So I’ve been seeing these posts going around, the gist of them basically being “if you said nothing about a white man playing these minority characters, how come you’re now complaining about Michael B. Jordan playing the Human Torch?” And speaking as someone who didn’t like Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan or Johnny Depp playing Tonto… no, still don’t like Johnny Storm being black. And if you’ll let me get into why before you send me anon hate? Thanks.
I think there’s a line between diversity and pandering. I don’t think I’m giving away the secrets of the universe when I say film studios want their movies to appeal to the widest possible audience, even if it’s to the detriment of the films they release. This is why every movie has to be PG-13 and every movie has to have a love story, no matter how non-conductive the situation is to romance (“Ninety percent of humanity has died and we need to prove this child molester is guilty before he hurts another boy—BUT CAN I REUNITE WITH MY ESTRANGED WIFE?”). PG-13 means the kids can go! Women like love stories!
And thus there’s a very cursory, almost insulting attempt by studios to get those butts into seats, even if they’re minorities. So every movie has one black guy to appeal to the black audience, one female love interest (always a love interest) to appeal to the ladies, we’re going to start seeing token gay characters as soon as it’s not really transgressive anymore at all.
Now in the original Robocop, Murphy’s partner is Anne Lewis, who is played by a white woman. It’s a quick way to establish that the movie takes place in the future; the tough-as-nails veteran cop is a woman and no one comments on it. Now, that’s not as transgressive nowadays, but still, it’s a good character: you wonder why they changed it to Jack Lewis, a black male cop, in the remake.
And I honestly think that all it is is that the remake already has a female lead in Murphy’s wife, played by Abbie Cornish. So think of this as a checklist the studio is making. The women are already watching the movie—we checked off female character. Now we need to check off the black demographic: suddenly Robocop’s partner is a black man.
Of course, it’s not entirely a white man’s show other than those two parts. BUT it seems like all the other minority characters are sidekicks to more important white characters. Jennifer Ehle shows up, but just as sort of a hanger-on to Jay Baruchel’s weaselly marketing executive. Gary Oldman has a female assistant, but she’s not really important. One of the corrupt cops that injures Murphy the first go-around is black, but he’s always hanging around with his white partner. Even Lewis has far less screentime than his female counterpart in the original: he’s Robocop’s sidekick! The only real non-sidekick role is Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a black woman who plays the counterpart of Sergeant Reed in the original. However, despite her turning out to have played a vital role in Murphy’s ‘death,’ she’s barely in the movie and disappears as soon as she’s exposed, though you’d think she’d be the Big Bad.
(Samuel L. Jackson is also in the movie, but he literally has no impact on the plot, just showing up now and then playing a future Bill O’Reilly and saying the opposite of what the filmmakers feel. It’s all very subtle.)
But the thrust of the movie is Robocop vs. Omnicorp, and all the major players there are white men. The CEO that commissions Robocop? White. The kindly scientist that rebuilds Robocop? White. The gun-toting henchman who has a feud with Robocop? White. The comic relief marketing exec? White. You could do a cut of this movie that is nothing but white men and there’d be next to no difference to the plot, besides it being shorter.
(This is nothing new: In the Total Recall remake, Quaid’s co-worker is now a black man and the Rekall salesman is now John Cho, but the hero, villain, both love interests, and even Kuato are all white. The first two characters are almost entirely unimportant to the narrative; I think they just made them minorities because, due to their expository involvement in the premise, they show up in the trailers.)
Now, why not just make Anne Lewis a black woman, which would preserve a strong female character while also setting her apart from the original? Because this is all about doing the bare minimum necessary to get minority butts into seats without scaring the majority. We have a black man, no need to make him gay. We have a woman, no need to make her trans.
What does this have to do with Fantastic Four? Thank you for asking, I was afraid you were going to let me ramble about a sucky Robocop remake all day. So, as we all know, Michael B. Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm was a long time coming. He was rumored for the part months ago, we never really heard of anyone else being considered, he’s pretty much the first part to be filled. Given this, and knowing the part of Sue Storm has always been Johnny’s biological sister—wouldn’t you think a black actress would be cast? That makes sense, right? Or some would at least be considered, given a chance to win the part just like Kate Mara. And yet, the short-list of actresses for the role of Sue Storm were always white. And these were not huge names—one of the cast members from Girls was considered. Why not make Sue Storm black?
Because that box had already been checked. We have the black audience. Now it’s time for the female audience, which means the white woman audience. After all, three white people and one black man? “Diverse.” Two white people and two black people? Scary.