“I stuck my foot in my mouth once again…”
Actress Michelle Rodriguez came under fire after TMZ released footage of the Fast and the Furious and Avatar star making comments about race and Hollywood. Rodriguez, in typical TMZ fashion, was asked by a cameraman on the street if she was interested in starring as superheroine Jessica Cruz in Warner Bros.’ upcoming re-launch of the Green Lantern, and the Latina star expressed her frustration with the recent castings of non-white actors to portray traditionally white superheroes. “It’s so stupid,” she said. “Stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own. What’s up with that?”
The video elicited an immediate response from fans on social media, and Rodriguez addressed the backlash via a video posted on her Facebook page. After claiming that she “got taken out of context” and acknowledging that “a lot of people got offended or whatever,” the star explained her perspective regarding what she considers to be the hollow approach Hollywood takes to diversification.
“There’s a language and the language that you speak in Hollywood is ‘successful franchise,’” she said. “I think that there are many cultures in Hollywood that are not white that could come up with their own mythology. We all get it from the same reservoir of life—the fountain of life. It doesn’t matter what culture you come from. Instead of trying to turn a girl character into a guy or instead of turning a white character into a black character or Latin character, I think that people should stop being lazy and make an effort to develop their own mythology.”
Rodriguez has half of a good point. There are tons of mythological figures in the African diaspora and across indigenous American cultures and Asian cultures that could be explored via major Hollywood productions. If we’ve seen the stories of Hercules and Zeus on the big screen, why not a film about the Orishas or the Incan god Illapa? The Eurocentric focus of popular culture is much deeper than just James Bond movies or the latest Batman flick—there is an entire history out of Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean that is being ignored; not to mention the whitewashing of non-Anglo characters in films like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah.
“It’s time to stop taking what’s already there and trying to fit a culture into it. It’s time to write our own mythology and our own story,” Rodriguez went on to say in her Facebook video. “Every culture.”
In railing against the non-traditional casting of contemporary fictional characters, Rodriguez is missing a key point. These are established franchises, with established bases. Comic book films are lucrative because the brand has a built-in base; much like popular films based on established TV shows, popular book series, or remakes of older favorites. These characters—particularly superheroes—are reimagined time and time again throughout their respective histories, typically to try and modify an antiquated character to fit with the current cultural climate.
There is a very valid concern in regards to Hollywood’s mishandling of non-white characters and stories, and one shouldn’t believe that simply casting a black actor to portray a traditionally white character is some progressive step forward. But we all should recognize that it isn’t an outlandishly radical idea, either; nor is it necessarily indicative of creative bankruptcy. If Disney can spend decades adapting centuries-old Norwegian and German and Italian folktales to reflect contemporary American mores, it stands to reason that re-imagining scrappy redhead orphan Annie as a spunky little black girl isn’t beyond the pale.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a reframing of Homer’s Odyssey as a tale of three hillbilly escaped convicts’ misadventures around the Depression Era rural South. Baz Luhrman transposed the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet from 16th century Verona, Italy to a fictional Verona Beach of the late ‘90s. The 1978 flick The Wiz is a cult classic, a beloved urban retelling of The Wizard of Oz that’s set in Detroit and features an all-black cast. These are not examples of tacky and clumsy ethnic “re-assignment,” they’re imaginative and entertaining, thoughtful revisions of beloved works that reflect a different perspective.
Oscar winner Halle Berry recently discussed her experiences as a woman of color in Hollywood. Even with her fame, Berry revealed that she oftentimes runs into the barrier of race. With so much recent praise for films that tell uniquely black stories such as 12 Years A Slave and Selma, Berry shared her belief that progress will be made once Hollywood realizes that non-white actors are capable of telling any and every story.
“The real win is when we're not just selling stories of color, that people of color can be in everyday stories,” Berry said in an interview with The Guardian. “Where we're not saying: ‘These are the movies for black people.’”Michelle Rodriguez is right when she says that Hollywood should be embracing the varied ethnic mythology that makes up so much of America and the world’s cultural experiences, but she needs to understand that fighting for that doesn’t mean condoning a monochromatic and monocultural approach to the major franchises that are most visible in American pop culture. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive, and fictional characters are there to be retooled in as many ways as can be imagined. Both Rodriguez and Berry are right in what they would like to see happen in Hollywood. Let’s fight for both of these approaches because both can be key in changing the way mainstream Hollywood approaches race and diversity in casting, and in what projects get green-lit. In the war for broader representation, we really shouldn’t be forfeiting battles—on either front.