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The Ethnicity Of Lead Characters: an article by: GF Willmetts.

June 30, 2019 | By | Reply More

This examination of character ethnicity of existing characters came about largely because of media interest in changing the colour of James Bond. Like a lot of last century fictional characters, many are the colour of their authors or what would sell best to early readerships. Like with films, it was rare to have a lead character of colour in the lead role, let alone be significant.

Working out which was the earliest will get varying results. Certainly, T’challa aka the Black Panther is one of the first black super-heroes at Marvel Comics with DC Comics following a couple years later with John Stewart, the back-up Green Lantern on Earth. Neither character created by black writers. The success did open the gates for other black and other ethnic super-heroes.

It’s a lot harder to pick out anyone earlier than film private detective John Shaft who was the start of the blaxploitation characters although, oddly, his creator, Ernest Tidyman, was white. From my own reading back in the early 70s, only Samuel R. Delaney did a novella-length size story that popped up in an anthology where the reveal at the end was the lead character was black.

In the pre-Internet age, it was a long time before I discovered Delaney was also black, making it also a rarity as I hadn’t come across any other black authors at the time neither. It was many years before I came across Chester Himes. He was a good author of crime fiction mostly set in Harlem with several of his books made into films and deserves checking out if you’ve never come across him.

The Ethnicity Of Lead Characters: an article by: GF Willmetts.

Whatever the colour of the author, it was rare that even secondary characters were black and often subservient and caricature as servants at most before their position changed. The aforementioned James Bond in ‘Dr. No’ had a black assistant briefly in Quarrel but was killed by the villain’s henchmen early on. Considering the setting was Jamaica, it would have been awkward had Bond had only white friends there.

Although I missed the Pam Grier films the first time around, I didn’t miss out on the two films ‘Cleopatra Jones’ (1973) and ‘Cleopatra Jones And The Casino Of Gold (1975), with Tamara Dobson playing the federal officer. Cleo was created by Max Julien and Sheldon Keller, a combination of black and white film writers, although who wrote what is a grey area. Whatever your view on blaxploitation movies, they did allow black actors to be taken seriously but took a long time before they rose in the main stream movie world.

Oddly, ethnic difference was usually kept to being white or black and it wasn’t until Bruce Lee that there was a thought to the orient and although martial arts-orientated hasn’t really moved much beyond that as Jackie Chan would no doubt testify. Asian leads tend to be restricted to their own countries and have never really become famous world-wide. This is important to remember in the acceptance of people in authority or transcending cultures, there has to be an accepted world-wide popularity. Film studios do take a gamble on fictional characters that aren’t widely known if they plan to make a series of films about them and often rely on a star-name to sell them as witnessed by Dean Martin as Matt Helm in that film series.

It’s also hardly surprising, at least in the English-speaking world, that we can be tongue-tied with foreign names, let alone spelling them. This has nothing to do with any inherent racism but certainly unfamiliarity that is slowly changing. Even so, when creating significant characters no matter the genre, something easy to pronounce is often the order of the day with few exceptions.

Bringing together this little jigsaw and the acceptance of other races into roles that were originally white is more to bring in racial harmony and ensure a wider ethnicity. Even so, this still comes over as tokenism as rarely are there more than one person of colour in such groupings. It also does present some odd choices. Take the TV series ‘Smallville’ (2001-2011) where Clark Kent is close friends with the only, as far as I could see, black pupil in class, Pete Ross (actor Sam Jones III) who was white in the original comicbooks.

Similarly, for the latest Spider-Man, in ‘Homecoming’ (2017), Peter Parker’s closest pal is now an oriental Ned Leeds (actor Jacob Batalon), although to fair, the cast has a wider ethnicity base. Even so, you do have to wonder why they didn’t just create a new character with a more ethnic name. In the original comicbook run, Leeds was a few years older than Parker and wouldn’t have attended school with him.

This isn’t about discrimination but known history. Even in the Marvel Universe, in World War Two, it would have been unlikely that a black sergeant would have been in command of a white unit. Prejudice in those days would have excluded that and any black American units were kept segregated. Having actor Samuel L. Jackson in that position as Nick Fury in World War Two tends to produce an anomaly unless the Marvel Film Universe is radically different from our own until the super-power divergence happened and prejudice free. If anything, it shows our acceptance on such things now that would have been harder a few decades ago. It also led to the suggestion of having James Bond being black as well. The real question is viability. I’m also not sure if the black community like the idea of racial prejudice, no matter the media, being slid under the table as if it never happened.

Ticking off the list as to what makes James Bond shouldn’t be a big problem. We have black Scotsmen. Naval rank of commander maybe less so. Outside of ‘Live And Let Die’, whether book or film Bond has mostly faced white opponents. In the film version of that book, Bond is reminded that he stands out in Harlem like a white cue ball. A black James Bond would stand out in a room of white people in the reverse setting. There would have to be a better balance of colour if that is to work and that would take a few films to develop as the Bond version of MI6, with the exception of actress Naomi Harris as Moneypenny is now black but not always in the main action.

Considering the only one black lead, would that mean the loss of Harris? Part of being a spy or secret agent is helped more by blending in than standing out. It’s rather odd that no one has suggested Bond to be played by an Asian or oriental, although granted, there would have to be a name change to fit the ethnicity. Do we raelly need to explore ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) where Bond posed as a tall oriental. Yes, there are some tall Orientals but again he would have stood out in a crowd. I suppose we could make him bald and make the part open to Jason Stratham. Making Bond a female, would have similar consequences because he isn’t, as far as been yet proven, a Time Lord, unless Daniel Craig regenerates at the end of Bond 25.

It would make sense to give him a female relative who also happened to be a spy than do that. I tend to feel that if you want an ethnic character then create anew then simply fitting the part. Why should Bond have all the ‘fun’ in the secret service/MI6, let’s see some of the other special agents.

What would work for ‘Doctor Who’ doesn’t necessarily follow for James Bond. Saying that, as we have seen with the first Jodie Whitaker season, as a female in ‘Rosa’ and ‘The Witchfinders’ she is seen as a second class citizen by choice of sexual identity. As such it becomes more of a case of how to achieve goals she would normally have resolved quicker as a male. I suspect a similar problem with arise if the Doctor became coloured. Imagine the problems with ‘Rosa’ had the Doctor been black, regardless of sex. This is nothing to do with current day but the racism that exists in early human history.

We’ve had period shows in the UK where token colour person had been added but tends to contradict human history and certainly confuse youngsters coming up by saying racism or absence of coloured people wasn’t a reality back then. Now that is changing history which shouldn’t be forgotten. Imagine if this was done with World War Two. If we are to have stories with people of all colour in historical context then there is plenty of other points in history and not all that focuses on racism. ‘The Frankenstein Chronicles’ (2015-2017) UK series set in Victorian times had a black police officer but I doubt if that would have happened in real life. It’s recreating history that is clearly not correct. You can’t wipe out racism that way. If anything, it demerits the struggle against the fight against racism.

What is more worrying is the lack of fictional black characters that can be dramatised on TV and cinema. For the UK, the most significant black detective in recent years was ‘Luthor’ starring Idris Elba. You would think the success of those three seasons would have yielded more black lead shows but hasn’t. Idris Elba is successful in whatever role he’s done, as is several American black actors but they tend to the exceptions than the rule. TV channels apply demographics as to who their audiences are and end up tailoring their shows accordingly.

With so many digital channels now, it could also be argued that where Asian and Indian watchers are concerned, they have their own niche. This is nothing to do with segregation but a difference in cultural tastes. As such, I doubt if any new ‘Doctor Who’ lead would ever be Asian or Indian, although it might be interesting to see that happen.

Please note, this is not an argument not to have people of colour in different roles but the effects of cultural differences not being shown as the norm. Unfortunately, especially for drama, it is just used to show prejudice than normal life. If it’s going to show that even a time traveller Doctor would have problems being a different colour, although it would be interesting if he was green or blue and see if there were similar problems with being authoritative with the pink folk he encounters. How often has the Doctor encountered different ethnic based aliens?

From all of the above, there are two significant things that need to be changed. Having a single ethnic character in any team has to change. No, I’m not forgetting in Marvel’s Avengers films, we have the Black Panther, the Falcon and War Machine – each were black in the comicbooks so no change there. This is the exception, not the rule. Had any of these been changed to white, there would have been some outcry.

Considering that there are so many film adaptations of books, you would think there would be more black characters coming up but they tend to few and far between in espionage and crime thrillers, well, unless they are the bad guys. Now that’s stereotyping if ever there was one. I’m not saying that there aren’t exceptions but it does need to change. I’m sure the ethnic community out there would prefer their own heroes than converting white ones.

Is ethnicity important? That is a new question all to itself. Preservation of culture definitely is. Getting it across to a different culture even more so. An extra complication is not to use prejudice as a continual aspect. I know it exists but the stories need more than that to succeed today. From a writer’s point of view, getting the details right is a lot harder if you don’t belong to the culture. In our own genre, where a lot of stories are set in the future or off-planet, its left to the reader to decide on the ethnicity of the characters but that’s easy when no culture references are needed.

Although this is slightly beyond the remit of this article, this should cover every minority, even when the minority can often be bigger than the majority (go figure on that one when there are more Orientals in the world than white), to please everyone, then it gets ever more complicated. You also have to consider the physically and mentally disabled, the sexual orientation, religious persuasion and varying levels of intelligence quotient.

By the time you do all of that, cross-combining types to bring the numbers down, you’re going to have an unusual group of people that will never match real life. So much for normality. There is no such thing. You need to select based on setting and circumstance and a country’s population involved in particular work. If you go for one of everything, you do end up with a mixed bag.

Reading the above, I think this is more an article to make you think and only as an introduction to a complicated issue. There certainly needs greater diversity as our various countries populations ethnicity widens but it also gets more complicated to cover every colour fairly. It’s a lot easier to pull this off on a TV series or soap opera because there’s a lot more time. With a film, a couple hours is rarely enough. There needs to be sensible decisions, especially with period pieces, than just to cover ethnicity without seeing if it’s the right fit. Getting that wrong misrepresents history and that serves no one well.

© GF Willmetts 2019

Category: Spy-Fy

About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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