From Black Annie to White Daimio

Quvenzhané Wallis in 2014’s Annie; actor Ed Skrein at the MTV Music Awards in 2016. (Photos: Sony/Facebook, Phil McCarten/Reuters)
Let’s settle once and for all when it’s okay to change a character’s race.

So do fictional characters have races, or not? I hope we settle that question soon, because I’m getting sick of hearing about it every year or two.

The current controversy centers on the forthcoming Hellboy movie, and specifically on the character Major Ben Daimio. Daimio is Asian in the comic books, but white actor Ed Skrein was cast to play him in the movie. Following a public outcry, Skrein stepped aside “so the role can be cast appropriately.” There’s a purist argument and a social-justice argument here: A white actor cannot accurately represent the original character, and the shift takes a “diverse” character and makes him un-diverse — which is to say, it steers the good ship Equal Representation in the wrong direction.

This is hardly the first time this issue has cropped up, though it’s not always the same people who object. As my colleague Jim Geraghty mentioned last week, comic books are increasingly going the other way — taking white male characters and making them non-white and/or non-male: “Thor became a woman, African-American characters took over the mantles of Spider-Man and Captain America, and an African-American woman started wearing Iron Man’s armor.” This too annoys fans; the purists are still on the same side, but it’s the anti-social-justice-warriors who complain for ideological reasons. They’re sick of being preached to.

It’s not just comics, either. In 2013 Megyn Kelly was put through the wringer when, not wanting to say that Santa wasn’t real on live TV during a segment about Kris Kringle’s skin color, she ham-handedly reassured her audience that the historical St. Nick was white. And Jesus, too, for good measure.

But the universe may never top the kerfuffle over the 2014 version of Annie. A black actress was cast in the role of the famously red-headed little white girl, and you were a racist buffoon if that sounded wrong to you: a buffoon because, duh, Annie is a fictional character and therefore has no race or other physical features; a racist for wanting someone to be white. But then Target released an Annie clothing line, and some of the girls pictured in the promotional materials were white. That was racist, too. Once Annie becomes black, she can never go back.

There are a few simple rules we could settle on to end the debate. It could always be okay to change a character’s race. Or it could never be okay. Or, as I suspect the Left wants, we could make it okay to give a white character the Rachel Dolezal treatment but not the reverse. Hey, at least that would spare Hollywood the chore of coming up with new intellectual properties to depict our increasingly diverse society.

Personally, I’d prefer a slightly more nuanced approach.

We should start with the obvious fact that, yes, fictional characters really do “have” races. Every character comes from somewhere — some original or at least canonical depiction that almost always makes it clear what his or her race is. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch legend Sinterklaas; I’m pretty sure he’s white. Major Ben Daimio has always been drawn as an Asian male. Annie has been a white redhead since the 1920s comic Little Orphan Annie.

We should start with the obvious fact that, yes, fictional characters really do ‘have’ races.

Sometimes a character’s race is important to the story (e.g., Tom Robinson, the accused in To Kill a Mockingbird), and sometimes it’s not. But fans become attached to characters as a whole, from their personalities to their fashion sense, and they feel cheated when a new entry in a series features an old character who is manifestly not the character they know.

This doesn’t happen only when the changes have to do with race. All hell broke loose, for instance, when the the video game DmC: Devil May Cry, a reboot of the beloved series, depicted the normally white-haired Dante with a darker color and a shorter cut up top. One of the game’s creators called the reaction “immediate, aggressive, and relentless for the next two years.” This didn’t happen because fans were bigoted against dark-haired people, though to be fair, one online critic did call the new ’do “emo and gay.” Mainly, it happened because Dante does not have dark hair.

The nice thing about fiction is that it can be whatever you want. But once you’ve created something and people have fallen in love with it, you’re going to tick them off if you try to pass off something different as the thing they fell in love with. So both for business reasons and to preserve the consistency of your fictional universe, you probably shouldn’t do that without a good reason.

What’s a good reason? One is to make a worthwhile statement about race itself, as in the numerous versions of Romeo and Juliet where the Montagues and Capulets have different ethnic backgrounds. That example highlights another distinction worth making: The ten-millionth rendition of an uncopyrighted Shakespeare play is less sacred — and easier to skip for those who don’t like the idea — than an official installment of an ongoing franchise, so the bar is lower in such cases. In others, an artist may be adapting obscure source material and no one will care if he changes a race because it fits his vision better.

By contrast, if you just want to tell a story about a black superhero, create or find a black superhero. Don’t slather blackface on a famous white superhero such as Spider-Man or Captain America.

Certainly, others may not want to draw the line this way. Hey, maybe it is a worthwhile statement about race simply to assert that Spider-Man and Captain America can be black. It’s a social construct, man.

As Geraghty noted last week, though, the comics’ fan bases really don’t seem to think so. In terms of business, the market can and should sort this out. If only the social-justice mobs would calm down in the meantime.


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— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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