In the year 1996 some serious stuff happened.1 AskJeeves.com launched, which lets be honest, no one really noticed or cared about. Osama Bin Laden picked up shop and moved to Afghanistan, and in retrospect that wasn’t the coolest idea. Police shot firearms at Jimmy Buffet’s airplane thinking he was a drug trafficker, and apologized subsequently after failing to see the calamitous irony. But in another universe, a North Indian Sihk by the name of Khan Noonien Singh was expelled as a prominent monarch of Earth. A genetic übermensch2, Khan was bred to embody the superior characteristics of an otherwise feeble human race. His (apparent) Sikh heritage was consistent with a show whose double bottom line, in addition to empowering techy nerds of all ages, was to unite various cultures onto one Starship Enterprise.
But to fully return to our universe, the new Star Trek Into Darkness casts our pivotal villain with British heartthrob Benedict Cumberbact. Though credentialed, dreamy, and otherwise suitable for a role such as this, space geeks everywhere (myself included) became irked. Why the unwarranted ethnic change? Did we suddenly transcend race and bigotry with one singular action or something and I just missed it3? Naw, I bet it’s because there aren’t a lot of talented North Indian Sikhs out there. I mean if there were a wealth of North Indian Sikhs (or for that matter, anyone from a surrounding sub region— See: Scotty being the wrong sort of Scottish) then South Asia would surely have a substantial movie industry that produces a (arguably) comparable cash inflow when paralleled with American Hollywood.
But then I think that this scenario seems all too familiar. Oh, right. Remember when Iron Man 3 chose their central antihero as the Mandarin, though somehow allowed a blonde white dude to represent him4? And what’s worse, upon reaching the cinematic crescendo where Guy Pearce dismantles his malevolent facade, we are presented with his bro-ish tattoo of a medieval dragon strewn across his Caucasian torso. As if that’s a tradeoff. Can you imagine the back and forth in the room where that took place?
White dude #1: Okay so Guy Pearce says he’s in. Looks like it’s coming together, gentlemen!
White dude #2: Oh, fantastic. You know, I really liked him in, you know, that movie he was it.
White dude #1: Oh I agree. That was a good one!
24 year old intern: Uh, guys? Isn’t it weird that Guy Pearce is playing a guy named Mandarin, supposedly born in China to noble parents and often visually depicted in conventional Chinese robes?
White dude #1: …
White dude #2: …
White dude #1: Well we can put big dragon tattoos on his chest.
White dude #2: -- Yeah dragon tattoos! Because he’s the Mandarin. Gosh, this has been a productive day. I’m beat.
White dude #1: I feel yah. Who could believe we’ve been at it for almost 3 hours today! Sheesh.
You know, it’s almost offensive that (though that’s not how it went down, probably) the racial substitution was so hastily removed and replaced with a topical symbol, almost reducing the original ethnicity of the Mandarin to a tribal tattoo. Not that the character’s villainy or complexity hinges on his skin color, but for Christ’s sake he’s called the Mandarin. Again, it’s probably because there aren’t any talented Chinese performers.
Or how about most offensively, Johnny Depp’s Tonto. This has rightfully been receiving a fair amount of press, for a myriad of reasons you should take a minute to read up on5. Most notably, Johnny Depp isn’t really that Native American (any more than a random sampling of Americans), and even if he was, the design and overall temperament behind his fictional persona is muddled at best. The face paint (crow, white war mask, et al) isn’t remotely Native American by any measure I know of, and his explanation and backstory is misinformed and misguided. He literally saw a white dude’s painting and was like, “Yeah that’s definitely Indian. Let’s do this thing.” Which begs the question: why not get a god damned actual Native American to play the part of a Native American? Not only that, but when searching for character inspiration and guidance, why are you asking Johnny Depp and not inquiring to actual Native Americans6? I was about continue the recurring gag that it’s probably because there aren’t enough Native Americans out there7, but the truth is that given the delicate history between transplanted and Native American cultures in our national lifetime, this sort of thoughtless behavior is reckless and ignorant no matter which side of the Mississippi you’re on.
With situations like these I invoke the timeless aphorism, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” The US spends billions of dollars on movies like this every year, which recycle offensive stereotypes, minimize cultural significance, and allow the bleaching of otherwise strong minority role models8. Because it seems like the only dark-skinned people we want on our big screen are either barroom drunkards or supporting role patsies9. If this doesn’t make you upset, then that’s your prerogative and sacred right as an American and free human being. But if you saw the first season of ‘Girls’ on HBO and felt eerily discomforted by the amount of white people complaining about first world problems, then I urge you to boycott actions like this. Write a letter or make a public statement, even if it’s just on Facebook or Twitter or your living room. Knowledge is infectious and given the time, it has the power to change everything. But to be completely honest, first we’re probably going to have to endure a re-envisioning of The Color Purple where Alphonso is played by Harry Styles from One Direction10.
1 Like, Tom Cruise came out with Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire in the same year. Dude had more movie deals than Paula Deen has black friends.
2 German for ‘superman’, which served as an inspiration for the genesis of Superman FYI.
3 Remember that time where everyone said racism was over because we had a black president? I do.
4 It’s important to note that the Mandarin in the comics is in fact half white, though a direct descendent of Ghengis Khan and often sporting a Fu Manchu.
5 McSweeney's wrote probably the best one I’ve read, for those who want extra credit.
6 I’m sorry, have we all just assumed that Johnny Depp, now pirate enthusiast, is now a credentialed know-it-all for worldwide cultures? I was thinking about doing a report on Eskimo poetry, so I should write him a letter asking for his input I guess.
7 Oh wait, there aren’t. Because we killed them.
8 Because we all can’t have Lando Calrissian as our #1 P.O.C. hero.
9 Unless it takes place in another country, in which case I guess we HAVE to put black people in it. Curses, Blood Diamond.
10 For some reason I have a sneaky suspicion that teenage girls worldwide would be really into it, though.