Could 'Community' star Donald Glover play Spider-Man?
An internet meme sets off a heated debate on race in pop culture
Here's my first question for you: why is Peter Parker white?
My answer to that question would be "Because the comic book was published in the early '60s, and there was no way Marvel was going to make their main character anything BUT white at that point in publishing history."
Aside from that, there's no inherent story or thematic reason for Peter Parker to be white. None at all. But you wouldn't know that looking at the reaction this weekend online to what started as a bit of a goof and has now blown up into a typhoon-force internet meme that is forcing an interesting and always-explosive conversation.
Donald Glover, who you used to be able to follow on Twitter under his name @donglover (and, yes, he knows exactly how else you can read that), has been building a following this year with his work on the show "Community." He's also a member of the group DERRICK Comedy which I wrote about last week, and he's an active member of LA's stand-up comedy community, a former writer for "30 Rock," and the star of "Mystery Team," which just got a DVD release. I'd say his audience is still a cult audience, but a passionate and growing one, which is probably why he changed the Twitter name to @MrDonaldGlover.
Over the weekend, as people were publishing more stories speculating about the casting process on Sony's "Spider-Man" reboot, Don started a campaign via Twitter, using a simple hashtag. Actually, here's how it started on May 30 at 2:45 PM:
Okay. So iO9 started this with an article that simply asked why Spider-Man needs to be white. It's a fair point, especially in the year 2010. Donald's response a minute later was simple:
You guys. Let's make this happen. #donald4spiderman
Like many people his age, Donald was raised on pop culture, and Spider-Man is one of those great Everyman characters that many of us felt kinship to as we were growing up. Marvel's entire company was built on a simple narrative innovation, the idea of giving superheroes real-life problems that made them feel like normal people who just happened to have amazing powers. Peter Parker was a perfect example of that, a teenage kid who was given these amazing abilities that did absolutely nothing to help him solve all the problems that regular teenagers deal with every day. Parker's love life tortured him more than the supervillains he had to fight, and dealing with hiding the truth about himself from his loved ones gave him angst you could measure on a Richter scale.
So now imagine you're a comic fan, you've grown up reading about Peter Parker and identifying with him, you've started to build a Hollywood career for yourself, and suddenly they're casting Spider-Man, and you're the right age and in good shape. You figure a little grass-roots campaign might actually get you in the room for an audition, and honestly... you can't ask for more than that, right?
Well, fast-foward a few days, and now look where we are. Look around at the message boards and comment sections under all the articles out there that have detailed the situation. Many of those articles were half-kidding, half-curious, and unfortunately, the response from fandom is exactly as bad as I feared it might be. Over the decade plus that I was at Ain't It Cool, I learned some very uncomfortable truths about fandom, and a situation like this just highlights those things once again. One of the core truths about many fanboys is that they have a very limited imagination, which seems odd when you consider that they are drawn to works of fiction that are all about imagination. People get hung up on the strangest things when it comes to new versions of the things they like, and when you start talking about casting, and especially when race becomes a factor in that conversation, things can get ugly. And fast.
Here's what I personally consider important about Peter Parker: he's a science nerd, he has trouble with girls, he is great with a camera, he loves his Aunt May and his Uncle Ben, and he is a wise-ass in a major way. Beyond that, I don't really care what color his skin is. The Sam Raimi "Spider-Man" films featured Tobey Maguire in the role, and he got certain aspects of Parker right, but not all of them. In fact, I'd argue that all three of Raimi's films really missed the boat on the "wise-ass" side of Parker, which I consider WAY more important than whether or not he's white. I've always loved the notion of Peter using his sense of humor to anger and distract villains in fights, and certain writers have nailed that. The Bendis run on "Ultimate Spider-Man" frequently made me laugh out loud, and there was one particular encounter with The Kingpin where I couldn't stop laughing after I read it. Even with Raimi and his various screenwriters totally missing that key element of Parker's personality, I was able to enjoy the films as interpretations of "Spider-Man," knowing full well that any adaptation is going to be filtered through the sensibility of whoever makes it, and that no adaptation will ever do every single thing that I, as a fan of that character, would want done.
So we've had three films now where Spider-Man is a humorless mope who looks perpetually ready to cry. Great. If casting Donald Glover means that we get a Spider-Man who is as comfortable cracking a joke as spinning a web, then I'll gladly accept a non-white Peter Parker and never look back.
However, just the idea of a black actor WANTING to play Spider-Man... and keep in mind, he hasn't auditioned or spoken to Sony or done anything official except say he sure would love a chance at the role... has made the fanboy nation crazy, and I wonder how many of them even fully understand the implications of what they write when they rail against the idea. It's a big deal to call somebody a racist, and it's not a word I throw around lightly. I think there are many people who are opposed to the notion of Donald Glover playing the role because he doesn't fit their interpretation of the character, and I can see that. Casting an icon like this is never easy. But there's a difference between knowing Donald's work, considering that work, and deciding that you'd rather see someone else play the part and flat-out rejecting the notion that any black man can EVER play the role, and that's the position that many people have taken in this debate.
And that, in my opinion, is absolutely racist.
We're not talking about a historical figure. We're not talking about a character whose race is essential to the story being told. We're talking about an audience surrogate, someone who is supposed to be us, and while I see a white face when I look in the mirror, I consider "us" in the year 2010 to be an inclusive word that reflect the post-Obama reality of our country. I wrote recently about the reasons I miss Jim Henson, and the subtle but effective way he tore down notions of racial inequality on "Sesame Street" is one of the things about him that I treasure. Seems like that lesson didn't really sink in for everyone, though. I want to believe that "us" reflects a multi-cultural multi-racial reality. I have a South American wife and I'm raising my kids (one who looks very gringo, one who looks very Latino) bilingual, aware of their heritage on both sides. And as they get older, I want them to actively be aware of what it means to come from two cultures. I am doing my part for the Great American Melting Pot, and my whole life, I have struggled with the way society pushes us to think about race versus the way I want to think about it.
Part of that struggle comes from being a pop culture addict. The default hero in most fiction is a white, heterosexual male. That's just the way it works. And as a culture, we are all expected to identify with the white heterosexual male. We are all supposed to be able to see ourselves in that character. It is lazy and arrogant and presumptuous, but it's also been the default for decades, and Hollywood certainly doesn't seem to be in any hurry to change it. To be fair, though, I don't think it's a uniquely American issue. For the past few years, I've been dealing with international financing on a film I wrote, and the main character has been incredibly difficult to cast. He's an ex pro-wrestler, and we always knew we needed someone of a certain size and heft. At one point, we got Michael Clarke Duncan to say yes to the role, and as far as we were concerned, that was a completely victory. I think he's exactly right for the role physically, but beyond that, he has a vulnerability that would fill the character out in the right way. Unfortunately, we were told that the financiers wouldn't accept him in the part because... and I quote... "there's no international audience for black actors."
That, by the way, is the real reason Donald Glover won't be playing Spider-Man.
It won't be because a bunch of vocal fanboys have trouble seeing past one ingrained visual image of a character, but because there's no way Sony bets their mega-franchise on a black face when they use the exact same grotesque international money charts and graphs as everyone else. Next time someone tells you America's got problems with race, you can point out that at least in this country, we seem to have room for actors of many ethnic and racial backgrounds, while internationally (Europe is evidently the worst about this), that is not true at all.
Trying to have this conversation on Twitter today, I was amazed at some of the responses I got, and from people I consider very smart and decent and not remotely bigoted. Over and over, I was asked if it would be okay to cast someone like Tom Cruise as Black Panther or Sam Worthington as Luke Cage. That argument just makes me sad. Those characters were created as a direct reaction to the overwhelming ocean of white faces in the world of comic books, and while I think there's something vaguely condescending and slimy about throwing the world "Black" in front of a character name, I can see why it was important for the characters to exist when they were first published. Their race is a central part of who they are, why they fight, and how they were written. The issue of Captain America came up again, too, and I'm one of the people who had trouble understanding the talk of Will Smith for that role when that was a rumor last year. Again... it's a story issue. Captain America was created as a symbol in WWII to lead American soldiers, and he had to be the ideal for the time period in which he was created. In WWII, there was no way they were going to make him African-American. No way at all. Even Jesse Owens, with his amazing victory at the Berlin Olympics, failed to convert many of the most entrenched racists of the day. Certain characters exist to explore ideas of race or to offer up a counterpoint to the traditionally white faces under those masks, and denying that or altering that seems to me to be willfully obtuse.
But with a character like Spider-Man (who, I should point out, is covered head to toe when he's in costume, meaning in much of the film he would be red and blue just like he always is), race has never been an issue. I can't think of a single key Spider-Man story that would be affected by casting a black actor. There's nothing about the character that you have have to fundamentally alter. Peter Parker would still be Peter Parker, defined by the same problems. Several people have countered, "Well, if it doesn't matter, then why do it? It's just political correctness." No... not really. The truth is, there's a big talent pool out there, and excluding talented actors because of a default decision made 40 years ago feels wrong to me.
Before this conversation began, I didn't really have much opinion about Spider-Man and the casting. I hear they're getting closer and closer to choosing Josh Hutcherson, and he's even evidently shot some tests for the film. I'm not sure if they've had anyone else in front of the camera yet, but with Hutcherson, they've already seen him in action, an important part of making the choice. Hutcherson's fine. He's a decent actor, and he might be able to pull off wise-ass in a way that Maguire never could. But is he the absolute best actor for the part?
Until Sony is willing to consider ALL actors for the part... and until fandom gets over their preoccupations with surface characteristics... we won't know, because the playing field remains uneven. In cases where race doesn't add or subtract anything from a character, it is my sincere wish that casting directors and studios would simply look past skin color and judge talent. It won't happen on this film, and I guarantee we're all talking about this more than the studio ever will, but that's still what I wish.
In a perfect world, every conversation about Glover as Spider-Man would be focused on his work, his talent, his ability to handle an action scene, and whether or not Sony would consider him "bankable." Instead, here we are in the year 2010, seriously debating whether or not the color on the outside of someone has anything whatsoever to do with the character within. Seems like a real shame to me.
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