Can a Black Actor Play Spider-Man?
Earlier this week, on a quiet Sunday evening, the geek community exploded over twitter, crushed by news that one of our community’s patron saints, Guillermo del Toro was leaving The Hobbit – a project many of us had covered for years. From rumors of his attachment, to the long contract process and then two years of pre-production, this film was to be his masterpiece and we were there every step of the way. This was huge. No, this was gargantuan. We would be talking about this all of this week and into the…wait. What? A Black actor wants to audition for Spider-Man?
STOP THE PRESSES!
A dam broke. Everyone quickly came to terms with their heartbreak, and while writing up their picks for del Toro’s replacement, spent the rest of the night arguing, debating and occasionally even yelling at fellow geeks over whether or not Donald Glover (NBC's Community) could take on the role of everyone’s favorite nebbish high school nerd turned wise-cracking superhero. It occasionally even got ugly. But, unlike how some have painted it, this isn’t a matter of racism. This isn’t enlightened, empowered liberal minds on one side shouting down racists on the other; in fact this doesn’t even properly skew down racial lines. This is a question of origin.
Spider-Man was originally drawn white, and he’s existed that way for almost 50 years now. Were you to ask me last week what I thought about casting a black Spider-Man, I would have said that it depended on the actor, but that Spider-Man has always been a white character. Of course, once Glover’s name was mentioned, I changed that tune. There isn’t anyone truly interesting up for the role right now. And with the studio skewing young with hopes of having someone around for a while, there is very little chance of getting anyone we’re REALLY interested in. Except for Glover. Glover is interesting. He can play nerdy, he can be very likable and most of all, he’s uproariously funny.
A few weeks ago, on Community, Glover took part in an incredible post-apocalyptic, action movie spoof in which he and his classmates were playing paintball for an unthinkable prize. When he propositions his fellow black team member to shoot his teammates in the back to take the prize for themselves, he gets a scolding about how that would look. “I am NOT an ambassador!” he yells, nailing the joke. That line has stuck with me. With everything I’ve read from Glover, he doesn’t think they should consider a black Spider-Man; they should consider auditioning *him* for Spider-Man. It’s a small, subtle, but important difference that illustrates the divide this country still has with race. And it is a difference the studios are embracing. A studio suit once told me “Look, if Will Smith wanted to play Adolph Hitler, we’d find a way to make it happen. He’d take the weekend.”
That’s not to say every hero can has his origin or color shuffled ever so slightly. Certain heroes were built around their race or harken from an era when a member of another race would create an anachronism. Luke Cage and Blade were both Blaxsploitation comic book heroes created to sell more comic books to the black community in the 70’s – hell, the first time Blade showed up in Tomb of Dracula he had an afro, threw wooden knives and called all the vampires "Suckas!." Likewise, Captain America comes from a time when, ironically, while fighting the master race ideal, we weren’t too keen on anyone but whites being given special roles. And Thor is Scandinavian; kind of hard to get around that one.
But Spider-Man? He’s just a poor smart kid who lives with his aunt and tries to do the best he can with the powers he was given. Nothing controversial in there. In fact, Stan Lee has repeatedly said in interviews that the idea of Spider-Man was that is *could* have been anyone under that mask. That he was white was simply a product of the era he was created in – the early sixties.
So do I want to see a black Spider-Man? Only if it is the right actor playing him. And not if they feel the need to make changes to justify him being black. This isn’t about activism; this isn’t about Spider-man being an ambassador. It’s about finding the right guy who can make us believe in a nerdy kid who wants to save the world. That’s it. Get that right, and I could care less what he looks like under that mask.