Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Are We Ready for a Black Spider-Man?

The search for an actor to play Spider-Man and his alter-ego Peter Parker, in Sony's upcoming reboot of the popular film franchise, took an interesting turn over the weekend. A list of young contenders has been circulating since last week, all of them gangly adolescents or young actors who could still pass for teenagers, including up-and-comers Jamie Bell and Josh Hutcherson. All of them were Caucasian, which is perfectly understandable because the character of Peter Parker was always Caucasian in the comic books and his subsequent film and TV appearances. But this did not stop Donald Glover (no relation to Danny Glover), an African-American actor best known for his comic role on NBC's "Community" and his stint with sketch comedy troupe Derrick Media, from launching a Twitter campaign to secure an audition for the role.

As much as some might like to think we're living in a post-racial America, this is sadly not the case, especially not in Hollywood. There's still a huge dearth of good onscreen roles for minorities, and a certain squeamishness to entertain the idea of race-neutral casting. When "racebending" does happen, there's a double standard that favors Caucasian actors. The controversy over the whitewashing of characters in "Prince of Persia" and "The Last Airbender," two of the summer's biggest tentpole pictures, escalated last week after the presence of minority actors was found suspiciously lacking upon the former film's release. "Prince" and "Airbender" take place in such noticeably Middle-Eastern and Asian settings, they would have been prime opportunities to see some underrepresented ethnic actors take the spotlight. No such luck.

The pendulum does swing the other way occasionally, and we have had a few initially Caucasian comic book characters like Nick Fury, Catwoman, and the villainous Kingpin portrayed by African-American actors. However, these are much rarer occurrences, and pains are usually taken to distinguish the ethnic versions from the Caucasian originals. Halle Berry's Catwoman was a new character named Patience Phillips, not the Selina Kyle Catwoman of the comics or the "Batman" films. The Nick Fury who appeared in the "Iron Man" films was based on a recent reinterpretation that the comics creators specifically based on the appearance of actor Samuel L Jackson. Similarly, headliners like Will Smith and Eddie Murphy have revived older franchises like "Wild, Wild West," "Doctor Dolittle," and "The Nutty Professor" with drastically rewritten lead characters.

No superhero as high profile as Spider-Man has ever been considered for this kind of ethnic reinvention, though there were rumors that Will Smith might take a shot at "Captain America," who has yet to appear in a major feature film. In some respects Spider-Man is a great choice for this, because the Spider-Man costume is a full body suit and mask that makes it impossible to tell the ethnicity of the person wearing it. Also, there's nothing inherently Caucasian about Peter Parker's background - he's a nerdy teenager who lives with his aunt and uncle. On the other hand, the viewing audience is already very familiar with the screen portrayal of Spider-Man as a Caucasian character. If a black actor does win the role, I suspect Sony would create a different persona separate from Peter Parker to lessen the potential confusion.

Still, I like the idea of having a Spider-Man of a different ethnicity, and I think Donald Glover is a great fit, though he's older than the other actors that Sony is purportedly considering. The reboot is a risky venture, coming so close on the heels of the successful Sam Raimi "Spider-Man" films. We've had second-tries at franchise flops and adaptations from different media that have been turned around in a shorter time frame, but rebooting from such a successful series like this is a unique situation. An African-American Spider-Man would help distinguish the next film from its predecessors, cement the new direction the franchise is taking, and offer different creative opportunities. Sony has the chance to do something genuinely interesting with the character, instead of reheating the leftovers of one of the biggest film trilogies in recent memory.

Realistically this is not likely to happen. Casting an unproven minority actor like Donald Glover would be a bold risk that the conservative financiers of the "Spider-Man" films will balk at. Though we have African-American stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith who regularly carry action films, there's still a lingering tendency to think of projects starring minority actors as having more limited appeal, and filmmakers will only look at Caucasian actors unless a role is specifically tailored for a minority. When a film literally titled "Prince of Persia" has no principles of Middle-Eastern descent, it's difficult to imagine a black actor being given a real shot at playing everyone's favorite web-slinger.

Glover no doubt understands this, which is why his Twitter campaign is only lobbying for an audition rather than the role itself. Cynics might ask why he would even bother when he's such a long shot for the part, but I think it's a great move. This instantly raises his visibility, and puts the idea of race-neutral casting in people's minds. Even if Sony won't seriously consider him, the fanboys and the industry watchers have been buzzing over the possibility all weekend. I don't think Hollywood is ready for a black Spider-Man, but from some of the discussions I've been following, I think many of the rest of us might be. And that's something.

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