we deserve to sit on the sidelines; that depth, narrative arcs and being the true heroes are qualities reserved for white people.
Sony’s “Caucasian rule” applies only to Peter Parker (the Spider-Man we’re used to seeing in movies). In Marvel’s Ultimate comics series, Spider-Man’s alter ego is Miles Morales, an Afro-Hispanic kid from Brooklyn. There is material for a Black rendition of the hero, but Sony doesn’t want to use it. Since Black people have only seen real media representation in the past few decades, Hollywood’s constant revisiting of old, popular characters like Peter Parker gives it an implicit excuse to focus on white people repeatedly.
“It”, for example, is currently the biggest movie in the country. Stephen King’s story, originally released in 1986, follows a group of bullied kids (“The Losers Club”) on a quest to kill a demon that takes the appearance of a clown. “The Losers Club” is comprised of six white kids and one Black kid, Mike Hanlon (played by Chosen Jacobs). Mike suffers specific targeting by the bullies for being Black in a majority-white town; a stigma that the movie alludes to without allowing its characters to discuss the topic head on.
Despite its swerving look at race relations, “It” succeeds by giving the talented Jacobs enough screen time to mature and thrive in his character’s own story. Still, representation in numbers carries economic power. “It”, though it gave its Black boy a story, has launched the careers of six young white actors and only one Black one. “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” though it employed many Black actors, did not give those actors ample space to occupy the narrative.
Having to choose between a movie with a token featured Black character and one with a bunch of supporting Black characters is a false dilemma. We’ve seen what happens when studios give Black writers and directors liberty to tell stories about Black people, where they exist at both the center and in the margins. We get shows like “Insecure,” Issa Rae’s fresh and wildly popular comedy, which is currently the fifth-most-popular scripted show on HBO. We get Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which is the highest-grossing debut based on an original screenplay in history. At this year’s Golden Globes, Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” won Best Comedy Television Series and Tracee Ellis Ross won Best Actress In a Comedy for “Black-Ish.” “Moonlight,” a film about a gay Black boy growing up poor in Miami, took home the award for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Hollywood comes with a myriad of excuses for not letting Black people lead and tell our own narratives. They range from myths about how Black stories are too “niche” or “urban” to interest mainstream audiences to the false cop-out that “Black stories don’t sell.” The truth is white studios are trying their hardest to perpetuate tokenism and keep white heroes at the forefront while giving Black characters side roles.
Of course, as with “It”, when there is a token Black face in the cast, we feel less at liberty to call it problematic or challenge it to have done better. But record-breaking Black creators are changing the game, proving people want to watch us. At the end of Hollywood’s Rolodex of excuses, the numbers speak for themselves.