Navigating White Spaces II: Michelle Rodriguez, White Superheroes, and Hollywood Racism

Yesterday, Michelle Rodriguez said this,

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Because of this whole ‘minorities in Hollywood’ thing … It’s so stupid. Stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own.”

It was in response to a question someone from TMZ asked on whether or not she was going to be Green Lantern (a superhero of a comic of the same name). As is now expected, (Black) Twitter was in an uproar, and called her out. Rodriguez turned to her Facebook page and posted a video of herself explaining what she meant. She goes on to clarify,

“What I really meant was, ultimately at the end of the day there’s a language. And the language that you speak in Hollywood is successful franchise. And I think that there are many cultures in Hollywood that are not white that can come up with their own mythology … I’m just saying that instead of trying to turn a girl character into a guy or instead of trying to turn a white character into a black character or Latin character, I think that people should stop being lazy, and that people should actually make an effort in Hollywood to develop their own mythology.”

While I am still trying to understand Rodriguez in what she is saying, I disagree.

Yes. Hollywood has a language. And that language is about money. Hollywood funds films that will make money – thus us being in the cinematic age of the Superhero – however, there is more to a pitch than franchise or marketability. Hollywood has a very narrow view of what can be successful. The silent and pervasive assumption about what makes a film successful is that the protagonist(s) and the majority of the cast has to be White, Male, and Heterosexual. This is the reality. Right now that also means Superheroes, but lets look at which superheroes are getting film franchises. BatMAN. SuperMAN. IronMAN. And while a WonderWOMAN is in the works, it took time and effort from every direction for the film to get green lit – probably made easier by the green light given to the “Justice League” franchise, whose cast is predominantly male and white. But this language is not so silent. Ridley Scott made it plain that he wouldn’t cast Moses or Ramses as people of color because he wouldn’t get funding for Exodus, and why he hired Christian Bale to play Moses (the film flopped) – talk about white washing.

Rodriguez is right in pointing out that there are many cultures that have their own mythologies (I would argue outside of Hollywood, as it is still very white – Oscars 2015 anyone?) and those mythologies are rich with complex stories. Just look at the recent, phenomenal film that was “The Book of Life” that explored the Mexican religious tradition of “Dia de Los Muertos”. However, returning to her first point, the problem isn’t that writers and producers of color aren’t creating characters that are new, trust me they are, but they don’t get the money to get these characters unto the silver screen because these characters aren’t white, aren’t male, aren’t heterosexual, aren’t American, and so on. People of color aren’t lazy. People of color are writing day in and day out. But as the institution and space that is Hollywood, a white space, exists now, there isn’t much money for these characters to see themselves beyond the screenplays of their creators.

But these films would face another struggle. Not only is the pot for these films, the one Rodriguez is alluding to, limited (which leads to some serious competition between artists that could be collaborating – oh capitalism), distribution is a serious issue too. Take the film “Bless me Ultima“, which I had the privilege of seeing in a special screening in New York. Critically acclaimed, and one of my favorite films, Ultima is a story that centers around Latinos and explores mythologies that aren’t white. I had a conversation with a few people who worked on the film at the screening, and it came up in the Q&A, that distribution was something they were having trouble with and the reason why they were trying to do as many private screening across major cities as possible to gain traction. The film was picked up by Arenas Entertainment, but received only a limited release in 250 theaters across the states – and made only over a million dollars at the box office.

Bless me Ultima comes from the book of the same name by Rudolf Anaya, is the best selling Chicano Novel of all time, and is probably the most read novel among Latinos in the US in the past four decades. It is taught throughout High Schools, predominantly in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, and in communities with large student bodies of colors, especially Latino communities. It also won the prestigious Premio Quinto Sol. Bless me Ultima is a big deal in American literature, and not just some random novel written by some random person no one knows about.

Contrast this to a film that came out recently, “The Giver”, a huge let down. The adaption (from the book of the same name by Louis Lowry) had some big names in it, including Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. Giver is a well known book in the US, being taught in schools, winning awards such as the Newbury Medal and has sold 10 million copies worldwide. The film, while cinematically lackluster (and thats being nice), had box office success. Worldwide, it made more than 66 million dollars.

But why was Giver more successful than Ultima? Distribution. Giver was distributed by the Weinstein Company, one of the most well resourced and connected distribution companies in Hollywood. Giver screened in 3,003 theaters. It got commercials, billboards, everything.

The other difference between Ultima and Giver is that one story/mythology is centered around a white male heterosexual protagonist who saves the world from its own dystopia/utopia fantasy, and the other isn’t. The people who worked on and produced Ultima aren’t lazy, but they aren’t (all of them) white either. This is the problem Rodriguez doesn’t recognize. If it isn’t white, it isn’t worth it. Thats Hollywood language.

And it isn’t true. Latinos go to the movies. They go to a lot of movies. In 2013, Latinos made up 17 percent of the population but bought 25 percent of movie tickets! And that number is rising every year, as the Latino population in the United States continues to grow – in every demographic. And yet Hollywood still thinks that Latino stories wouldn’t sell. Reckless.

Which brings me to my final point. Rodriguez said that we should stop “stealing” white people’s superheroes. She went on to explain that we shouldn’t try to embody characters who are white or make women into men (the role) though I think she meant it the other way around, like Thor now being a woman (which is awesome!). Now, here is where I have to disagree with Rodriguez. I think that it is extremely powerful to make characters that have been traditionally White and cast them as Black, Latino, or another minority group. Just like the new Blatino Spider Man Miles Morales (who many are saying should be the new Spider Man if he’s included in Avenger films), not only does this give more characters for POC kids to relate to, but it forces white people to examine their whiteness and see POC characters in a positive light.

We are shaped by what we see. If in media and cultural texts (like film and comics) all we see are white men saving the day, then we will begin to believe that white men in our everyday lives are the only ones that can save the day. It contributes to a ‘Savior Complex’ where individuals believe that part of their destiny is to “save” others. If the saviors we see are all white, this reproduces very dangerous ideas, and also realities for people who aren’t white, not only domestically but internaiontall as well – think about the discourse surrounding our “need” to “save” Muslim women from Islam. But not only that, it keeps other people, in this case, People of Color, Women, and LGTBQ persons, invisible, and unable to embody not only complex roles, but roles of a moral protagonist.

But Black, Latino, and POC characters suddenly replacing these white superheroes, or women replacing men (Thor, Ms. Marvel), creates a counter narrative, where the white gaze is disrupted, and white audiences are forced to contend with their whiteness. While it will most likely make white people uncomfortable, it is necessary introspection, because it helps in dismantling a deeply embedded racism. And this isn’t easy. There is always a backlash when an actor of color is cast for a role that is traditionally white. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

I get what Michelle Rodriguez was trying to say, I really do. We shouldn’t aspire to be white. But, Spiderman being Blatino isn’t us trying to be white, its us showing everyone that people of color can be superheroes too, and that superheroes are not defined by their whiteness because we associate whiteness with being the only skin color that can save the day.

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