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Hammering it Home: Thor and the Race Issue…

A few weeks ago, a debate sparked up on-line about Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming blockbuster, Thor. The debate centred around the casting of superb British actor Idris Elba as Norse god Heimdall in the film. Apparently the “Council of Conservative Citizens” had an objection to this casting decision. It wasn’t that they felt that Elba was a weak actor or that they were lobbying for another actor in the role. It was because Elba is a black actor and Heimdall is a white character.

Do we still live in an age where this matters?

A black and white issue?

Last year, in fairness, I quite liked the idea of casting Will Smith as Captain America: The First Avenger. I just think Smith has the kind of all-American charm that the guy in the role needs to exude – the charm that I strongly suspect that Chris Evans has, but I know that Will Smith carries in spades. So, if I don’t have a problem with a black actor playing perhaps the ultimate WASP superhero, you can imagine how much I care about Elba playing a Norse god.

The argument goes that the character is white, so the actor should be white. Hell, Heimdall is frequently referred to as “the whitest of all the gods” in Norse mythology and the comic books themselves – this is something that those protesting the casting frequently refer to. However, it could be an issue of translation – some academics suggest that the proper translation is “the brightest of all the gods”, since the title was given when Heimdall came up with a clever idea to disguise Thor and help him get his hammer back.

Anyway, the translation trivia is a bit of a red herring – mentioning that there is an alternative translation just creates the impression that the criticism is legitimate. By arguing that he isn’t “the white god”, we suggest that these complaints might have some grounding if Elba was playing a character unequivocally known as “the white god”. The truth is that it doesn’t matter. There’s no reason that Elba shouldn’t be in the role if he’s the best actor for the job. I’ve watched all of The Wire and Luthor, his two television shows, so you’ll have a tough time convincing me that he isn’t over-qualified for a small part in a superhero film.

In case any comic book purists are wondering, there was a black Captain America...

He’s earned that role simply by being one of the best actors working today. If he can make dreck like Takers watchable, there’s no end to his talent. I seriously think that he’s a star simply waiting to happen. That should be the end of this argument. I should say “he’s the best actor for the job” and that should be it. But it’s not – it never is.

There’s an undercurrent at play here, a more direct issue which doesn’t involve Elba and his considerable talents. Those objecting to his casting don’t see Elba – he could be any other performer with a different skin tone. The central issue is that he’s a black man playing a character traditionally seen as white. That upsets some people. Elba himself has offered his own very dignified reply:

Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the color of my skin is wrong?

Being honest, it doesn’t matter whether Thor is mythical or not (even if it does make the argument a bit more ridiculous). Even if it were an Oscar-baiting drama with some “very serious and totally topical” subject matter, I’d still think that the skin of the actor doesn’t matter. Unless, of course, the “very serious and totally topical” subject matter is race itself, in which case it might be important.

I don’t want to get drawn into a racial debate here. I’m not going to say that colour is always irrelevant when you’re casting a film. For example, I was very concerned about the race lift of characters in the film 21 and also in the subtext of the casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I do think that there are times when it is inappropriate to change the race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of a particular character in adapting the work. I think that these are the minority of cases – for example, I don’t care about the skin colour or gender of the next lead on Doctor Who – but I can’t definitively say that race should never be a consideration when casting any film. It’s a ridiculous blanket statement.

Hell, I can’t even say that race should never be a consideration when casting a superhero blockbuster. I’d argue that, for example, Daredevil should always be white (as the character’s a second-generation Irish Catholic and it’s a core part of his identity) and Black Panther should always be black (as the character’s the leader of an African nation). However, in most cases, I’d argue that it’s flexible. Peter Parker’s ethnicity doesn’t really matter as long as he’s weak and nerdy. Captain America’s appearance doesn’t matter as long as he exudes that American confidence.

Similarly, I can say that race should never be a consideration when casting Heimdall, the Norse god.

By gods, this is a disappointing argument...

There are a lot of reasons why skin colour doesn’t matter for the role. The most obvious is that Heimdall himself is a product of different times. Both the original Norse legend and even the comic book character were created in a very different social and political climate. When the original legends of Heimdall were crafted, the Vikings were liking unaware that any other ethnicity existed – ergo, they didn’t create him as explicitly caucasian; he was just always conceived that way because they didn’t know that there could be any other physical appearance. If you were to travel back in time and ask a Norse person what the definitive trait of Heimdall was, I doubt his skin tone would come into it. I imagine you’d get adjectives like “strong” and “wise”. As long as you have an actor who can portray those core attributes, you’re doing fine.

When it comes to the comic book iteration of the character, I think it’s fair to say that those were different times. Heimdall first appeared in Thor in 1962. I think the social and political landscape was quite different then. Being honest, as I look at the pantheon of heroes at both Marvel and DC (many of whom have been in circulation for over half a century), I wonder how different they would look if we created them today? Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was still hugely topical for featuring a mixed-race couple in 1967. I imagine that, were we creating these characters today, they’d be a far more diverse group. Or, at least I hope so – I hope that they would more reflect the real world.

I mean, you could make some sort of strict interpretational argument that recasting the roles in the movies is an attempt to pretend that those original comic books weren’t products of their time – that we’re attempting to rewrite history to make us seem more enlightened than we really were by recasting those roles, instead of acknowledging the problem. It’s the argument which keeps Tintin in the Congo in print, for example. I’m not sure that I buy this logic. I don’t think the idea holds water when you are dealing with a joke audience – for example, I think it’s fair that Disney pulled The Song of the South from circulation. However, more importantly, I don’t believe that the people opposed to Elba’s casting are going to look at the film as an acknowledgement of a shamefully Anglo-Saxon-centric chapter of comic book history.

And, truth be told, I don’t feel that ethnicity is a particularly important characteristic for any of them. When you ask me to describe Tony Stark, his skin colour isn’t immediately what comes to mind. Hell, the word “moustache” would come to my mind before that. Race is even less of a concern for a supporting character like Heimdall. He’s a character who exists to support Thor – whether he has black or white skin is as immaterial as whether he has a ponytail or a crew cut.

I don’t know, maybe I’m out of touch, but I’m amazed that this sort of thing is an issue at all.

3 Responses

  1. I’m not angered, or even concerned, about the decision to cast him in the role. It’s a non-issue for me. I must admit, though, that his presence in Gladsheim stood out as odd to me when I first viewed the trailer. Casting a black man as a Norse god is kind of like casting Alec Guinness as an Arab… wait.

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