If you thought being a regular old black person in America was tough, try being a black superhero, or a black person from the future, or even worse, a black alien from a galaxy far, far away. You’d have to deal with Thanos, inter-dimensional threats, and you still have to battle the Chicago Police Department, #BarbecueBecky and white racists online.
In fact, lately it’s gotten so bad that bigots are attacking black folks for even taking roles as superheroes, even black ones. Anna Diop, who plays Starfire, a black woman, in the new Titans show on the new DC Universe streaming service, is catching racist hell for not being the right kind of black for the role.
White comic fans have always been hostile to black folks showing up in “their” movies. But usually that’s when the character was originally written as white or white fans just assumed whiteness for the character. Remember when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor? Even though Elba was essentially playing an interdimensional doorman for a bunch of blonde white gods, some white folks still weren’t having it. Even though in the Hunger Games book Rue was described as having dark skin, white girls across America were shocked and appalled when Amandla Stenberg was cast to play the character in the movie.
Now, if you wanted to make the case that the Empire-Fire Order in Star Wars was infused with anti-black racism and Nazi iconography (despite once being run by a guy wearing all black with James Earl Jones’ voice) and therefore never would’ve accepted a black Storm Trooper, I’m willing to hear it. But I’m pretty sure the rage about John Boyega’s Finn character in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens wasn’t because of white fans’ collective desire for historical accuracy.
What’s different about the racial attacks on Anna Diop is that she’s playing Starfire, one of the core characters of the Teen Titans franchise, a character who also happens to be black. Yet the reaction of some “fans” to her casting when the Titans trailer was released last week was so bad she disabled her Instagram comments to shut down the verbal violence.
Now for some context: In the comics world, the Teen Titans are to the Justice League what the X-Men are to the Avengers—the younger, sexier superhero team with more drama and reheated versions of ’60s political issues. Starfire is a golden-skinned (literally), full lipped, curly-haired, super-powered princess who escapes to Earth after being sold into slavery when her tropical planet full of brown people was invaded by thin-lipped, scaly monsters in desperate need of lotion who forced the entire population to eat potato salad with raisins. Just kidding. The colonizers weren’t all that scaly. In other words, from her first appearance in the ’80s Teen Titans comics, Starfire was always a black woman, and while over the years comic artists have tried to whitewash her, most noticeably giving her straight hair and sharpening her nose, comic fans know the deal. On the Rachel Dolezal scale of blackness, Starfire is much closer to Danai Gurira than she is to Paula Patton. Now bigoted fans getting mad about race-bending is one thing, but what’s the problem with a black woman being cast as a black comic character? She’s not the right kind of black woman.
In other words, Anna Diop is too “black” and “too dark” to play an alien black woman who’s supposed to be beautiful. White cosplay websites continue to promote the fantasy that Starfire is a white woman painted orange but she definitely can’t be a dark-skinned, black woman. (I’m also guessing “blackwashing” has never occurred unless somewhere there’s a Lone Ranger reboot starring Michael B. Jordan and Kevin Hart as Tonto). In America, the sneaky play cousin of racism is colorism and it is alive and well, especially in casting decisions for superhero and fantasy shows.
Some prominent Black Twitter folks, especially Casting Gurl Wonder and film reviewer Rebecca Theodore-Vachon have been ringing the bells about Hollywood colorism, especially in the aftermath of Black Panther’s success with an unquestionably black cast.
The unwritten rule for black women in Hollywood is that if you want to carry a sword, fly into space or fight aliens, you’ve got to be racially ambiguous. That’s why Storm of the X-Men, despite being Kenyan and African-American in comics has always been cast as biracial Halle Berry or even more racially ambiguous Alexandra Shipp. That’s why biracial Zendaya was cast to play white, red-haired Mary Jane Watson in Spiderman: Homecoming or biracial Tessa Thompson was cast to play Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok. You see, white fans will tolerate biracial or racially ambiguous women being cast in genre movies, as long as they are light skinned and especially when those characters are love interests for a white male lead. Given that the longest running relationship in the Teen Titans comic is between Batman’s sidekick, Robin, and Starfire, what these white folks are also railing against is the idea of a dark-skinned, black woman being considered the hottest girl on the team to one of comic’s hearthrobs and golden boys.
Colorism is so baked into America’s racist cake, from the fans to casting directors to actors themselves, it’s an incredibly difficult system to dismantle. While some actresses remain perpetually problematic and defensive about colorism, (We see you Alexandra Shipp), more and more are speaking out. Zendaya has been vocal about the problems associated with her color privilege and Amandla Stenberg famously dropped out of the running to play Shuri in Black Panther because:
“These are all dark-skinned actors playing Africans, and I feel like it would have just been off to see me as a bi-racial American with a Nigerian accent just pretending that I’m the same color as everyone else in the movie,”Stenberg said.
Paging Zoe Saldana, Hollywood would like your Nina Simone audition back.
If fans actually demanded that Hollywood actually cast African-American women of all shades in all kinds of roles, we could make a difference. Black women can be superheroes and sorceresses and alien intergalactic mercenaries and sexy, femme fatales, who, gasp, might even have black male love interests!. Perhaps then the casting of women like Anna Diop wouldn’t be such a shock to the system to the vast unseasoned fandom in comics. I know, I know, that’s a crazy idea. Now, let’s just get back to casting green-skinned women and talking robots from the future; apparently, that’s much easier for racist fans and casting directors to understand.