Michael B. Jordan or not, name it ‘Black Superman’
It’s not as easy as slotting in Adonis Creed for Henry Cavill. Superman’s whiteness has always been one of his superpowers.
There’s only one circumstance under which I want Michael B. Jordan to take on the role of Clark Kent: The movie is named Black Superman.
This week, Henry Cavill may or may not have walked away from the DC Comics film vehicle, as they are shifting their focus from the male lead to Supergirl for upcoming movies, according to Deadline. I’m not going to get into the interior chalk talk of the DC Universe because, frankly, I do not know or care about all that. I do know that Superman — unlike basically every other superhero, comic book base aside — is still the bastion of the American white savior complex. Unlike many a fictional character, his whiteness is a direct part of his ethos. Until he changes into his superhero uniform, he fits in and assimilates with other white folks like nothing is going on at all, even holding the prestigious life station of journalist as his day job.
(I’ll take this moment to acknowledge that Twitter is telling me that there actually is a black Superman who technically lives on Earth-23 and is the president of the United States of America on whatever that planet is. Look, I respect the value of character development and story canon, etc. Lord knows how I get about this when other franchises are involved. There are apparently black Supermen roaming all over various side planets, but for the purposes of this movie and, ahem, my life, this doesn’t matter. But for technical purposes, I will point out that these characters are not technically Clark Kent, which, again, needs to be said to keep message boards off my back.)
Getting involved for 2 seconds:
— DPalm (@dpalm66) September 12, 2018
All this fictional technical jargon aside, there are a couple of problems I have with Jordan taking on this role. For one, I don’t love it when actors not named Samuel L. Jackson or Halle Berry get too numerous with their superhero roles. After Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four and Killmonger in Black Panther, this would put Jordan at three. It doesn’t violate a personal code of mine, it’s just a preference. And he was Adonis Creed, which basically counts too. Speaking of alternate universes, this is otherwise known as a wrinkle on what we refer to affectionately as Chadwick Boseman Syndrome. He was only playing real-life superheroes until, coincidentally, he broke that streak with a fictional superhero character.
On a stroll through my local grocery store, an 80th anniversary copy of a Hollywood Spotlight on Superman was for sale. Basically, it’s a whole magazine about this character and brand from creation to now. By my count, there were two total black people — Laurence Fishburne and Richard Pryor (oh, wait, three! Black Lightning appears in character) — in 100 pages of content. It’s a long history of the various industries that this character has permeated, and you quickly realize that more so than Santa Claus or the president, Superman is probably the most protected white brand in America. Forget the movies, a television product featuring a black Superman would likely be a bigger breakthrough for diversity.
“For almost 70 years, Superman has kept living rooms safe for truth, justice and the commercial breaks,” the subhead for this particular section about the small screen reads. A picture of Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher from Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman greets you, a reminder to those of a certain age that the best rom-com serial you had there for a while was based on a comic book. But can you imagine a black man entering this space as the main superhero? Half of Cain’s appeal was that in his real life he played football at Princeton, as if he was actually born for the role or something. There is no black Superman narrative. Business major at Morehouse? Anyways, perhaps you just assumed that a black Kent would mean a black Lois Lane. But why? Oh, right. A black Superman ouchea dating a white woman? Good luck selling that to advertisers.
There’s so many questions about where you’d even start with the character, film or television. Is he just an actual black stand-in for his previous white counterparts? (Meanwhile, Wednesday night, I turned on Supergirl on CW for the first time in my life and, lo and behold, TWO OF THE PEOPLE WERE BLACK! WHAT IS HAPPENING?! THEY GOT WEIRD HALF ALIEN HALF AFRICAN ACCENTS! This is excellent. Oh, these Negroes are from Mars. Even if they’re superheroes. My bad. Never mind.) Anyways, what does this black Superman even look like? Ain’t no way he’s gonna be rocking some blue conk. The next question is: How black can Superman be without causing massive problems for white America? Are we going to enlist Redman to continue his “Sooperman Luva” series for the soundtrack? Doubtful.
Let’s start with the pose. You ever seen a black man standing like that? Hands on hips, legs spread, staring straight ahead? This is how dudes I went to college with used to pee in the bushes, to give you an idea of how ingrained this pose is in certain people’s DNA. What is Clark Kent even like? It’s a fun game to play and an interesting one to think about. Which gets back to my original point. There’s no way to tackle the Superman story without a fundamental manner of addressing race should you choose to make a change. Otherwise, you’re shortchanging the character. Old ladies don’t ask random black men to help them on the street. Brothers dipping into the cut to change their clothes are probably getting followed by the police. The whole framework, even if fictional, just doesn’t work at all. I’m only half-joking.
To that point, it’s why you’d be better off with someone who was effectively unheard-of. Not some huge star. Superman the movie was Christopher Reeves’ second film. You can save the famous people for side roles, even if they are relatively major, à la Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman’s biological father on Krypton. Becoming Black Superman has to be a believable, even if nearly impossible to currently fathom, storyline. One shouldn’t have to enter the arena as a so-called already powerful character to take on the role.
The irony of today’s politics dovetailing with Superman’s identity are not lost on us. “He’s a literal alien who comes here and succeeds, achieving the American Dream and everything that makes the country great,” the magazine’s final pages read, in a section about the superhero’s relevance to pop culture. “Not for nothing did they say that he fought for ‘Truth, Justice and the American way.’ ” Alas, that’s not exactly congruent with having a black man in this role.
Which is exactly why Black Superman needs to happen.