Why Can’t Peter Parker Be Black?

io9’s Marc Bernardin makes the case for a non-white Spidey*:

Lee and Ditko created a wonderfully strong character, one full of complexity and depth, who happens to be white. In no way is Peter Parker defined by his whiteness in the same way that too many black characters are defined by their blackness. He’s defined by the people he cares for, by his career, by his identity as a New Yorker (incidentally, one of the most diverse cities in the world) — as too many good people died to prove, a man is defined by his choices, not by the color of his skin.

[...]

And don’t tell me it’s because an actor of color would hurt the box office: Not only is Spider-Man one of the most recognizable fictional characters on the planet, and managed to do just fine with Tobey “Snoozeville” Maguire playing him, whoever they cast WILL BE IN A MASK FOR HALF THE DAMNED MOVIE. AND ON THE POSTER.

Bernardin is right on target; most superheroes aren’t defined by their race or ethnicity (indeed, as he points out, the only exceptions are black heroes), and you wouldn’t lose anything by mixing up the racial background of a character. Indeed, changing the racial background of a character isn’t exactly new; in the 1970s, DC passed the Green Lantern’s power-ring to John Stewart, an African-American architect and Marine veteran. And in 2002, Marvel introduced “Ultimate” Nick Fury, a black version of their long-standing character modeled after Samuel L. Jackson. And as Bernardin points out, Marvel went even further with the limited series Truth: Red, White & Black, which told the story of Isaiah Bradley, the sole survivor of a group of black soldiers forced to act as test subjects for the super-soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America.

You could easily pen a non-white Peter Parker that retains essence of the character while reflecting the fact that he is African-American. Black Peter Parker, for instance, might not have grown up in Forest Hills or attended Empire State University, but he would still be a struggling photographer with a good head for science, and a huge crush on Mary Jane Watson. I would welcome the director who cast a non-white Peter Parker, in lieu of another twenty-something white guy. And if there’s anything I’d worry about, it’s that screenwriters might try to add non-white “signifiers” to this hypothetical Peter Parker, with horrible results.

*If you value your sanity, don’t read the comments on Bernardin’s post.

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Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two. You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.

12 comments to Why Can’t Peter Parker Be Black?

  • Val

    “…for instance, might not have grown up in Forest Hills…”

    Why couldn’t he have grown up in Forest Hills? With that statement aren’t you doing what you are arguing against?

  • Running with a thought from one of the commenters @ Marc’s column – I was looking forward to M Knight Shamalayan’s live action version of “The Last Airbender” until I read that most of the Asian characters were being played by White actors. Why couldn’t M Knight just run with the storyline from the animated series that encompassed a pan-Asian cast?

    So when the question is posed “Why Can’t Peter Parker Be Black,” my thoughts run in the same vein. What is gained by departing from the storyline in such a dramatic fashion? To me it’s more of a distraction than a plus.

    In a similar casting trick, Idris Elba is cast as Heimdall in the new Thor flick. Idris is an excellent actor, but a Norse God? Protector of Asgard? **Shrugs** I’m not feeling that either.

    If someone is desperate to make a good comic book/action movie with a Black star, try Dark Horse Comics’ Martha Washington… Can Venus act? She’s already built like a super heroine. Paypal me my writing & casting credit please.

  • A black Spiderman would be freakin’ AWESOME. Cosign!

  • While I agree with some the points being made, I can’t ride for this (although I care so little about this latest revamp, I hope Donald Glover twitters his way into this role).

    John Stewart (Black Green Lantern) and Issiah Bradley (Black Capt. America) aren’t the same because the primary still exists (Hal Jordan and Steve Rogers respectively).

    There can be a black Spider-Man, someone with similar powers and personality traits but they can’t be Peter Parker.

    If, in the film version of Black Panther, T’Challa was white South African (and Charlize Theron was his queen to get some authenticity), we would lose our shit.

    I can get behind a lot of things but not this. This is just silly.

    • but in the case of T’Challa, his ethnicity is central to his bio. He is the ruler of an African nation! This isn’t true of Spider-man; he’s just a dude from Queens with bad luck.

      • True about T’Challa. Replace T’Challa with Luke Cage.

        I’m not saying that there can’t be a black teen with the same background and similar origin as Parker can’t don the Spider-Man costume and be Spider-Man. But does he have to be Peter Parker?

        I agree with Michael that it would be a distraction more than anything else.

        No one said the Karate Kid had to me a man or a white kid but only one of them could ever be Daniel LaRusso from New Jersey (I know this is a bad example but I am just so annoyed about this new Karate Kid…)

  • Question for everyone: Is it more important to have a Black Spiderman or a new superhero who was always intended to be Black? (or you can re-word that to would you rather see a…)

    • R.A.B.

      I’m still trippin on the black president, so…

      Hmm, I’m more interested in the idea of a black Batman, mostly because I want to see Denzel pull off Bruce Wayne better than Bale.

    • R.A.B.

      “You’re gonna tell me where Falcone is. Tell me where Falcone is. You’re not gonna tell me where Falcone is? I’ll tell you what: I’m gonna count to three…”

  • xtian

    I would be so in on a Luke Cage Movie.

    Donald Glover would be more fun than Tobey Maguire was. That’s enough for me.

  • [...] Jamelle at PostBourgie: Bernardin is right on target; most superheroes aren’t defined by their race or ethnicity (indeed, as he points out, the only exceptions are black heroes), and you wouldn’t lose anything by mixing up the racial background of a character. Indeed, changing the racial background of a character isn’t exactly new; in the 1970s, DC passed the Green Lantern’s power-ring to John Stewart, an African-American architect and Marine veteran. And in 2002, Marvel introduced “Ultimate” Nick Fury, a black version of their long-standing character modeled after Samuel L. Jackson. And as Bernardin points out, Marvel went even further with the limited series Truth: Red, White & Black, which told the story of Isaiah Bradley, the sole survivor of a group of black soldiers forced to act as test subjects for the super-soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America. [...]

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