Editorial – May 2014: Token resistance.

Token resistance.

 Hello everyone

I’m going to talk about tolkienism this month. No, that’s not quite right. Nothing to do with Hobbits, although that might come up later. No, I mean tokenism. It’s spelt differently. No ‘L’! Wrong season of the year anyway if you’re understanding the phonetic joke and that doesn’t mean by using one of those mobile phone thingies. Tokenism as in the representation or usage of any non-white or minority group to show there is equal opportunity is given in employment in a filmed product. Problematically, because it means having one of every type than going along with the needs of the source material it’s based on.

This mostly happens with American TV and films. No disrespect to the actors involved but it’s why you had a black Heimdall and an oriental for Hogun (although based off his garb in the comicbooks might not be too far from the truth even if he’s a long way from home) in ‘Thor’, Nick Fury in practically all the recent Marvel films and, soon, the next Human Torch in ‘The Fantastic Four’ reboot. All white folks in their previous comicbook incarnations.


If you wanted more than one then look at ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ where one was disguised as a Klingon so they could slip two black actors into the main cast and Worf was only going to be a minor character originally rather than by design. It wasn’t until ‘Deep Space 9’, where there were two black actors openly involved and then it was to bring a son in. When it came to ‘Voyager’, we had the first black Vulcan, which when you consider the green blood and the high temperatures on the home planet, extra melanin is the last thing you’d need. Oddly, ‘Star Trek’ in all its incarnations has had aliens of various colours but very rarely those with a need for extra melanin. I’m not picking on ‘Star Trek’ deliberately. After all, the original series had both Nichell Nichols and George Takei covering the black and Asian roles but even there, you rarely found more of the same creed.

Lest we forget, with the second of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, Lando Calrissian had to be added simply because someone had forgotten that in a galaxy, far, far away there was only one ethnic variety of human in the first film. Only one, mind you. The voice of Darth Vader doesn’t count. One can only hope that the next ‘Star Wars’ trilogy might show there are more ethnic varieties but I wouldn’t count on it, based off the current screenplay read-through. I could pick out many other examples but that would be distracting from the main point.

In fact, I would be hard pushed to think of any show outside of a couple sit-coms with black families many years back that had more than one regular black cast member. No doubt someone will point out I’m wrong but the point I’m making is that they’re as rare as platinum flavoured ice cream. I suspect they wouldn’t be created today because all shows and films have to resort to having a mixed bag and either include a black and/or oriental as representative in what would be an otherwise all white show and rarely as any guest cast. By the time you’ve done that, there isn’t enough slots left in the main cast to include more of the same colour, thus making them solitary representative of colour/race and therefore a token to say certain castes haven’t been forgotten and be politically correct. In other words, you have to have a mixed cast (sic).

The only reason that there are more white…or pinks, because that’s the real colour after all, is because this is deemed the majority of the audience so thus ensuring you have enough people watching to pay the bills and make a profit. Tokenism is then a game of numbers than representation. Have someone of a different colour in the main cast and it’s off the tick list of causing aggro by not doing so. Oddly, one doesn’t tend to see any reaction when it isn’t used, unless the flack is only stateside.

However, in recent years, the stakes have been changed somewhat. It is now seen as a necessity to include any minority group, within reason, in any show or film where their source material clearly showed they weren’t. No matter how good an actor Samuel L. Jackson is, can you see an American black sergeant in charge of a team of white commandoes in World War Two bearing in mind the racism back then? The same with the Norse Gods, where there surely wasn’t any non-pink in Norway back when the Norse Asgardians were legion. Mind you, actor Idris Elba was so helmeted it wouldn’t have mattered what ethnic background he came from. Having Johnny Storm black in the next ‘Fantastic Four’ film reboot seems equally profound and going way over the top against expectancy. If they want to balance out any level of tokenism, why not bring in T’challa aka the Black Panther in or even token Native American Wyatt Wingfoot into the FF mix because they do belong to their family of characters. Only the Illuminatii knows what will happen should the Inhumans be realised as a film, although it might give an interesting choice of actor to play Black Bolt as its star in a non-speaking role. What are the chances that when a Doctor Strange film is made that the actor playing Dormammu will be black if only to have a deep bellowing voice? In the original Spider-Man comics, there were at least two key black cast members, Robbie Robertson and Gloria ‘Glory’ Grant but not in any of the films. As you might have noticed by now, all of the above applies to Marvel Comics characters in films. The only difference is that Warner’s haven’t done it to the film versions…yet. It isn’t even as though they or, for that matter, DC Comics, haven’t tried to address this in their comicbook universes by introducing coloured characters and they certainly out-number oriental or Asian characters but there hasn’t been any rush into bringing them out on film. I suppose they could have a black Robin, but the combination of wealthy man and a black ward would kind of stick out in their civilian identities.

Originally, these characters were all white or the Dr. Martins pink colour because that was deemed where their audience was. If a film is going to represent the comicbook, I can appreciate some condensation of the story elements but to play around with the major character icons themselves is a hard gamble with the fans. I’m using the comicbook films as obvious examples where most of you reading here will know the difference. It’s basically the equivalent of, say, having a new ‘Shaft’ film but having him as a white detective in Harlem. It doesn’t have the right feel to it or true to its source. The issue moves somewhat away from the original intent of the film or if it doesn’t, you’re left wondering why.

The only reason why I think such things are going too far is that it isn’t done across the board. Although I don’t have an interest in fantasy, none of the Tolkien-based films have gone in for tokenism. No doubt, Middle Earth never went as far as Africa or Asia so none of these people are seen there. Even so, it’s an odd contradiction. Are we going to find such changes in historical dramas next as well? Where is the dividing line between keeping true to the source and making a spin on colours just to be politically correct and giving equal employment?

If anything, I would rather see films, no disrespect to any actor of different ethnicity, made using the right texture. Chester Himes’ novels have been mined in the past so there’s a good argument that there’s enough black and even eastern authors material out there to at least reverse the trend and make the whites the token characters if a balance is needed to provide work. With ‘12 Years A Slave’ last year, it’s obvious that with the right material there’s an audience out there who doesn’t care what colour is as long as the material is watchable. Saying that, I do think there’s a missed opportunity to move beyond such stories and social issues with more relevance and show more is going on than that. Although the blaxplotation of the 1970s movies was more send-up than drama, surely we can have more films where the ‘minority’ cast outnumber the whites.

To my mind, tokenism tends to demean than serve a useful purpose. Films aren’t there to fill a quota. It should be done on a film by film basis but be true to the source material. At least that way, you would have more black and oriental casting out there that would benefit all than a studio announcing that they’ve obeyed the law and can we talk about the story quality now.

Just in case, you think this only relates to caste, tokenism also extends to including at least one British cast member, often as the villain, assuming the director can’t get an American to take the part. From our side of the pond, this tends to tell us more about the American psyche than our own because British actors just see it as another role rather than think people believe them to be really like that. To British actors’, the villains often have the juiciest roles or failing that, a strong memorable supporting character whose only there for a while before moving on to another film. If we didn’t speak the same language, I wonder what other nationality would be selected?

With little TV work over here these days, it’s hardly surprising that our lot see the USA as an opportunity for work and happily switch accents and pose as Americans. Even so, there’s rarely more than one per show. Is that tokenism as well? In an interesting contrast back in the 1960s-70s, British producers would bring over American actors for a starring role in a TV series to make it easier to sell across the pond. That was less about tokenism and more to do with sales.

I should again emphasise that this editorial has nothing against any actor of any colour for their performance in any of these parts, just about the act of tokenism going over the top. If they’re going to have different ethnicity, then have more than one person because it’s gone stereotypical expectation. This is all about the problems of making tokenism the habit and not giving more room for full ethnic casts although would they put a white actor or actress in for token value in, say, a black cast film?

It does make me wonder where the next level of tokenism will come from. With the aforementioned comicbooks, the latest generations are hinting at all manner of religions although whether their use (sic) is actual or window dressing only time will show. Being of a different religion certainly doesn’t stand out as much as a skin colour. If there is to be a balance, then we need more than one of everything if we are to show equality.


Thank you, take care, good night and the more the merrier.


Geoff Willmetts

editor: SFCrowsnest.org.uk


A Zen thought: The difference between a cry and a laugh depends entirely on how you shake.


Observation:  The captain’s shuttle in the end sequence of ‘Alien’ has one hibernation capsule yet two spacesuits. Granted it isn’t actually supposed to be an emergency vessel but you would have thought that it would be equipped to take all the crew. It isn’t as though it’s a massive number to rescue.


Observation: I was searching out what the word ‘Sulaco’ actually meant. We’re so used to its name being a starship in ‘Aliens’. Google turns up that it was a small town in Joseph Conrad’s book ‘Nostromo’ and we all know which starship was named that.


Polls: A couple months back I convinced the boss that we ought to include polls on the website because it gives a means for us to see some of your feedback and reaction to various things. Is isn’t there so we can spam you or make other gains off of you, just to get some collective insight. They won’t bite back and no one else sees them or who put in the answers. Trust me and tick something here when you see them.


Don’t forget to check out the SFC Forum, from the links at the top of the main page, for where companies have their stands at this year’s conventions and for book signings. You don’t even have to sign in to get the information although it would be nice if you did, if only to express some opinion on the various surveys/polls that are there.


Beware Of Virus Attacks: December 2012, even though I hadn’t left an active link to my email address, it got solidly attacked and then blocked from everyone, including myself. By necessity, having a form of open contact to me comes as part of the editor’s job. I’m still seeking reviewers and new material so follow the paths through the website and go where no spam-bot dares. I’ve yet to see them write anything. Humans and aliens can apply, providing they live in the UK. Monsters need to prove they can read and write. We could do with some reviewers who like fantasy right now. Don’t be scared of the instructions, you’d be surprised how easy it is to learn. So, if you want to contact me, build these words into an email address: gfwillmetts at hotmail dot com  I won’t bite, especially as I’m hunting for fantasy reviewers right now.



2 thoughts on “Editorial – May 2014: Token resistance.

  • Re: Tokenism

    While I agree with the thrust of your argument – one would have to be both blind and deaf to miss the changes you outline – it’s happening more and more outside the film/TV casting as well (current affairs, newscasters, weather forecasters… ) you miss the most obvious example of tokenism (in the wider sense than your initial definition) which is that of female representation. And I was amused by your reaction to a ‘black Heimdall’. Idris Elba is of course British, too – which makes his selection possibly odd (though I guess most of the current crop of Asgardians are British too which may be the only explanation required).

  • Hello Julian
    Editorials are designed to raise comment and reaction. I can only comment from the UK, not the world when it comes to other departments on TV.

    You’re right about Idris Elba, it made it easier to tick off two boxes at the same time. Tony Hopkins has taken up American citizenship so the Americans probably see him as one of their own now.
    It would be interesting to see what happens when Hercules and the Greek gods are used. Will we have a cast of Greek looking actors play the roles??


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