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“Black Lightning” masterfully puts black pain–and black power– in the spotlight

I remember when people were up in arms about the fact that Black Lightning wasn’t going to be a part of the Berlanti-verse alongside The Flash and Arrow. Even though I don’t watch either of those shows, the news did sound like CW was making a negative “Whites Only” distinction between the Berlanti-verse and Black Lightning. However, after watching the Black Lightning premiere, I’m actually quite glad that Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning (Cress Williams) has his own universe to play in. With the salient themes the show wants to get across, it needs a specific, concentrated point of view, and getting bogged down in the more comic booky setup established by The Flash and Arrow would, in my opinion, get in the way.

The show, brought to us by Maria Brock-Akil and Salim Akil, has a pointed message: too often, black pain is ignored or stuffed down, either to keep the peace or just so to stay alive. But at some point, enough is enough, and black pain turns into black power. In this case, that power is taken from subtext to text, with Jefferson revisiting his ability to generate and control lightning.

Jefferson’s pain isn’t just hinted at; it’s shown to us in stark moments, like the opening sequence which shows Jefferson as a well-regarded principal in his town and a few minutes later, he’s the victim of a racist police pullover. The pain is both external and internal, when his oldest daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) argues with him about his style of protesting–which could be critiqued as playing to respectability politics–versus her style of protesting, which is much more in line with today’s Black Lives Matter movement and other grassroots movements.

This particular argument is something I feel will come up in the show over and over again, as it’s an argument that is happening in the real world all the time.  It’s a discussion I often argue with myself over–technically I’m a “millennial,” but I’m of the older set; I’m much closer to Generation X than I am millennials, and on top of that, I’m someone who has always felt older than her age. I understand why Jefferson is more concerned with what looks like “keeping the peace” and focusing more on education and, to be blunt, status. For Jefferson, the way out of the existential predicament African Americans are in is through higher learning, and for many of us, including me, that’s what we were taught. I feel like I’m of the last generation when The United Negro College Fund was prominently on TV, drilling the catchphrase “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” in our heads. We were literally taught that the only path forward for us, the only path towards being treated with humanity and dignity, was through attending college, attaining that quintessential “good job with a 401K,” and getting that house in the suburbs.

However, there’s the other side of me that knows that protests are the only way we’ve been able to attain even that level of privileged thinking. The blood sacrificed for us to even establish a college fund means something, and to honor that, we have to continue putting ourselves on the front lines in whatever way we can. We have to fight for ourselves and our humanity, otherwise, the rights we have will be taken away from us. The Black Lives Matter movement and other movements like it are essential to the ongoing conversation our nation has had about race, privilege, power, and humanity.

But, as Jefferson pointedly said to Anissa, many young activists forget that the same older people they deride for playing “respectability politics” were fighting the good fight longer than they’ve been alive. The disconnect between the generations sometimes results in unnecessary animosity, with both sides not wanting to come together in the middle and recognize the similarities. The Black Lives Matter Movement, Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, and others are just the ideological grandchildren of SNCC, CORE, the NAACP, the Black Panther Party, and others. Recognizing the history shared and coming together to develop solutions for going forward should be part of today’s activist movement instead of the isolation and chiding I’ve seen among some younger activists and some of the older generation.

It’s this combustible combination of a society gone rampant with fear and police brutality coupled with activism in the social media age that have put Jefferson between a rock and a hard place. At his core, he is an activist. A vigilante, even–Black Lightning is the scourge of the police, but beloved by many in his city. But as a father and a man who wants to reconcile with his wife Lynn (Christine Adams) after his do-gooding split them apart, Jefferson just wants to be able to work, come home, and have his family safe in America. He’s a hero who doesn’t want to be a hero, but is often called to be one. I think that’s one of the more interesting things about Jefferson as a character. It’s similar to how Marvel’s Luke Cage didn’t want to be a hero, but was called to be because the community needed him.

This calling is often the hallmark of black superheroes in both Marvel and DC Comics. Whereas some white or white-passing superheroes like Superman can think of heroism as a luxury, black superheroes arise because no one else will help them. A superhero has to be borne out of necessity. There was an episode of Superman: The Animated Series that shows the origins of Steel; in many ways, his story is the same; Superman wasn’t holding things down in Steel’s neck of the woods, and he had to rise up and take care of the crime in his community. What’s odd is that I don’t remember Superman ever getting called out on his oversight.

Overall, I feel Black Lightning is setting up to be, like Luke Cage was when it premiered in 2016, the superhero we need for these complicated and excruciating times. Black Lighting, like its Marvel counterpart, shows how these “feats of daring-do” can speak to our current fears and hopes. These characters might be fictional, but the carry a very real weight. They can also, when put in the right hands, carry messages to help us learn and grow and, hopefully, become better, more compassionate human beings towards each other.

A key moment of this is when we see how Anissa is affected by almost every black male villain in this episode calling her a bitch or pulling a gun out on her. Black men take a lot of abuse, no doubt, but black women take a very different and very specific kind of abuse, one that’s leveled by men outside and within the race. This type of abuse leveled against black women by black men can be intellectualized and understood–as shown on the last season of Underground, abuse within the black family can be traced back to slavery, when some black men would take out their aggression for their white slavemasters onto their black wives, who had no recourse for help or understanding outside of their home or in the nation at large. It’s shown in The Color Purple, in which Whoopi Goldberg’s character Celie is a constant victim and Oprah Winfrey’s character Sofia talks about the sexual and physical abuse she’s faced from every man in her life, including her own husband. But that doesn’t make the lasting effects of it in today’s society any less painful. After being jerked around, called ou of her name, kidnapped, almost forced into prostitution, and nearly killed, Anissa has had enough. Now, like her father, her own powers bubble up from black pain and become transmuted into strength.

Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on CW. 

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Meet the 5 trans women headlining Ryan Murphy’s “Pose”

I can’t wait to see Ryan Murphy’s Pose! The new show is breaking ground for trans actors by employing the largest cast of trans actors ever on a scripted show.

Pose is set in the mid-1980s in New York City. According to Variety, the series examines “the juxtaposition of several segments of life and society in Manhattan: the emergence of tthe luxury Trummp-era universe, the ball culture world, and downtown social and literary scene.”

Along with Murphy, Pose is co-executive produced by trans activist and director Silas Howard, and will have scripts written by Janet Mock and Our Lady J. The show will also with with Murphy’s Half initiative, which will mentor trans directors.

MJ Rodriguez

(Photo credit: Dennis Cahlo)

Rodriguez is probably best known to Marvel fans for her non-speaking role as Sister Boy in Luke Cage. She has also appeared in The Carrie Diaries and Nurse Jackie. One of Rodriguez’s latest roles is as Ebony in the film Saturday Church, which focuses on a young teen boy who escapes to fantasy to deal with his struggles with religion and gender identity. The church opened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Indya Moore

Indya Moore at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival portrait studio. (Oak NY)

Moore also stars in Saturday Church as Dijon. Before film, Moore made her name as a model and recently walked in New York Fashion Week. (You can read more about her in an interview she gave with NBC Out.)

Dominique Jackson

(Photo credit: Oxygen)

Jackson has been modeling for over 20 years and has appeared in fashion magazines such as Vogue España. Jackson has published her autobiography, The Transsexual from Tobago, and is also an LGBT and human rights activist.

Hailie Sahar

Hailie Sahar as Lulu. (Photo credit: FX)

Sahar is best known as Adriana in Transparent. Before that, Sahar played The Lady of The Night in Mr. Robot. Sahar is also a recording artist and was called one of Hollywood’s rising talents in OUT Magazine. She has also been crowned Miss L.A. Pride and Queen U.S.A.

Angelica Ross

(Photo credit: Missross.com)

Lately, Ross has been seen on TNT’s summer hit show Claws. She’s also appeared on Transparent and lends her voice to an Amazon Original animated series Danger & Eggs. She has also starred in the TV show Her Story, which follows trans and queer women and the ups and downs of their dating lives.

Pose begins filming in New York City this November!

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Monique Reviews Media Everywhere! How to Keep Up with My Media Criticism

You may or may not have noticed a slight change-up in how I use my Twitter accounts, particularly @moniqueblognet (FOLLOW ME there and at @COLORwebmag if you haven’t already!). There’s a reason for that–I’m writing media reviews EVERYWHERE!

For every time I’m writing something on this website, I’m usually writing two to three (or more) times that for other sites as well. In short, if I haven’t talked about something here, I’ve probably talked about it elsewhere. (Hey, I didn’t get that film critic shoutout from Pajiba for nothing–I work more than you know.)

So if you’ve been wondering where to find all of my recent work, here’s the definitive (yet constantly growing) list.

MAGIC: THE GATHERING

In case you didn’t know, I’m the consultant Magic employed for the development of Kaya: Ghost Assassin! Read more about that collaboration here and in some of the articles linked below.

GATHERING MAGIC

Amonkhet Art Review by Mike Linneman (featuring my contribution on colorism in art)

EBONY

Will #OscarsSoBlack Happen This Year? Here Are Our Predictions

Where is the Black ‘La La Land?’

‘Riverdale’s’ Woke Report Card: Does the Drama Get Its Black Characters Right?

‘Still Star-Crossed’ Reminds Us That Black Women Were More Than Servants

What Marvel Could Learn from ‘Bingo Love’

 

TOR

http://www.tor.com/search-page/?s=monique+jones (Includes Luke Cage recaps, articles on Star WarsSamurai JackMagic: The Gathering, Harry Potter. More articles coming soon.)

COMIC BOOK RESOURCES

http://www.cbr.com/author/mjon/  (Includes articles about movie, merchandise, and comic book news–this is a constantly updating link.)

BLACK GIRL NERDS

https://blackgirlnerds.com/?s=Monique+Jones (Includes Sleepy Hollow recaps and articles, articles about various topics affecting black female blerdom and representation, including Into the Badlands, MulanRiverdale, blerd self-acceptance, Murder on the Orient Express, etc. This list will continually grow.)

MEDIAVERSITY REVIEWS

13 Reasons Why

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

(This list will continually grow.)

SLASHFILM

http://www.slashfilm.com/author/monique-jones/ (Includes my feature on black women representation in Wonder Woman, plus more coming down the pike)

NERDS OF COLOR

https://thenerdsofcolor.org/author/moniquej1988/ (Includes articles on Ghost in the ShellThe Walking Dead, Power Rangers, Riverdale, Moonlight, Magic: The Gathering, Star Wars, DC, Marvel, etc. This list will continually grow.)

 

Let’s focus on the positives of “Iron Fist,” Rosario Dawson, Jessica Henwick and Lewis Tan

Marvel Entertainment, Lewis Tan IMDB

We could talk all day about Finn Jones and the albatross around his neck that is Iron Fist.

Starting out the gate, Marvel’s Iron Fist, which will premiere on Netflix March 17,  has a 14 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Marvel fanboys might be in a tizzy about this, but this is really a blessing in disguise. Everything remained at a semi-standstill as everyone waited for the first reviews of Iron Fist to roll out. Now that they have, the show is officially Marvel’s first Netflix blemish and, hopefully, the show finally teaches the lesson Marvel failed to learn with Doctor Strange, which also exploited Asian themes while whitewashing the Ancient One.

Iron Fist has been a problem from the get-go, with fans urging Marvel to make Danny Rand, originally a white comic book character existing in an intensely problematic and stereotype-filled Asian world, an Asian man. That way, at least some of the story could seem a little more pleasing to the 21st century palette (of course, it would have also helped if the story was updated as well).

But, Marvel, wanting to please who they think are their core audience—white males—decided to forego any attempt to update the series and cast Finn Jones as Danny Rand. The show only sunk from there.

Here’s what the critics thought of Iron Fist.

“For viewers who’ve grown accustomed to the genre-defying tales of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, Iron Fist feels like a paint-by- numbers project, trying to check the right boxes in time for The Defenders. And that’s just not good enough, not anymore.”—Trent Moore, Paste Magazine

Marvel’s Iron Fist isn’t just the wimpiest punch ever thrown by the world’s mightiest superhero factory. The new Netflix binge swings and misses so bad that it spins itself around and slaps itself silly with a weirdly flaccid hand.—Jeff Hensen, Entertainment Weekly

It may have seemed fine to crank out another Marvel Netflix show that feels like the brand’s past outings, but the critical drubbing that Iron Fist has received is in no small part due to the fact that it’s so stale and unoriginal.—Abraham Riesman, Vulture

What’s also great is that many of the articles have stated how the show’s whitewashing hurt the show as much as the staleness of the story.

“[L]et me be clear: Iron Fist’s problems with its portrayal of Asian cultures and Asian-Americans are embedded throughout every episode. It’s just that its problems with delivering exposition, crafting consistent characters, and even basic dialogue writing run right alongside.

Sure, this is a show where a white male character explains how to punch to an Asian-American, female head of her own dojo, in her own dojo — wait, let me be painfully specific. A white male character explains his martial art — which was made up by white men in the 1970s as a nonspecifically Asian but definitionally more powerful technique than those invented by actual Asian cultures — to an Asian-American, female expert in actual martial arts developed by actual Asian cultures.” —Susana Polo, Polygon

Jones also isn’t doing himself any favors with some of what he’s saying to the press after the blow-up of Iron Fist.

Here’s just a smattering of some of Jones’ various comments:

“I think the world has changed a lot since we were filming that television show,’ he said. ‘I’m playing a white American billionaire superhero, at a time when the white American billionaire archetype is public enemy number one, especially in the U.S. …We filmed the show way before Trump’s election, and I think it’s very interesting to see how that perception, now that Trump’s in power, how it makes it very difficult to root for someone coming from white privilege, when that archetype is public enemy number one.” —Jones at RadioTimes

“Well, I think there’s multiple factors. What I will say is these shows are not made for critics, they are first and foremost made for the fans. I also think some of the reviews we saw were seeing the show through a very specific lens, and I think when the fans of the Marvel Netflix world and fans of the comic books view the show through the lens of just wanting to enjoy a superhero show, then they will really enjoy what they see. I think it’s a fantastic show which is really fun and I think it stands up there with the other Defenders’ shows without a doubt.”—Jones at Metro UK

You can read tons more stuff at Pajiba, where they’ve packaged everything in an article aptly titled “How to Handle Criticism of Your Acting Role Without Being a Sh*t Weasel.”

Let’s also not forget how Jones ran away from Twitter after Geeks of Color’s Asyiqin Haron tweeted him about his ironic retweet of Riz Ahmed’s talk about diversity and representation in media.

Haron told MCU Exchange:

“I just thought it was ironic. Finn never directly talked about #AAIronFist and when he tweeted that, it didn’t sit well with me. I never expected a reply from him. Maybe a reply from some of his fans but not from him. It was unexpected. He’s a famous actor. He could’ve easily ignored my comment. Most famous people do that with criticism. I was doing my own thing until someone told me he replied to my comment. …I was trying to get him to understand why an Asian Iron Fist is so important to us. He talks about being progressive but throughout the conversation it felt like he was deflecting the points I was trying to make. I have no hostility towards him. I was being respectful and calm about it. I just feel upset that he just deactivated his account after saying this:
[The tweet: “…I appreciate you reaching out, to bridge these gaps in our society, communication is and understanding is the key.”]

…which he deleted from his Twitter.”

Again, like I said, we could talk all day about poor Finn Jones. (I mean “poor” relatively; I know he’s not hurting for money and I also know he’s bringing a lot of this on himself; I just feel bad when people put themselves out there when they don’t need to.)

But let’s focus on the positive aspects of the show, Marvel newcomers Jessica Henwick, who plays Colleen Wing, and Lewis Tan, who plays Zhou Cheng, Iron Fist’s ultimate nemesis.

Marvel Entertainment

So far, Henwick and Dawson have been one of the critics’ favorites, despite the horrors of the rest of the show.

“…[I]f it were a series without these two women [Henwick and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple], to riff off this International Women’s Day, Iron Fist wouldn’t pack much of a punch. It is all Henwick and Dawson’s dynamic –individually and together–as ‘Daughter of the Dragon’ dojo-running Colleen Wing and ex-nurse Claire Temple, respectively, that pumps the irregular heart of the 13-episode first season from showrunner Scott Buck.”—Dominic Patten, Deadline

In fact, most people are only watching Iron Fist to support these two women.

Marvel Entertainment

The other person many folks are watching it for: Lewis Tan. He’s told the Black Girl Nerds podcast about how he actually auditioned for the Danny Rand role and got close to the end until they did a switcheroo on him and gave the role to Jones, who can’t fight (unlike Tan, who has been fighting all his life thanks to his dad, who also did stuntwork and acting roles in Hollywood films).

Lewis Tan training with a katana (IMDB)

He’s also been an outspoken voice for AAPI equality in entertainment, as well as a staunch supporter of intersectionality. Because of his work on and off-screen he’s got legions of fans.

Lewis Tan and Rosario Dawson on the set of “Iron Fist.” IMDB

So while the temptation to miss Iron Fist might be great, perhaps you’ll support the man and women who need your support the most? Who knows–perhaps if we show Marvel just how much we love these characters, they’ll give us the spin-offs of our dreams. (Folks already want a “Daughters of the Dragon” spin-off featuring Wing and Misty Knight.)

What do you think about Iron Fist? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Monique talks Oscar predictions on Ebony.com

These actors and actresses could have some history-making Oscar wins. (Ebony.com)

Are you interested in knowing what my thoughts are about the Oscars when it comes to films like Fences, Hidden Figures, Loving, and Moonlight? Just click on Ebony.com and read my first post for the illustrious website!

I give Ebony readers my predictions on who has the best chances of winning the coveted Oscar trophy. Overall, I think it’s going to be a very, very tight race. Here’s a snippet about Mahershala Ali’s chances at winning Best Supporting Actor:

Yes, Ali bowled critics over with his performance in Moonlight. Yes, he’s had a banner year, starring in nearly everything from Marvel’s Luke Cage to another of the Academy’s nominated films, Hidden Figures. But if there’s one thing Oscar gamblers use to place their bets, it’s the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Ali won that award, upping the ante for what could potentially happen Sunday night. If he doesn’t win, expect people to rise up in anger.

Read the rest at Ebony.com!

4 reasons why the “Spider-Man: Homecoming” trailer rocks

Marvel Studios

Marvel has had a time with inclusiveness in their films. For most of their first two phases, they have failed at it, to be honest. The beginning of their third phase has gotten off to a rocky start with Doctor Strange. However, Marvel seems to be swiftly making up for their errors; first, we had Netflix’s Luke Cage (which has been greenlit for a second season, so hopefully we can get more #ShadyMariah action). We’ve also seen the amazing cast for 2018’s Black Panther. Now, we’ve got the trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming, and boy does it look refreshing.

Let me count the ways in which Spider-Man: Homecoming might be the turning point for Marvel’s films.

1. It actually looks like the real world. Let’s face it; New York City doesn’t look like Sex and the City. I’d say Law and OrderNew York: Undercover and Living Single are the closest things to what New York actually looks and feels like. It’s a high-class town, and it’s also one of the grimiest towns. It’s also full of people of color.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, unlike other Marvel films, actually portrays New York as the diverse melting pot it is. The film also goes one step further and imbues a freshness to the city. Maybe it’s because the film is also in a high school setting and the majority of the cast are young. But this version of New York matches the vibe of the city—fast-paced and full of life.

2. A black girl is the love interest. Laura Harrier’s Liz Allan is “the new top,” (which is what Peter calls her, I think), and I couldn’t be happier. Now, if I’m being honest, we can talk about colorism issues, since there’s no black or biracial girl who’s darker than a paper bag in this movie. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Harrier is the first black love interest in a Marvel movie. That’s both a legendary title (for Harrier) and a shameful one (for Marvel).

Marvel Studios

How Peter, who seems way out of her league, gets her as his girl is something I’m dying to figure out, because I’m not seeing how Liz would give Peter the time of day. And maybe Zendaya’s character (who is or isn’t Mary Jane) is the one Peter’s actually supposed to be with (a la Clueless). If that’s the case, I hope the racists are extra mad, since either way, Peter ends up with a non-white girlfriend.

3. Marvel finally showcases positive multicultural representation. Jacob Batalon’s character Ned Leeds is a Filipino-American actor hitting the scene in a big way, and what better way to kick off your Hollywood career than in a splashy Marvel movie. The film also showcases the talents of Kenneth Choi, Orange is the New Black‘s Selenis Leyva (shown in the trailer), Hannibal Burress, Garcelle Beauvais, Tony Revolori, Abraham Attah, Donald Glover and many, many others. This is the most diverse cast in Marvel Studios history, which is damning praise, but praise nonetheless.

Jacob Batalon and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming. (Marvel Studios)

4. It looks like the Spider-Man movie we’ve always been promised. When the original Spider-Man film starring Tobey Maguire came out, we were happy with it; it seemed cool and the comic book movie genre was still in its infancy. But now, after so many iterations of Spider-Man’s origin story, the film franchise was in danger of dying out just because we were all sick of seeing Uncle Ben die. Thankfully, Marvel had the sense to skip all of that drudgery this time around. Uncle Ben is already dead, Aunt May isn’t a grandma, and we’re following Peter (who actually looks like he should be in high school—sorry, Tobey) as he finds his place within the Avengers, aka The Grown Adults Club. Also, we get some extra Iron Man appearances for our trouble. The film is ready to immerse us in the rest of the stories Spider-Man has for us.

Check out the trailer below and write what you think in the comments section. Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theaters July 7, 2017.

GUEST POST: How Far Will Marvel’s Diversity Play Go?

Guest post by Lauren Davis

As Marvel continues to expand its cinematic universe, it’s becoming clear that the studio has an eye on more characters and a somewhat-more inclusive casting philosophy.

In particular, fans who have been calling for a more diverse range of characters have been pleased with the news coming out about 2018’s Black Panther. We reported a few years ago that Chadwick Boseman was taking up the role, and the rising actor had a wonderful debut in this past spring’s Captain America: Civil War. It was also revealed that Ryan Coogler (responsible for Fruitvale Station and Creed) was co-writing and directing the project. And more recently, we learned that Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o will have roles as well. There’s not too much known about their parts at this point, though it’s being speculated that they’ll both be villains. Regardless, Marvel is clearly attempting to correct its past issue of racial diversity (or a lack thereof).

The studio is also taking steps to include more women in prominent roles moving forward. There’s increasing talk about Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) being the subject of a solo film, and other leading roles for women have already come out or been confirmed. Krysten Ritter starred as Jessica Jones in her own Netflix show, and just recently it was confirmed by reliable sources that Brie Larson (who just won an Oscar for her performance in Room) will be playing Captain Marvel. These developments have largely silenced critics of Marvel’s gender equality for now, even if DC more or less prodded them into it by introducing Wonder Woman.

What may be most interesting for those hoping to see a deeper embrace of different genders and ethnicities is the fact that Marvel has also shown a desire to rope in more major characters. In addition to Black Panther, they brought Spider-Man into the MCU in Captain America: Civil War, and there are those who believe Wolverine could be next. That may seem unlikely given that 20th Century Fox owns the character, but Hugh Jackman himself has encouraged the idea. There’s also the little fact that Wolverine and Spider-Man both appeared alongside the Avengers in a roulette game featured amongst similar options online. It’s just one game, and ultimately a themed roulette table with superhero icons “helping you win big money,” but games have in the past hinted at cinematic activity. And if nothing else, it’s a sign that Marvel still very much considers Wolverine to be part of its own entertainment empire, and not Fox’s. Meanwhile, there have also been whispers about everyone from Moon Knight to Adam Warlock being injected into the MCU.

Naturally, when you consider the slow but sure movement toward more inclusive casting in conjunction with the idea of adding more comic book characters, the question becomes clear: will Marvel look to add even more non-white and female characters? Or will Black Panther prove to be a lone indulgence and Captain Marvel an aberration?

There’s no shortage of options. Characters like Doctor Voodoo (a sorcerer who really should appear in this summer’s Doctor Strange) and Bishop could command solo films as strong African-American leading parts; and the likes of Falcon (Sam Wilson) or Luke Cage (Mike Colter) could be given larger roles in the MCU. For women, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) could assume her “Rescue” identity, or someone like Tigra or She-Hulk could be introduced. And these are only a few of the possibilities.

For now, it starts with Black Panther and Captain Marvel. We’ll just have to see if films like these signify a new trend or exist to quiet down the criticism.

Lauren Davis is a pop culture and entertainment writer. She contributes in a freelance capacity to numerous sites and blogs, and hopes to become a TV writer one day.

DC vs. Marvel: Which Movie Franchise Represents Its Audience More?

With the culmination of the San Diego Comic-Con, we’ve been getting a lot of DC Comics movie franchise news. Some of which includes the new footage of the Justice League movie, featuring Batman (Ben Affleck), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Superman (Henry Cavill).

With the introduction of DC’s superhero team, I started wondering—which movie franchise represents its diverse audience more?

Let’s take a look at some stats. According to the MPAA, the movie-going year of 2015 saw 23 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of African-Americans going to the movie theaters, even though Hispanics only made up 17 percent of the population and African-Americans made up 12 percent. Similarly, Asian Americans and Americans of other ethnicities were 9 percent of the movie-going population, even though they only made up 8 percent of the total population. Even though white Americans go to the movies a lot, too–56 percent of them made up movie audiences last year–they go much less than non-whites, since they are 62 percent of the total population. With all of this said, it’s clear that if you’re non-white, more than likely you’re in a movie theater at some given point in time. This also means that a disproportionate percentage of the money generated by movies is from non-white pockets. Therefore, movie theaters should start catering to those dollars more than they already do.

MPAA-2015-ethnicity

In the movies department, it’s pretty clear that DC is about to school Marvel on using diversity as its opening act. Batman v. Superman‘s trailer had a frustrating scene for me–the scene in which a ton of extras with Westernized Dia de los Muertos-esque skeleton face paint revering Superman as a god. It looked a lot like the scene from Game of Thrones, with a ton of brown people exalting Khaleesi as their savior. In short, I didn’t like it. And to be fair, not many people liked the movie in its entirety. But, it appears that DC will still have the Marvel beat when it comes to catering to a wider majority of its audience.

Enter the footage for the Justice League. 

Already, we have an overlapping group of a woman and three people of color (I’m including Gal Gadot in this group, hence the use of the word “overlapping”), and even though he’s not playing a gay character in the films, the Flash is played by Miller, who is gay in real life. Already, that’s a heck of a lot more inclusion than Marvel’s Avengers, which is majority white male (the only actual member of color is the Falcon, and the only woman is Black Widow).

DC also has Marvel beat when it comes to treating female characters like actual characters. People have been begging Marvel for years now to create a Black Widow movie, but cries had been falling on deaf ears until very recently, when Marvel finally announced that a Black Panther film and Black Widow film were going to be made. We have finally been getting tons of news about Black Panther, but a Black Widow film is still missing in action. However, the third movie in DC’s official movie franchise is Wonder Woman.

You can read my full thoughts here, but the short of it is that seeing a female superhero do her thing on the big screen is going to instill pride and hope in a lot of girls and women out there. It would behoove Marvel to do the same.

The diversity quotient is also high with Suicide Squad, which features women (in general) in various roles, but the film also prominently features people of color as the heroes (including Will Smith, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuouye-Agbaje, and Common).

Of course, someone could say, “Well, it’s cruelly ironic that the heroes of Suicide Squad are the evil guys, and that over half of the evil guys are people of color.” Yeah, it is cruelly ironic. But let’s contrast this to Ant-Man, which was also about bad guys becoming the good guys. Except with Ant-Man, Paul Rudd was the genius who actually acted like a genius a good portion of the time. Ant-Man’s friends, played by T.I., Michael Peña, and David Dastmalchian, were supposed to be geniuses, too, but they frequently acted like racially-charged buffoons, characters who seemed to be the brainchild of someone who believed non-white people actually act like stereotypes in real life. It was clear the Rudd’s character was the cool, calm, and collected leader, even though they were all supposed to be on the same level of intelligence. Sure, a lot of non-white people are the bad guys in Suicide Squad, but at least they all seem to be written to exist on the same level. They seem to all have their own individuality. There’s also the case of Smith’s character Deadshot in the leadership position, a change of pace from Marvel’s status quo. Also great is that Davis is the one in charge of all of them.

Marvel’s films are also failing in another area: proper representation of race. Marvel is quick to tout it’s “diversity” in terms of how many black people they hire for films. They’re especially doing that now, what with Black Panther and the Netflix show Luke Cage. But it took ages for Marvel to finally commit to Black Panther, and before they finally committed, bogus statements had been put out regarding their indecision, such as how supposedly hard it would be to create a realistic Wakanda, even though Marvel had already made Thor, which featured another non-existent locale, Asgard.

Second, it’s not like Marvel has ever had a character of color lead a film until Black Panther; the Marvel universe has had enough longevity to be able to put out several movies with characters of color as the leads, but instead, they’ve constantly resorted to the “goofy, yet smart white male” lead, which makes almost every movie in the latter half of Phase 2 feel like the same movie, just retold with varying degrees of success.

Third, the characters of color the films do have are always in secondary positions. The Falcon has since become Captain America in the comics, but in the films, Falcon is relegated to Captain America’s buddy; I dare say he was relegated to mere “sidekick” in Captain America: Civil War, because Sam all-too-readily agrees to follow Cap into the sunset, even without fully hearing Cap’s plan or questioning Cap’s decision to become a fugitive. Rhodey is a great character, but even still, he’s Iron Man’s buddy. Nick Fury is the most powerful man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but sometimes even he is treated like an outside force, a character that is “important,” but is merely a guise to lure audiences into believing that the black characters in the Marvel Universe are treated better than they actually are. Heimdall is also powerful, but as some have said online, they felt Heimdall was nothing more than a glorified doorman, not the all-mighty keeper of the universe and its alternate dimensions.

Marvel also lets down audience members in general by asserting the reductive conclusion that black people equal “diversity,” when there are a lot of people Marvel are leaving out of the conversation. Case in point: Doctor Strange. If you read my online roundtable discussion about Doctor Strange, you’ll find that quite a few people are upset by the lack of foresight given when casting the title character and the Ancient One as white people. Also lacking in foresight was the decision to “add diversity” by casting Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as Doctor Strange’s…I don’t know…helpers. Again, Marvel assumes the hierarchy of characters should be that people of color fall back as sidekicks or magical helpers, while white characters assume the “default hero” character role. Marvel has also failed when it comes to representing Latinos, people of the Middle East, South and East Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and black women. I’m sure I’m missing some other groups as well.

If the only other non-white, non-black Marvel character is Michael Peña’s character from Ant-Man, then it’s clear Marvel’s doing something wrong when it comes to fully representing fleshed-out versions of all Americans. The kicker is that they have representations of fleshed-out characters of color in their comics right now. Ms. Marvel and Spider-Man are two such examples. When are we going to see live-action projects featuring them? How many more white dudes with powers are we going to have to see on the big screen? Black Panther can’t be the only time we see a majority non-white cast in a Marvel film.

DC might have gotten their act together slowly, but they are coming out of the gate swinging with possibilities. We’ve already got Wonder Woman coming, and AquamanThe Flash, and Cyborg films have already been scheduled for 2018 and 2020. In building a franchise, it would appear DC has been studying Marvel’s failures as well as Marvel’s successes, and it seems like the franchise is planning on welcoming more people to the table.

However, Marvel seems to be slowly getting the message, since they have already cast Brie Larson as Captain Marvel for her own standalone movie:

And the cast of Spider-Man: Homecoming has been surprisingly multicultural (the film includes Donald Glover—who had campaigned to play Peter Parker years ago—Zendaya, Hannibal Buress, Tony Revolori, Garcelle Beauvais, Bokeem Woodbine, Abraham Attah, Kenneth Choi, Tiffany Espensen, Laura Harrier, and is rumored to also feature Selenis Leyva). The film has already had to face its share of whitewashing accusations when it comes to the casting of Michael Barbieri as an original character based on Ganke Lee, who, in the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, is Miles Morales’ Korean-American best friend. But have they revamped that decision, based on this picture of the cast?

Despite their flubs, Marvel is working on rectifying their current lack of focus when it comes to representing their huge audience, baby step by stuttering baby step,. If Marvel starts getting serious about showcasing LGBT characters too, then I’d be absolutely convinced Marvel has learned its lesson from past mistakes.

What’s fascinating is that while Marvel has a ton of issues to get out of its system when it comes to the movie franchise, the same can’t be said of its TV and Netflix offerings. Such as Luke Cage, which offers up the politically-charged image of, as showrunner Cheo Coker told Vanity Fair, “a bulletproof black man.” Whatever is going on in Marvel’s TV department needs to filter into the movies department. But I’ll write more on the TV side of both the DC and Marvel universes in another post.

If you have thoughts about the movie and/or TV branches of either universe, feel free to discuss in the comments section!

Fall TV: Analyzing the Odds of 5 of the 2016-2017 Shows

We have a lot of shows coming our way, and a lot of racially-diverse shows at that. I thought it would be cool to take a gander at some of the shows I’m interested in this fall season and guess at what their chances are at garnering a second season. I know these shows haven’t even premiered yet. But we’ve already seen the trailers for the fall season, right? We already have our opinions anyway. So let me start off the opinion-giving by providing my thoughts.

(I must say that even though there are racially-diverse shows this fall-winter season, the shows featured in this particular list showcase shows featuring black leads.)

Luke Cage (Netflix)

I dare say that it’s already a given that Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage will be a smash hit. Mike Colter, who will be playing the title character, has already amassed a cult following from playing the character on Netflix’s second Marvel endeavor, Jessica Jones. And, let’s not discount Marvel’s wide and powerful reach; nowadays, almost everything Marvel touches turns to gold. So chances are Luke Cage will be here for a long time.

Lethal Weapon (FOX)

I will be honest; this show seems to have whiffs of Rush Hour all over it. Not the film, mind you, but the CBS TV adaptation of Rush Hour. That show had the diversity quota going for it; just like in the film, the buddy-cop duo was comprised of a black man and an Asian man (with Vine star Justin Hires and British actor Jon Foo taking reins of the Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan roles). But the writing was just too terrible and lackluster for the two leads to carry it. Let’s be clear; just because a show has a diverse cast doesn’t mean it’ll automatically succeed. The writing still has to be good.

Lethal Weapon seems like we could be going down another Rush Hour path. Not only does it look like it’ll be potentially unfunny, but just how relevant is Lethal Weapon these days? A similar question was posed about the Rush Hour TV series; the story is so of its time that it doesn’t resonate with younger TV viewers. But we’ll see how Lethal Weapon does; it is starring Damon Wayans, so the show does have that going for it.

Still Starcrossed (ABC)

First of all, Still Starcrossed is a Shonda Rhimes show. So you can assume success is already in the bag. But secondly, and most importantly, it’s a show that many people, particularly women of color, have been wanting since the dawn of television; a period show featuring people of color who aren’t slaves. Instead, Still Starcrossed, which takes place after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, showcases a rich, affluent black family in Verona, Italy, who are just as powerful and viable as any other family. That alone will attract viewers who are excited to see a different and much-needed portrayal of the black family in ancient times. Look for several seasons of Still Starcrossed.

24: Legacy (FOX)

As well as the original 24 did, what with it being steeped in post 9/11 paranoia, 24: Legacy will probably do just as well, since politics has gotten even worse since 9/11. However, the fact that politics have become more divisive and stereotype-laden makes me question whether it’s even responsible to bring any iteration of 24 back. As popular as 24 was with its audience, it also was plagued by stereotypes of Middle Eastern Muslims as terrorists. What makes 24: Legacy even more troubling is that there’s the distinct possibility that these same terrorist stereotypes will be juxtaposed against the new hero, Eric Carter (played by Corey Hawkins). If there is an uplifting of one marginalized group at the expense of another marginalized group, then the entire exercise of the show is a problem. Regardless, 24: Legacy would still garner a sizable audience, so it could remain for another season or two.

Pitch (FOX)

Pitch will be a game-changer when it premieres. The show, about a young woman who becomes the first woman signed to a Major League Baseball team, will advance the cause of women in sports by showing that women can play any sport they want to, with the same passion and ability as men. The show has also cast Kylie Bunbury as the lead, which is fantastic; if this show were made just a few years ago, a woman like Bunbury wouldn’t even be considered.

I’m intrigued to see what Pitch will do once it premieres. If it plays its cards right, it could last for a while. It could become the Empire of baseball shows, I think.

What do you think of these shows? Give me your opinions in the comments section below!

JUST ADD COLOR’s “Ghost in the Shell” and “Dr. Strange” Online Roundtable featuring Claire Lanay and Keith Chow

Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange are two of the latest in a litany of projects in Hollywood that have whitewashed and otherwise erased Asian identity from film. The films have been an issue for as much as a year in advance (or, in Ghost in the Shell’s case, longer) before their initial releases, meaning worry for the respective studios and mounting anger for fans and moviegoers who want an authentic and culturally respectful film experience.

Each film has its many problems, but to give a short overview of what’s plaguing these films, here are the bulleted points:

Ghost in the Shell

• Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi (now just called “The Major” in the film, possibly the first clue that the film is not only wiping away the main character’s Japanese racial identity, but also the property’s inherent ties to Japan’s post-World War II tech boom).

Scarlett-Johansson-GITS

•According to ScreenCrush’s source, Paramount allegedly hired visual fx company Lola VFX to create a Japanese filter for a character, probably Johansson’s Major. Paramount maintains that the fx filter was for a background character and never for the Major, but the fact remains that Paramount engaged in yellowface, regardless of who the character is.

• Sam Yoshiba, the director of Kodansha’s international business division (based in Tokyo), states that he’s fine with Johansson as The Major and that this is a great opportunity for a Japanese property to make it to the international (i.e. American) market. (which has rights to the Ghost in the Shell property). According to Kotaku, Yoshiba told The Hollywood Reporter, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” Yoshiba also told The Hollywood Reporter that “he was impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.”

• Max Landis, the screenwriter of American Ultra, released a video condemning the casting, but also states in his video (as reported by Entertainment Weekly), “The only reason to be upset about Scalrett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works.” He also stated that outraged fans are “mad at the wrong people,” stating that the problem isn’t with parties such as Johansson, the studio or the director, but with the film industry itself. He also argues a point that many would disagree with—that there’s a dearth of big names in film. “As recently as about 10 years ago, there stopped being big stars,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer stars who mean anything.” Not true.

Meanwhile, the internet took matters into their own hands by fancasting Rinko Kikuchi, from Pacific Rim, as Kusanagi. What’s heavily ironic is that it seems like the costuming/hair department took direct inspiration from Kikuchi’s Pacific Rim character Mako Mori when designing The Major for the big screen.

A video features Japanese participants talking about the Ghost in the Shell controversy. The throughline of the video is that the people interviewed don’t see a problem with Johansson as The Major. But now the video is being used by pro-Ghost in the Shell movie fans to denigrate those, particularly Asian Americans, who are against Johansson as The Major.

•Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu invokes the term “blackface” when discussing the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy, making people upset.

The statement was made during a panel including Wu, Ming-Na Wen, Joan Chen, and Lynn Chen, moderated by Teddy Zee. “It was particularly heinous because they ran CGI tests to make her look Asian,” said Wu. “Some people call it ‘yellowface,’ but I say ‘the practice of balckface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative.” She also said the special effects tests “reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look.”

Before the conference, Wen had tweeted about Johansson’s casting, writing, “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role.”

Dr. Strange

• Tilda Swinton is cast as The Ancient One, originally a Tibetian character as well as an antiquated stereotype of an Asian mystic. Swinton was cast as a way to create a more updated, non-stereotypical version of the character, and while casting a woman is a unique decision for the character, the casting also erases the character’s original Asian roots. Check her out in the trailer:

(Personal commentary: aside from Swinton as a jarring Ancient One, hearing Benedict Cumberbatch with an nasally American accent is…upsetting.)

•Swinton tells Den of Geek that when she was approached to do the character, she was never told that she was playing an Asian man. “The script I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It will all be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.”

• C. Robert Cargill, the co-screenwriter for Dr. Strange, tells his friends, film reviewers and hosts of movie review/comedy show Double Toasted Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas, about the process he took in remaking The Ancient One. In his words, he didn’t want to offend China with a Tibetan character. (Discussion occurs around the 18 minute mark.)

However, Cargill later clarified his comments on Twitter, since his original comments suggest that he and Marvel were of the same mind about the Tibet-China situation. “CLARIFICATION: that interview answer going around was to a question from a fan specifically about MY JUSTIFICATION, not Marvel’s…FOR THE RECORD: no one at Marvel or with the film ever talked to me about China, so contrary to headlines, I didn’t confirm anything.”

Entertainment Weekly also states that the film version of The Ancient One is now based in Nepal, which makes it even more confusing as to why a non-Asian actress was chosen.

• Marvel releases a statement about their record of inclusion, obtained by PEOPLE.

“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”

One could say their statement features many fictional statements as far as their film universe goes, because the MCU is still not diverse enough in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.

These are a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot to parse through. At first, I was going to write a post providing my point of view, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I, a black woman, might want to sit this one out. I’ve written on entertainment moves affecting Asian Americans before, but let’s be honest; I’m not Asian, and I’m not about to wade in any “honorary Asian” waters, especially with how nuanced the issues surrounding these films have become. Instead, I thought I’d ask some of my online buddies if I could interview them about their opinions on these films.

Keith Chow is the creator and head of The Nerds of Color, a site focusing on the nerdy side of entertainment, but from the perspective of POC and other marginalized peoples. Claire Lanay is the new weekend co-host of podcast Afronerd Radio and CEO of Renegade Nerd Entertainment. I was happy to interview them both via email and break down just what people needed to understand about the lack of foresight and sensitivity that went into the creation of the Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange movies.

What were your initial reactions to the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi?

Chow: I think like most folks, I was disappointed but not surprised. It’s hard to believe that whitewashing is still considered acceptable practice in Hollywood, and these castings are no exception. But in light of the outrage (and lack of box office) that movies like Aloha and Gods of Egypt engendered, you’d think the studios would start taking the hint.

Lanay: Initially, I was mildly annoyed yet amused by Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One…I tried to play devil’s advocate and ask myself what discussions led to this outcome? Similar to the problems with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, many of these comic book characters were created several decades ago and are inherently racist.  Other properties were created as a result of cultural appropriation which has now become a recognizable trope in it of itself i.e. White guy learns the ways of the East, masters it in a day and is better suited to unlock the wisdom, magic and skills of these mystic teachings in a manner the savage natives never could – Iron Fist, anyone?

So why switch The Ancient One from a Tibetan man to a British woman? Could the reason have been that without including another female character, the film would look the way most movies, comic book or otherwise, do – a sausage fest?  OK fine.  Let’s make her a woman.

I half-jokingly tell my friends that Hollywood has an unspoken rule about not allowing more than one person per color per movie or TV show (if at all). On the rare occasions there is more than one person per color, they’re usually a minor/expendable character and therefore, the first to get killed off…Unless you’re Empire or Blackish, you can’t have more than one black character…Doctor Strange has Benedict Wong playing the servant.  They have Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Baron Mordo.  So, of course, they most certainly cannot have another POC playing the Ancient One.  Heavens, no! Too many minorities!  I may not like Hollywood’s twisted logic and how they conduct ethnic/gender musical chairs to feign balance or political correctness, but I’ve grown accustomed to it.

Now that they’re saying the reason why the character isn’t Tibetan is because it would piss off China… I’m right back to square one asking “WTF?” Here I was trying my hardest to understand their reasoning and then they go throwing me for a loop with their mental gymnastics in a weak attempt to rationalize whitewashing.  Just because you don’t want the character to be Tibetan doesn’t mean the character cannot be Asian.  Would The Ancient One originally have announced him/herself as Tibetan? If they’re so worried about making all that Chinese dough… why not make the character Chinese? Have him/her speak Mandarin.  Have him/her walk around with a large neon sign that says “Made in China”.

They’re implying that in order to avoid offending other cultures, they have to erase them.  Are they so lazy that they are not willing to put any thought into how they could modernize these POC characters for today’s audience?

As for Ghost in the Shell, here are some thoughts I had in regards to Max Landis’ comments:

To make a blanket statement that there are no Asian A-List actors, well yeah, if Asians are not even allowed to play Asian, then I don’t see how it would be possible for them to be visible enough to become A-list. That’s not by accident, that’s by design.

The other thing that was mentioned was that there are no Asian actors capable of getting a movie greenlit… See the highlighted movies on this list [in this article’s inset]. [Most] fail, flop, bomb.  Yet, nothing changes.  I’m starting to wonder if they ever will…Scarlett Johansson is playing a character named Motoko Kusanagi.  It baffles my mind that there are people who don’t see this as offensive.

Marvel has had a long-standing issue with casting for a certain demo; i.e. casting all male leads except for the Black Panther as a white male (even more specifically, a white male with either dark or blonde hair and a “dudebro”-ish attitude, even if the character wasn’t originally written that way). Marvel has no Asian superheroes, and the chance they could have had to give representation, with Iron Fist, was missed [for more information on Iron Fist and the lack of Asian representation, visit The Nerds of Color and Twitter hashtag #AAIronFist]. With that said, how do you feel Marvel should have tackled The Ancient One?

Chow: The problem is that Marvel, like a lot of people, assume whiteness is the default. So when they encounter tricky ethnic characters (i.e., stereotypes) like the Mandarin or the Ancient One, their solution is to remove that character’s race and think they’re doing us a favor. I said this during the whole #AAIronFist thing, but the way you deal with negative racial stereotypes isn’t to erase race from the equation, just write the character better. In the case of the Ancient One, just make the character not one-dimensional, and he/she could still have been Asian.

I guarantee an actress of Tilda Swinton’s caliber would not have taken the role if it was one-note. So why not afford that opportunity to an actress of color? Better yet, if you had to racebend Ancient One (for fear of Chinese censors or whatever) then don’t cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange! Can you imagine someone like Sendhil Ramamurthy or Naveen Andrews in the role? Hell, I would have been happy with Keanu Reeves (who was rumored). But they cast the whitest man in the world? Come on now.

Lanay: Wasn’t anybody out there the least bit curious as to what George Takei could have done with The Ancient One?  Ken Watanabe?  Chow Yun-Fat?…How about Michelle Yeoh?  Joan Chen?  Gong Li?  Bai Ling?

I’ve had so many heated debates and arguments with people about Iron Fist.  The argument for keeping Danny Rand white is that “it’s what the author intended for how that character’s story should be told”. According to that logic, we should stay 100 percent true to the original cannon and lore even if that means 80-plus years of American comic book history has primarily only given us white male leading characters as the hero and a handful of female/POC characters seen mostly as sidekicks, background or filler.

Recall, if you will, Michelle Rodriguez’s comments after Michael B. Jordan was cast as Human Torch and Jason Momoa was cast as Aquaman – “Stop stealing the white people’s characters and make some of your own”.  As if no one has tried?  Even if I understood why it’s bemoaned when a POC is cast as a character originally envisioned as white, why is it ok to “steal” our characters who were specifically created to be of color?

As much as I like and respect Marvel, I am truly disheartened by their approach to this issue.  They rather avoid it than face it head on.  For a company whose brand is kick-assery and bravery, this looks cowardly. Am I surprised?  No.  Disappointed?  Yes.  Captain America: Civil War will be their 14th film and only now are they barely getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel on the film schedule.

I will say that they do seem to be putting in a concerted effort on the TV side.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the wonderful Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May and Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson (nee Skye) has addressed her bi-racial parentage.  I’m pleased to see that has been acknowledged since other hapa actresses such as Kristin Kreuk have played fully white characters on shows like Smallville.

Dr. Strange, as a comic book series, draws its inspiration from the 1930s radio series Chandu the Magician, which also features a white man receiving mystic instruction from an Asian teacher, this time an Indian yogi. With all of the stereotypical Asian mysticism Dr. Strange is based in, how do you feel the film should have been approached (despite the fact that we haven’t seen the full movie)? With Benedict Cumberbatch playing Dr. Strange and set pictures featuring non-Asian actors in Asian locations and in Tibetian monk-esque clothes, how do you feel about the appropriation factor of the film? 

Chow: It’s the same problem with Iron Fist, Doctor Strange is another example of the white man goes to the Orient for enlightenment trope. It’s so obvious that people’s reaction to the trailer was “Didn’t we already see this in Batman Begins? And I’d answer, yeah, you’ve seen it in every movie! At this point, Hollywood should start casting more POC leads just to stand out from the pack. Studies have already proven those films make more money anyway. But Strange and Iron Fist and even Daredevil prove Hollywood only thinks of Asians as set decoration and not human beings.

Lanay: I do not deny they have a very talented roster.  I’m a Sherlock fan, so I don’t doubt Cumberbatch will bring something interesting to the role.  Tilda Swinton also played a role originally meant for a male in the movie Snowpiercer. Her bizarre character was in no way defined by gender or race regardless of the fact the movie was directed by a Korean or that the story was based on a French graphic novel.  Swinton’s look is androgynous, unique and has always benefited her with sci-fi roles.  For all we know, she’ll be utterly fascinating to watch in Doctor Strange.

As for them playing dress up in monk-esque attire?  Appropriation is unavoidable.  I’ll say this – I have a problem with folks using all of my toys but not allowing me to play with them.

Swinton has come out and said that the way she was approached for the role was never under the guise that she was playing an Asian man and that she’s confident in how she’s portrayed the character in the film. How do you feel about her statement? Also, what do you think about the compounded problem Marvel has created by whitewashing a character, yet adding diversity by making the character a woman?

Chow: It could have been a woman of color. Just because they gender bent the character doesn’t give them a pass if they’re still being racist. If they were going to change the character, and not make him “Asian,” then what’s with all the orientalism in the setting? Even then, it’s still wrong because they’ve taken yet another POC character and erased him from existence.

That goes back to what I said earlier, she may not be “playing Asian” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t whitewash the character. They still took an originally Asian character and bent over backwards to come up with a reason for why said character had to be played by a white person. This is the double standard that’s the most frustrating. When I called for an Asian American actor to play Danny Rand, I had to come up with every justifiable reason for the suggestion, how an Asian American would not alter the character whatsoever. But white folks are like “just shave your head, it’s all good.”

Hollywood’s History of Whitewashed Asian Films (as provided by Claire Lanay)
  • BORIS KARLOFF
    Fu Manchu in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ 1932
  • KATHERINE HEPBURN
    Jade in ‘Dragon Seed’ 1944
  • JOHN WAYNE
    Genghis Khan in ‘The Conqueror’ 1956
  • MARLON BRANDO
    Sakini in ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ 1956
  • MICKEY ROONEY
    Mr. Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ 1961
  • ELIZABETH TAYLOR
    Cleopatra in ‘Cleopatra’ 1963
  • DAVID CARRADINE
    Kwai Chang Caine in ‘Kung Fu’ 1972-1975 &
    ‘Kung Fu: The Legend Continues’ 1993-1997
  • FISHER STEVENS
    Ben Jabituya in ‘Short Circuit’ 1986
  • LIAM NEESON
    Ra’s Al Ghul in ‘Batman Begins’ 2005
  • JUSTIN CHATWIN
    Goku in ‘Dragonball Evolution’ 2009
  • JAKE GYLLENHAAL
    Dastan in ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’ 2010
  • NOAH RINGER, NICOLA PELTZ, JACKSON RATHBONE
    Aang, Katara, Sokka in ‘The Last Airbender’ 2010
  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
    Khan Noonien Singh in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ 2013
  • JOHNNY DEPP
    Tonto in ‘Lone Ranger’ 2013
  • CHRISTIAN BALE, JOEL EDGERTON
    Moses, Ramses in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ 2014
  • EMMA STONE
    Ng in ‘Aloha’ 2015
  • ROONEY MARA
    Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ 2015
  • GERARD BUTLER, NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU
    Set, Horus in ‘Gods of Egypt’ 2016
  • TILDA SWINTON
    Ancient One in ‘Doctor Strange’ 2016
  • SCARLETT JOHANSSON
    Motoko Kusanagi in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ 2017

Ghost in the Shell is, as Jon Tsuei has written on Twitter, an inherently Japanese story, but now the history is probably getting taken out of the film. Do you think the film is on the path of ignoring some of the historical and cultural elements that makes Ghost in the Shell as provocative as it is?

Lanay: If that’s the case, then why call it Ghost in the Shell?  If you’re going to remove the character’s backstory and culture, then call it something else.  At least Tom Cruise and Doug Liman understood that when they were making ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.  It was an American adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill.  They weren’t going to be idiots and keep the same title, the same character names and the same history.  Would you buy Tom Cruise playing a character named Keiji Kiriya?

The publisher of Kodansha has stated that he sees nothing wrong with Johansson playing Kusanagi, and quite a few Japanese movie goers have expressed the opinion of not going to see the movie anyway. What does this tell you about how the international market, particularly the Asian market, might accept or reject this film?

Chow: The way we view and discuss race in America is very different than how people in other countries view and discuss race. Japan has its own issues with how it views race and ethnicity that is irrelevant to Asian Americans in America.

To be blunt, folks in Japan or China might flock to the movie. Who knows? But that isn’t the problem. My advocating for Asian American actors has nothing to do with Chinese moviegoers, to be honest. China has its own movie industry with its own stars. There are a billion and a half Chinese people in the world. In China, “representation” of Chinese faces isn’t an issue. That is not what’s happening here, however. We [in America] have to move away from this idea that Asians in America are all foreign. Going back to Iron Fist, the whole gist of my original essay was to prove that we too are American. Why does “westernizing” something automatically require casting white people? This is the question I want people to ask themselves.

Lanay: The reason why a lot of folks in Japan are not upset about Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell is because they already have their own media infrastructure.  They already have their own, actors, singers, dancers, writers, producers, directors.  They already have their own content made for them by them.  So they don’t really care about one movie with one white actress.  In this country, Hollywood gives us less than a handful of opportunities to see ourselves represented in movies and television, so of course we’re clamoring for whatever crumbs and scraps are tossed our way.  The rest of the world soaks up our content, but we don’t promote or watch content from the rest of the world.  That makes seeing diversity in American media all the more important to POC in this country because it’s such a rarity.

Do I think it’ll do as well as Lucy? Doubtful.  Do I think a Black Widow movie would be the better option for Johansson?  Absolutely! She’s not hard up for cash or some struggling actress trying to make her big break.  She didn’t have to say yes to Ghost in the Shell.

I want to see Doctor Strange.  Controversy aside, I am a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I’ll take a look at Iron Fist since I’ve enjoyed watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  Even though the nasty discourse has left a bad taste in my mouth, I’m very curious to see how they build towards The Defenders.  Can’t wait to see Luke Cage!  Will I watch Ghost in the Shell?  Nah, I’ll be skipping that one.

Recently, several actresses of Asian descent have called The Major “blackface,” launching another layer to the outrage. Do you think about the controversy over calling such casting “blackface,” despite the term “yellowface” in existence?

Chow: Yeah, I cringed when I saw that report. I in no way condone the analogy, primarily because yellowface is an offensive and racist enough practice on its own — but I get why Constance felt she had to make it. One of the problems is that most people think race in America is binary. This has always been part of the struggle for Asian Americans when discussing race in that context.

Often in matters of race, Asian Americans are only perceived depending on their relation to whiteness or blackness. But I don’t think that excuses co-opting black struggle to make a point. I think as a community we have to be mindful about how we coalition build and support one another without being anti-black in the process. This is why the backlash against #OscarsSoWhite was disheartening. This was an example of a pan-ethnic protest against the industry’s overwhelming whiteness, but for whatever reason non-black POCs thought their issues were being ignored. It didn’t help that during the telecast aired, Asians were still openly mocked.

So I understand the frustration and feeling like you’re invisible. But we shouldn’t criticize others for not standing up for us if we don’t first stand up for ourselves. This is why I’m working with Ellen Oh (of #WeNeedDiverseBooks fame) to launch a campaign to bring even more attention to the racist practice of whitewashing. We’ll be attempting to take to social media on May 3 with the hashtag #WhitewashedOUT. I’ll have more details on that soon[click here for that information].

Lanay: As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up with friends and influences of all backgrounds… As someone who has so much love and respect for the African American community… As someone who is deeply proud to call many intelligent, creative, beautiful Black people my friends… I’m very troubled by Constance Wu’s choice to use the term “blackface” over the term “yellowface” in regards to what we’re discussing here.  She specifically said “blackface” because she thought it would be more “evocative”.

While I fully appreciate the outrage towards her comments, I have some idea of where she’s coming from. During the Oscars telecast, Chris Rock did a fine job of addressing the #OscarsSoWhite elephant in the room.  So all the more reason people in the Asian community were upset and insulted by three little Asian kids being paraded on stage to make fun of their own kind. Can’t forget Sacha Baron Cohen’s “little yellow people with the tiny dicks” joke.

While I deem her tone to be a little aggressive or hostile, I can understand why Wu and many others were incensed by these jokes during a show that was basically hammering diversity down people’s throats.  Yes, there were no Black nominees.  There were no Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Disabled, or LGBT ones either (as far as I know).

…When I came across the “blackface” comment, my first thought was: “Why all of the sudden, are Asians getting angry now?  Why weren’t they speaking out and standing up when we were getting disrespected or excluded before?”  I was starting to feel like I was the only Asian-American who gave a damn.  Why are the rest of them so late to the party?

…I’m bothered by Wu’s comments because it reinforces the divide amongst POC.  We should be working together.  It’s bad enough that we keep falling into the trap of begging Hollywood for a seat at the table and trying to convince white people of our worth without us turning on each other too.

What do you want Hollywood to learn from these casting debacles?

Chow: Mainly that white people are not the only people in the world. I wan the studios to understand that having non-white people in a movie can actually be a good thing. But mostly, I want there to be more opportunity for actors of color. 

Lanay: The studio executives don’t view these decisions as debacles.  They’re not listening.  They don’t care. They wanted to cast name-actors, so they did.  White is the standard of beauty.  White is the grade for which excellence is measured.  White is the default setting.  Anything outside of that is seen as an abnormality.

Rinko Kikuchi is an academy award-nominated actress for her role in Babel.  She’s already in the nerd-sphere starring in projects like Pacific Rim.  Tao Okamoto is a supermodel in Japan.  She was in The Wolverine and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  I bet you anything, these women weren’t even considered.  I bet you no Asian actress was considered for Ghost in the Shell.

There have been plenty of white-starred movies that have failed.  There have been plenty of diverse-starred movies that have succeeded.  Hollywood learns nothing.  The outliers who take risks and go against conventional wisdom are the ones who will instill change… eventually.  I hope I’m still around to see that change.  Scratch that.  I am going to be part of that change. ♦

The controversy surrounding these films are needed, and the conversations they’re starting are necessary. If Hollywood is really going to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to proper representation, two of the first places to start are finally ending the practices whitewashing and yellowface. When a group of people grow up hardly ever seeing themselves on-screen, that causes serious psychological, social, and cultural repercussions. Ending these practices and representing people fairly on-screen would allow for everyone to feel accepted and like they are a valued part of America. Lanay states this point best:

“For a long time, I hated being Asian.  I hated the way I looked.  I hated not getting the auditions I wanted.  I hated not being taken seriously.  My mother would always tell me not to make waves.  With all due respect – F*ck that sh*t! I’m making some damn waves!  Nobody should feel like they were born in the wrong skin.  Nobody should feel ashamed for being what they are.”

Other articles to check out:

#S4MBlerds: Dear Hollywood, whitewashing doesn’t make better movies|Blavity

Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and How Hollywood Keeps Giving Asian Roles to White Actors|Complex

6 Japanese Actresses Who Could (and Should!) Replace Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’|Yahoo

Hollywood’s glaring problem: White actors playing Asian characters|L.A. Times

N.O.C. One-Shot: Whitewashing in Black and Yellow| The Nerds of Color

Some Thoughts on Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell|The Nerds of Color

Hollywood’s upcoming films prove it loves Asian culture – as long as it comes without Asians|Media Diversified

What a Shitty Week to be an Asian American Woman in Hollywood|The Nerds of Color

Constance Wu And Ming-Na Wen Protest Hollywood’s Whitewashing Of “Ghost In The Shell”|Buzzfeed

Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?|New York Times