Race swapping is everywhere in Hollywood, with debates raging in the fandoms of superhero and Sci-fi franchises from Marvel to Star Wars. The MCU’s Eternals just saw the introduction of a new super-powered team, almost all of which feature racial and gender changes when compared to the original vision by comic book creator Jack Kirby. Fellow Marvel and DC writer Chuck Dixon has bluntly hit out at the controversy, saying: “I don’t know what the point of that is,” adding: “It just really annoys me when they feel this need, I guess, virtue signaling or whatever to misrepresent history in this way.”
Colour-blind casting is at the heart of debates raging in Hollywood today. Also referred to as non-traditional casting or integrated casting, it has swept through filmmaking, particularly in the last couple of years. Grouped together with gender-swapped casting, it has been a common practice in theatre for numerous years as traditionally male roles have been given to female performers and colour-blind casting is becoming common practice.
During a recent conversation on his YouTube series Ask Chuck Dixon, the legendary comic book writer has offered his opinion on the debate, explaining: “We’re seeing now, and it’s all due to this sort of woke period in entertainment – we’re seeing a lot of gender and race swapping of characters. And generally, here in the United States, when they race swap a character, they replace a white character with an African American. If you notice, they never replace an Asian or Native American character with African American, it’s always a white character. And I don’t know what the point of that is.”
One recent example includes the consistent rumours of Henry Cavill’s Superman being recast as a black man – Michael B Jordan’s name has been consistently attached to the project.
Fans have argued over what makes the Man of Steel THE Man of Steel. There is a precedent for it, as DC comics writer Grant Morrison created Calvin Ellis’ Black Superman in 2009. Yet, Morrison wrote a separate hero for his vision, taking place on an alternate Earth during the crossover event Final Crisis, he didn’t race-swap Clark Kent.
There is also the issue that race swapping is depriving Black artists of telling original ideas. It signals a Hollywood without new stories, or a Hollywood that is unable to share them because of the franchise filmmaking that has dominated the box office over the past few decades.
Dixon agrees, stating: “If you understand what I’m saying is – by recasting white characters as black or African American [it] is demeaning because it implies that they don’t have a culture of their own. And it’s just so wrong. It’s just so wrong.”
The release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, highlights another major issue. It just crossed $1.5 billion at the box office and explores the life of Peter Parker again, featuring the last three big screen actors to take the role. It maximises audience hunger for these well-worn stories.
This cyclical storytelling is nothing new, as Dixon adds: “But I see this all over the place. We see the same historic events told over and over again in movies as if no other historical event existed. They don’t mine history for all of the interesting things they can do. They’re constantly revisiting the Trojan War. They are constantly revisiting King Arthur, which didn’t even exist. As much as I like Vikings, they’re constantly making things about Vikings. There’s other eras to talk about.”
There are examples of Hollywood offering something new to the table, and audiences accepting it in their droves. Black Panther is one such example, a Black hero that isn’t shackled to a while hero’s lineage. There is no doubt viewers are looking for this, as the film grossed a staggering $1.3 billion worldwide.
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Dixon explains: “Black Panther was so enormously successful across a wide audience. I mean, the movie made a lot of money. So it’s obvious that the public would be accepting of a pre-colonial African Conan-type story. I certainly think so. I certainly would watch it. I mean, just the vistas alone. I mean, you live in South Africa. You know you’ve got some amazing landscapes there. Just absolutely spectacular stuff to set historical fantasy against. So, why not?”
Yet, the heart of Dixon’s argument comes from a place of frustration, as the example of Black Panther shows that there is an opportunity to write new characters without the need to race-swap older ones.
The writer continues: “It just really annoys me when they feel this need, I guess, virtue signalling or whatever, to misrepresent history in this way. And again, it’s a sort of hollowing out, or ignoring, or neglecting the fact that Africans and African Americans have this incredible history. I would love to see a black Conan. I don’t want to see a white Shaka Zulu though.”
It leads to the question of when is a race swap okay, and when isn’t it? Comic fans have loved Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, a character that was traditionally white until 2002 when writers Mark Millar and artist Bryan Mitch remodelled him after the iconic movie star. Ironically, this is what gave Jackson the opportunity to place the role in 2008’s Iron Man. David Hasselhoff played the character in the disastrous Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD from 1998.
There are countless examples of other successful race-swaps, as Dixon points out, saying: “In some cases, it’s okay. The Equalizer with Denzel Washington I thought was great. Hey, it’s Denzel. I mean Denzel’s going to play Macbeth. That’s fine with me because Shakespeare is malleable that way. So, I don’t care. Shakespeare’s plays aren’t historical dramas. They’re not historical recreations. So I feel it’s okay to play with them.”
This goes back to the earlier point about theatre, with the Royal Shakespeare Company director Justin Auditbert highlighting the importance of the changes, in his case, for changing gender.
The director said: “At the moment, there is an important conversation about gender and power and where that lies, and whenever you make a play, you’re always influenced by what’s going on around you. I’m interested in seeing what happens when you get female actors to play traditionally powerful male roles, and vice versa.”
Changing the race or gender of a character invites the opportunity to explore new ideas, experiences and challenges. It in turn invites different artists to tell new tales.
This debate will continue to rage for years to come, as there are no signs in current trends that Hollywood is planning to address it. While Dixon’s points may resonate with many fans, a solution will be far more complicated in the future.