Wonder Woman hasn’t been my thing since the last time Lynda Carter laced up those high-heeled red-and-white boots, back in 1979. (I know they didn’t actually have laces, comic book nerds. It’s just an expression.) But the trailer came out for the new movie starring Gal Gadot, and I clicked on it. I agree with most people. She is Wonder Woman. Gadot looks like she could kick my ass without even noticing that she had.
But I kept asking myself The Question. I kind of hated myself for even asking it, because I feel like I always end up asking it: Where are the Black people? Now, I know Gadot is Israeli, and while according to the US census she is white, we all know that at a MAGA rally she ain’t. Still, I was looking for Black (and brown, and Asian, and Native) faces, and I didn’t see many.
Admittedly, the trailer is cut for action, not for representation. And because I did the work on my Google-ator, I learned that there are women of color on that island with Gal: Samantha Jo, Mayling Ng, Florence Kasumba, Ann Wolfe. Eugene Brave Rock is in the mix too. But the problem is: I. Had. To. Look. It. Up. Myself. Hollywood still hasn’t gotten the message. It’s not enough to put people of color in films. They have to be a big part of the story, not just part of the scenery. Because as politically correct/social justice warrior–y/virtue signaling/snowflakey as it seems, many of us make our entertainment decisions based on this. Don’t believe me? Check out the anemic box office gross for the so-called Gods of Egypt—starring not one Egyptian.
I have lived during the entire modern superhero-movie-and-TV era, and I have supported most of it. (Though I never got through Batman v Superman: The Interminable Blockbuster. It felt like homework for a class I didn’t sign up for.) But let’s be clear. That means I have supported a lot of white guys: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Michael Keaton, Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Jackman, Paul Rudd, Ryan Reynolds, and Chrises Reeve, Evans, Bale, and Hemsworth. And while Hollywood has no problem sprinkling that Ghost in the Shell/Scarlett Johansson race-changing juice on minority characters in order to turn them white, they can’t seem to sprinkle that same juice on characters when it actually makes sense to change their race. That’s how you get the best kung fu fighter in the world as a blond-haired white guy. I’m looking at you, Iron Fist on Netflix. Actually, I can’t be bothered to look at you.
Yes, there were Black superheroes when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, but they were just kinda not awesome. Most of them had the word Black in their name: Black Vulcan, Black Lightning, even the Black Panther. What the hell is wrong with him just being the Panther? It’s because it was hard for their creators to conceive of a Black superhero just being a superhero. They have to be a Black superhero. (There are exceptions, like Cyborg and Luke Cage. But then, they also don’t have something else: a secret identity. Which is kind of one of the key elements to 99.99999 percent of superheroes.) Why can’t we be at the center of these movies as heroes for all? Why do Black superheroes so often seem like impotent or discounted versions of white ones? Although having said that, I’m here for the Don Cheadle/War Machine movie!
I know that to many people this sounds petty. Why can’t you just enjoy the movie? Why does it always have to be a “race thing”? (1) Because America is a race thing. And (2) I have two Black/mixed-race daughters. My oldest daughter is 5. At that age many kids are covered in superhero gear. But not her. I asked her who her favorite superhero was. I had no idea if she even had one. After thinking for a considerable, considerable time, she finally declared, “Word Girl!” Word Girl is a PBS show starring a brown-skinned fifth grader who fights crime and teaches kids to read. (Because apparently even POC superheroes have to work multiple jobs.) That means if Hollywood wants my daughter’s ticket money when she is my age, then it needs to do better to highlight and create heroes that look like her and her friends. Or they need to green-light that $500 million, virtual reality, smell-o-vision Word Girl movie. (Dear Black Jesus, Please don’t let them cast a 70-year-old Scarlett Johansson as Word Girl. Amen.)
But there’s hope. Coming next year is director Ryan Coogler’s film Black Panther, and it has Black Twitter so excited that if I was Coogler I’d have my passport on me at all times just in case people hate it and I need to get out of the country. But we all know that one movie isn’t enough. Because for every Black Panther we have a Falcon from the Avengers, a dude whose powers are that his backpack has wings, which we will all have once Elon Musk decides he wants us to have them. So until movies and TV have superhero levels of inclusion to match their superhero levels of action, you can just consider me a superhero fighting for it. My name? Call me: the Black Snowflake.
*W. Kamau Bell is a comedian and the host of the CNN docuseries *United Shades of America. His first book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, just came out.
This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.