The backlash was swift when word got out that Michael B. Jordan was being considered for the role of Superman. Fans claimed that it would completely ruin the character and some have even gone as far as calling it “blackwashing.” Others have also suggested that if Clark Kent becomes black, then all famous minority characters ought to be by played by white actors. We have yet to see any official confirmation of whether or not Henry Cavill will continue as the Man of Steel, but still, the mere mention of a black actor possibly playing the legendary hero has people livid.
As an avid reader who values accurate book-to-movie adaptations, a part of me can understand the uneasiness of the fans. After all, we’ve spent decades seeing Clark as pale and blue-eyed with slicked-back hair. But even so, I believe that fans are taking this a bit too far. Michael is an extremely talented actor who can live up to this role, but even that is beside the point. What I can’t help but wonder is this: Why are people fighting so hard against a different approach when it’s clear that Clark isn’t even human?
A lot of people seem to have forgotten this, but there’s a difference between a character whose race is integral to who they truly are and a character who is (often intentionally) racially ambiguous. So for instance, if we’re talking about a character like T’Challa from Black Panther, we’re talking about a king of African descent and one whose blackness defines his identity. And if we’re talking about Luke Cage (aka the first ever black superhero protagonist in a comic book), we’re talking about the black ex-convict turned hero of Harlem. Characters like these could never be portrayed by someone of a different ethnicity because it would conflict with their history and who they are.
But what about the characters who aren’t assigned a certain race? Or more specifically, what about characters who come from a completely different world and just happen to look human? Like Kal-El, who traveled to Earth from Krypton?
From the beginning, the only details that we knew for sure was that Kal-El, or Clark Kent, was an alien who was taken in by a human couple and raised on a farm. Yes, it’s true that he’s depicted as white in the original comics and yes, I know that the Clark Kents who graced our screens for years have always reflected that. Actors like Christopher Reeve, Tom Welling, and Tyler Hoechlin have certainly done the iconic role justice. But here’s the thing: Race shouldn’t be all that important when it comes to who Superman is. Unlike Power Man and the Black Panther, Clark’s race is not the core of his identity. He is an alien, and so making him non-white is not something that would fundamentally change who he is or what he stands for.
Warner Bros. would certainly agree, since Will Smith (who’s known for playing a few traditionally white roles) once revealed that they offered him the title role in Superman Returns. However, he turned it down because he didn’t want to risk messing it up and, eventually, ruining his career. He said: “There is no way I’m playing Superman! Because I had already done Jim West [from Wild Wild West] and you can’t be messing up white people’s heroes in Hollywood. You mess up white people’s heroes in Hollywood, you’ll never work in this town again.”
In retrospect, it was a smart move since that film turned out to be underwhelming. And had Will taken that role, he most likely would’ve gotten the bigger portion of the blame for the film’s performance, especially because the masses tend to be much more critical of minorities. But more importantly, the fact that Warner Bros. seriously considered a black actor for the role proves that Superman’s race is not set in stone.
What’s fascinating is that while Hollywood producers have gotten away with whitewashing several characters of color, they often get the most intense backlash when traditionally white or racially ambiguous characters are made black. For example, consider how the fans reacted to an olive-skinned Katniss being played by the blond-haired Jennifer Lawrence, and then compare that to how the public reacted when a black girl (a pre-fame Amandla Stenberg) played young Rue, who was actually described as having “dark skin” in the books. Fans shared the most vulgar responses to the casting of Rue, claiming that her blackness made her death “less sad” and that she was not the “innocent” blonde girl they’d imagined. Phrases like these only reveal the public’s mentality when it comes to black people. And from what we’ve seen, it’s apparently impossible for a black character to be portrayed in a positive light.
It’s part of the reason why some fans keep insisting that Superman is not black. And it’s why some fans have even resorted to pointing out that “technically there is a black Superman named Calvin Ellis from Earth 23.” (Shown in Marvel’s Final Crisis #7.) Yes, this is true. But if you happen to be one of those fans, just hear me out here: Calvin and Clark are NOT the same person. Calvin is one version of Superman that exists in a parallel universe, meaning that he has absolutely nothing to do with the real Clark Kent we know and love. So really, this is just another weak excuse to try and justify why a foreign alien must look like a white guy. If Warner Bros. wanted to go a different route by taking Calvin’s story to the big screen, then that would be pretty awesome – but it still wouldn’t be the original Superman’s story. If, however, we were to see the Superman with black skin? Then that would be a game changer.
Although it’s true that Clark’s race was never the center of his character, we can’t deny the fact that his skin color did have an impact. He assumed the form of someone who holds the most privilege, and surely, that one factor helped catapult him to stardom. In fact, I’d say that his whiteness affords him the opportunity to lead a double life as a top news reporter and the city’s beloved protector. But if we were to swap him out with a black Superman, then that storyline wouldn’t be as believable. Why? Well, because it’s tough to visualize a black Man of Steel when we’re constantly conditioned to think of black men as the opposite. Real black men are targeted, disrespected, and misrepresented by the media. And when it comes to most of the movies and shows that exist, fictional black men embody the worst stereotypes. To actually see a black Clark Kent successfully navigate a white world and become the ultimate hero would be a stark contrast to what we see every single day.
We’re just not used to seeing black guys grow up to be lauded as saviors, but perhaps this is why we could use a black Superman right now. Black Panther was a brilliant start, but we need to see even more fresh examples of black men thriving in a sea of white faces. We could use a change since we’re so often inundated with negative images of black manhood. And what better way to do that than by having a black Superman?