It seems as if some white people have had a deep investment in the “white superhero” since the creation of blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, and now that noxious narcissism has spilled over into pushback against Marvel’s Fantastic Four.
Michael B. Jordan, who rose to fame portraying 22-year-old Oscar Grant in 2013’s Fruitvale Station, has been tapped to play Johnny Storm (“the Human Torch”) in the popular film franchise. Since the news broke, racist trolls, mostly white men, have come out of the woodwork in comment sections and on social media, decrying the lack of “authenticity” of a black Storm. He must remain blond-haired and blue-eyed, or else. Because, clearly, no little white boy feverishly reading his comic books under the covers with a flashlight dreams of one day being a powerful black man, right?
There is little doubt that forced diversity can potentially weaken a story when it’s a clear departure from that story’s truth. This is not the case, however, with director Josh Trank’s “contemporary reimagining of Marvel’s original and longest-running superhero team.” Drawing inspiration from his own multiracial family, Trank's goal is to normalize that representation in film, a medium that traditionally relies on a racially homogeneous family structure that no longer reflects America. This makes sense. Still, so-called comic book purists are actually upset because Storm, a fictional teen who transports to another galaxy and gains superpowers through cosmic radiation, thus arming him for an epic battle against Dr. Doom, is no longer white.
Yeah … no. That’s not how any of this works.
Jordan responded to criticism with a forthright essay in Entertainment Weekly, writing in part the following:
Sometimes you have to be the person who stands up and says, “I’ll be the one to shoulder all this hate. I’ll take the brunt for the next couple of generations.” I put that responsibility on myself. People are always going to see each other in terms of race, but maybe in the future we won’t talk about it as much. Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles, and maybe we can reach the people who are stuck in the mindset that “it has to be true to the comic book.” Or maybe we have to reach past them.
To the trolls on the Internet, I want to say: Get your head out of the computer. Go outside and walk around. Look at the people walking next to you. Look at your friends’ friends and who they’re interacting with. And just understand this is the world we live in.
Unfortunately, the world we live in breeds the criticism Jordan is receiving. Some mainstream media outlets seem hell-bent on amplifying the parallel myths of white superiority and black inferiority. African-American men in particular are primarily packaged as “thugs,” wrapped in pathology so stifling that even when the opportunity presents itself, mainstream media won’t let them breathe. They don’t get to be heroes.
This dogged determination to negatively stereotype black people—first in Ferguson, Mo., then in Baltimore—has become craftier in recent weeks. In the Waco, Texas, “Wild West” shootout between rival biker gangs, esteemed outlets such as CNN went out of their way to profile one African-American biker out of 170 men arrested, the vast majority of them white. When the federal government raided medical facilities (“pill mills”) that illegally sell and distribute prescription pain pills in a concerted effort to “crack down on prescription pain-drug abuse,” NBC featured the arrests of African-American medical professionals—despite 280 arrests being made over 15 months, and despite recent research by Recovery.org that found that white men are overwhelmingly the face of prescription-drug addiction.
That dedication to privileging and protecting whiteness is also evident in film, making Jordan one of only a few black actors to ever be placed in the barrier-breaking position he now finds himself. Typically, Hollywood executives will find a way to make a character white—accuracy be damned. We’ve seen it with Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and the whitewashing of the Exodus cast, because who cares about geography when there is a prime opportunity to paint black characters as the thugs of Mesopotamia.
In both fantasy and reality, what is seen as power when wrapped in whiteness is often viewed as threat when wrapped in blackness. This sets the stage for a daily fight in which black people in this country often struggle to be acknowledged as human beings. That being the case, Michael B. Jordan’s playing Johnny Storm, a black man with superhuman powers, in a predominantly white and historically racist genre is bound to be framed as “controversy” instead of what it really is: good ol’ boys rebelling against the slow dethroning of the “white savior.”
What has become more and more clear is that the myth of white superiority partly relies on the perpetuation of white supremacy in dark movie theaters, where prejudices and biases can hide behind overpriced popcorn and Twizzlers.
Michael B. Jordan is simply turning the lights on.