Comic Book Racism in X-Men First Class? Not So Much…

I have a bone to pick with News One right now, about an article TheGrio featured where they turn X-Men First Class into a piece of “comic book racism”. It’s pretty clear from the article that they have never read the comics, and that they are probably basing their assumptions off of the movie universe of X-Men. If not, they need to fire their resident fanboy. For those of you who have not seen the film or are not familiar with the X-Men Universe, you may want to skip over certain spots in here. I’ll try to keep as many spoilers out as possible, but we need to cover the bases.

Here’s a quote from the actual article:

Ta-Nehesi Coates recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the lack of an African-American presence in the latest X-Men movie. Despite the fact that the X-Men’s story is based on the Civil Rights movement, racism and discrimination, there is no African-American presence in the latest movie at all.

To start with, this assertion is wrong for several reasons. First and foremost, having gone to see the new X-Men movie, I can tell you for certain that there is at least one black character in the movie.

His name is Darwin, and he is portrayed by actor Edi Gathegi (he got famous playing the evil black vampire in Twilight). Admittedly, he is the only central black character that I know of who features in the movie, unless you also want to count Zoe Kravitz, who plays the mutant Angel.

Angel Salvadore is an Afro-Latino from Wyoming. Maybe with her being mixed, she’s not counted by News One as “black enough” for mention, but she becomes a pretty damn good character – considering her character evolution in the movie, anyway. And admittedly, Darwin does go the way of all Black male characters, even with his ability to adapt to survive. This is all beside the point. If we go on a plot basis, no, neither of these two actors plays a main role, but there is a reason why: in the original X-Men: First Class comics, none of the main characters was a black character, aside from Storm!

For obvious continuity reasons, they couldn’t put Storm in this movie, but even the inclusion of Storm doesn’t seem to count to News One, because she’s African, not African-American.

Although they’ve switched some things up with the arrangement of the original First Class team, they’ve stayed pretty faithful and made substitutions only where necessary. To be honest, I’d be personally offended if they decided to include a black lead character in a main role just to bring in Black audiences. Something similar to this was done with the Star Trek movie in 2009, where Tyler Perry makes a cameo role. Some people felt like it was a cheap ploy to get more blacks into the theater to watch the movie. Having Zoe Saldana play Uhura – a highly intelligent black female crew member from even the original series – wasn’t enough, some people felt,  to get more of the black crowd to come, so they threw in a contemporary, popular Black actor.

To each his own. I don’t think the race of the Starfleet Command Admiral mattered much, but cool that a black actor got to play the part. If they had included a black character on the original roster of mutants in the First Class, it would make no sense – how would any of the characters have met this Black character, someone who Charles as a white main character from England very likely didn’t have any contact with in the first place? Especially when Storm has already been ruled out. They’d either have to rewrite some things in the continuum, or change Charles’ backstory.

Neither of these would have boded well with the fandom. Yes, you have to make a comic book movie appeal to the mainstream, but you can’t risk butchering it or well…

More on that later on.

Botching Words

The second issue that I have with this article is them somewhat botching the point of  Ta-Nehesi Coates’ article. To be fair, Coates’ article does not talk about the lack of African-Americans outright; it speaks of the fact that Blacks are portrayed in a supporting role, and that the Black struggles of the age – the Civil Rights movement not being the least of them – are dimmed down to background noise, if not mentioned at all. In the movie, one of the characters does mention the fact that if mutants are not careful, the fearful humans of homo sapiens could wind up enslaving them – and there is a dramatic focus on Darwin’s face as he says this. As far as I know, this is the only real mention, outright, of the Black struggles.

But Coates does seem to see that even though minorities are not represented in by our faces in the movie, it is what the X-Men stand for that is so significant:

The mutants, as they are dubbed, are generally handled roughly by the rest of humanity and singled out for everything from enslavement to internment camps to genocide. As if to ram the allegory home, the X-Men, for much of their history, have hailed from across the spectrum of human existence. Over the decades, there have been gay X-Menpatrician X-MenJewish X-MenAboriginal X-Menblack X-Men with silver mohawksX-Men hailing from RussiaKentucky coal country,orphanages and a nightmarish future.

Still, we were united across the ages in our love for the X-Men — patron-saints of the persecuted and the champions of freaks and pariahs across the globe.

This, I think, is one of the strongest features of the X-Men universe as a whole. You can’t extol decades of comic book history into two hours. You can’t throw every mutant under the rainbow in a movie just to make sure that everyone feels like they’re represented, regardless of the plot, because…

Well, again. More on that later.

This is the point, though: through the fantasy, the X-Men represent of us that are oppressed and feared because we are different. There’s no getting around the metaphor. In the X-Men Universe, there are some mutants who, because they look like normal humans, are able to “pass” and fly under humanity’s radar. This is a big part of the movie, and it is a central theme and source of conflict for Hank “Beast” McCoy and Raven (Mystique). Mystique tells Charles that it’s easier for him to be okay with his mutation, because it’s not evident.

In the real world, there are some people who are able to pass for being white, or who are more accepted by a dominant white society overall because they have similar hair textures, features, or skin tone to whites. They are better able to assimilate. We see this even on a smaller scale in the Black world, where it seems as though “light-skinned” blacks are more easily accepted than “dark skinned” blacks.

But then there’s those of us who are starkly different than the majority. Those of us with “foreign” features, different textured hair, different colored skin, differently shaped eyes, who just won’t blend in at all.

We can’t just pretend that all is right for the world. Before even knowing us, people see us and they see us as different. Different is uncomfortable. Different is downright terrifying. There is no hiding from the world. A lot of Raven’s internal conflict and character development concerns her using her mutation to fit in with the world. She spends the movie struggling with whether she should alter herself permanently so that she can fit into the humans’ world and live a comfortable life, or if she should accept herself for who she is, appearance and all.

She lives with what is quintessentially the minority’s day-to-day existence living in a white majority society, but instead, she is a mutant living in a human majority world. She is just experiencing it differently, because she is a mutant. The mutant-human scenario parallels the minority-white scenario of the real world.

There’s a reason she transforms herself into a beautiful white blonde, both in terms of the real-world but also in-character: she wants to appeal to the dominant standard of beauty.

In the eyes Shaw, all mutants are equal. Mutants should not harm one another, because they are brothers united in the cause against defending themselves from fearful humans. The color of Darwin’s skin does not matter to Sebastian Shaw, because as far as he is concerned, they are all part of the same species. He extends membership to the Hellfire club to all of the fledgling mutants. I mean, hell, one of his own partners, Azaezel, has bright red skin, so how’s he gonna exclude a brother for being black?

Although Shaw is a bad guy, his character speaks of unity of the new mutant race, regardless of their differences. Every mutant is differently abled, and they may have different appearances, but every mutant is apart of the same race. He feels that they must band together against the oncoming oppression – another theme from the real world.

Coates mentions that there have been all sorts of X-Men with a large range of differences present in the comics, but that their historical presence and their presence as character leads has been omitted from this film.

But as “First Class” roars to its final climactic scene, it appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield.

I think that, for the most part, this was a good decision. As he says, “First Class” is narratively lean, beautifully acted and, at all the right moments, visually stunning.” We’ve seen what happens when you bloat a movie and try to get in all aspects of a fictional universe at once. And now I’ll attack that elephant in the room: what happens when you try to do this? What happens when you throw out the plot to make sure that everyone gets a shot of being special?

You get X-Men 3.

You get a movie that tries to hard to be everything to everyone and include everyone.

We don’t want another X-Men 3. X-Men 3 lost its focus, and instead of being lean enough that it could deliver a message home, it was too bloated, and it was a pill that no one wanted to swallow – or that if they did, they choked on it, spit it out, and wrote it off as garbage, even if it could have cured cancer.

Coates does bring up an interesting topic, though, which is the fact that there seems to be a whole lot of omission of the Black struggle disappearing from cinematic features and literary history:

How then do I speak to him of this world’s masterminds who render you a supporting actor in your own story? How do I speak of the Sentinels whose eyes melt history, until the world forgets that in 1962, the quintessential mutants of America were black?

By using characters who are, for the most part, white people, you key into the mainstream audience. Let’s drop being PC for a moment here, and state that it’s easier for someone to relate to a character on-screen if they look like you than if they don’t. It therefore stands to reason that a majority white audience will probably better relate to and be able to better empathize with the injustices against mutants who look like them. They are more likely to go see the film and to take away from it the unspoken sub-context within. If having a majority white cast means that the country’s racial majority may learn a little more tolerance, then I can deal with not having a black female main character.

Not Enough Black Characters? Create Your Own

Finally, there’s the last bit about comics and movies not having black characters as leads in general, from the News One article. This does not make them racist. The majority of comics were created by white authors and artists. Since most people who are writers and creators draw from their own experiences and what they are familiar with to create art, it would stand to reason that the majority of their characters are white. What’s the solution to this?

It’s not to ask white comic creators to invent more comics around black people. It’s for Blacks to create our own art, our own comics, and our own movies that express our experience. The late Dwayne McDuffie did this when he created Static Shock, a DC Comics Superhero. Movies and comics that relate our experiences, and that show us as heroes. We shouldn’t have to rely on other people to tell our stories for us, because even if they try, with the best intentions, they’re just not apart of our experience. They can’t understand everything, just as none of us will fully ever be able to walk in another man’s shoes, no matter if he is the same color as us.

Just because comics created by white people – and the movies inspired from them –  don’t have black leads doesn’t make them racist. It makes them humans, relating their specific part of their experience. If blacks don’t like our under-representation, then we need to create our own art and have ourselves heard.