Luke Cage and the Diversity Problem

I’m a Marvel guy. I always have been. I always will be. Growing up reading comic books there were—and still are—a few DC stories in the collection (A Death in the Family, The Killing Joke, The Death of Superman) but the vast majority of what I read was Marvel. Spider-Man was a favorite but X-Men was king of the hill. My son’s middle name is Logan if that tells you anything.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe in recent years has been fantastic. While they haven’t all been 5-star movies, nothing has been a dud. Nothing has been a disaster. And most of them have been outstanding. Because of that success we now have a number of great Marvel TV shows in the mix.

Agents of SHIELD, Daredevil and Jessica Jones have all delivered. Now Luke Cage is here with Iron Fist not far behind. All of this is delightfully leading up to The Defenders, Hell’s Kitchen’s version of the Avengers.

Mike Colter did a great job introducing the role of Luke Cage in 7 of the 12 Jessica Jones episodes on Netflix. So I’ve been particularly excited to see him get his own series. The trailers have looked amazing. It looks like they’re going to get this right. Which should come as no surprise. Netflix has been knocking it out of the park.

What was a surprise to me was an article I saw blasting some complaints about Luke Cage. The article was very specific that white people are mad about the almost entirely black cast of Luke Cage. These were expressed in various Facebook posts and Tweets.

I read about 15 of the social media posts in the article and frankly I don’t understand the point. Are white people really “mad” about an all-black cast? Probably some. To me it seemed a number of people were raising a question about what “diversity” actually means.

This is where I need to point out that I’ve only watched the first 2 episodes of Luke Cage. So my thoughts on this question about diversity aren’t specifically about Luke Cage. But I do want to make the following statement…

Diversity in film making isn’t always a good thing. In fact, sometimes it’s the worst thing.

Stories need to be authentic in their characters and that is often reflected in the casting. Age, race and gender are important. Think about who you are as a person and I think you’d agree that to a certain extent those three things play a large part. They help shape your worldview and your life experiences. Many of those things are universal but it would be foolish to believe that people are all the same regardless of age, race and gender. And that is absolutely, positively, 100% OK.

People are different. No one’s age, race or gender makes them better than another. But we are different and the better we understand that the better we can relate to each other. The fallacy that we’re all the same lays a trap that we fall into when we inevitably encounter those differences.

Many in our society strive to tear down barriers and that is great. But trying to manufacture an artificial image of unification doesn’t help anyone or anything.

I get so genuinely upset when I see a movie set in the past that retro fits the casting to be “diverse” when the world just wasn’t that way. For example, Florence Foster Jenkins takes place in Manhattan during WWII. They intermixed all these people of color into the crowds just to be diverse. In the hotels, restaurants, theaters, everywhere. When the concert hall fills with soldiers on leave the black and white soldiers all pal around together, sit together and act as if this was normal at the time.

The new NBC show Timeless just premiered and one of the three leads is Malcolm Barrett, the black actor who plays Rufus, a computer code expert. In the show they travel back to America in the 1930s. The idea of a black man in 1930s New Jersey moving freely in white society is just absurd. And while they give Rufus a couple of lines to try to skirt around the issue it just doesn’t ring true.

Fifty years ago America was officially, legally and systematically segregated. Thank God it’s not that way any longer. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended that. Now, I’m not naïve enough to believe that eradicated all the racial social issues in our nation. But America in the 30s, 40s and 50s was very different than it is today. Movies and TV shows need to stop pretending that it wasn’t.

They need to stop pretending that people of color were accepted everywhere and only the mean, bad people engaged in segregation. Stop pretending that all the good people in the 1930s never noticed the color of anyone’s skin. We might want to think that’s how it was but it wasn’t. That’s why things had to change. That’s why there are still some things that need to change.

That’s why I have no issue whatsoever with Luke Cage having a primarily black cast. The story is set in Harlem and the black community is a central element of the plot. His race is part of his identity. The story is best served by a predominantly black cast. Anything else would be completely disingenuous.

I don’t have an issue with a black storm trooper. I don’t generally have an issue with race swapping in cases like Samuel L. Jackson as Sgt. Fury. But rewriting the characters and story of the Fantastic Four so drastically in order to cast Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm is nonsensical. Jordan is immensely talented but creating an adoption backstory (and for the record they made Sue Storm the adopted one) is completely unnecessary. It adds a multitude of dynamics to their relationship that didn’t exist in the source material.

I believe it’s good for film and television to have diverse voices telling stories. So let’s not do them a disservice by just artificially sprinkling them in. To me it’s just an appeasement. Casting actors of color for the sake of “diversity” just checks a box on a politically correct checklist and doesn’t really mean much.

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