We need to have an honest conversation about DC Comics treatment of Black characters and talent.
DC Comics, while known for doing risk-taking when it comes to concepts and storytelling, is not the best when it comes to Black representation. Despite their plethora of compelling, engaging, and enjoyable Black characters, these characters appear to far and few between when it comes to adaptations. At best we can hope for one, maybe two, Black characters of any consequence.
Ray Fisher opened up about his unfair treatment onset of the Justice League movie under Joss Whedon, which Warner Bros. unjustly fired him for. Jevicia Leslie on Batwoman, despite having actual acting skills and range, gets subpar writing, dialogue and production values to work with. Amid the ending of Black Lightning, the only good Black-led DC CW series we’ve ever had, the youngest Pierce, Jennifer, faced a grueling and contrived exit smacking of lazy tropes. Additionally, they ignore the Milestone Comics characters so much, it must be mandated to do so. True to form, a live-action Static Shock series is too “risky” and thus likely to stream straight to HBO Max rather than debut on the big screen. And what makes him “risky” exactly? Did Black Panther not prove how incredibly popular and successful Black superheroes can be?
A Fan of DC
I can’t speak for all Blerds, I can only speak for myself. Maybe my feelings and experience are similar to some of yours. For me, mainstream comics and their adaptations are a great source of escapism for me. As a gay Black American living in this country, I know damn well the power and privilege I don’t possess. I am also closely aware of the spaces I cannot enter. With comics, for a moment, just a moment, none of that matters. I can see and be a part of worlds that are impossible. I can witness awesome powers, skills beyond my own, feats of strength and bravery I don’t normally see.
Often in the comics, they develop key Black characters well. They interact with other Black people and feel authentic. Of course, this is not always the case, just as any other character can suffer under certain writers and creatives. DC is special to me for the bright colors, the cheesy heroics. For the light as well as the dark subject matter. These heroes feel like real heroes. Black people, LGBTQ characters, women, just so many excellent figures. No two characters are the same. They can be similar, but for me, they always feel unique.
What Went Wrong
Unfortunately, while some of their adaptations get things right, rarely are they perfect for Black characters. The original animated Static Shock was excellent. Black Lightning has some flaws, but was largely great in my opinion, especially as it went on. Up until episode 4 of this final season.
The DCEU tends to tokenize or isolate their Black characters. Suicide Squad featured a race-bent Deadshot, his daughter, and the badass Amanda Waller played by iconic Viola Davis. Aside from their moments and those of Margot Robie’s Harley Quinn, the movie was very spotty. Lawrence Fishburne and Harry Lennix played Perry White and Calvin Swanwick in Man of Steel. While decent roles, they too did not get the best development. Furthermore, Swanwick was an alias of Martian Manhunter in the comics. Lennix was intended to be revealed to be the very same character in the original cut of Justice League. Unfortunately, the scene was not finished prior to Zack Snyder leaving. Subsequently, that detail, much like Ray Fisher’s key role in the film, was pushed aside by Whedon.
The mistreatment of Ray Fisher is unforgivable, and his unjust firing will forever remain a nagging shadow over the legacy of the DCEU. After speaking out about his horrendous mistreatment onset of the Justice League movie, Fisher was fired from his role as Victor Stone aka Cyborg. “Why do this before he secured the bag?” “Why bite the hand that feeds you?” “Who does he think he is?” These are just some of the statements you may or may not have heard online or even thought yourself. But the fact of the matter is, what the Powers That Be at Warner Bros. did was wrong and Fisher did absolutely nothing wrong by speaking out about it.
A Glimmer of Hope? Or a Cheap Ploy for Black Hype and the Black Dollar?
Warner Bros. recently announced that Ta-Nehisi Coates is the writer of the forthcoming Superman film. While it’s highly likely that the negotiations to get Ta-Nehisi Coates on board to write for this film have been happening for some time now, we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the suspicious timing. The Ray Fisher firing as well as the allegations of misconduct from Joss Whedon, Geoff Johns, Walter Hamada and the investigation did not put Warner Bros. and the DCEU in the best light. Coates hire couldn’t have happened overnight. From the first moment Fisher’s accusations started, the plan could have begun. And what better than a Black Superman to distract us from getting rid of our discarded Black DCEU star?
Oh, To Be A Black Fan Today…
DC has demonstrated, several times now, that they would rather racebend a previously white character and/or create a Black successor to the white person, instead of choosing characters who are historically Black. To clarify, racebending from white to non-white is not an issue. It provides more opportunities for other performers to get work and attention, and more fans to see themselves represented. The fact is that even with some roles being race-bent, the vast majority of all major roles as well as comics source material is white.
The issue I bring up here, in particular, is when DC prefers to only or mostly race-bend rather than utilize their historically Black characters. Black characters who may have never been seen in live-action, not handled well otherwise, or have been underutilized or poorly handled. It is incredibly cruel and unfair when racebending is done and other fans call it “pandering”. Not that we should care one iota what they feel, for Black people have been proven to drive culture countless times. Still, it is annoying to deal with trolls and racists who want to ruin what small joys we can have in life.
Some Examples in the DCEU
Deadshot was well-handled in an otherwise shaky movie, Black Canary was merely backup in what was truly the Harley Quinn solo movie (and we couldn’t even see if her mother, the OG Canary, was white or Black), and Ryan Wilder suffers from endless weak dialogue, inferior production values, and empty virtue-signaling befitting mostly white writers of a Black queer person (never forget her “I’m a number” speech). We’d rather Black characters handled well in great projects instead of being the best part of meh or terrible projects. Even the more successful projects like Wonder Woman or Aquaman downplay the importance of its Black characters.
The most important things are that previously ethnic characters cannot be whitewashed, which unlike racebending removes opportunities and instead feeds them into the status quo, as I mentioned before in my Batwoman season two article.
A Closer Look…
Let’s look at which Black DCEU characters were changed versus who were historically Black. Of the race-bent characters we have: Deadshot, his daughter Zoe Lawton, Black Canary, Perry White, Artemis of Bana-Mighdall (yes, the Amazon Artemis). Of the historically Black characters, we have Calvin Swanwick, Cyborg, his father Dr. Silas Stone, Amanda Waller, Philippus, Black Manta, his father, and Darla Dudley. Of the ones I’ve listed, maybe Deadshot, Black Canary, and Perry White are the sole characters of consequence, assuming we ever see any of them again. Artemis’s name wasn’t even spoken onscreen, let alone any dialogue I can recall.
Of the historically Black characters Waller for sure will return and we’ll see Cyborg and his father at least one more time in the Snyder Cut. We might get Black Manta back in Aquaman 2 and hopefully, in a meatier role, his dad is dead and gone, and we don’t know if we’ll get Darla back. Philippus, like Artemis, couldn’t even get her name spoken on screen. Additionally, her Pre-Flashpoint role as the person to train Diana in how to use her powers was instead given to Diana’s aunt who shouldn’t have even been there. Antiope was meant to split off into her own group of Amazons called Bana-Mighdall, where Artemis comes from. Instead, Antiope is here, Artemis is also sidelined, and Philippus is a glorified blink-and-you-miss-it-cameo in three films.
What we Need
In conclusion to this topic, racebending in and of itself is not a bad thing. It’s far more important to consider intention. How do you intend to use the character whether they are race-bent or historically Black? Will they get sufficient screen time or character development? Will they interact with other Black people in meaningful, thoughtful, or realistic ways? Where romance or sex is concerned, will they even have any of that and if so will they have Black partners? Will it automatically be interracial parings and white partners by default?
I am fine with both racebending or bringing in more historically Black characters as long as they are used well, but I lean more towards historically Black characters because they could use more exposure. Also when more people learn more about them, they might possibly look for their source comics. Racebent characters only add to the popularity and exposure of the white characters from which they are derived.
Eye On The Prize
For all intents and purposes, it remains a very exciting time to be a comic book fan alive today. That goes extra, though your mileage may vary, if you are also an ethnic fan, especially Black. The escapism opportunities have increased with every new film, comic, show, video game and other media. I am a Blerd who loves DC Comics and has all his life, and likely always will. The critiques come from love because I know DC can do better. I want more Black characters we either haven’t met, haven’t been seen very much, or in a long time.
We also need proper re-introduction of characters who were done horribly wrong and returns of characters who were downplayed. I want John Stewart (instead of Hal Jordan, not in addition to), Bumblebee, Mal Duncan, Nubia, Icon, Rocket, Hardware, Static, Steel, Natasha Irons, Batwing, Tiffany Fox, Mister Terrific, the entire Pierce family again, Jakeem Thunder, Bronze Tiger, Vixen, Firestorm, Kaldur’ahm, a Black Miss Martian (since Martian Manhunter is Black, she should be too, ignore Young Justice), Tanya Spears, a visibly Black Helena Wayne (since Zoe Kravitz is Catwoman in The Batman).
Don’t Settle for Just Anything, Demand MORE. Demand the BEST!
We as Blerds and as Black consumers need to demand all the iconic Black characters we can get, not settle for a token here and there, or solely for race-bent characters. Also, we need more exposure for Milestone Comics and characters, preexisting Black characters we already know and love and who will secure many a bag for Warner Bros., if only they actually use them. We need to stop settling for table scraps. Why choose one or the other? Why not both? Why not all? No more teams with only one Black person and no Black women or queer characters. Give us Black friendships, love, families, sensibilities, culture, and humor.
And if nothing else, please do not go quietly into the night after what happened to Ray Fisher. Don’t let them give us Black Superman as if what happened doesn’t matter. Fisher did nothing wrong and we need to hold Warner Media and the necessary guilty parties accountable. If we do nothing and don’t show up, then what happened to Fisher will happen to another Black talent in front of or behind the camera. They need to do right by us all: the Black creatives who help create and adapt the content, the thespians who bring it all to life, and the Black fans who drive the hype and culture of it all and literally pay for it with their tickets and participation. All of us, or none of us.
And Never Forget…
We deserve the best treatment on these sets, in these writing rooms, and as the consumers making it all possible. Also Black characters, including original and underutilized historically Black characters, with top-quality writing, nuance, care, hair/makeup/costuming, fight choreography and production values. Finally, we deserve to be seen in the best possible light and circumstances. The Black dollar and the Black voice can make or break any project. Don’t just pander to us, do right by us. Also give us the live-action big-budget Nubia, Bumblebee, Static, Icon & Rocket, and Milestone series we all deserve.