Sunday, September 28, 2008

Can Captain America Be Black? : The Risk of Racial Misrepresentation

Is America ready for a black Captain America? Perhaps a more suitable question is how might a black Captain America be most appropriately depicted? For the past few weeks, comic film fans have been debating over the controversial rumor that African-American actor Will Smith (pictured below) was in talks to play the role of the patriotic superhero. While the rumor has since been apparently debunked, the mere fact that it incites controversy warrants closer analysis. Marvel legend Stan Lee weighed in on the topic this week: "It might be a really smart thing. If Barack Obama becomes President who knows ... suddenly a lot of our characters will be black!" While perhaps not the most politically correct response, Lee's comments indicate the care that must be taken in representing black characters in comic books and comic book films. If Marvel indeed went with an African-American actor for Captain America, how would the character need to be responsibly portrayed in order to avoid misrepresentation? I explored the blogosphere this week to find out what people were saying about Lee's latest comments and the can of worms it opened in terms of racial representation. I decided to offer my thoughts on two blogs. The first post, Will Smith As Captain America? What’s Next, Will Ferrell As Kunte Kinte?, was written by T. Troy Stewart and comes from a blog entitled BlackCynic America. I felt the need to comment because unlike other blogs about the rumor, Stewart outlines the problem of changing the race of a traditionally white American hero without regard to the racially turbulent historical context. He then suggests that Marvel Studios look to the limited series Truth: Red, White & Black for how to properly portray a black Captain America. The story places African-American character Isaiah Bradley (shown below) in the role rather than Steve Rogers, the original white Captain America. The second post was Stan Lee: Will Smith a "Long Shot" for 'Captain America' written by Colin Boyd from a blog called Get the Big Picture. Boyd suggests that the Will Smith casting is a good idea, and states that "there is nothing 'white' about Captain America, meaning the character's race doesn't determine the character." I disagreed with this point, as T. Troy Stewart essentially does in his post, and chose to express my dissent with a comment. I have made my responses available below:

"Will Smith As Captain America? What’s Next, Will Ferrell As Kunte Kinte?"
Thank you for taking this Will Smith casting rumor into consideration and providing such a thorough analysis of the issue at hand. I appreciate that your post addresses the complications that arise when the race of an already established white character is changed without regard for historical accuracy. While I have read several comments regarding the rumor, I had not encountered any that I felt sufficiently concentrated on the problem of “rewriting history” that you mention in your entry. The personal tone of your argument and sense of humor make for a compelling read as you engage the reader with provocative examples. For instance, your critique of Marvel's depictions of black characters like The Falcon and Luke Cage effectively reinforces your argument and illustrates that a black Captain America could fall into the trap of misrepresentation if not handled properly. I also liked that you cited the historical examples of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis as examples of real-life black “Captain Americas,” though your post might benefit from some elaboration on how they relate to the issue. Are Owens and Louis to be looked at as examples for how to appropriately portray a black hero of the time? I do agree that the Isaiah Bradley character from Truth: Red, White & Black rather than merely making Steve Rogers an African-American would be a step in the right direction should Marvel go with Will Smith or another black actor. However, because the studio is planning their Captain America film with the intention of bringing him back to lead the team in the Avengers movie, they would have to tweak the ending from the limited series so that Isaiah Bradley retains his sanity. Suppose the filmmakers have him go into suspended animation as the original Captain America does and then revive him in the present to lead the Avengers. Do you feel keeping his sanity intact would take away from the character and the strength of the story at all or does it matter?

"Stan Lee: Will Smith a "Long Shot" for 'Captain America'"
First of all, I appreciate the fact that you can admit to liking the potential casting of an African-American as a traditionally white character when many people disapprove of such controversial choices, as evidenced by some of the comments you have received for this entry. I agree that a black Captain America can work. However, I do not agree with your claim that “there’s nothing ‘white’ about the original Captain America, meaning the character’s race doesn’t determine the character.” To simply change the skin color of Steve Rogers, the original character, without regard to the historical context would be to ignore the racial conflicts of the times. The original Captain America was hailed as a great American hero of his time, before racial segregation had been declared unconstitutional. An African-American from that period would not have been so eulogized without some sort of consequence. Racial tensions would certainly have to factor into the depiction of the character if he were made non-white in that time period. I would have liked to see some more in depth analysis of the issue. Anyways, the casting of Will Smith might imply that Marvel wants to use Isaiah Bradley, the black Captain America from the 2003 limited series “Truth: Red, White & Black.” which indeed does address the issues of race I have established. Fans, however, might condemn the film if the filmmakers use someone other than the iconic Steve Rogers character. If Will Smith were in fact cast, do you think fans would rather have a black Steve Rogers (for the sake of using the well known original character but risking racial misrepresentation) or Isaiah Bradley (so as to ensure historical accuracy and racial sensitivity despite being a much newer character)?


Tyroc said...

Thanks Cam for your comments to my post. I will further go into the Jesse Owens/Joe Lewis/Captain America angle and establish that they were considered heroes but at the same time they had to deal with the fact that race would keep them from forever obtaining the status of a, say Charles Lindburgh or Will Rogers.

As for how Hollywood could incorporate Isaiah Bradley as Captain America? Unless you make him an contemporary figure and not one from the WWII era, it would be impossible to do that story without either the racial aspects of that era and/or Steve Rogers involved somehow.

ColeRoeder said...

I found your post rather interesting in its engagement of the racial issues of casting Will Smith as Captain America. Notably, your post skillfully considers the implications of making the Steve Rodgers character African-American at a time in which African-American's were denied rights in the United States. Furthermore, the way in which you engaged both other blogs in a clear and professional manner. Most importantly your blog is academic in content while simultaneously engaging the reader in an entertaining and thoughtful manner. It is difficult introduce such topics to a casual reader, without alienating them from the discourse, in the way which you have.

Additionally, rather than just reporting on the events, you provided your own opinion and solution for the issue at hand. I think this makes your blog an even more interesting academic critique than it otherwise would have been.

As far as improving your post, I think there is one point where you could make the post more engaging to the casual reader. Since the post is about Captain America, it is important to give some background concerning the character so that the reader can more fully understand why changing Steve Rodgers to an African-American would pose serious historical credibility issues to the movie. It is important to allow readers room to consider the issue at hand before offering your own conclusions. Providing a brief background on the Captain America character would allow readers to more fully debate the merit of the issues at hand, and ultimately to develop an opinion concerning the issue. However, this is a relatively minor point in an excellent post. I feel that there are many strong structural points to your blog that I can use to improve my own writing in the future.

Looking forward to your next post.

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