Can superman be black?

The Man of Steel can leap tall buildings in a single bound, stop powerful locomotives and catch speeding bullets, but can he be Black?

22nd September 2018

Henry Cavill has stepped down from his turbulent tenure as Superman, and left a hole in the DC cinematic universe. In the rush to replace Cavill as the Man of Steel in Warner’s deeply mediocre franchise, Michael B. Jordan has emerged as a potential candidate. It would be an interesting and dramatic recasting, that would almost certainly break the internet, but would casting a black actor as one of the most famous, most iconic and, noticeably, white characters be a good idea?

The idea of a black Superman isn’t new. There have already been black Supermen and Superman stand-ins in comic’s history. In Reign of the Supermen from the early 90s, John Henry Adams as Steel took over from Superman, after his death. Superman of Earth-Two (one of the many, many earths in the DC multi-verse) is Val Zod and is black, and the controversial book Strange Fruits asks the question: “What happens if a black Superman crash landed in Jim Crow’s Mississippi?”

Potentially, Jordan could be playing one of these characters. Much like the potential that Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson could — nay, should! — take over from Chris Evans as Captain America, or that an as yet-unnamed actor could swing into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Miles Morales, a new character taking on the name Superman seems like the best way to do it.

But because basement-dwelling man-babies with the emotional fortitude of wet tissue paper lose their collective shit at any change to their precious pasty boys club, a substitute character is as risky as a race-swapped character in terms of backlash from the idiots. And, it seems unlikely that they would give up one of the DC trinity (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) and Clark Kent’s brand recognition to replace him with an obscure and hard to explain character that doesn’t have as strong a following as The Falcon or Spider-man.

White Clark Kent has the privilege of being a six-foot-odd farm boy, built like an all-star quarterback, as well as a respected reporter for a major newspaper

So, let’s say we do have a race-swapped Clark Kent, what does that mean for the character of Superman? How does growing up in Kansas, a state with only 5.9% black population, differ for black people compared with white people? How does the world treat black Clark Kent? White Clark Kent has the privilege of being a six-foot-odd farm boy, built like an all-star quarterback, as well as a respected reporter for a major newspaper. This isn’t to say that there are no athletic, black journalists from the Bible belt who don’t have a perfect set of morals, only that the journey to get to that position would be different because of the systematic racism they would face.

What about the way the world views Superman? It would be hard to believe that a god-like being from another planet wouldn’t inspire hate if he were black. In our own world, black people — especially when they embody true excellence — are routinely discriminated against and villainised by society. Barack Obama is the subject of conspiracies and proclamations of being the bringer of the apocalypse because he became the most powerful man on the planet, while Colin Kaepernick just took a knee during a song and white people literally set fire to clothing they’d already paid for in displeasure. Imagine what they’d do if he could fly, or if Obama could punch meteors in half.

But, white people not being able to accept black success and achievement is hardly just cause to not have a black Superman. That’s just racism. Superman is in part a moral ideal — like Captain America, one of his superpowers is always making the right choice (the ending to Man of Steel notwithstanding, as it’s awful) — and a power fantasy. He was created by two second-generation Jewish kids — again like Cap — in a time when Jews where hated. Superman is an outsider and an immigrant, and his whiteness is almost incidental to his creation. It’s a means of passing. For Siegel and Shuster, Kal-el was a method of existing in society without their heritage holding them back and a means to strike at injustice when they saw it.

It’s a cultural privilege to daydream about bullets bouncing off your chest when you’re at little risk of being shot

Superman is arguably the greatest, secular power fantasy. There is no real, comparable black equivalent.  It’s a cultural privilege to daydream about bullets bouncing off your chest when you’re at little risk of being shot. There seem to be fewer black cultural icons than white ones, and the black icons that do come to mind tend to be Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Black heroes haven’t had the chance to deal with imaginary threats because black people have faced so many real ones. It makes it feel a little unjust that our idea of an archetypal superhero is a white guy.

And, dealing with injustice is Superman’s whole thing. The Comicsgate twats might cry about keeping politics out of comics/movies/whatever it is they want to claim sole ownership of, but Superman is, at his core, a Social Justice Warrior. In his first ever story, he takes on a crooked landlord who is exploiting his tenants. Do you know how many Nazis he punches? Spoiler: it’s loads.

No one can say that Superman belongs to white people, and representation is important. Look at the success of Black Panther or the Ghostbusters remake, in connecting with black and female audiences, respectively. Seeing someone who looks like you on screen is important. Aside from the fact that it results in cute kids in adorable cosplay, it also tells them that they can be what they want to be. A black Superman would tell black kids they can be Superman, too.

Clark Kent is a character who is free from outside prejudice

The difficulty, however, is that the character of Black Panther is black (a Pulitzer level observation, you’ll agree), and by that I mean, his demeanour, perspective and how the world reacts to him is built into the character. Again, it’s not a unique observation, but Clark Kent is Superman’s alter ego, Kent is the mask, so to speak. A black Clark Kent would be treated very differently than a white one. Clark Kent is a character who is free from outside prejudice. Would he be the same character if you put that experience into his story? Is that character a black Superman or a super man who is black?

The alternative is that the experience of black people in America is ignored and Superman is treated no differently than he has always been treated; he’s a comic book character, after all, they aren’t exactly stalwarts of continuity. He could fly around metropolis as he has always done, apart from a world that is inherently more difficult for people with his skin colour, and not have that affect his stories or his character’s motives, whatsoever.

A black Superman that doesn’t address the issues of black America would be hollow

But, Superman feels a little different. He is at the top of the pantheon. He is a part of the American, and maybe even universal, psyche. A black Superman that doesn’t address the issues of black America would be hollow and the thinnest form of representation, as well as being untrue to the nature of the character.

The Man of Tomorrow can be used as a way of exploring the black experience, but perhaps as a counterpoint, rather than a representative. Put against black counterparts, he could be used as a means of demonstrating the gulf that still exists between the positions of different races in society.

Comics, for the most part, are liberal and forward thinking. They have also been historically dominated by white guys, meaning there have been a lot of well-intentioned, but cack-handed, approaches to diversifying stories. They wanted to include black characters but largely had no clue how black people thought, behaved or spoke.

Back in the ’70s, DC released an issue of Lois Lane where Lois becomes black for 24 hours, to better understand the experience of black women. It’s both flabbergasting and more effective than Green Lantern and Green Arrow #76, in which Hal Jordan is bollocked for helping actual space aliens, but not really caring about black people.

How about a DC movie that uses Superman alongside another black hero — Cyborg if you really must, but, let’s face it: we all want John Stewart — to talk about black issues in America? Superman, the most powerful superhero, can be used as a foil — get this — for discussion about the relative power of black versus white people in America. Clever, eh? And, while we’re at it, maybe someone can address the issue of a bat-billionaire routinely beating up criminals who are statistically more likely to be from lower economic backgrounds and more severely punished by the justice system.

Ultimately, and cynically, it feels like a black Superman is an attempt to get people talking about a franchise fraught with problems. It will get bigots screaming on the internet, and it gets everyone else laughing that the snowflake, alt-right are so upset. Cynicism aside, it might be an attempt to breathe some life into an 80-year-old character, and continue the path of diversifying Hollywood.

Far be it for some white dude in the North of England to decide what’s good for a cultural institution or the representation of a massive and incredibly diverse stratum of humanity. I shouldn’t be left in charge of that decision.

The people who should be left in charge are the black producers, directors, actors and writers

But, it is a gamble that requires a deft hand, knowledge and experience. The people who should be left in charge are the black producers, directors, actors and writers; people who are underrepresented in Hollywood. They need room to tell the stories they want to tell and the ability to find answers to questions white guys can’t. What are their feelings about Superman? About power? About representation? Is it enough just to be seen, or is better to be heard? Can one even exist without the other? Superman may be the hero they deserve, but he may not be the hero they need.

22nd September 2018