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May. 28 2010 - 3:20 pm | 529 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Why Can’t Peter Parker Be Black?

io9’s Marc Bernardin makes the case for a non-white Spidey*:

Lee and Ditko created a wonderfully strong character, one full of complexity and depth, who happens to be white. In no way is Peter Parker defined by his whiteness in the same way that too many black characters are defined by their blackness. He’s defined by the people he cares for, by his career, by his identity as a New Yorker (incidentally, one of the most diverse cities in the world) — as too many good people died to prove, a man is defined by his choices, not by the color of his skin.

[...]

And don’t tell me it’s because an actor of color would hurt the box office: Not only is Spider-Man one of the most recognizable fictional characters on the planet, and managed to do just fine with Tobey “Snoozeville” Maguire playing him, whoever they cast WILL BE IN A MASK FOR HALF THE DAMNED MOVIE. AND ON THE POSTER.

Bernardin is right on target; most superheroes aren’t defined by their race or ethnicity (indeed, as he points out, the only exceptions are black heroes), and you wouldn’t lose anything by mixing up the racial background of a character. Indeed, changing the racial background of a character isn’t exactly new; in the 1970s, DC passed the Green Lantern’s power-ring to John Stewart, an African-American architect and Marine veteran. And in 2002, Marvel introduced “Ultimate” Nick Fury, a black version of their long-standing character modeled after Samuel L. Jackson. And as Bernardin points out, Marvel went even further with the limited series Truth: Red, White & Black, which told the story of Isaiah Bradley, the sole survivor of a group of black soldiers forced to act as test subjects for the super-soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America.

You could easily pen a non-white Peter Parker that retains essence of the character while reflecting the fact that he is African-American. Black Peter Parker, for instance, might not have grown up in Forest Hills or attended Empire State University, but he would still be a struggling photographer with a good head for science, and a huge crush on Mary Jane Watson. I would welcome the director who cast a non-white Peter Parker, in lieu of another twenty-something white guy. And if there’s anything I’d worry about, it’s that screenwriters might try to add non-white “signifiers” to this hypothetical Peter Parker, with horrible results.

*If you value your sanity, don’t read the comments on Bernardin’s post.


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  1. collapse expand

    It’s interesting that you’d ask this because of course there is an Indian Spider Man, named Pavitr Prabhakar. So there is an example of re-appropriating the Spider Man in another race/nation.

    Here’s the question to me: Could you tell the story of Spider Man as a black guy without getting into the fact that he’s a black guy? Like if Peter Parker is white, when he ducks down an alley to change into his disguise, no one pays attention. If Peter Parker is black and does the same thing, cops chase after him because they think they’ve got probable cause, right? And if he’s black, how does that affect his judgment in terms of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ given that some of the people he might need to save are racists?

    Otherwise, you’re just casting a hero as a black guy and pretending at least in normative terms that he’s white. And in that scenario, doesn’t that just turn it into something like ‘The Wiz’? A kind of fantasy world where everyone is black, and that means that the actual differences that result from race are elided.

    This is starting to remind me of the opening scene from ‘Chasing Amy’ explaining why Return of the Jedi is the most racist movie ever.

  2. collapse expand

    Great points, but the new Spider-Man movie will be directed by Marc Webb, a person with little-to-no understanding of non-white culture. For someone who wanted to make a film about “real L.A.,” he managed to leave out any semblance of the city’s diversity in “500 Days of Summer.” He’s a sleek director who cannot do any semblance of substance, but rather promote an image of what a substance-filled movie may look like.

    Webb couldn’t handle a black Peter Parker, or a Peter Parker of any minority. His work has shown he doesn’t really have the vision to do much of anything but make slick-looking movies.

  3. collapse expand

    To answer your question: Peter Parker could be black, but he’s not.

    With all the whitewashing going on (Prince of Persia, Last Airbender, I can understand the desire to start blackwashing.

    But if you want to change Peter Parker to be black, but make him act exactly the same (i.e., white) what have you accomplished? If all you want is black skin, you could do that with CGI. BET could buy a ton of movies and do it Ted Turner-style–and giving new meaning to “colorizing”.

    A better navel-gazing question might be, why didn’t Stan Lee and Steve Ditko make him black to begin with? It certainly would have explained all his money woes, earning less than other photographers, the Bugle not giving him a full-time job with benefits, no car, crummy apartment, and why J Jonah Jameson hated him.

    In fact, that sounds like a great story: somebody needs to write it in 2010…but please don’t ask Hollywoood to RE-write it.

    Telling Hollywood to change good source material for the big screen is a terrible idea and should never be spoken aloud again. They don’t screw up adaptations badly enough for you already? I couldn’t even begin to count the number of things Hollywood has ruined.

  4. collapse expand

    Jamille-

    I have to disagree.

    You write “most superheroes aren’t defined by their race or ethnicity (indeed, as he points out, the only exceptions are black heroes), and you wouldn’t lose anything by mixing up the racial background of a character. ”

    I think you are correct with respect to ‘most’ characters. However, I don’t think this is correct when discussing Peter Parker.
    Peter and I know each other pretty well. We worked together for a long time.

    It isn’t Peter’s race that makes him who he is – its his ethnic.

    While many (indeed, most) superheroes can be transposed to another race or ethnic- Nick Fury being an excellent example – it really doesn’t work when so much of the character is the result of who he is and where he came from.

    Were Peter Parker to be an African-American, would he feel the constant Jewish guilt that is such a big part of his personality? And without that Jewish guilt, doesn’t he becomes just another superhero in spandex who happened to get bitten by a radioactive spider?

    Characters who are the result of circumstances can easily be racially or ethnically transposed. Batman could certainly be an African-American. But when ethnic traits are such a big part of the character, it would ring false if you try to make him something he wasn’t.

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    I am a blogger and occasional freelance writer. Usually, you'll find me here, but I occasionally contribute to PostBourgie.com, as well as Spencer Ackerman's blog (when he's away). At my old Wordpress digs, I blogged about progressive politics, public policy, nerdy things and food, and here at True/Slant, I intend to do the same. I'm all about the social media, so feel free to follow me on Twitter: jbouie, or friend me on Facebook (though I might make you wait awhile). And if you'd rather avoid social media, you can always email me at jamelle DOT bouie AT gmail DOT com.

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