Racially Insensitive Casting: Henry Zaga (Reportedly) as Sunspot in “X-Men: New Mutants”

(left) Sunspot, (right) Henry Zaga (side-by-side from Latinx Geeks)

Another day, another whitewashing controversy in Hollywood, the land that never learns its lesson. This time, erasure controversy surrounds the newest in the X-Men film franchise, X-Men: New Mutants.

According to Comicbook.com via Entertainment Weekly, Brazilian actor Henry Zaga has been reportedly been cast as Sunspot (aka Roberto da Costa), a mutant who absorbs the sun’s energy and uses it to increase his own physical abilities as well as to blast enemies and fly. Zaga, who is best known from Teen Wolf and more recently 13 Reasons Why, might be Brazilian like Sunspot, but he’s not Afro-Brazilian. Enter the controversy.

In a Medium post written by Latinx Geeks, the online community explains why racial identity is so important for a character like Sunspot. His Afro-Latinx identity is a central part of his storyline, including the moment when he discovers his powers.

“Sunspot’s powers first manifested during a soccer game where a rival team member hurled racial insults at him calling Roberto a ‘halfbreed,'” they write.  “This was due to the fact that Roberto’s father, Emmanuel da Costa, is Afro-Brazilian and his mother, Nina da Costa, is a white Brazilian.”

“…Henry Zaga, a white Brazilian actor, being cast to play Roberto da Costa is whitewashing pure and simple,” they wrote. “Sunspot’s Afro-Brazilian identity is directly tied to his very origin and the manifestation of his mutant powers. To deny his race is to deny who he is as a mutant, superhero, and as a person; the son of a black man and a white woman.”

Zaga’s casting speaks to the continued ignorance in Hollywood when it comes to casting characters to correctly reflect their ethnicity and background. Just because Zaga is Brazilian doesn’t mean he’s the correct choice for a role such as Sunspot.

Hollywood tends to either miscast characters completely (such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell) or it takes the “good enough” casting method, such as many of the roles in Memoirs of a Geisha, in which Chinese actresses were playing Japanese roles, or having actors who make a living off of being racially ambiguous play everything from Mexican to Native American. The latter seems to be happening with Zaga and Sunspot. The idea is that Zaga’s Brazilian, so that’s “good enough” for him to play Sunspot. Not accurate.

This is not even taking into account the type of privilege Zaga has as a white actor and, as Hollywood would classify him, an “white ethnic” actor. As a white actor, Zaga could audition for–and land– as many leading roles as he wants. As a “white ethnic” actor, he can take not only traditionally white roles, but also those that call for non-white roles as well, such as Sunspot. Another example of this is Zach McGowan, a white actor who, because of his slightly darker “surfer boy” look, has been cast to play native Hawaiian historical figure Ben Kanahele in Ni’ihau.

Once again, fans of beloved characters are waiting on Hollywood to give them accuracy when bringing characters from the page to the screen. Sadly, it seems like Sunspot is yet another casualty of whitewashing.

  • LM

    You are thinking way too much on this one.

    He is Brazilian. And like the comic book character, he might have black ancestors in his family. You don’t know that. Brazil is mixed. Black, Pardos, Whites, Asians…

    You sound like someone who read a few articles and now “understand” Brazil.

    • I think you’re the one thinking too hard on this. I am well aware there are many types of Brazilians–that’s not the issue. The issue is that Sunspot is of Afro-Brazilian heritage and that’s not being reflected in this casting. Also, why come down on me when Latinx Geeks wrote more about this and I quoted their article in my post? Seems like you think I’m the easier target along with you not actually reading this article. You’re also assuming a whole concocted story about me that you made up just so you could write your response. Go to a site that supports your rudeness, because I don’t appreciate it on my site.

      • Sterling Archer

        Here’s the thing though; Nobody cares about this movie enough in order for it to be “an issue”. And I’m not saying that to be a troll, and I’m not saying that to merely be a contrarian. I’m saying that as a comics fan. Nobody asked for this movie. Nobody WANTS this movie. This is just another excuse by Fox to further mine the X-Men license, in order to somehow pretend that this property is still viable in 2017 / 2018, so they don’t have to eventually give it back to Marvel. Even X-Men fans don’t care about the New Mutants, as far back as when they were first introduced in the 80’s. I knew maybe one guy who read New Mutants. That’s it. These are not “beloved characters” any sense of the word. And turning them into a “dark and gritty” tween horror movie doesn’t make them better either. That’s what’s going to turn more people off than anything. The actual uproar is going to be less about Sunspot, and more “oh god, ANOTHER X-Men movie??”.

        • Edmund J.

          I loved New Mutants growing up, and I don’t think we’ve met, Sterling. Here is my backstory, I’m half black, half white…I’m light-skinned and therefore told I can’t play what I am, though I have auditioned for Italian parts, and I’m sure there are a half-dozen other nationalities I can play. So, Monique. Yes, racially ambiguous actors do get cast for various ethnicity, only because we are continually told that we can’t play who we are. I know I have well-aged out of playing the role of Sunspot, but if I were offered the role, I would decline it (though prolly not at 24) I would say, give it to an actor who is more in keeping with the character’s origin story…because I love comics. I would have been justified to play the character, but also would have been conflicted because he’s Brazilian. Mr. Zaga should at least address the issue, IMHO. Why? Because I know how hard it is in certain acting markets for racially ambiguous, Latino, and Black actors to get cast. For example, in New England…if you don’t fit the stereotypes, it’s hard to find work. I would venture to say, if you called Mr. Zaga Black he would take issue with it, especially at casting time.

          So, Sterling. This is an important issue. Actors should at least consider the work they take and how it fits with the reasons the character was created in the first place. There were so few diverse characters in the 80’s and writers sold comics to fulfill that need.

          Edmund J. Janas

          Brego.com

  • Sid

    You would think of all people fellow comic book fans, esp X-men fans (since they appropriated “borrowed” the dueling philosophies of MLk and Malcolm X) would be in an uproar or at least sympathetic. But not the case I’ve had to explain too many times why Sunspot being black was important to not just me but other ‘black’ kids.

    • Sterling Archer

      That’s because nobody cares about the New Mutants. Nobody asked for this movie. Nobody WANTS this movie. This is just another effort by Fox, in order further mine the X-Men license so they don’t have to give it back to Marvel. Nobody cared about the New Mutants in the 80’s when they solely just comics. And to make matters worse, they’re making this yet another “dark and gritty” movie, that fans, even if they are familiar with the New Mutants, are just going to be bored by.

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  • Disney Vasquez

    Monique and Sid are racist assholes. Sunspot is not black. He has looked different in many of the comics. Damn blacks! Just can’t stop complaining!

  • Jay-EM

    I would agree if the comic version was more specific or even consistent with Sunspot being Afro-Brazilian, but that is not the case his origin story only made the fact that he is mixed so basically he’s ambiguous. Also while he was initially portrayed as Afro-Brazilian based on the art work the newer versions of Sunspot is actually light skinned.

  • Rich

    Fox did the samething with the Cecilia Reyes character in this movie. Reyes is clearly an Afro-Latina with dreads in the comics and they cast the racially ambigious Alice Braga to play her.

  • Edmund J.

    Love this article. Very thoughtful and well-researched.

    • Monique

      Thank you!