So the other day I was having a conversation with my Dad about films (one of the only things we ever talk about), and he asked me if I would like to watch The Lone Ranger. Forgetting momentarily, as I often do, that my dad is an aggressive racist (Yes, I’ve tried to tell him. No, it hasn’t stuck.), I said that I felt funny about watching that film because they cast Johnny Depp as a Native American and I think, isn’t it bad enough we committed a genocide against them? Now we have to have Willy Wonka/Captain Jack Sparrow/Hot Gypsy from Chocolat essentially in blackface in a Hollywood film as a hideous parody of their dying culture? Or something along those lines. Realizing that I was going all social justice warrior and that this conversation usually ends with me fuming and him becoming even more smug in his blatant racism (like a microcosmic lampoon of American politics) I quickly changed the subject*. I thought that the problem would end there, but little did I know that the argument was far from over. I soon received a snarky email with something along the lines of: ‘Dahling. Understand perfectly how you felt about the Johnny Depp flick. I felt exactly the same way when they cast a black guy as Heimdall in Thor.’
Now if you’re currently engulfed in flames, screaming ‘WHAAAAAT’ and flipping every table in sight, fear not. I too, have been there. If it was just my dad who felt this way, I would be happy to let it go, but unfortunately I repeatedly read and hear very similar opinions ALL THE TIME, and it’s driving me mad. If, in contrast, you are wondering why the hell anyone would get mad about that, or even worse wondering the same thing about Fantastic Four or any film that has cast a black actor in a ‘white’ role, don’t worry because I’m going to break this down for you. We are, together, going to explore the line between representation and appropriation until we can all be screaming angrily about institutionalized racism. And for those of you who need a definition of either, I will give you helpful links here and here.
First of all, and most importantly, we must look at genre. Genre is very important when wondering whether something is cultural appropriation because it determines, importantly, whether there is a culture to appropriate. For example, Thor, whether you want to accept it or not, is a fantasy film. It is not a realistic representation of reality, it isn’t even a realistic representation of Norse mythology. It is a fantasy about a muscular space man and his magic giant hammer, and the Natalie Portman who loves them. No one’s culture is being stolen, corrupted, or exploited by having Idris Elba in a minor role. He’s like, the only black character in a majority white cast and in my honest opinion would have been a MUCH better Odin than Anthony ‘Some Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti’ Hopkins. But just because there’s one black guy in a fictional society loosely based on a comic book loosely based on spoken word myths loosely based on ancient Norse mythology everybody loses their goddamn minds. But guess what? Somewhere, a little boy is watching Thor, seeing all these white guys kicking ass and taking names, and he sees Heimdall up there in all his glory, and he sees that Heimdall actually looks like him. And for once, he believes that he, too, can kick ass, and that just maybe he could be a hero too. THAT is representation, my friends, and it is good.
So now we know how to tell if something is not cultural appropriation and is, in fact, representation. But how can we tell when something IS cultural appropriation? Lets look at our friend The Lone Ranger to find out. Now, the role of Tonto is problematic enough, what with all the original ‘Native American language’ from the 1950s series being completely made up and the character generally being a caricature of what Americans thought Native Americans were like. But here’s the rub: even in the original series, they found a First Nations man (Jay Silverheels, look him up) to play Tonto. That’s right even in 1950s America, where in many places black Americans were not allowed to use the same schools, bus seats, toilets, or water fountains as white Americans, Hollywood took the time to find an actual Native American to play a Native American. But, in the year 2013, when billions of actors’ IMDB pages were just Google away, after M. Night Shymalalalan had actually cast a person off YouTube for a feature film, Hollywood took one look at that and said ‘Nah, we’ll just get Johnny Depp’. This is, in my opinion, a huge missed opportunity, as they could have done a great thing for Native Americans by casting a Native American actor in this role. That little Native American boy watching the film could have had the same experience as the black child seeing Idris Elba fight Loki with a giant sword. Instead it is at best an embarrassing blip on an already-famous actor’s curriculum vitae, and at worst a hideously racist caricature of an oppressed people’s sacred cultural heritage. Instead it was a white man wearing a costume someone thought looked like a Native American costume (read: they put a dead bird on his head), doing a stupid dance for his paycheck. And therein, dear friends, lies the cultural appropriation. A person in a position of cultural power using the cultural icons of an oppressed people for his own financial gain. Doesn’t get much more appropriation-y than that.
What, then, of casting black characters in traditionally white roles in stories that are not based in fictional universes? For example, what of casting a black person in a Shakespeare play, or a Quentin Tarantino film, or a civil war reenactment? Well, dear reader, if the thought of this enrages you to the point of an angry internet rant, my first word for you would be ‘SIT DOWN’, followed by a swift slap to the face. You see, there’s a difference between casting a black actor in a role that has been traditionally played by white actors and casting a white person in a role AS a non-white person. The black person, in this case, is not ‘playing white’. They are simply playing a character while black, and this, last time I checked, is not a crime in most places. The hard truth is, ‘white’ characters are never specified as white because ‘person’ is supposed to just mean normal person, and that normal person is of course, white. Race is only ever specified when the person is non-white, which essentially relegates their race to a kind of plot point or character trait (cough like racism cough cough). When a black person plays that ‘normal’ character, it isn’t normal because black people aren’t normal. They’re plot points or a set of specific character traits. And if you think that logic is all kinds of fucked up, then you are correct, sir. Because that’s institutionalized racism, buddy, and it ain’t pretty.
*I once made a comment about the Confederate Flag being racist, which led to the Great Confederate Flag Debate (still ongoing but currently in hiatus due to mutual apathy), in which he repeatedly refused to accept his ignorance (as a British man from Birmingham, England) and my knowledge (as a young girl raised in Birmingham, Alabama) on the subject, and insisted that it is a ‘great symbol of rebellion and personal freedom’ for everyone, and not just for white guys who like slavery.