The new racism

So yeah, there's a lot of racism around at the moment. But you have to look for it.

I've been watching the red letter media 'half in the bag' reviews with increasing obsessiveness, but the captain america review got me thinking along these lines.

The two critics talk about how the film happily makes historical inaccuracies about 10 minutes in; they're talking about how it makes them uncomfortable that the designs look futuristic, when they should look old but with sci-fi elements. They should look like laser guns that were designed in 1940, not 2100. They're nerds; schticklers for detail. Then they speak about political correctness.

What they say isn't technically racist; they speak about how there were african americans that fought in world war 2*, but they were assigned to separate units and the film should reflect the segregation of the time rather than lie about it. Fair enough; they're after accuracy. But they complain about the ethnically diverse team of superheroes; correctly they point out that there's no women in the team (women obviously have even further to go with their struggle for equality). But "The asian guy with the emo haircut who was talking on his cellphone just threw me out of the movie."

These are not racist comments. But they are striving for historical accuracy above employment opportunities for an ethnically diverse range of actors. Which is more important?

What they don't say - that I was crying out for - was "why set this in world war 2 at all?" Iron Man wasn't set in the 60s, when Tony Stark first appeared; Rhodes, his African American sidekick didn't arrive until 1979, but was included in the film. Maybe Captain America is more strongly associated with national struggles and the military, but there's something more here. I'm deeply suspicious of the current fashion for 50s and 60s-set media, such as 'madmen', the forthcoming 'xcom', and our 'the hour'; historical accuracy is a great excuse for not allowing ethnic minorities on the screen.

(In their review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, they praise the diverse cast. But I wonder if in this case, the producers of the film wanted to move away from the race metaphors of the original book/film, by casting the main antagonist as a black man. This leads us to think that the the apes are rising - sorry, the planet of the apes is rising - against all of humanity, not just whitey. I dunno, I've not seen it.)

All this, as we enter an age where finally, we have series like Luther, where a black actor, Idris Elba, plays the lead character with no whisper of a plot line surrounding his ethnic heritage. I think this would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago.

Last time I saw a Shakespeare play, it was played by actors of no fixed ethnicity. I had no trouble believing that the Montagues could consist of such a diverse group of people; that brothers would have entirely different skin tones. Some people would argue against this, and the only hope actors from ethnic minorities would have of getting to play the great Dane would be if some visionary director decided to stage the play around a different nationality. It would be segregation again.

Look, I love Lord of the Rings as much as the next person (chortle), but you have to say: it's pretty damn honky. But why are we obsessed with continuing to set fiction in times where discrimination was acceptable? Why does Lord of the rings - a fantasy land - have to have an all white cast, to please the nerds, and yet adaptations of the Earthsea books (where Ursula le Guin stipulated a darker-than-caucasion skin tone) whites? Middle Earth is a fantasy land. Isn't their room for ethnic diversity in there? and I'm not talking about the evil 'Southrons', who stood in for Arabs. I'm really disturbed by the whiteness of LOTR. I can understand that you're going for a certain look; the books were written 70 years ago. But I hold it to be a discriminatory one that I don't agree with. If Idris Elba went for an audition for a part in LOTR, what would they say? 'Sorry, we aren't hiring people of your skin colour?' How is this acceptable?

I seriously suggest that there's something going wrong here, that there's a deluge of productions which conveniently exclude minorities. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, just a handy work around to maintain a predominantly-white casting policy. Until we get the corollary to mad men - the 'what all the black people in new york were doing at the same time' show - I believe I have a case.

*I actually can't stand the term 'world war 2', but for convience, and lack of a better suggestion, I'll use it here.


laurence said...

i don't think you're over thinking it. i think it's important to keep pointing out the fact that our society is far from over this shit. it's not the new racism, it's the same old racism as before.

maybe we're still waiting for multi-ethnicity to trickle up the pyramid. i have no idea of the demographics of screenplay writers, directors, producers, etc, but i guess if you grew up in sheltered suburbia and only knew white people that's all your going to write about.

grilly said...

case in point: robin hood prince of thieves (1991) had Morgan Freeman in, because unlikely as it is that a moor would visit britain at that time, it was decided that an all-white cast would be insensitive.

skip forward to robin hood (2010): an entirely caucasian production. Not that historical accuracy isn't worth attaining, but do we *have* to tell a story where everybody has to be white?

laurence said...

perhaps as a society becomes less racist there is a lower apparent need for explicit non-racism?

it almost makes sense that as you approach an unprejudiced society the "token black guy" tactic of not being racist becomes more racist. you could say the remake doesn't need any ethnic diversity because the people who made it aren't racist and don't have to prove otherwise.

here's a good one:

LiamKav said...

I do agree with a lot of this, but I think that specifically in the case of Captain America, the thought was pretty much "Superhero film set in WW2." Marvel are producing a billion superhero films at the moment and they all need their catchy summary. Norse God, shiny metal modern knight, world war II hero. Captain American's origin is pretty much the only superhero one that doesn't need to be updated as time goes on. Tony Stark has to have been captured in WWII/Korea/Vietnam/Gulf/Gulf, but Cap was always created in World War II and then frozen until a few years ago. Keeping his origin in WW2 is quite important to explain the wholesomeness of the cahracter and also to account for the slight hockiness of the name "Captain America".

I do think there are a lot of excuses made for some of the inherent racism of superhero comics. Sure, the characters being largely white and male is a bit of a consequence of them largely being created in the 30s/60s, but there's no excuse for the current trend towards replacing the more ethnically diverse characters bought in during the 80s, 90s and 00s with the original white guys in the context of staying "true to their roots". And listening to comic fans trying to say that Hal Jordan's use of a racist nickname is fine because he's okay, or that making Ultimate Spider-Man black is just the worst thing ever because of lots of reasons that aren't racism is fairly horrible.

"All this, as we enter an age where finally, we have series like Luther, where a black actor, Idris Elba, plays the lead character with no whisper of a plot line surrounding his ethnic heritage. I think this would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago."

It's a comedy show but... Red Dwarf? Half the cast are of ethnic minorities, and it had a mixed race relationship with no story impact what so ever.

LiamKav said...

(Actually, if I had a complaint about the Captain America movie, it was that it didn't use WWII enough. I didn't want it to be authentically WWII because I love historical accuracy, but because it's a superhero movie set in WWII! That's pretty rare and should be used as much as possible. They weren't even fighting Nazi's for most of the movie. When you have a lead character who has punched Hitler in the face, you either use that in your movie or get him to marry Amy Pond.)

laurence said...

since you mention the green lantern.. i was quite surprised DC didn't use john stewart as the main character, especially considering he was so primary in the justice league cartoon, and let's be honest, isn't that what the kids all know?

in the end john stewart doesn't even make an appearance in the movie (apparently ..i've not actually seen it)

LiamKav said...

Apparently there was more than one comment along the lines of "why'd they make Green Lantern white" by the mainstream press (or at least, their kids).

John Stewart in the JL cartoon though is an interesting point. He's a pretty blatant example of tokenism. The producers even said as much, in that they didn't want an all-white cast. Plus, cartoon Stewart doesn't have a high amount of personality in common with comic John Stewart. Does that make the situation better, or worse?

grilly said...

Thanks for your helpful comments Liam, I think your second paragraph totally nailed what I was trying to say. And red dwarf too, I never even realised... It was explicitly 'working class in space', so casting a mixed race liverpudlian as the protag was very wise and never even felt like tokenism.

I think we had to go through a 'tokenism' stage to get to actual equality, but it feels like we've been through it and now we've gone back to where we were before in a lot of respects. Maybe it's just producers being lazy, relying on old stories rather than writing new ones.

Case in point: the new Tinker Tailor Solider Spy film is a pure honky sausagefest. Of course it is, it's set in the 60s. But there's already a very good bbc adaptation, with alec guiness, and John le Carre has gone on to continue writing spy fiction since, much of which reflects the perhaps more interesting dynamics of our world today; doing TTSS now feels like a backwards step from The Constant Gardener.

If you watched the doctor who episode 'let's kill hitler' next week, SPOILERS! you'll have noticed that they very briefly had a black timelord regenerate into a white one, iSPOLERS which neatly kicks that debate into the dustbin and opens the doors for future, non-caucasian doctors. which is nice.