Jason Johnson, our political editor at The Root and an in-real-life close and personal friend of mine, wrote this last Friday about the new Spider-Man movie:
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun movie, but not one that will stick with you for long. It’s significantly better on the diversity front than whitewashed Doctor Strange, or the minority-as-comedy-relief-sidekick-brigade antics of Ant-Man; and the references to race, history and culture by a group of smart high school kids are organic and believable in the film. But it falls way short of the fully integrated POC in Captain America: Civil War. It feels more like a mashup of a 1980s high school teen flick and Agent Cody Banks, with a few talking minority extras who are still revolving around the white-guy hero and villain.
A-ho-ho-ho. I just saw the movie and, man, I do not agree.
Spider-Man: Homecoming was not only the best Spider-Man movie ever made—beating out all Tobey Maguire versions and, blech, all Andrew Garfield garbage pictures—but one of the best movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, probably in the top five, next to Captain America: Winter Soldier, Black Panther (yeah, I put it in the top five and it hasn’t come out yet; that trailer was hot fire!) and the original Avengers.
But that wasn’t the worst part of my dear friend Jason’s review. Oh no. It was his slam that the diversity in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the kind that actually featured multiple characters of multiple ethnicities talking about things that had nothing to do with the main white character, was “faux diversity.”
Sir, I know fake diversity when I see it. It’s called “tokenism,” and it usually involves just a minor character who is the sole person of color in the entire film, with no agency, who is solely there to help the white hero, who never talks to any other people of color, and has no dreams or ambitions of his or her own. This is a character whose brownness or blackness is irrelevant because the role could have been played by a cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan from Space Jam the whole time.
This role did not exist in this movie.
Yes, Peter Parker’s best friend, Ned, was played by a Filipino actor (Jacob Batalon). Yes, Ned had comic-relief elements about him. But Ned was not alone. Ned was not without desire and agency. And Ned was not without purpose. He didn’t fall down and need to be rescued in the final act. He didn’t disappear for the whole final act, either. Ned didn’t only just talk to the white guy about how great he was. But again, most importantly, Ned was not alone.
There were, not one, but two black girls—Liz and Michelle (Laura Harrier and Zendaya Coleman)—who had speaking parts that were fun and reflective of both teenage innocence/optimism and teenage bitterness/angst. (And I can’t even recall if I’ve ever seen a black girl be the Sylvia Plath-esque, existential “angsty” one in a film of any kind. So that was damn near groundbreaking. Never mind that in most Marvel movies, black women have been the nonfactors of superherodom. So to have two in a movie, one playing the romantic lead and the other undercutting everyone’s joy with dry wit, was refreshing.)
Super jerk Flash Thompson was played by Tony Revolori, who is of Guatemalan descent. There was an African student who was seriously into his academic decathlon. There was a high school, in New York City, that looked a lot like the real-life Bronx Science, and was full of black and brown and Asian and biracial students and teachers. And there was the city’s borough of Queens, full of all sorts of people of color, like the kind you will find in the actual Queens. And they all were just doing their thing, running sandwich shops and worrying about teenager stuff like detention and homecoming dances while Peter Parker was trying to save the world from an actual legit scary baddie in the form of my favorite Batman, Michael Keaton.
As for the complaint that Hollywood is fixated on casting black and biracial women as love interests in genre films and TV for white male heroes, so what? Who does this hurt? No one. For contrast, I sat through all of Jessica Jones, with skinny, white-ass Krysten Ritter, on Netflix, where she boned super black man Luke Cage (Mike Colter) six ways to Sunday and gave all of no shits. I mean, would I have preferred to see black love? Sure, I love black love! But then Marvel made a whole Luke Cage TV show and stuck Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) in it, and I forgot Jessica Jones even happened!
When the alternative is no black women in the movie at all, I choose “Stick some black women in it” every time. Yeah, is it so common now that it’s cliché? ROTFLMAO; of course it is! Is it true that racist nerds are more comfortable with Sue Storm being played by a Latino woman in a blond wig than Johnny Storm being played by a black guy in the form of Michael B. Jordan? Of course it is.
Does that mean Jessica Alba should turn down roles because shit’s not fair? Of course not; that’s crazy talk! The push should be for black characters and Latino characters and Asian characters to get to be well-rounded, fully fleshed-out characters, not that they shouldn’t be there at all.
Now, if the beef is that this isn’t a Miles Morales Spider-Man movie—Miles Morales being the awesome Afro-Latino Spider-Man in the comics—I mean, sure, that would be a fun movie, too, but I talked to my younger sister, whose complete knowledge of Marvel movies begins with Iron Man and ends with her 5-year-old’s love of Captain America, and she was like, “Who?”
They don’t make these movies just for me and you, Jason. They make them for the vast majority of America who is my sister, who is like, “Who?” This doesn’t mean there will never, ever be a Miles Morales Spider-Man movie. They stuck a great Miles Morales Easter egg in the form of Donald Glover right smack dab in the middle of the movie for fans. It went over my sister’s head, but I got it and loved it!
If the beef is, “Well, it’s yet another superhero movie with a white guy in it,” I don’t even know what to say. Should Marvel have not even bothered to cast all those black and brown people? Should we go back to the 2002 New York of Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, where one of the few people of color was Octavia Spencer—who I forgot was even in the movie—and her all five seconds of screen time? Could Marvel do more? Could Marvel do better? Of course it can! That’s why Black Panther is coming to a theater near you in February 2018!
That said, despite your very wrong and not right Spider-Man opinions, I still love you like my very wrong play cousin.