There’s the world before the cinematic realization of T’Challa aka Black Panther, and then there’s the world after.
In a little more than a year and a half Marvel will release Black Panther, a film about an African king/superhero. This is without a doubt, a huge deal. With the eyes of America on the lack of diversity in films, the very idea of a Hollywood block buster film with a 90% black cast is another one of those “fairy tale” things that a lot people dismissed as impossible due to our country’s blatant display of racism. (Don’t even get people started on the possibility of a 90% Asian or Latino block buster film)
But here we are, in 2016. A black man is leaving the oval office, and millions of people are excited about a film that features a superhero from Africa (even if his country is a make believe one.)
And while the hype is probably deserved, and a sign of progress, no matter how slight, there is still more work to be done for the idea of black heroes to become commonplace. However if we are ever to reach that level of acceptance and diversity in pop culture we must also work hard to bring more black villains to the fore.
After all, what is a hero without a villain?
Villains, are much more important than heroes.
It may be a hard concept to wrap one’s head around because so much importance and screen time is given to a hero of this movie or that book. But a hero is only so compelling as the obstacles he or she faces. A great, well thought out hero who faces a one dimensional villain will kill almost any story. Conversely, if a somewhat flat hero faces off against a deep emotionally scarred villain, whose motivations are relatable to the audience; this type of dynamic will almost always out perform the opposite orientation.
Superman, Batman, and even the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man all have robust “rogues galleries” filled with villains whose motivations are much more complex and morally ambiguous than any of these iconic heroes. These villains also present diverse counter arguments to the simplistic underpinning motivations of their adversaries.
Lex Luthor has often been used to question the idea of Superman’s infallible sense of right and wrong, an intrinsically human logical construct, despite being an Alien. The Joker, in his sadistic yet guiltless demeanor challenges Batman’s ideals and dedication to justice. And the majority of Spider-man’s villains are just regular people much like himself, who use their powers irresponsibly to get what they want out of life; yet Spidey, lives a life of restraint and has to struggle to get by.
So much of storytelling is theory, rather than rigid rules to live by. But if you look throughout pop culture, explicitly where plot driven movies are involved, the idea of deep, complex villains up against mostly one dimensional heroes is pretty common place.
Why does it matter if they’re black or white?
If we accept that, complex villains = good stories, then we can examine what makes a villain complex to elucidate the importance of black villains.
Thankfully we have a fairly contemporary example in the very different portrayals of Wilson Fisk aka “The Kingpin”.
First, let’s look at the flatter of the two, played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan.
In the 2003 Daredevil film, Wilson Fisk is black. His blackness has no effect on his character, his motivations are never really fleshed out or discussed. Apparently he just likes crime and wants to be the “top dog”. If there is more to this iteration of Fisk, we’ll never know.
Next let’s take a look at White Wilson Fisk played by Vincent D’Onofrio.
In the Netflix series, Daredevil’s adversary has a very chilly demeanor that hides a vicious and violent side. We learn that Fisk is motivated by a need to “save” hell’s kitchen but through drastic means. There’s an internal struggle to absolve himself of wrong doing while accepting that wrong must be done. A rough childhood and an abusive father have left Fisk with severe social anxieties and a cynical perspective. In many ways, he views himself as a realist if not a full fledged hero. When Fisk meets his love interest, who accepts him for what he is, he in turn accepts the darker aspects of his own personality and sheds any remaining false conceptions about what he does to achieve his goals.
Most would agree that D’Onofrio’s Fisk was much better than Duncan’s.
While this can be said for any number of reasons, the point here is not that white Fisk was better BECAUSE he was white or that race has anything to do with how good or bad a character is, especially without context.
However if we were to re-imagine the Netflix series with a black Wilson Fisk we understand that the series would have to make serious changes; changes that do much more for the ideal of diversity we’d like Hollywood to strive for.
Fisk would likely have been raised in an all black neighborhood. His father’s bid for office most likely would’ve been met with racism. Fisk himself would most likely have dealt with racism. The average experience of poor black families in the 70’s would’ve been on full display in a series that turned out to be a big hit and watched by millions; an experience that isn’t typically found in the plot driven, superhero genre.
Not to mention this would also mean more work for people of color in general due to location and logical consistency.
More importantly, and the crux of the argument, is that the Netflix Wilson Fisk is relatable. As evil as Fisk may be, it’s easy to understand his motivations and in some ways the audience begins to root for him.
However, most black villains are given the Turk Barrett treatment. Also a character in the series, Turk is very much like black Wilson Fisk; one dimensional, singular in intent and lacking in motivation. He’s conniving, greedy, and an all around scum bag. Although he’s a regular on the show, often a source of important information, we’re never allowed to feel sympathy for him. Beyond being DD’s favorite punching bag, Turk tries to reason with the devil of hell’s kitchen at one point. After being coerced into giving up information that surely endangers his own life,Turk pleads with Daredevil to let him off easy just this once, only to be beaten unconscious, yet again.
To put things in perspective, sympathy for criminals isn’t an alien concept for Daredevil as he defends the Punisher and Grotto; and even comes to an uneasy truce with the former.
I’m not cynical enough to believe or even suggest that these decisions were made intentionally because Turk is black and the others aren’t; I just point it out as a relative example of the most common place depiction of black vs white villany.
We can relate to white villains as humans, they are often complex and deep or at the very least supplied with motivations the audience understands.
Whereas, black villains are often displayed as being so one dimensional that we don’t relate to them as people, we relate to the racist stereotype of black people being obsessed with crime beyond reason.
So, in the end, audiences walk away from stories with villains like white Wilson Fisk thinking things like “If not for his father, he may have been a good person” but for stories with villains like black Wilson Fisk, it’s hard to think of him as anything but a criminal and certainly not salvageable as a human being.
The Great Black Hope
We are, in many ways, treading into new waters. Black people are being used as a flash point for so many issues and in the entertainment industry, the cause for diversity pins a lot of focus on black actors and how they’re presented.
A hugely, internationally successful Black Panther film could open all sorts of doors and possibilities. But we cannot allow ourselves to become transfixed on the idea of black heroes; all this does is perpetuate the idea of there being “some good ones” among us. Furthermore it opens the door to more respectability politics that causes rifts and divides among black people.
Villains, on the other hand, allow black people to be flawed on the big screen. They allow black people to be relatable in stories and therefore redeemable in our minds. When handled with the same deft and care as some very classic villains played by white people, black villains would humanize black people who make mistakes. Making room in our pop culture for these types of characters sheds light on diverse experience while also creating more roles for people of color.
What we don’t need are more one dimensional depictions that rely on stereotypes or black villains with black culture cropped out.
Besides, it’s not as if there isn’t already a deep pool for the superhero genre to pull from.
This all is not to dismiss the importance of more people of color getting starring roles in big budget films, quite the contrary. Black Panther is literally the great black hope.
But black people still represent such a small percentage of the workforce in the entertainment industry, and when you look to Asians and Latinos and women in general the numbers become even worse.
Black heroes are great but they’re not enough.
We need compelling black villains as well.