Spider-Man Is the New Black: What Good Is Diverse Casting Without Diverse Creators?
The third (well, 6th) Spider-Man film franchise hits theaters in 2017 and is finally casting New York as it really looks. In addition to the cast we’ve already met in Captain America: Civil War (Tom Holland as Spidey, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, and RDJ as Tony Stark), the film has been catching the eye of a lot of PoC nerds, blerds, and assorted geeks given the diversity of its cast. Actors like Donald Glover, Zendaya, Selenis Leyva (Orange Is the New Black), Hannibal Buress, Bokeem Woodbine (Jason’s Lyric, Fargo), Kenneth Choi, Abraham Attah, Tiffany Espensen, Tony Revolori, and Garcelle Beauvais (The Jamie Foxx Show, NYPD Blue) are names that PoC viewers especially recognize.
This is fantastic. Many movies set in New York have a Friends feel to them—two Black, guest-starring characters over the course of 10 years—and that definitely includes the MCU. So it’s refreshing to see that so many people of color have been cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
However, that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous. Just because people of color are cast in something doesn’t mean it’s going to be an accurate or inclusive representation of who they are. Let’s look at Orange Is the New Black. Without giving away too many spoilers, the ending of season 4 had many Black people giving the show a second look. A show that has been lauded for its portrayal of Blacks and Latinx suddenly made those audiences uncomfortable with the way they handled a storyline pertaining to #BlackLivesMatter (see pieces here, here, here, and here for more—spoilers if you click). Many critics said the story lacked the nuance that a Black writer could (and should) have brought to the topic. And when OITNB posted a picture of their writing staff recently, it turned out that they don’t have any Black or Latinx writers.
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) June 20, 2016
As Kevin O’Keeffe wrote here, “A black writer intrinsically has more insight and information to offer about living while Black than any one of the writers in that photograph does.”
Spider-Man: Homecoming is being written by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley. Two white writers. Will Spider-Man have anything as serious or directly tied to race as a #BlackLivesMatter storyline? I’m thinking no. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not important for Black, Latinx, and Asian characters to be written with their perspectives in mind, or that it’s not important for the production to have people of color to ensure that the characters aren’t stereotypes and are accurately, fairly portrayed. It’s also important to remember that when PoC actors are cast in a film, people of color go out in droves to see those movies. Without any PoC behind the production aside from casting, very few people of color benefit.
Fans of color have been duped before. It seemed like X-Men: Apocalypse would give many PoC X-Men major storylines, but as Valerie Complex wrote, “Fox Wins but People of Color Lose.” Storm “stands there as Apocalypse’s arm candy”, while Olivia Munn’s Psylocke got some good visual scenes but not many lines and a confusing exit, and Jubilee didn’t even get to display her powers. Imagine being a fan of Asian descent excited to see Jubilee—a fave among many X-Men fans—not even get enough screen time to use her (super cool) powers? If there were more Asians behind the making of the film in positions of power, they could have said, “hey, maybe don’t cut the scene where the only Asian character gets to use her powers.”
There are so many more examples. A lack of diversity in the Sleepy Hollow writers’ room left fans dissatisfied with Abbie Mill’s portrayal; the character was sidelined (she conveniently went missing on the regular and had to spend lots of time off-screen until she was found) so much that both the writers and actress felt like it was time to part ways (depending on the version of events you believe). And as I write this, Marvel Comics has announced that the newest Iron Man would be 15 year-old RiRi Williams—a black girl at MIT. While I want to be excited about this, it’s yet another case of a white writer writing from a black POV while working for a company that hasn’t ever hired a black woman writer.
There’s something else all of these stories have in common. All of the PoC characters I’ve mentioned exist in support of a white lead. Despite vocal desire from fans for the Spider-Man reboot to feature Afro-Latino Spidey Miles Morales, the MCU went with plain vanilla Spidey. Fine. But it means that all of the PoC they cast will revolve around his story and not their own—that’s just how the Hero’s Journey works. Even Orange is the New Black, which has a plethora of Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actresses of color, centers the story on Piper Chapman. And let’s not talk about how Abbie Mills’ purpose boiled down to letting her white partner continue what was supposed to be their co-op journey as Witnesses alone.
As this piece in Refinery29 said about RiRi as Iron Man,
But the reality is, no matter how talented, creative, or imaginative Bendis is, he won’t be able to accurately tell the story of a young, gifted, and Black character without the help of Black writers.
The same could be said for Spider-Man‘s PoC supporting characters.
So I’m nervous.
If we’re going to get another Spider-Man film, then I’m glad it’s set in the New York that inspired Hamilton the Musical’s racebent casting. But it’s still people of color being written by white writers, who may have good intentions, but inherently lack the nuance that people of color need to feel safe, to feel represented, and to feel included. Let’s hope Spider-Man: Homecoming really feels like a homecoming to its viewers.
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Constance Gibbs has written for Hello Giggles, Black Girl Nerds, the Nerds of Color, and Girls in Capes. She loves TV, diversity, nerd things, and the internet. She probably has 27 tabs open right now, which is probably what it’s like to be in her brain. You can find her on Twitter, her blog (constarwrites.tv), or down in Hufflepuff house.
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