The Importance of Being X-Men
(or how the white washing of black characters goes unnoticed)
I have a bit of a problem with Fox's decision to cast Alexandra Shipp as Ororo Munroe, Storm.
Back when the X-Men started Stan lee wrote them largely as a metaphor for being a teenager. The original team’s powers and problems were ones that reflected the struggles of youth. There were some glimpses of the "protect a world that fears and hates them" theme, but it mainly manifested as a metaphor for older generations bearing resentment towards the new generation. The fear of the 'cultural other' was not its primary focus.
With 'Giant Size X-Men #1' (1975), Len Wein and Dave Cockrum took the X-Men and reinvented the group with a multicultural cast.
Chris Claremont took over from there with 'The All-New, All Different X-Men #94' and made the X-Men into an ongoing set of social parables that ran hand in hand with the civil rights movement. He made the X-Men into a social commentary that saw it dominate comics throughout the whole of the 1980s. To this day, when people think of the X-Men it is in the way Claremont re-imagined them.
Storm’s story is that she was born in America to an African mother and African American father. After Ororo was only six months old they moved to Africa, to Cairo Egypt where they died and Ororo stayed. In the comics her culture is a huge part of her character, it informs who she is as a person, her cultural reference points, her habits, and the way the world receives her. She is an African Goddess.
By casting Halle Berry Fox made the decision to erase Storm's African heritage from her character. Berry is half African American and half Caucasian. As far as her looks go she completely rocked it as Storm. What she completely left off of the table though was 100% of Storm's culture, because let's face it, culturally, Halle Berry is white.
By casting Alexandra Shipp the casting agents from Fox are making a decision to selectively repress the existence of African culture on screen from a character who is canonically African, AGAIN.
People's reactions have largely been along the lines of, "she looks like a baby Storm so job done," like somehow skin colour alone is the qualifying criteria for getting a character right.
The problem is that cultures outside of white culture are already under represented in cinema and situations like this do nothing but decrease that visibility even further.
Commonly the examples of this in cinema are non-white characters being literally white washed. Johnny Depp played Tonto in The Lone Ranger to a wave of outrage because the part was denied to a Native American actor. Christian Bale recently had a similar reception to his role as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
The difference is that in Exodus, and in The Lone Ranger, the original race still exists. It is still being acknowledged as existing (even if badly) so it can still draw the attention needed for a backlash.
In the case of Storm and Alexandra Shipp there’s nothing there. The character's cultural heritage is swept under a rug because it doesn't sell to a mass-market white American audience.
One of the arguments I received upon expressing my opinion of this Storm casting as a problem was from an American guy who was convinced that American characters being played by English actors was the same thing.
No. No it is not. Here's why:
Firstly, English characters are also played by American actors on a regular basis, there’s a lot of overlap between the two. Secondly, in no way does an American playing an Englishman, or an Englishman playing an American ever repress the representation on screen of either of those cultures.
On the other hand, by switching out the one African character of prominence in the X-Men with an American portrayal by an American actor, an already under represented culture in cinema is being entirely omitted from that film's narrative.
To spell it out, the point I want to make is that the colour of someone’s skin does not represent their culture or whom they represent culturally. Alexandra Shipp is effectively as white culturally as her fellow cast addition Tye Sheridan. Culturally, she is a westerner.
With this film being based on Apocalypse the thought of En Sabah Nur originating from Egypt had me salivating at the idea that we would get a Storm this time that reflected this.
Growing up being mixed-race (and same with being any non-white race I imagine) there are certain realities that you come to live with from a very early age. By the time I was five and I saw the X-Men animated cartoon I was already completely adjusted to the fact that I was not part of the majority, that some people were going to hate me based on looks alone.
Seeing the animated X-Men cartoon for the first time, seeing them be pursued by Sentinels just for being who they were, it was a big deal for me. For the first time I felt like I was seeing something that was made for people like me who were not part of the majority.
Seeing the X-Men films repress that multiculturalism that made me love the franchise, the values that formed so much of who I have grown up to be... It really makes me sad. Fox are letting me down.
Just to clarify, I am not blaming Alexandra Shipp here at all. This is something she is not responsible for, this is a problem that is systematic to the pervasive ideology at work in Hollywood. Alexandra Shipp is a young actress who just got cast in lead role of a multimillion dollar franchise. I can’t imagine how much this means to her. She deserves every bit of support along the way. Whether she is good in the role or not only time will tell.
There’s something I can’t shake. Think about how deranged “protecting a world that fears and hates us” is as a message when it is being made primarily for the people who have the luxury of doing the fearing and hating.