There have been a number of roles in the comicbook/superhero genre that, as stories continue to get adapted into other media, have seen themselves changed in ethnicity. Heimdall and Hogun from Thor, Nick Fury in The Avengers, Major Kusanagi in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell, and now Jimmy Olsen joins their ranks with the latest announcement that Mehcad Brooks will be playing him in the Supergirl TV series. Naturally there’s outrage and accusations of the studio pandering to a minority to the sacrifice of the source material.
But here’s the thing: in none of these examples are the race of the character relevant to the story. Possibly with the exception of Major Kusanagi, the race of the character in the original story was happenstance. And even with Major Kusanagi, her race is superfluous on account of her android body; she could be any race she wants.
This is in contrast to superheroes like Black Panther, whose race is relevant to the story being told with that character. A non-superhero example that comes to mind is Nathan Algren from The Last Samurai. There’s a movie that wouldn’t have worked if the character was Indian or African as opposed to Caucasian, largely because it was set in the 1870s. For those who are unfamiliar with the film, the plot centers around the incursion of Western culture into feudal Japan and a white mercenary who is saved and then adopted by a Japanese village. He ends up coming to understand the value their way of life has to them, and ultimately fights defending it from his own culture. Had the movie been set in 2014 (somehow) we could easily place an American of any ethnicity into the role of Nathan Algren. In 1870 however, any non-Caucasian would probably have seen the Japanese as allies right off the bat, in which case there would be no character evolution and it would make for a poor story.
And right there is the crux of the race issue when casting a movie. Does it change the story? To review:
|The Story/Characters||Would it change the story?|
|Heimdall, Hogun (Thor)||NO|
|Nick Fury (The Avengers)||NO|
|Major Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell)||NO|
|Jimmy Olsen (Supergirl)||NO|
|Nathan Algren (The Last Samurai)||YES|
“But what about respecting the source material?”
What’s there to respect? Jimmy Olsen’s race in the original comics was a product of the ethnocentricity of the writers at that time. But times have changed, and if Supergirl were set back then I think the malcontents would have a point because it would be relevant to the time & place of the story. Everything we’ve seen so far, though, suggests that the TV show is set in present-day America. The writers don’t need to obey the societal norms of yesteryear. The only throwback to the days of widespread prejudice we have here are the people crying over irrelevant skin colors.