Henry Zaga and Alice Braga as whitewashed versions of Sunspot and Dr. Cecilia Reyes in The New Mutants. (Photo credit: 20th Century Fox)
The labored journey The New Mutants has taken from script to screen has been arduous to watch. Making it even worse is seeing Afro-Latinx characters Sunspot and Cecilia Reyes get whitewashed. Now, to top it all off, the director of this tragic film, Josh Boone, has made the viewing environment for this film even more toxic.
As a small recap, Sunspot, an Afro-Brazilian character, is now played by Henry Zaga, who is Brazilian, but definitely more European in looks. (It’s also worth mentioning that this isn’t the first time Sunspot has been whitewashed by 20th Century Fox.) Reyes, who was a Black woman from Puerto Rico, is now played by another white Brazilian, Alice Braga. The casting in The New Mutants has been a source of contention for many, and people have been wanting answers. We finally have them thanks to an interview Boone did with Gizmodo, but unfortunately, his answers are unsatisfactory. Maddening, really.
Even though he claimed he saw hundreds of Black and brown actors to play Sunspot, he said if he didn’t find Zaga, “I would have found somebody who was darker skinned,” he said, as reported by Shadow And Act.
He also revealed he actively chose not to care about the racism in Brazil.
“I didn’t care so much about the racism I’ve heard about in Brazil, about light-skinned versus dark-skinned,” he said. “To me, it was I wanted to represent Brazil in a positive way and I wanted to find somebody who seemed like he could look like a guy who’s had a silver spoon in his mouth, who has like a really rich dad and Henry just exemplified all these things.”
The idea of casting someone based on if they looked rich is a racist statement in and of itself. Even though there is massive inequality in Brazil, there are rich Afro-Brazilians, just like there are rich African-Americans despite economic and social issues. And if Sunspot himself is rich and Afro-Brazilian, then Boone’s statement makes no sense.
Things further fall apart with The New Mutants when we realize that Braga was cast as Reyes after Rosario Dawson, an Afro-Latinx actress, dropped out of the role. Instead of finding another Afro-Latina to fill the role, Boone went to the opposite of the spectrum instead. Clearly, Boone has an issue with recognizing the importance of race with characters, especially since every other character in the series seems like they were cast correctly as far as race is concerned.
If you’re an avid reader of my site, you’ll know that I’ve already written about the whitewashing occurring with The New Mutants when Zaga was announced as Sunspot in 2017. What is darkly hilarious is that out of all of the posts I’ve written, I’ve received the most hate mail from my post about Sunspot, with Latinx readers telling me how wrong I was to insinuate that the casting is racist. Keep in mind that my article was based on information from a Latinx site. The only explanation for the amount of hate mail is anti-Black racism from Latinx readers, and that’s a shame.
Boone’s statements of privilege and ignorance only work in favor of those who want every excuse to not face the racism that’s staring at them. Racism in Brazil is as complex a topic as racism in America is, and I’ll be the first to admit that I need to read more about the social underpinnings of Brazil and its relationship with racism. But from a quick Wikipedia search, it would appear that Brazil thinks of racism in a way that many Latinx Caribbean countries think of racism–as a problem of the past solved through miscegenation, or sex and relationships between different races.
“Racial democracy” in action
The idea of a “racial democracy” came about by Brazilian anthropologist, sociologist and historian Gilberto Freye in his book The Masters and the Slaves. He posited that the mixing of cultures and races through blood was a net positive for Brazilian culture and shaped its national identity into one that was post-racial. To quote Wikipedia directly, “the idea of racial democracy became central dogma to the military governments of 1964-1985. While it was in power, the military preferred to think of race as a non-issue and pushed the idea of a unified identity among all Brazilians in order to quell resistance.”
Because of military rule, the theory of a racial democracy became part of the general thought of most citizens. In some cases, even mentioning race “would become taboo and bringing up issues of race was deemed as racist.” American political scientist Mala Htun wrote that this fear of discussing race, brought about by military rule, plus the government’s lack of desire to define race, “prevented Afro-Brazilian rights organizations from forming and limited the group’s political power.” This fear of acknowledging racism also allowed for the racism to fester, which has a parallel to America’s own fear of acknowledging racism, even when hate crimes occur on on almost daily basis.
The “racial democracy” idea seems to still be in effect. Not only is it hard for some people to come to terms with racism within Brazil or other Latinx countries because of the idea of a racially-unified state, but ineffective coping skills for racism become a source of pride. For instance, during the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, the opening ceremony focused on Brazil’s past as a slave-owning nation, but made a point to showcase the country’s present as one of racial unity and harmony because of multiculturalism.
While Brazil, like America, is multicultural, it is far from unified and harmonious, with many of the economic and educational issues Black Brazilians pushed under the rug. Unfortunately, it seems like those issues will go unaddressed once again thanks to The New Mutants whitewashing important Afro-Latinx characters. The idea of racial unity slyly reveals itself in the casting of Zaga and Braga instead of indulging in racial specificity.
What could have been
While The New Mutants wouldn’t solve major social and political issues facing Afro-Brazilians by itself, seeing Afro-Latinx actors as Sunspot and Cecilia Reyes could have helped boost viewers’ morale and provide them with positive images of themselves on-screen. And, as many people have already written on social media, it makes no sense for a franchise about racism and discrimination to ignore characters that directly encounter those issues in their daily lives. We’ve seen it happen with the inexplicable death of Darwin, the only Black X-men member in X-Men: First Class, and sadly, it seems like we’re seeing it happen again with Sunspot and Reyes. Ignoring the social landscape a portion of your viewing audience is dealing with when casting characters from their ethnic group is lazy, at best, and highly privileged lacking empathy at worst.
Long story short, I wasn’t planning on seeing this film after the casting controversies, but after reading Boone’s comments, I definitely won’t support it now.