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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

X-Men Black

In the last few days, an interesting rumor has started to circulate: that Marvel Studios, in an effort to differentiate their forthcoming X-Men films from the recently ended Fox X-Men films, might recast key roles with an eye on diversity: for example, Professor X, portrayed in the comics and so far on film as a white man, might be black, or Asian, or, presumably, a woman.

This is an interesting idea on its own, but imagine if Marvel Studios went one subversive step further: imagine if there were no white mutants at all in the Marvel cinematic universe. What if, in this new iteration, the X-gene was only expressed in peoples of colour?

I think this could be a potentially fascinating exercise in subversive filmmaking if handled correctly - handled correctly both in the world of the film and in the real world of marketing and publicity.

Imagine if Marvel Studios announced the cast with their usual fanfare, but without remarking on the skin colour of any of the actors. Just a normal studio blitz where they roll out, say, Idris Elba as Professor X, Mike Colter as Colossus, Celina Jade as Storm, John Cho as Wolverine, Adam Beach as Cyclops, Aishwarya Rai as Jean Grey, Aisha Tyler as Psylocke, etc. No white actors at all, just solid men and women who happen not to be white.

Much as I hate to admit it, the first question at the press conference would probably be "Hey...I couldn't help but notice there are no white actors. What's up with that?"

If I were Marvel, I'd probably say "I knew we'd get that question, but you know what? We just picked the best fit for each role, and these are the people we came up with."

If pressed, they could explain that once upon a time in Hollywood, it was not only common, but standard practice to have films and television shows with all-white casts. We still have the occasional film that features strictly men, or maybe one or two women of significance. Statistically speaking, a major film with a cast of no white people was inevitable...right?

As for the world of the film, imagine if the first two or three or four Marvel movies with these new X-Men contained no references at all to the colour of the characters. In universe, no one would notice that there were no white mutants.

Until, let's say, the fifth or sixth Marvel X-Men film, in which it is revealed that the X-gene only ever expresses itself in people of colour. In the comics, X-Men are already vilified for being strange and different; across comics history, in fact, the X-Men have been metaphors for the black experience, the gay experience, the trans experience. What if the films made that metaphor explicit? Imagine if the white characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe hated mutants even more, out of a combination of fear and envy? What if white politicians put pressure on white superheroes like (most of) the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, etc., to enforce anti-mutant laws? How would non-mutant peoples of colour be impacted by a world where whites feared and hated non-whites even more?

On the one hand, I'm kind of horrified by my own idea, because the Marvel films are very powerful cultural touchstones, and such a storyline could deepen rifts that already exist. And the films themselves would be pretty darn serious fare, and probably quite disturbing and unpleasant. Not exactly the generally lighthearted Marvel fare audiences have become used to.

On the other hand, in the hands of a sensitive, intelligent team of writers and other creators, such a storyline could be used to show the horrible error of our ridiculous prejudices.

It's completely possible that this is the worst idea in the world. I'm a white guy, with all the blinders of privilege that entails. But the notion of seeing such a strategy play out is pretty interesting, no? "Interesting," perhaps, in the Chinese curse sense of the word...

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