I’ve been idly following news of the movie adaptation of the Marvel comic Thor for the past year or so. Honestly, very little about this movie interests me except for the fact that Kenneth Branagh is sitting in the director’s chair. I’d be more interested in seeing a truer adaptation of the Scandinavian mythology, but c’est la vie. Hopefully Branagh will bring a more Shakespearean, theatrical sensibility to this rather than a smash-‘em-up, Michael Bay interpretation.
One of the more interesting bits of news about this production to come out in the last few weeks concerns the filmmakers’ decision to cast English actor Idris Elba (The Wire, The Office, and Legacy) in the role of the Norse God Heimdall. The casting decision was met with protests by the Council of Conservative Citizens, and ultimately resulted in a boycott by the group.
Why are they so upset?
Well, as it turns out, Elba is black. I know! Who’d a thunk it? The CCC is calling the move to cast a black actor in the role of the mythological Norse God a revisionist attempt by Marvel to make the story more multi-cultural, and thereby more appealing, to a broader audience. They are suggesting it’s reverse racism (recall the controversy that blew up around The Hobbit a few months back), and an indication of the larger problem that white people are no longer entitled to anything that appeals specifically to them.
So what have we got here, folks? Reverse racism by Hollywood and the comic industry? Greed? Or just a really cool bit of casting of an awesome actor, who just happens to have a really intimidating, captivating stage presence? Is the Council of Concerned Citizens pushing a racist agenda, or is it trying to preserve cultural heritage?
Look, I’m all for fairness when it comes to celebrating one’s cultural inheritance. Sometimes it seems like the see-saw of political correctness has swung a bit too far in the direction of extremity. Nowadays pride in one’s cultural identity can sometimes be mistaken for racism. And that’s sad. But in this case I don’t feel sorry for the CCC. I’m just not buying it.
Idris Elba is a solid actor whose presence commands attention. When I saw the trailer it never occurred to me to be upset at the fact that the role of “the White God”, Heimdall, had been filled by a black man. I was too busy thinking that he looked freaking awesome for any such notion to worm its way into my brain.
Besides, Thor (the comic) is not an exact account of the Scandinavian mythologies. It’s a comic. Furthermore, the Thor in question is even further removed from the original as it is a movie based on a comic book based on a mythology. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? The point is it doesn’t have to be 100% true and faithful to the mythology it’s based on because it is only based on it. It’s a fantastical, vague adoption of the myths and some of their related characters, and it’s okay if they look differently than they’re pictured in your Nerd’s Guide to Norse Gods and Mythology.
Now, this Council of Concerned Citizens is being described as a white supremacist group. I haven’t looked at their website or read their mission statement to make up my own mind (I know, I know--lazy journalism), but feel free to do that if you want. They have the choice to boycott the film, if they want. We all have the right to exercise that power when we disagree with a film’s premise, politics, or message. But I also defend the filmmakers’ right to interpret the source material however they see fit, and I’m genuinely okay with it. Similarly, I would be okay if all of the Aesir Gods in Branagh’s adaptation were white. I don’t think it’s a racist move in either case.
By the same token I am not offended that the producers of The Hobbit only sought to cast “light–skinned” people to fill the roles of Hobbits. Again, it’s the filmmakers’ choice how they decide to interpret the source material. Now, I’m not sure how much care went into the casting call for Hobbits, and I think it was incredibly stupid of the casting director (who was subsequently sacked) to tell one Pakistani woman that she was too dark to be considered. Nevertheless, it begs the question of what is appropriate in a casting call and what is not. I’m not sure how this works in Hollywood, let alone in New Zealand, but perhaps someone can fill me in on how this is handled when specific races/cultures are required.
Does any of this amount to racism on the part of these two film’s producers/directors?
I don’t think it does. I am inclined to think that a really good film trumps skin color. In some cases its relevant, but mostly it’s not. Draw interesting characters and pair them with an exciting, compelling plot, and I’ll probably enjoy your film regardless of what the actors look like. Besides, Idris Elba is just bad ass!
Marvel ambitiously plans to tie Thor into the wider story arc of The Avengers, which would crossover characters from Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, all of which hold the promise of big box office returns. I’m pretty sure that the CCC’s petty complaints are falling on deaf ears over at Marvel.
Check out the trailer for Thor below and then share your thoughts in the comments section.
Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present the epic adventure, Thor, which spans the Marvel Universe from present day Earth to the realm of Asgard. At the center of the story is the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a powerful but arrogant warrior whose reckless actions reignite an ancient war. Thor is cast down to Earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and is forced to live among humans. A beautiful, young scientist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has a profound effect on Thor, as she ultimately becomes his first love. It's while here on Earth that Thor learns what it takes to be a true hero when the most dangerous villain of his world sends the darkest forces of Asgard to invade Earth.
What do you think? Do you support a multi-cultural film adaptation of a comic book that is based on the characters and events rooted in traditional mythology? Concerning Hobbits (see what I did there?): would it upset you if the role of Bilbo Baggins had been filled by someone of color, or (gasp) a woman? I’d like to hear your opinion, and you can share it below in the comments section.
Be forewarned: keep it respectful. I’ll delete racial epithets quicker than you can say cracker!
Thor is slated for a May 6th, 2011 US release date.