Tag Archives: racial

Riverdale react: So…let’s talk about Chuck Clayton

Riverdale’s interpretation of Chuck Clayton might have done actor Jordan Calloway (pictured in character) a disservice. Chuck deserved better than this characterization. (CW/screengrab)

Riverdale Episode 3| “Body Double”| Aired Feb. 9, 2017

Chuck Clayton has gone down as the first character Riverdale‘s penchant for reinvention has revamped in the worst way possible. This is not the way for the show to enter its first Black History Month.

Before I get deep into why this is, I hate that the first article I’m writing for Riverdale is something that’s about a disappointing plot point. Up until this particular intro of Chuck, I was with the show. Technically, I’m still with the show, since Jughead is coming through for me. (Seems like Jughead is going to turn out to be one of the standouts from this show, like I’d hoped he would be.)

Also, I’ll have a bit of a refresher on the past three episodes in the foreseeable future. Work has kept me away from having time to write.

Thirdly, I’d like to apologize to actor Jordan Calloway, who is a fine actor and played the role he was given expertly well. Jordan, if you happen to read this, I commend you for the role you played and I agree with your tweet about this episode; it highlighted a big issue concerning women’s rights that should be addressed more often in the media. If you happen to find this post, I hope you’ll be able to see where my complex feelings about the character you portrayed are coming from and I hope you don’t begrudge me for it (because if I’m still in the entertainment journalism business, I’m sure I’ll be interviewing you at some point and I want us to start off on the right foot. I’m one of the most agreeable and nicest people ever, if may toot my own horn). This is not personal and I sincerely hope you’ll get more high profile roles in the future. (You’d be great as a leading man in a romantic comedy, for sure!)

In any event, though, we’ve got to talk about Chuck. Or at least, I have to talk about Chuck.

I have several points that need to be addressed during this particular episode, “Body Double.” In fact, I think the writers’ interpretation of Chuck might have done Calloway a disservice. Not because his character was a bad guy, but because the writers saddled his character with unnecessary layers of racial stereotyping, despite the fact that this version of Chuck truly deserves no favors nor sympathy. However, he could have been a cad without that hot tub + handcuffs + “Good boy” scene. Let’s get into it.

Chuck has always been one of my favorite characters from the Archie Comics series. In the comicsverse, Chuck is an artist, a sensitive soul, and an all-around good kid. And he’s the loyal boyfriend to Nancy, who seems to support his artistic dreams, but also seems mildly annoyed by her boyfriend’s flights of comic book fancy. In short, Chuck is Riverdale’s Favorite Black Guy. We can get into how his being one of the only black characters in Archie Comics reflects the inherent tokenism black people in white spaces feel all the time in another post, since Chuck and Nancy both resonate to me on that level, too, having been one of the few black kids at my arts high school. It’s tough having to be the only black person in a white space. #SeatAtTheTable.

Chuck Clayton, as drawn by Archie Comics artist/writer Dan Parent.

Now, I get that Riverdale is all about reinventing these characters—I mean, Dilton is now a hardcore survivalist who shoots guns underage—so I get that Chuck was going to be a little different than what we’ve read before. However, did he have to be that different? And so problematically different?

Why is Chuck problematic now? Because it seems like low hanging fruit (strange fruit, perhaps) that Chuck, the first black teen boy we’ve seen thus far, is introduced as a sex-crazed maniac with no remorse for the girls he’s hurt. To be honest, the appearance of Chuck as a black man who only thinks with his dick and kept a book of how many girls’ lives he ruined smacked of stereotypes of the past, of the black “Mandingo” who lusted after so-called “saintly” white women. Not a good look for what is supposed to be a progressive show.

With all of the inventive portrayals we’ve seen of the main characters thus far, portrayals that still retain the core of the characters from the comic books, it seems like there could have been a lot more done with Chuck than just give him a complete 180 with now seeming justification for it. If Veronica is still a rich girl (despite turning over a new leaf) and Betty is still The Girl Next Door (despite having some clear mental instability) and Archie is still America’s Favorite Teenager (despite being jailbait for “Ms. Grundy,”who we’ve learned from next week’s promos isn’t Ms. Grundy at all), how come Chuck still couldn’t be a comic book artist? Even Dilton, who is probably the most altered of the core group, is still a dweeb; now, he’s just a dweeb who wants to prove his masculinity to the world.

Maybe in the Riverdaleverse, Chuck could have been a comic book artist who has angst over his career choices (something both comicverse Chuck and many artists, including the artists who drew Chuck and artists in other fields like me have all the time). Maybe Chuck could have channeled his depression about his future (or any home issues the writers could have come up with) into his art. His dad’s Coach Clayton—maybe, like Archie and his father, Chuck and his dad don’t see eye to eye when it comes to the arts; his father might want him to go into football as a career, while all Chuck wants to do is draw on his drafting table in the garage and buy oil pastels from the art store. (This could have also made for great friendship drama between Archie and Jughead; Chuck is one of Archie’s supposed “best friends” in the comic book; in the Riverdaleverse, Chuck could have been friendship competition for Jughead, who might want his “Best Friend” spot back after he knows there’s competition.)  For the ultimate in dramatic effect, maybe Chuck’s dad could have even found Chuck’s artistic pursuits too “fey” to handle (this gets into more stereotypical territory when it comes to the black community’s overly-generalized view on LGBT individuals, of course, but at least it would have been something to work with that would make Chuck a human being instead of a caricature). What I’m getting is that a number of things could have been done with Chuck, a character ripe with severely untapped potential. But instead, Chuck is one step from being a rapist. Okay.

The show seems to know that they were doing something dangerous with Chuck, because in this episode, we also met another black guy, the foil to Chuck’s badness, Trev. Trev’s character is angelic to a fault almost. He’s shy, meek, and wants to bring Chuck to justice. In many ways, he’s what Chuck was in the comic books. It’s interesting that the show decided that this was the time to introduce more than one black guy on the series, and it’s a calculated move; they want to give the sense to the audience that 1) they know Chuck would appear even worse if he were the only black guy we saw and 2) we know they’re in on “the joke,” as it were. They want us to be like, “Oh, they’re aware of the stereotypes, so they’re actively combating them. This is cool.” It’s not that cool, actually.

Trev (Adain Bradley) and Ethel (Shannon Purser) speak to Betty about the elusive slut-shaming book circling around the Riverdale High football team. (CW/Screengrab)

I know one argument against disliking Chuck’s reinvention is that making Chuck a “good guy” character could also be seen as a “One Size Fits All” black guy stereotype. Too often, we as black people are portrayed as either being absolutely bad or the Most Perfect, Inoffensive, Special Black Person (as shown in this exact episode with Chuck and Trev). It’s like we as a race deal with the saint/whore dynamic on a daily basis, especially in the media. It is great when a show portrays black characters (and characters of color in general) as complex human beings, capable of both bad and good. There will be some bad guys who are black, just like there will be some good guys who are black, and all of that is welcome. However, there’s a line that can be easily crossed, the line that separates “complex bad guy” from “bad black guy stereotype”. Seems like Riverdale crossed that line.

However, the show also put Betty in a bad light as well. I’m not sure how aware the writers were of what they were making Betty do, but putting a black male youth in chains (in order to punish him and taunt him sexually), having a her, a white girl and therefore in racial power over Chuck, say “Good boy” and then abusing him is not a good look either. Someone should have reread that scene, particularly the part with the handcuffs, and said, “Hey guys, I don’t know about this part. Can he at least not be chained up and can she just say ‘good,’ not ‘good boy’?”

Betty goes dark(haired) for her revenge on Chuck. (CW/Screengrab)

Look, I know Riverdale was exercising its campiness in that scene; I mean, saying “Good boy” to a dude while wearing a wig and some cliché lingerie is, in any other situation, one of the heights of sexual camp. It’s also supposed to be the juicy, soap-operatic version of “I am woman, hear me roar.” But, the optics of this particular scene were just wrong. Did Chuck deserve some comeuppance? Sure. No one’s disputing that. Did we really have to invoke some slave/master’s wife stuff though, however indirectly? In the words of Randy Jackson, “That’s a no from me, dawg.”

The final question I’m sure your asking is this: Do I think Riverdale is racist? Surprise (maybe), but no, I don’t think it’s actively trying to be racist, however that particular episode had an f-ed up scenario with Chuck and the entire Chuck concept.

The show still did some interesting things with race this episode, such as have Josie give Archie the white privilege primer we as POC wish we didn’t have to recite or think about most days of our lives. The writers are at least aware of some of the aspects of being black in America. (In some ways, that particular scene of Josie telling Archie how he can waltz into a room and get the respect and breaks she and her Pussycats can’t get is also meta commentary on K.J. Apa himself, who has Samoan heritage, but can easily pass for white.)

But there seems to be a hyper-awareness of how white privilege affects black women on this show, whereas the plight of black men still seems to escape the show’s themes, which was made apparent by this episode in particular. Do not misunderstand me—it is great that this entire episode was about women’s rights. The plot of this show was timely, seeing how we have a President who has said that he grabs women “by the pussy.” We need our television to keep reminding those who either don’t know or somehow forget that yes, a woman has a right to choose everything that goes with her body and she should never be objectified and psychologically abused by male chauvinist pigs. But the decision to cast Chuck, the very first black teen boy we see on this show, as that dude we all hate seemed to be too easy of a decision to make. Yes, there are black men who need to be schooled on male privilege, but the first black male kid we’ve seen on this show has to be the one that has to learn that lesson?

The only other images of black manhood we’ve seen on Riverdale are men who are tertiary characters at best, like Chuck’s dad Coach Clayton and race-bent Mr. Weatherbee and Pop. These guys as characters are sparse, to be kind; they don’t really say much, and, like some of the other adults in the show, are only there as set dressing. The most vocal has been Weatherbee, and even then, he’s saying stuff a stock principal character would say. With so little of black male diversity on the show, it would have behooved the writers to at least make Trev the first black male teen we saw in this episode, or make Chuck more complex as a character. Or, even better, they could have made sure we saw black male teens from the beginning, as well as more black girls other than the Pussycats. They can’t be the only black girls in town, right? Where’s Nancy??

In short, I think the show’s writers had an inkling that what they were doing was “pushing boundaries,” and while it is problematic, I don’t think the show, at its core, meant true harm. However, that doesn’t mean a lesson can’t be learned here. In the future, I hope the writers think about how black men—and black people as a whole—are portrayed. That same sensitivity shown in the scene in which Josie is giving Archie a white privilege primer should be used on all black characters, as well as characters of color in general. It is time that stereotypes such as the black Mandingo be put to rest once and for all.

Make sure check out my #Riverdale livetweets at The Choklit Shoppe (@ChoklitShoppe), the unofficial Riverdale aftershow and podcast! We’re also on Tumblr!

What Disney’s Lack of a Black Disney Prince Reveals about America’s View of Black Masculinity

We’ve got Aladdin. We’ve got Kokoum. We’ve got Shang. We’ve got Kuzco. We’ve got Naveen. We’ve got Maui, who is technically a demigod. But where’s the animated black Disney prince? Inquiring minds want to know, but inquiring minds also want to understand why the majesty of the black man has been erased from Disney’s range of thought.

Disney has had some explaining to do about this issue, but the problem became glaringly apparent with the development of The Princess and The Frog, which included a belabored creation process for the prince character that would eventually become Prince Naveen. Originally, the prince character was going to be, from what I remember, a charismatic “Cary Grant” type. According to the old, old description from The SuperHeroHype forums:

[PRINCE HARRY] A gregarious, fun-loving European Prince, in his early twenties. A young Cary Grant. Charming, witty but irresponsible and immature. Loves jazz. Dialect: British upper-class.

This was met with criticism, because why couldn’t a black prince be created? The other princesses get princes of their own races—why not Tiana? Disney met this criticism by changing Prince Harry to a beige, non-white, but also non-black Prince from…Maldonia? Needle scratch.

Let me already say that this statement goes against the fact that this film, despite its flaws, is a representation of interracial marriage, something that is rare in entertainment. But The Princess and the Frog reveals how Disney failed even that narrative. 1) Why make Naveen from a made-up country? Why have the love interest for the first black Disney princess, a character set in a real place, literally be a person who couldn’t exist in our world (because where is MaldoniaNowhere.) Wouldn’t it be easier to just make a character from an actual country if Tiana’s from New Orleans? 2) If Disney set out to create a film focusing on an interracial relationship, it would have been nice for them to include such a focus in their marketing plan. The creators never focused on the type of impact such a story could have on its audiences, so they never showcased it in any interviews or press information. They were only focused on marketing the film as the first black Disney princess film. This is not to say that value can’t be taken from The Princess and the Frog having an interracial relationship, but it would have been fantastic if Disney had actually recognized the story they had on their hands (and thus, the story they could have fleshed out and made even better and more meaningful).

The questions I’ve always had are 1) what prevented Disney from creating a black Disney prince, and 2) why have they not created a black Disney prince before? Why are we still relying on The Lion King for the closest thing we have to a black Disney prince?

I thought I’d take to Twitter to ask this question. Here are the results.



As it turns out, that while there are some men who aren’t particularly moved by the lack of a black animated Disney prince, there are many others who are upset, to say the least, about the lack of a black Disney prince.

Disney’s silence on not creating a black Disney prince reflects how America at large views black men, black masculinity, and the desirability of black males.

1. Black masculinity is still seen as dangerous: It is telling that the only black man that exists throughout the entirety of the film is Doctor Facilier. If you recall, Tiana’s father, the black man that is a good father, good husband, and all-around upstanding guy, dies during Tiana’s childhood. First, there’s the question of why Disney would even hire a big name like Terrence Howard to say just a couple of lines. But the more serious question is why does Disney feel more comfortable seeing black male villainy on screen rather than a positive portrayal of black fatherhood and manhood?

Despite the fact that Doctor Facilier was designed to be scrawny (and that Disney decided to hire their former long-time animator and Jambalaya Studios creator Bruce W. Smith to oversee his design in order to give the film representation behind the scenes), Doctor Facilier still embodies latent ideas that could be in the subconscious of the film’s white creators and are definitely in the collective consciousness of America at large. On the whole, America still treats black people, uniquely black men, as inherent, born criminals. There’s still a dangerousness that people expect from black men, which explains why so many black men have been stopped by police no bogus claims, thrown in jail for petty crimes (or no crime at all), or killed at the hands of police, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. This idea of “dangerousness” is also inherent in the amount of Latino and Native American men killed by police; there seems to be an “us against them” mentality with some police officers, and that’s not how policing is supposed to be.

The idea of dangerousness goes all the way back to slavery. I wrote in my Michael Brown post that Brown, Trayvon Martin, and others like them have been killed at the ages that they would have been sold for the highest price if they existed during slavery times. That age range is also the same range that they would be (and have been) considered the most dangerous.

Even much of the language used to describe Brown, Martin, and others depict a stereotype of savagery and fear in the mind of the killer. Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, called Brown a “demon” and as someone who was basically hulking up the more he got shot. George Zimmerman described himself as being in fear for his life. That narrative goes back to the idea that black men are brutes that need to be broken like horses, otherwise, they provide a danger for “good” people.

If a black man is considered dangerous by America, then could America accept the idea of a black prince? Could a positive portrayal of a black prince exist in a culture that still fears a section of its citizens? I implore Disney to disrupt the stereotypes facing black men by creating such a character.

2. Black wealth is a buried secret in America: Like how outsiders simply view Rio’s black population as living in favelas, America itself still views its black people as living in poverty. Such an idea is clearly not true, but it’s an idea that still resonates with America’s racist view of black Americans. Just look at how Donald Trump is trying to win over black Americans–by telling them they’re in poverty, they have no jobs, and they’re surrounded by crime. “What the hell do you have to lose?” he asks. A LOT.

But if we look at American history as a whole, there has been black wealth. Take for instance Greenwood, the area of Tulsa, OK called “Black Wall Street” in the early 20th century. That area was then burned down in 1921 in what is called the Tulsa race riot, which was started by neighboring white citizens who felt Greenwood was growing in status and political clout. They felt that to secure their own hold on American wealth and politics, they had to burn down a positive representation of black success.

African-American culture is also removed from pan-African culture, which holds the history of many black princes, generals, etc. The richest man in the world of all time is 14th century African prince Mansa Musa. However, such history, including American history such as the Tulsa race riot, aren’t taught in school.

With such representations of black wealth destroyed, the myth has persisted that black wealth–and therefore, rich black people–doesn’t exist. Such thinking could have taken place when it came to the idea of creating Tiana’s prince. Did the team behind the film not consider the fact that there have been and are, indeed, wealthy black people? Or did they think that was impossible?

3. Black men are seen as unfeeling and emotionless: Again, to go back to slavery, black people were considered to have no feelings at all, thereby partially justifying slavery in the minds of white Americans at the time. Stereotypes like the smiling Sambo and the brutish, hypersexual creature who lives to take white women portray black men in two dynamics, both of which being untrue; either they’re cartoonish buffoons without realistic cares, or they’re an insatiable animal.

There’s also another reason black men are seen as emotionless: the emotional toll some black families put on their black men. Many boys are taught growing up that it’s not okay to show emotion, especially cry. To “be a man,” it’s thought that bottling emotions is the way to go, because showing emotions is “girl stuff.” However, the double whammy of society and familial pressures affects black men in a way that I feel is still unexplored in modern media.

In Disney animated films, we often see princes with a wide range of emotions. Aladdin’s entire story focused on his emotions about being a “streetrat” hoping to impress Princess Jasmine. Tarzan’s story is a classic coming-of-age tale. Shang, a captain in the army, has to deal with the pressures of leading a battalion to glory while processing the death of his father (a moment that probably happens too quickly in the film). Kokoum, who doesn’t express much emotion (which is also a stereotype of the Native Brave), shows reverence for Pocahontas, concern over her safety, and eventual anger at what he thought was John Smith taking advantage of Pocahontas. Even Eric, who is possibly the most wooden Disney prince of all time, has a couple of moments of feeling, even if it’s just confusion as to who rescued him. If Disney created a black prince, would they be able to give him the emotional beats he deserves?

Which leads me to the final point:

4. Disney’s think-tank doesn’t understand the black male experience (and of course they wouldn’t): John Lasseter and his crew have an inclusion issue that must be addressed. Why is it that there isn’t a person of color in these higher ranks? Why is it that Disney acts like Silicon Valley in how they exclude POC voices in its animation ranks? ABC, Lucasfilm, and now even Marvel seem to have a grasp on the idea of including diversity to meet audience demands. Disney, the parent company, still lags behind.

Do I think Disney would eventually make a black prince? Perhaps. But do I think they could really make a black prince that speaks to the black experience on a macro-scale? No. I recommend for Disney to hire black male animators into their ranks, and specifically hire thinkers and, as they call folks, “dreamers” who can be given carte blanche to direct films, much like how they give themselves carte blanche to create films. If a Cars franchise can be created, then an animated film starring a black Disney prince, a film created with sensitivity, intelligence, and a root in the black experience, can be created as well.

What do you think about this? Give your opinions in the comments section below, and if you give your opinions in Twitter, use the hashtag #BlackDisneyPrince. The more people who comment and hashtag, the higher the chances Disney might actually see this post and our hope for a black Disney prince might come closer to a reality!

#DifferenceMakers: Janel Martinez’s “Ain’t I Latina” Reps for Afro-Latinas Left Out of the Conversation

There is not enough focus on the people who live at the intersections of cultures and ethnicities. The Afro-Latina identity is one such group that seems to go under the radar in the media, and for no good reason. In the media, the idea of the Latina is that of a light-skinned, European or mestizo looking woman. Even in popular magazines geared towards the Latinx community and Latinas in particular, the diverse range of Latinas aren’t routinely showcased, Afro-Latinas in particular. The stereotype of what a Latina should look like isn’t capturing the full scope of those who are, in fact, Latina. Enter the much-needed site, Ain’t I Latina? to work to correct that oversight.

Ain’t I Latina was created by Honduran-American multimedia journalist Janel Martinez, who sought to give Afro-Latinas the coverage they’ve been missing in the media. Her Twitter page gives a quick summary of what you can expect:

Her bio page gives a more in-depth explanation of her site.

Ain’t I Latina? is an online destination created by an Afro-Latina for Afro-Latinas. Inspired by the lack of representation in mainstream media, as well as Spanish-language media, Janel Martinez, a 20-something journalist and New York native, wanted to create a space where millennial Latinas can celebrate their diversity. In addition to offering celebrity news, career advice, lifestyle coverage and exclusive interviews with today’s hottest Latinas, Ain’t I Latina? offers you, the reader, an opportunity to share your story.

There is a lot to take in on Ain’t I Latina, including the site’s latest interview with Evelyn Lozada and daughter Shaniece Hairston, Afro-Latina musicians and authors to look out for, theatrical portrayals of the Afro-Latina identity, etc. Most important of all, it fosters community and an outlet for women who haven’t seen themselves celebrated on the whole in media. I recommend you give Ain’t I Latina a shot.

Are you a fan of Ain’t I Latina? What do you love about the site? Give your opinions below!

Zendaya’s Mary Jane Watson could be the biracial heroine you’ve been looking for

K.C. UNDERCOVER - Disney Channel's "K.C. Undercover" stars Zendaya as K.C. Cooper. (Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin)
K.C. UNDERCOVER – Disney Channel’s “K.C. Undercover” stars Zendaya as K.C. Cooper. (Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin)

It’s official: Zendaya is playing Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Marvel film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. But why is everyone quick to assume that Mary Jane is black? What if it turns out that Mary Jane is biracial, like the actress playing her? And if this is true, how will this positively affect other biracial girls of African-American and Caucasian heritage that see her on-screen?

There has been plenty of talk about the lack of mono-racial people of color (for lack of a better word) for a while now. But it seems like most people don’t turn that conversation to a group of people of color who have been unrepresented, sometimes twice or many times over: biracial and multiracial people of color.

Technically, most of us in the U.S. have at least one other ethnicity in our heritage. But most of us claim just one. In many respects, the “one drop rule” still applies, even in the mouths of people who state that they don’t believe it. If you look black, you’re black. If you look Asian, you’re Asian, etc. Halle Berry famously said that her mother, who is white, told her to accept that she’s black, because that’s all anyone would see. Even President Barack Obama, who is biracial, is constantly called the first black president, even though that title negates the other half of his heritage. The same is happening with Zendaya’s Mary Jane; most people assume she’s playing a black Mary Jane, when it could be that she’s playing a biracial Mary Jane, a character that could draw on Zendaya’s own experiences as a biracial woman.

I should stress that I’m putting asterisks and air-quotes around the word “could.” Knowing how Marvel is at representation sometimes, there’s the overwhelming possibility that Zendaya is playing a black character. However, this particular film has the most inclusive casting of a Marvel film, and none of it seems like stunt casting. This film, as far as I’m concerned, is a watershed moment for Marvel and could signal a higher degree of focus and sensitivity towards casting. This sensitivity might also be applied to characterization. If it is, that would be a boon for biracial people, specifically those of African-American and Caucasian heritage, because biracial and multiracial people are hardly ever showcased in the media, and when they are, they are usually shown in an objectifying and dehumanizing light.

According to The Critical Media Project, the 19th and 20th centuries generally showcased biracial people as the “tragic mulatto,” the byproduct of a sordid relationship between a white and black couple. These characters were usually seen in a binary light, being tragic figures because they couldn’t fit into either the white or black worlds. The context in which these characters were viewed was from a white point of view; the only value these characters had were if they could pass as white, and if they couldn’t then their supposed tragedy made them unfit to exist in a world that only viewed race in terms of “undesirable” blackness and “exceptional” whiteness. There are several films like this that have been shown on TCM, but the most popular one has to be Imitation of Life, in which the biracial woman rejects her black mother, passes as white, and remains as such until her boyfriend leaves her because of her black heritage. (Spoiler alert: Her mother dies of a broken heart after her daughter tells her she hates her; the daughter only comes to her senses after her mother has died and she flings herself onto her mother’s casket during her funeral procession.)

Today though, biracial and multiracial people are now thought of as the product of an exotic, idealized future. This sounds like it should be positive, but it still puts biracial and multiracial people in terms of theory, not reality. To quote The Critical Media Project:

“…[T]he increasingly globalized nature of identity means that the conversation around mixed race tends to move beyond an isolated focus on black/white issues to incorporate other racial and ethnic identities. Mixed race individuals are often talked about in futuristic terms, conceptualized as modern hybrid beings that signal a faster, stronger and better world ahead. They are also often sexualized and fetishized as mysterious, exotic, sexy and extraordinary looking.”

Even though the tone of the conversation has shifted, biracial and multiracial people are still afflicted with stereotyping and objectification. Maybe one reason we rarely see biracial and multiracial people represented in the media is because too many people still view the idea of a multiracial society as a futuristic, sci-fi world that isn’t here yet, when in fact, it is here. It’s been here for centuries. In short, things have got to get out of the theoretical and into the practical when it comes to representing biracial and multiracial people as people, people who live in the now. Zendaya’s Mary Jane could go a long way in beginning to right that wrong.

The biggest film featuring an interracial family in recent memory is Infinitely Polar Bear, starring Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo. Mirren Lyell for Mixed Nation also cites Nickelodeon shows Sanjay and Craig and The Haunted Hathaways as recent TV shows depicting interracial families. But there should be more films like this. Indeed, there should be more media of all types about multiracial and biracial people. As John Paul Brammer of Blue Nation Review wrote:

In the context of the media diversity debate, multiracial people exist in a precarious place. On the one hand, they seem to be left out for the sake of a more direct approach to criticism of media representation of minorities. “We need more black characters” or “We need more Asian characters” are strong demands with a history of mischaracterization and discrimination behind them. “We need more multiracial people of color” is seen as a level of intersectionality that Hollywood simply can’t process.

On the other hand, multiracial characters are often employed as copouts in the media, used to represent ethnic minorities in a more “palatable” way for mainstream audiences. Multiracial black actors with light skin are hired over black actors with darker skin. White Latinos are hired over Latinos with ethnic features.

Even films with progressive racial themes have come under fire for this. The film Dear White People, a film created to represent black people and discuss white racism, was criticized for casting as its protagonist a biracial, light-skinned black woman.

More representations of biracial and multiracial characters could help quell Hollywood’s usage of actors and actresses of mixed heritage as social and political wedges. More representations would also help build the self-esteem of many kids who don’t see characters who represent all of their heritage on screen. According to this article by Astrea Greig, MA for the American Psychological Association:

“Despite large growth, the multiracial population still comprises a very small fraction of the U.S. population (Humes, Jones, & Ramirez, 2011). Moreover, multiracial people in the media are often depicted as monoracial (CNPAAEMI, 2009; Dalmage, 2000; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). As a result of the small population and lack of media representation, multiracial youth may feel that they do not have a multiracial community and lack role models to help them understand their mixed identity (Dalmage, 2000; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Multiracial role models are thus extremely helpful for mixed children and teens (Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Moreover, having a community of others with a mixed racial and/or ethnic background has shown to help improve psychological well-being (Iijima Hall, 2004; Sanchez & Garcia, 2009).”

If Marvel allowed it, Mary Jane Watson could be one such role model for biracial children. Her story, which as many have said is independent of race, would go a long way to represent biracial and multiracial people not as an ideal or as a tragedy, but as an ordinary person who faces personal and social issues big and small. A biracial Mary Jane would be yet a further stepping stone towards true identity equality in Hollywood and in society.

What do you think about a biracial Mary Jane? Write about it in the comments section below!

Olympic-sized “Rogue One,” “Luke Cage,” “Hidden Figures” trailers promise awesomeness

The Olympics is like the Super Bowl in that lots of big properties reveal their big trailers. Three such trailers were released during the Rio Olympics: Luke CageRogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Hidden Figures. Let’s take a look at each.

Luke Cage

First of all, it looks incredible. If I’m being completely honest, I’ve never tuned into a Marvel Netflix production, either because I didn’t know the lore or, quite frankly, I just didn’t care. But the updated ’70s blaxploitation take on Luke Cage is both reminiscent of past awesome crime fighters like Shaft and extremely timely to what’s going on today.

Everyone has mentioned the imagery of the unkillable black man in a shot-up hoodie providing both commentary and relief from the constant deluge of black men and boys being killed by police or overzealous, racist men. But seeing that imagery in motion, just in the trailer, says so much without Luke Cage every saying a word. Also, the story itself seems to be told in such a way that someone like me, who has a hot-cold relationship with keeping up with all comics except for Archie Comics, can come into it fresh. It engages the audience whether you know about Luke Cage from the comics or not. That kind of treatment of comic book lore is gold, since you can’t always assume your audience knows everything about every character, especially if that character hasn’t become part of the collective consciousness in the same way Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man have.

Overall, this is a WIN for me. I’ll check out the series once it drops, despite my own squeamishness of hearing/seeing broken bones.

Rogue One

As Marv Albert would say, “Yes!”—this is ticking all of the boxes for me. I think from now on, I’ll lessen my usage of “diversity” and starting using the word “inclusion” more, because the rebooted Star Wars series (yes, rebooted—let’s just admit that the prequels are out of canon now) is showing other movie franchises how inclusion is done. You don’t just hire actors of color to be sidekicks, MARVEL MOVIES. You hire actors of color for substantial roles and treat them just like any white actor. You create characters that actually represent and empower your audience, not just appease them with some paltry offerings. Somehow, Marvel seems to do better at inclusion with their television shows and Netflix series than they do with the actual movies. Even stranger is that Marvel and Lucasfilm are now under the same Disney umbrella, so you’d think some cross-pollination with casting tactics would have happened already. Marvel needs to take some notes from J. J. Abrams, stat.

Anyways, we’ve got talented actors doing talented things in this film. Even cooler is that the central character is a woman. Also cool is that Darth Vader finally looks cool again (once again, proof that this is a completely rebooted series). We also have some disability representation with Donnie Yen’s blind Jedi or Jedi-adjacent character. But will Yen’s character dip too far into the “mystical Asian kung-fu master” trope? Because if there’s one potential issue I see, it’s that. We just have to wait until the movie comes out. The other potential issue: Forrest Whitaker’s odd accent. But on the whole, Rogue One looks like it’ll proudly carry on the awesome legacy that began with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Hidden Figures

The film looks like it’s going to be one along the lines of 42 and Race in the sense that it’s going to be a feel-good film that also manages to teach the audience a historical lesson about overcoming discrimination to achieve excellence. But this film is also a reversal in practice for Hollywood, an industry that has ignored a story like this until now.

This role is something Taraji P. Henson should have played long before now, and its these types of roles Hollywood should have cast her in. What I’m saying is that usually, this type of “feel-good” role featuring a female character from the 1960s usually goes to a white woman, because in the ’60s as in today’s time, whiteness allows a certain privilege, meaning the character won’t have to deal with any sticky issues like race.

However, turning attention away from the history makers and achievers of the time only keeps black movie narratives stuck to the Civil Rights Movement. While that part of the ’60s is wildly important, there is more to the black experience than just misery. We didn’t exist just in the south; we existed all over the country, doing all kinds of things, including sending a man to the moon. Stories like this should have been lauded decades before now, not just now that Hollywood is slowly waking up to what many call in jaded tones the “diversity trend.”

On a much more shallower note: much like Whitaker, I’m unsure of Janelle Monaé’s accent in this film. I’m assuming she’s portraying a southerner; as a southerner, I’m always…disturbed by bad southern accents in films. There is an art to the southern accent not many non-southern actors have mastered. They always want to take it to that Scarlett O’Hara level, and not all southern accents are remotely like that. (I hated writing this paragraph, because I’m a loyal member of Electro Phi Beta…but I can’t lie about the accent.)

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

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.

Filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn Wants Navid Negahban as Rumi

Filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is tired of white Hollywood casting white actors as non-white characters. In particular, she doesn’t want Leonardo DiCaprio playing 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi in the biopic that’s currently in development. She has another suggestion for the role: actor Navid Negahban.

JUST ADD COLOR has been clearly against Rumi being played by someone other than a Middle Eastern actor. The site has covered the Rumi film controversy (in which the film’s screenwriter stated he wanted someone like Leonardo DiCaprio to play the historic figure) with our roundtable featuring Twitter user Mihrimah Irena, poetry writer, freelance editor and blogger Rana Tahir, film and media critic, filmmaker, speaker and consultant Imran Siddiquee, music festival organizer and co-founder of global arts and culture collaborative network #CultureFix Nora Rahimian, and writer and Citrine Magazine founder/editor Evadney Petgrave. Now, Littlejohn has also given her point of view in a post for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Littlejohn is the co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, a senior editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and co-screenwriter of independent film Lovers in Their Right Mind, a film about the burgeoning relationship between an Iranian immigrant and an African-American woman. She has also been interviewed on JUST ADD COLOR. Her piece for Los Angeles Review of Books’ site, called “Dear Hollywood (White) People: Let Rumi Be Brown,” argues for the film to cast Middle Eastern actors in the film, especially in the title role.

“The #RumiWasntWhite uproar is yet another post-#OscarsSoWhite call-to-action for Hollywood studios, producers, casting directors, writers, et al.,” she wrote. “Misappropriating the identity of an iconic character lke Rumi does not challenge sterotypes, it reinforces them. It is not even good “color blind” casting. It is once again denying audiences an accurate representation of culture and history.”

Littlejohn throws Negahban’s hat into the ring for possibly playing Rumi. “Negahban, whom GQ recently described as ‘very dashing, with an old-fashioned matinee-idol air to him […] the closest thing we have to the late Omar Sharif’ —and who counts former Israeli President Shimon Peres and US President Barack Obama among his fans —has been featured in two Oscar-nominated projects in the past two years: Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper in 2015 and the 2016 dramatic short, Day One,” wrote Littlejohn. “If there was anyone who could take on the role of Rumi, it is Navid Negahban: he’s Persian, he’s Muslim, and he can grow his own Rumi-esque beard in a matter of days.”

Negahban is also in Littlejohn’s Lovers in Their Right Mind, and she wrote about the hypocrisy of Hollywood possibly casting a white actor as a Middle Eastern character, but still consider a Middle Eastern actor as a risky business choice. “For more than three years, my screenwriting partner and I have been developing an independent feature film that predominately features African-American and Persian characters,” she wrote. “Despite having actor Navid Negahban — best known for his role as Abu Nazir, the enigmatic al-Qaeda leader he played for two seasons on Showtime’s Emmy-winning original series Homeland —attached as a producer and star of the project, ours is still considered a risky property.”

Negahban isn’t the only suggestion Littlejohn has for playing Rumi, though. She also offers the names of Shaun Toub (Homeland), David Diann (Homeland and Baba Joon with Negahban), Ali Saam (Argo), Amir Khalighi (Drones, Almost Broadway, Rumination—which is actually based on the works of Rumi), Bobby Naderi (Argo), Nicholas Guilak (Saving Jessica Lynch), and Dominic Rains (The Fixer). In short, the point is that Hollywood has a ton of talent they could be pulling from, but they deny the talent the chance. Instead, Hollywood still relies on white supremacist ideology.

Hopefully Hollywood had heard the anger from the populace who understand that representation is important. Representation shapes how we see and relate to each other and ourselves. Hopefully, Hollywood does what’s right and actually does cast a Middle Eastern actor to play this venerable figure.

Read Littlejohn’s article in its entirety at the Los Angeles Review of Books. 


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.


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!

“Tyrant”: Adam Rayner on Bassam Al-Fayeed in Cigar Aficionado

I’ve talked a lot about Tyrant on this site, as well as on my slice of the Entertainment Weekly Community. One of the biggest points of contention I’ve had is that the main character, Bassam/Barry, is played by a white British actor, Adam Rayner. Tyrant is a show completely about the Middle East and Middle Eastern characters. Seeing how actors of Middle Eastern descent have to face tons of stereotyping and marginalization in Hollywood to get meaningful roles (roles that aren’t terrorists), and how young Bassam is actually played by young actors of Middle Eastern descent despite Rayner playing adult Bassam, I’ve not only called the show out on its casting of the main character, but have personally wondered how Rayner felt about it. Well, he’s spoken about this and more in his interview with Cigar Aficionado.

“My main research was reading about the region…I’m not playing someone who was fully culturally an Arab man—to him, this world has become alien,” he told the magazine. “Still, I was learning about Bedouin and Arab culture, the history and politics, as well as the current political climate, trying to gain an understanding and knowledge that Bassam would have grown up with.”

Howard Gordon, the executive producer of Tyrant (along with other Middle Eastern-based—and contentious—shows 24 and Homeland), said of Rayner, “Obviously it’s a challenge for someone with no experience of the Middle East to play someone from there. Adam has been up to it.”

Let me analyze these points for just a second. These are my thoughts, not the thoughts of Cigar Aficionado. First, let me say the comments in the article are very enlightening. But I do have some stuff to say after watching two seasons of Tyrant.

I’ve always felt that a person of Middle Eastern background should have been awarded this role and a person such as that would kill this role. Why? Because they’d have a lot more tacit knowledge to work with and they wouldn’t have to do the research, as it were, to play another culture and another race. Or, let me look at it from the point of view of a Bassam; why not cast an American of Middle Eastern descent (or a Brit of Middle Eastern descent, or anyone else), someone who is removed from the day-to-day life of the Middle East, but, like Bassam, has a link to their culture and a curiosity to learn more. Either way, whether you go with an actor from the Middle East or an actor of Middle Eastern descent, you have a much more realistic portrayal of Bassam.

However, I’ll give Rayner credit for finding his way into Bassam’s point of view. To me, Rayner’s Bassam hints at something unsavory that seems to be true to the character; Bassam has a large level of self-hate. Not just for his own actions, but for his culture. Sure, he comes from a line of despots. But he can’t separate the actions of his family from the overall culture of his home and the citizens that make up his home. He strikes me just as what he looks like; a Middle Eastern man who passes for white so he can get the benefits of living in America, and who lives in America so long that he removes himself from his home, his former identity, and his former actions. But, with Rayner’s Bassam taking this tone, there are new questions. Is this the tone the creator(s) wanted for Bassam in the first place? Does this tone make him less sympathetic? Would critics like me even see this side of Bassam if he was cast using an actual Middle Eastern actor (because Middle Eastern people come in all shades)? I don’t know. Such is the case with a complicated scenario of Rayner as Bassam.

The only thing I can say is that at least the production and Rayner himself seem to be aware of the issues involved. But, if the production was aware of this to begin with, why go with a non-Middle Eastern actor? An actor, I must also point out, who is someone no one in the U.S. had heard of before?

I bring this up because production teams always like say that they’re looking for “star power.” That argument has been made over and over for choosing white actors over Asian actors, and it was just used again when discussing who could play Rumi. The erroneous thought process is that they want someone with star wattage attached to their name, so they pick a white actor. However, Rayner was not a star here in the U.S.; British folks would have to fill me in on if he was a star in in the U.K. The same can be said for someone like Tom Mison, who I’m sure would be the first to say (and has said in so many words) that he’s not the sole star of Sleepy Hollow despite him having the caché of being a white Briton; Nicole Beharie, who has acted in high caliber films such as 42 and Shame, and has more star wattage because of it, is the star, and therefore the leader (or should have been if there didn’t seem to be a conspiracy to make Sleepy Hollow another iteration of Dr. Who).

The point is this: if a white actor who is looking for his big break can be given his chance by playing a Middle Eastern character, why couldn’t a Middle Eastern actor (or actor of Middle Eastern descent) who is looking for his big break be afforded the same, especially in a role reflective of his ethnicity? Again, there are a lot of questions that could have been nullified if the complications from casting were taking care of from the beginning. Again, such is the case with a complicated scenario of Rayner as Bassam.

Make no mistake; I’m not faulting Rayner or saying he’s a bad actor. In fact, most of the actors who get cast as roles outside of their ethnicity/race aren’t bad actors. It’s just there’s a can of worms Hollywood always has to open when it comes to who gets cast as whom.

All right, now that that’s out of the way, check out some of the other tidbits from the article (which is, in all fairness, a really good article):

Eric Schrier, FX Networks president of original programming, on filming in a war zone: “We try to take big swings. A show set in the Middle East? That’s a big swing…Let’s say this show had its challenges, production-wise, that first season. I mean, they were shooting rockets.”

Gwyneth Horder-Payton, co-executive producer, on the challenges of shooting scenes set in a mosque: “We built the set and hired extras of Arab descent. When Barry [Rayner’s character] walked into the middle of the service, they were upset because they said this would never happen in a mosque—it would never be allowed. Plus, here I am, a woman, in the mosque. Also not allowed. And I’m wearing shoes, because I’m going back and forth outside…Also not allowed. And they were serious, even though it was a set we’d built and not a real mosque.”

On the similarities between Rayner’s character and Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad: “The parallels to Assad are obvious. The old-style dictator father, the son who’s been trained in the West.  Still, it’s important to say that this isn’t a show about one country. That would prevent us from dealing with issues that are more common region-wide.”

On the dethroning of dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi: “How do you rule over a democracy when you’ve got a gun to your head? One easy way to solve the problem is to get a gun to the other guy’s head.  It solves the problem—but it’s not democracy…How do you create security for the country without compromising those democratic principles? Democracy requires a lot of preparation, with elections after you’ve educated the people. But how long will that take? And who’s in charge in the meantime?  It’s not as simple as, well, we got rid of Hussein or Qaddafi and now we’ll have democracy.”

On being compared to Abraham Lincoln: “When you’re playing a president or a dictator, it’s a time-honored cliché that a beard bestows authority on a man- or that’s my hope, anyway. People on the show have started calling me Abe Lincoln, which is an interesting comparison.  I’m not quite sure if it’s a compliment or not.”

On the significance of cigars in Tyrant:They’re considered quite a Western symbol, associated with the power and wealth, smoked by the Tony Sopranos of the world.”

On authoritarianism and building democracy: “Because to build the democratic process, first you have to delay the democratic process—and that’s an authoritarian government.”

Read the entirety of the Tyrant interview with Cigar Aficionado (including quotes from Moran Atias, who plays Leila Al-Fayeed) in this month’s issue, on sale now (the full cover is below). Tyrant, in its third season, comes back at 10/9c July 6 on FX.


JUST ADD COLOR’s Rumi Online Roundtable with Mihrimah Irena, Rana Tahir, Imran Siddiquee, Nora Rahimian and Evadney Petgrave

Jalal al-Din Mohammad Balkhi, the Sufi mystic and popular 13th century Persian poet better known as Rumi, is going to become a Hollywood superstar. Great; we’re getting diversity in storytelling, right? It would appear that it’s only a mirage. Despite the film focusing on a popular Middle Eastern historical figure, and despite screenwriter David Franzoni stating that he’s working on a script that will “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema by charting the life of the great Sufi scholar,” Franzoni still gave the suggestion that a white actor would play Rumi, such as Leonardo DiCaprio. Franzoni also suggested that someone like Robert Downey, Jr. would be great to play Shams of Tabriz, who was Rumi’s spiritual teacher.

To be fair, producer Stephen Joel Brown said that it’s too early to discuss casting, saying that the star caliber of a DiCaprio and Downey is what they’re looking for in their prospective leads. But the mere suggestion of DiCaprio and Downey, white actors, and conflating that with star power seems to suggest that once again, Hollywood has the potential to go the whitewashing route. That fear and anger resulted in the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite.

However, despite the backlash, there was another point of view voiced on Twitter. One thread in particular suggested that even though some Americans might be up in arms about the Rumi film, people overseas in Turkey, where Rumi was buried, wouldn’t be offended by DiCaprio playing Rumi; instead, they’d see it as a compliment that Hollywood wanted to give Rumi the Hollywood star treatment. However, the Afghan government is now aware of the film and are monitoring its development. Haoon Hakimi, the spokesperon for the country’s ministry of Information and Culture, told DW.com that the government is “still collecting informatoin on this issue” and that “[a]s soon as we have something, the ministry will share its views with the film makers.”

I wanted to see what potential audience members felt about this movie. So for this online roundtable (via email and Twitter direct message), we have Twitter user Mihrimah Irena, poetry writer, freelance editor and blogger Rana Tahir (rana-tahir.com), film and media critic, filmmaker, speaker and consultant Imran Siddiquee (imransiddiquee.com), music festival organizer and co-founder of global arts and culture collaborative network #CultureFix Nora Rahimian, and writer and Citrine Magazine founder/editor Evadney Petgrave.

JUST ADD COLOR: What were your immediate reactions to the news that Rumi could be played by Leonardo DiCaprio?

Mihrimah Irena : My immediate reaction was, pardon the French, WTF. literally. I was and am furious.

Rana Tahir: Honestly, I just had to roll my eyes. I love DiCaprio, I’ve been a fan since Titanic (screw everyone, that movie is a masterpiece), and I’m a fan of Rumi too. I’m not blaming either of them for this (well, I can’t blame Rumi, he’s been dead for a long time). I sincerely hope Leo turns this down. If not for us, then at least for himself: You can get other roles, Leo! Don’t taint yourself with racism!

Imran Siddiquee: I was actually surprised by how surprised I was at the news, only because you would think at this point we’d all be accustomed to such ridiculousness from Hollywood (since there have been way too many examples of this kind of whitewashing in the past year alone). But honestly, I feel like it only becomes more ridiculous the more it happens, because at some point you’re like – wait, are people really not paying attention at all? (They really aren’t).

Nora Rahimian: I was so excited for a Rumi film, in part because I was excited to see a representation of my culture that celebrated some of the parts of us I love the most: celebrations of poetry and love and beauty. That they want Leo to play the role is a symbol of the deeper whitewashing that inevitably will happen—that they’ll do—to Rumi’s story. It felt like an erasure of my people, of a denial of our cultural legacy.

Evadney Petgrave: Mainstream Hollywood’s nonsense has been getting so much attention since April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite was created, so I wasn’t too surprised when this announcement was made. Sadly, people of color are always on alert for how white people are going to try us next- this was just another one of those times. I feel like they just won’t ever get it, which is why I’m advocating for hitting them where it hurts – their pockets.

The director claims to want to affect people’s perceptions of the Middle East. What do you think of the irony that he’d choose non-Middle Eastern actors? In other words, would casting a non-Middle Eastern actor prevent the film from achieving what it aspires to?

Irena: The Middle East is rife with people of ALL skin colors – there are red haired Palestinians, blue eyed Lebanese, the list goes on. But to me, it’s the issue that he picked someone who is clearly European, who does not originate from that place and therefore doesn’t understand our history or our issues or our heritage… that to me is an issue. Look at Kingdom of Heaven– casting was right for that film and audiences in the Middle East greatly appreciated the portrayal of Saladdin by a middle eastern actor. I think the casting will cause and causes such an issue it will prevent the aspiration of this film.

Tahir: First of all, I think his premise is wrong. Making a movie about Rumi is probably not going to affect how people see the Middle East. Rumi was co-opted by white poets since Robert Bly introduced his poetry to the US in the 70’s. Often, Rumi’s poetry is divorced from his life, and more specifically, his faith. Rumi’s been whitewashed long before the idea of this movie, so to [white people] he might as well be European now.

Also, ancient depictions of the Middle East aren’t necessarily at issue when we talk about representation. Yes, it would be cool if the world knew a little more about how much Middle Eastern and Muslim societies have contributed to the world, but it’s more about the modern day representation. Highly developed games like “Call of Duty” can’t even bother to get the language right (Pakistanis speak Urdu, not Arabic!), and after all these years people still don’t get that turbans are usually worn by Sikhs not Muslims. If the director wants to help: recruit us to tell our stories as they are today, give us the platform! Want to help? Make a movie about the debacle that was Sykes-Picot. That shit has repercussions today, and he can even cast white people!

Siddiquee: I think casting a white man like DiCaprio to play this part actually would have an affect on people’s perceptions of the Middle East, in that it would further confirm/perpetuate an idea which white supremacy is always teaching us: that white men are more interesting than men of color. That white men are the heroes of history, and that people of color are only worth seeing as criminals and enemies of peace. This may not be what the creators overtly aspire to do, but I do get the sense that they aspire to make a film about Rumi for white people. That seems pretty clear to me given their comments – “He’s like Shakespeare” – and the fact that they reference Lawrence of Arabia as an inspiration. They have a particular audience in mind already and in that sense – which is a harmful, dismissive, and oppressive sense – casting Leonardo DiCaprio would help them achieve an unspoken goal.

But to your actual question, to make this casting decision would prevent the film from truly challenging stereotypes about Muslims or people from the Middle East.

Rahimian: Hollywood is very comfortable casting Middle Eastern actors as terrorists, villains, and monsters, but the fact that any positive portrayal of the region has to be done by a white actor is proof of how deeply white supremacy is embedded in our culture. The director can’t even imagine a “positive Middle East” with actual Middle Eastern people in. But what they can do is take a story that they find lucrative- Rumi is the best-selling poet in the US- and co-opt it for commercial gain. So the message is that the potential financial earnings are good enough for Hollywood, but the people, the cultural legacy, the history itself is not.

Petgrave: Almost everyone has heard or read a poem of Rumi’s, even if they don’t know his name. Yes, we do have to acknowledge people like Coleman Barks for anthologizing his work and helping bring it to the masses, but white-washing Rumi in a movie is a totally different animal. It just affirms that some white Americans think that something is not important unless they say it is. Writers, poets, and other people who love Rumi’s work would see the movie regardless of who is starring in it. In fact, this would be a Rumi movie that I will never support.

How do you think a whitewashed Rumi film would affect the fight for diversity in Hollywood?

Irena: The casting of a white actor for Rumi further exacerbates the issue of the CLEAR lack of diversity in Hollywood and shows that other people of color don’t matter and their stories and their struggles don’t matter.

Tahir: I think, and this may be the pessimist in me, that it won’t do much. There have been countless numbers of movies that were whitewashed. I mean look at what they are doing to Ghost in the Shell. Producers will continue to do this until there are real consequences. In order to have real consequences we need solidarity among a majority of moviegoers. This means that the burden (just demographically speaking) falls on white people. They are the majority of moviegoers in the U.S. according to the MPAA, and they are the ones Hollywood caters to more than anyone else. They’ve got to put their hat in the ring, so to speak.

The problem is white supremacy, the solution is white people. Ironic.

Rahimian: Rumi is one example in a long line stories that Hollywood has appropriated and whitewashed. What concerns me with this story in particular is that not much is actually known about Rumi’s life. So whatever Hollywood portrays will become fact for most people. They’re not just whitewashing history; they’re rewriting it.

Is it going to change Hollywood? No. But I think the backlash against Leo-as-Rumi reflects a shift where audiences are not just no longer accepting whitewashed films but also are demanding diversity in stories, characters, actors, and decision-makers.

Petgrave: There’s been a lot of people of all colors speaking out against this, so I think it will help to spread more light on Hollywood’s whitewashing. We are making our voices heard (and that is good), but we must do more than tweet and leave comments. Creating and sharing our own stories is the only way I believe we can have real diversity in Hollywood.

There’s a thread on Twitter about how some overseas wouldn’t see Leo-as-Rumi offensive because they might not see themselves as POC. What are your opinions on this?

Irena: I know from Pakistan and the Middle East there is a likeness and desire to have white skin and look lighter and look like those of European descent. But to me, I don’t agree with the opinion that people see themselves as white and stuff. The point is he doesn’t represent us, our heritage, our struggles, probably never even read Rumi or Hafez or any other poet from the Middle East when people from there read and learn it as soon as they are born.

Tahir:  I understand this point [in the thread] all too well. I grew up in the Middle East, in Kuwait specifically. When I lived there, I didn’t really have a problem with brown face, mostly because I never had to think about it. Two of my favorite movies are Jinnah and The Message where Christopher Lee and Anthony Quinn play brown people. What did it matter if one white guy played an Arab or Desi, when I could switch the channel and watch tons of people in the media who looked like me, or go outside and see the majority of people looked like me? I had daily representation. PoC in places where they are underrepresented don’t have that, so of course they think about representation in different ways.

But ultimately this is a cop-out. A Pakistani-American has as much right to Jinnah as a Pakistani does. Those of Arab/Turkish descent in the U.S. have as much right to think about how Rumi is represented as Turkish people. The politics change in the so-called melting pot we live in. The director is American, and he’s making an American movie which he will probably market and sell in the U.S. primarily. Dude can shove it with his excuses.

Another aside on this: do you really think Turkish people won’t be happy if someone of Turkish descent (or even an actor from Turkey) plays Rumi in a major Hollywood picture? People abroad are always noting with pride when someone like Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai Bachan, or even Omar Sharif breaks that barrier and gets into Hollywood. If the director is so concerned about people abroad, he could really give them something to root for by casting one of their own as Rumi.

Rahimian:  Race is a social construct. Ethnicity is about culture, history, etc. Color really doesn’t have to do with either. But the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that many of our countries suffered have left behind these ideas that “white is better” and set up the U.S./the West as standards to be compared to. So to say that Leo-as-Rumi is an honor is a symbol of deeply embedded internalized racism and the on-going colonial mentality.

Petgrave: Fair enough [re: the thread’s opinion]. I certainly can’t tell people what they should be offended at, but there are plenty of Middle-Eastern people who do agree that the filmmakers already have the wrong idea. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to see someone who shares Rumi’s nationality, play Rumi. It’s elementary thinking. It’s not “an honor” to have your culture mimicked by whiteness and erased. There are plenty of Middle Eastern actors that can play this role and it’s a slap in the face to them to not even be able to be involved because they’re not white American. It’s more than being the same color.

America doesn’t have a great track record with proper Middle Eastern representation. What positive impact could an American-made film about Rumi (starring a Middle Eastern actor) have on America?

Irena: If Rumi starred a Middle Eastern, it would be a start towards better portrayal of middle easterners instead of having them as always terrorists. With a major film like this, it can catalyze having better portrayals of middle eastern and Muslims and thus work towards bridging the communities together and have better inclusiveness.

Tahir: I think, again, the issue is still about modern representation. Rumi is one of the top-selling poets in the U.S. right now, but misrepresentation about Islam and Middle Eastern people in general is rampant. A movie about Rumi done well, that incorporates his culture and faith properly, could have a good impact. It might make people think more about our contributions to the world over human history, but it does little to combat stereotypes today.

Rahimian:  If done well, the film would add a counter-narrative to all the negative portrayals of Middle Easterners. It would be another representation of us. At its best, it would be an invitation for people to further explore parts of Middle Eastern culture, history, and poetry that they perhaps hadn’t thought about it before. But do I trust that this film is being created to challenge stereotypes or actually pay homage to Rumi and his culture? Not at all.

Petgrave: Rumi is well-known here. People who care about his work, will support it. People who care about accurate representation will support it. I’m not sure how the filmmakers plan to tell his story since so little is known about him, but if the film is of good quality, it will do well in the box office. Accurate representation in media will finally show us that America might just be starting to get “great.”

How do you hope Hollywood addresses the Rumi film controversy and prevent potential erasure?

Irena: I hope they address the controversy OPPOSITE of how they handled Gods of Egypt. Like at least say “Oh, we will cast this Middle Eastern person instead and apologize.”…My overall message is this—Hollywood’s casting has, since it’s very inception, is dismissive of POC and if they have POC, most of the time, they cast them for “diversity sake” or as a filler or to fulfill a negative stereotypes. Which is wrong considering the world we live in.

Tahir: I think the best thing it can do is make a lot of money and prove to filmmakers that movies featuring Middle Eastern actors as the protagonist can succeed in the market. I hope the director just realizes his mistake and casts a PoC. If not, I hope DiCaprio publicly turns this role down and uses his platform to talk about representation like he does climate change. If that doesn’t happen either, I hope people boycott and send a message with their dollar.

Siddiquee: I think it’s a plus that this call out happened now, rather than later, since the film hasn’t completed casting. Too often we find about these things after production has begun – or sometimes even when we’re sitting in the theatre watching a film (which is the worst). There’s really a simple solution for these men in power, if they’d like this conversation to go away: don’t cast Leo or Robert Downey Jr. in these roles. And then, make the effort to cast someone who isn’t white.

But, if I’m being completely honest? I’m not really confident, at this point, that people who would suggest Leo in the lead role are then going to be able to make a film about Rumi which truly works against the dominance of whiteness in Hollywood—regardless of who they ultimately cast. And so, if they haven’t already, I think the most significant thing they can do at this point is bring on a co-writer or director who is a person of color, and preferably someone from somewhere close to where Rumi was born. (I know this is a slim possibility, but one can dream).

Rahimian: Bring in Middle Eastern filmmakers, consultants, actors, directors… Let us tell our own story.

Petgrave: I hope they do the right thing and put profits aside and focus on telling and showing an accurate representation. I have no hopes that will actually happen.

Who would you cast as Rumi?

Irena: I would cast as Rumi Halit Ergenç who is a prominent Turkish Actor and who starred in a Turkish Show called Magnificent Century ( a show about Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent) that is an international sensation. Or perhaps Remi Malik from [Mr.] Robot. Or Alexander Siddig.

Tahir: Mihrimah mentioned Alexander Siddig, I second that! I thought he was the perfect person to play Doran Martell on Game of Thrones, but then they gutted the Dorne storyline. Needless to say, I’m heartbroken. Turkey’s TV game has been amazing lately. Their shows are popular all over the [Middle East]. I would be interested in seeing Halit Ergenç from the show Harem Al-Sultan play Rumi. (Also, just to clarify, I know Rumi is Persian, I’m just using Turkey because that is where he is buried and where a lot of westerners go to learn about Rumi.)

Siddiquee:  Someone like Shahab Hosseini, who just won Best Actor at Cannes, or two other men who’ve recently starred in Asghar Farhadi films, Peyman Moaadi and Ali Mosaffa, would be more than capable.

Rahimian: Honestly, couldn’t name names. But what something Imran tweeted earlier about the idea that Leo being the best possible person in the world to play this character is a symbol of white supremacy stands out. Even if the argument is, “But Leo and RDJ would draw box office crowds,” we only have to look at Bollywood and Nollywood to point out the market value of people of color in leading roles (made by and for people of color).

(And Rana, I love your point about the timeline of this film. There is a trope around the old or ancient Middle East as exotic that comes from an orientalist lens. I can easily see this film building off that, where the Middle East, and its people, would still be this exotic “other”. How does this challenge stereotypes? How does this touch on the continuity of history, of geopolitical nuances, etc? So it would completely be possible to make this film and devoid of all nuance and context.)

Petgrave: I’m not too keen on Persian and Middle-Eastern actors, but I have seen names thrown around like: Shahab Hosseini, who has won the Best Actor award at Cannes this year. The talent is out there.

Other articles to check out:

“The Hollywood bull enters Rumi’s china shop” | Aljazeera.com

“Leonardo DiCaprio as Persian poet Rumi: Gladiator screenwriter faces cries of Hollywood whitewashing” | The Telegraph