There have been a lot of rumors about Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and his association with DC Comics movies. He's been saying he's met with the folks at Warner Bros, and the other day he posted a picture on Facebook and included the hashtag #JohnStewartCanStillWhupSupermansAss. John Stewart is, of course, the black Green Lantern, not the Jewish comedy show host. When sites ran that as a possible confirmation, Johnson tweeted a link to an IGN story with the statement "All I said was #LanternCanWhupSuperman."
Which yeah, is all he said, but where did that come from? That's a weird hashtag to drop in the middle of nowhere. Maybe he was just feeling fannish. Or maybe he was being coy.
Anyway, this all led me to a question: is Dwayne Johnson black enough to play John Stewart? Stewart is one of the few black A-list superheroes (and to be fair, he's even a legacy hero. Mainstream comics are still sadly non-diverse when it comes to the big leagues), and if he's going to be showing up in Batman vs Superman or Justice League it'll be a great moment of recognition. But Stewart is an African-American guy, while Johnson is half-black and very light skinned. Is that an issue?
I don't know, and I'm not coming down on any side. I think The Rock is a great movie star and any film is better for having him in it. Casting him in any role makes sense - he has the chops, the charisma, the phsyicality and the fanbase to be a vital part of any superhero movie. But should one of the few major black superheroes be played by someone who is more traditionally African-American in appearance?
The question comes down to ideas of representation in film, and how important skin tone ends up being in these representations. Some might argue that casting a light-skinned man as John Stewart is essentially white washing the character. Others might argue that Johnson's black half would have made him historically considered black in the most racist American eras, so it's all the same. And then some would complain that nobody says a word when a white character is played by a black guy, but they're dumb and most likely racist, so ignore them.
A lot of this comes down to the very nature of superhero adaptations - they're reworkings of visual material, with iconic character designs being interpreted by new people. We have a personal image of what a character in a novel should look like, but we have decades worth of actual images of John Stewart telling us what he looks like. Sometimes this turns into OCD-levels of nit picking from fans (complaints about hair color, for instance) but sometimes the iconic visuals need to be kept intact to fully capture the character.
A lot of this also comes down to perceptions of blackness, which is something that culturally continues to be a difficult topic. As a white guy my take is that a person's racial identity is what they say it is, and I'm not interested in picking apart a multiracial person's lineage to put them in a box I have made. But these perceptions of blackness play out on many stages, and the pop cultural stage is a big one. Representation remains an important issue for anybody who isn't 'default' (ie, a white male) and so the casting of John Stewart - a black superhero who isn't a sidekick - will be a big moment. People are going to have opinions.
Personally I think The Rock is wrong for John Stewart, but not because of any skin tone issues. For me, Stewart is defined by Cosmic Odyssey and Green Lantern: Mosaic; in those stories Stewart is unable to save a planet and finds himself despairing and on the edge of suicide. He rebuilds himself into a strong, considered hero while overseeing a strange world made up of various communities from a multitude of planets (it's a long, weird story). To me John Stewart is a thoughtful, deep character, and The Rock's bravado would feel out of place. If we're doing the fancasting stuff here, I like Chiwetal Ejiofor for the part. He's got the soulful, mournful look I associate with John Stewart. Of course that character has changed, been rebooted, been retconned, etc. There are no longer any definitive versions of DC Comics characters.
What do you think? Is it vital that John Stewart be played by a man with similar skin tone to the comic version? If The Rock is playing John Stewart is it good casting in general? I'm interested in reading your thoughts.
Edited to add: this comes to me because of an article I read earlier this month, about the question of The Rock as a 'race shifting' actor. He can play white in Snitch while playing black in GI Joe: Retaliation. Click here to read the article.
The part that informs my take on this:
And that fact may have crossed over to the audiences' perceptions of his own racial identity. Johnson can be whatever he wants to be because he’s somehow bigger than life, a fantasy creation as it were, and, therefore, transcends any labels that can be put on him.
He’s human Teflon.
But is this racial shifting a good thing? Is it a genuine sign of progress, or is it just an easy way to avoid dealing with the serious issues of racism and intolerance that still linger?