Many of the people who say Black Iris West and Black Mary Jane won’t change how they see the stories of the Flash and Spider-Man. But I have to really wonder if the color of a characters’ skin really does change people’s perception of the contents of a story.
I propose that question because when I look at what happened with CW’s Flash I clearly see how the story of Barry Allen clearly was changed because the race of Iris West’s character was changed. When Iris West became Black, it had a ripple effect on Barry Allen’s story and the story of one of his major supporting characters’ Wally West. Instead of us getting the story of ten-year-old Wally having an uncle he looked up to and admired, what we got was the story of a Black teenager from the streets who grew up in a single mother household hidden away from his father. The contents of what made Wally West’s character great got lost because of this need to focus on the color of his skin and a pitiful attempt to add diversity to the Flash lore.
Understanding how the color of a characters’ skin changes the story in a White Superhero world I also wonder if the color of a characters’ skin would change the perception of a character’s story in a Black fantasy one. Back in 2011, I published The Temptation of JohnHaynes. And the image I presented on the cover was E’steem seductively reaching for John Haynes’ bow tie. I have to wonder if people would see the exact same story told if E’steem were a White woman. Would they see that same story of Temptation and seduction I was trying to tell? Or would they only focus on race of the two characters like they did with Iris West and Mary Jane?
Many who have read The Temptation of JohnHaynes know a White E’steem would completely changes the story from my original premise. Yes, the letter of the story about a demon rediscovering her humanity would be there, but the core message of the story would be gone. I doubt the scenes where E’steem is being exposed to modern Black culture like the Black Elite at the Ujamaa Conference or the racism she dealt with during her encounter shopping in Manhattan and her argument with John afterward would have the same emotional resonance with an audience when her ethnicity was changed from Black to White.
Instead of people seeing the relationship between John and E’steem and seeing the content of their characters, much of the audience would only be focusing on the color of their skin. And instead of people relating to E’steem as a person, they’d just see her as a “White Devil” trying to corrupt the soul of a “Righteous Black Man”. The entire story of a demon seeing a man showing her an example of Christ that reconnects her to her humanity on the two-way street between good and evil, would be changed into one about race overnight.
Just as Black Iris West has compromised the CW’s Flash’s story, and Zendaya’s Mary Jane compromises the Marvel Cinematic Universes’ Spider-Man story, a White E’steem would totally betray the foundations of the original concept for the character and her story. The E’steem character I designed was supposed to be the Black female antithesis to John Haynes’ Black male hero. The foundations of the character were rooted in Ancient African Culture and modern Black culture. E’steem’s appearance was inspired by actress Salli Richardson Whitfield, a Black actress. And the narrative of E’steem’s character was designed to sound like Salli’s voice. Just like it would be morally and ethically wrong for Black actresses to play the roles of Iris West and Mary Jane Watson, I believe it’d be morally and ethically wrong for me to let a White actress play the role of E’steem in a Temptation of John Haynes movie.
As a creator I’d want other creators to do unto my work as they’d do unto mine. I don’t want to see other characters ethnicities changed because I don’t want anyone changing my characters ethnicities. Because when a characters’ ethnicity is changed from what the creator intended it to be, it changes the content of the story and the way the characters in that story are perceived by the audience.
And it changes the message of that story completely. Instead of the audience understanding the lesson the original creator wanted to teach in that story, they get a muddled message that waters down what they’re supposed to learn. In some cases like The Flash, the audience winds up becoming more confused by the changes than anything else, because the changes don’t feel organic to the story.
The way I see it, there’s no real need to change a characters’ ethnicity in these film and TV adaptations. Especially when there are existing characters of color that are ready to be adapted and be a part of their stories. Who needs a Black Iris West when there’s Chunk? Who needs a Black Mary Jane when there’s Robbie Robertson, Glory Grant, Hobie Brown, and Rocket Racer? All these characters are easy to adapt to the silver screen and would add diversity the same way Black Panther, War Machine, and Falcon added diversity in Captain America: Civil War.
Yeah, there’s a need for more characters of color to be represented in the world of Sci-fi, fantasy, and comic books. However, when diversity is shoehorned into a characters’ story it prevents people from seeing what makes a character great. Instead of readers focusing on the story and how great it is, people are arguing about race and skintone.
As a fantasy writer I know there are certain essential supporting characters in a story that have to be a certain ethnicity to be who they are. The color of their skin is intrinsic to the content of their character. If their race is changed, the characters’ story is changed. And instead of a translation of the comics to the screen, the audience just gets an imitation that looks and sounds the same, but doesn’t have any of the heart or spirit of the source material it’s supposed to be adapting.
You can pick up The Temptation of John Haynes on Amazon.com in paperback or in eBook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Smashwords. It’s fast paced action packed fantasy that reads just like a comic!