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NJ Actor Cast as ‘Human Torch’ Raises Old Questions About Race on Film

Newark's Michael B. Jordan is the latest actor to be thrust into a public conversation about what it means to re-imagine a fictional character in popular culture.

Michael B. Jordan discussing his portrayl of Johnny Storm / CineMovie via youtu.be/NRzKI2-T1Yg
Michael B. Jordan discussing his portrayl of Johnny Storm / CineMovie via youtu.be/NRzKI2-T1Yg

A New Jersey-educated actor slated to play the role of a popular Marvel comic hero is the latest victim of Internet backlash aimed at movie studios casting black actors in roles originally imaged as white characters.

Industry insiders leaking the cast of the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot earlier this month announced that Newark-native Michael B. Jordan would be playing the much-beloved character of Johnny Storm.

Jordan, best known for his role as Wallace on HBO’s “The Wire” and this year's "That Awkward Moment," is black. Johnny Storm, aka The Human Torch, has been portrayed as white since his introduction in a 1961 comic book series.

A curious brouhaha erupted in some corners of the Internet concerning this racial recasting of a fictional character.

The recent history of this superhero-tinged controversy begins in 2007 when Samuel L. Jackson was tapped to play Nick Fury. Fury, typically portrayed as a cigar-smoking, middle-aged white dude with an eyepatch, was redesigned in 2001 for Marvel’s “Ultimate Marvel” comics as a slightly younger black dude in an eyepatch.

The controversy continues through the casting of Idris Elba as Asgardian sentry Heimdall in the Thor series; Cinna, Rue and Thresh in “The Hunger Games” movie; and a populist push to cast Donald Glover as Spider-Man.

While some take umbrage with historical inaccuracies created by the general recasting phenomenon, others see Jordan's bold selection as an "exciting" opportunity to diversify Hollywood, both on-screen and off.

The actor told CineMovie there are no racial descriptions of Johnny Storm and his portrayal of the character is likely to break barriers.

"The only characteristics of The Human Torch is that his name is Johnny Storm, he's American, he's charismatic and he's a playboy," Jordan said. "That's it."

Mac February 24, 2014 at 03:32 PM
this is a page six story - just wait until the George Burns 'God' movies are recast and Oprah plays the lead - hope you have a lot of fun doing the show guy
Gandalf Giacobbe February 24, 2014 at 05:07 PM
So who did they cast as his (also always been white) sister the "Invisible Woman" Susan "Sue" Storm? You can't just change the race of a random character who has family in the same comic without it altering the story.
Joseph M. Gerace (Editor) February 24, 2014 at 05:22 PM
Gandalf: They cast Kate Mara (of House of Cards.) She's still white. And they're still siblings in the new script. I assume they'll go the adoption route?
Irina February 24, 2014 at 07:07 PM
This man is going to play Johnny Storm....I'm not interested in watching. EPIC FAILURE!
Brian de Castro February 25, 2014 at 02:15 AM
Anyone who's seen Michael in shows like The Wire, Parenthood or Friday Night Lights, or movies like Chronicle and Fruitvale Station, have seen what he can do. He'll be great as The Human Torch, and anyone who has problems with his casting has deeper issues they should be concerned about and they need to realize this is 2013. It's clear by the uproar that we still have a ways to go in this country, and this is just one more positive step. Flame on!
Lucinde February 25, 2014 at 07:25 AM
Why didn't you people make a fuss about Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra? Everyone knows she was a black Egyptian; or White actors playing Native Americans in westerns; or White actors playing Chinese men? Everyone knows Charlie Chan was supposed to be Chinese! Oh I see, you only get upset when Black (or any other ethnic group) gets cast as a "White" fictional comic book character. You White people are something else. Always quick to criticize others, but not yourselves. Get with the times people! It's 2014!
FL4LIFE February 25, 2014 at 07:58 AM
well said lucinde... it's called acting people, jordan isnt actually the human torch, he is "acting" like the character. ben affleck character is mexican in argo johny depp plays a native american in lone ranger ben kigsley has portrayed French, Italian, Polish, Greek, German, Austrian, Indian, Persian Israeli characters Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia Angelina Jolie a black women in A Mighty Heart it not a coincidence that people complain when a black guy plays a typically white character but no one says anything when jake gyllenhaal plays a persian.
Harland February 25, 2014 at 08:31 AM
Lucinde - "You White people are something else". Thank you for demonstrating that racism isn't exclusive to us "white people".
Rob Goodwin February 25, 2014 at 08:39 AM
Actually lucinde, you are something else. If you weren't so ignorant, youmd know that white actors cast in other ethnic roles has been made just a fuss as this. The article also is pretty off-base. The problem isn't so mich that he's black, for some i'm sure it is but definitely not all. The bigger problem is that they half-assed it. The important dynamic here is sue and johnny being close-sinlings. Something visually obvious because they were supposed to look alike. Also, this creates another area that needs to be explained, and while it can be done smartly and to the movies advantage, we all remember the original not being all that great so why add to a potential pitfall? I think Jordan can play the character well, but chris evans nailed it. The criticism is that it's an unnecesaary switch, one that could be seen as only done to get people talking about a movie that nobody said they wanted. I hope he pulls it off, but if he was cast as more of a publicity stunt than that is even worse. Again, best of luck, but it is completely unnecessary to have mixed-race siblings for probably the most iconic brother/sister duo in comics.
Rob Goodwin February 25, 2014 at 08:43 AM
Also, cinna, rue and thresh were always black, some people didn't read it that aay, but it is infered by the text. As well as donald glover's thing wasn't that he was black, it was that marvel had changed spider-man to a black kid named miles after peter parker's death. But instead of making glover be miles, who nobody knew about, he'd be peter who is an established white guy. The popularity of a character counts here. Nick fury was just as popular as sam jackson looking as he ever was as the white nick fury. Also, they are not the same guy, just two guys with the same name
Barbie February 25, 2014 at 08:45 AM
To start off I like to say I am mixed race. I do not agree with the casting of the human torch in this movie. I didn't like when they cast Jessica Alba in the last fantastic four movie. These characters are supposed to be white, that's how they were written and created. I am a comic book purist, I love comic books and have collected them since I was a teenager. What they should've done is cast a black actor in the Green Lantern. There was a period of time where the Green Lantern was actually an African-American. Or why don't they showcase a wonderful African-American character like Static Shock. It's not being racist if you are a comic book fan and you'd like to see your comic book heroes portrayed as they are in the comics.
Bobtwo February 25, 2014 at 08:46 AM
If you cast him as character in a play, movie, etc because he is a good actor and can add something to the role that's one thing. If you cast him because he is black that is another. They should be color blind and not make a race issue out of it.
FL4LIFE February 25, 2014 at 10:24 AM
@rob "chris evans nailed it. The criticism is that it's an unnecesaary switch, one that could be seen as only done to get people talking about a movie that nobody said they wanted. " an unnecessary switch? you make it sound like they had an option to keep chris evans as the character. after the fantastic 4 movie bombed evans has stared in captain america and the avengers, and captain america is becoming one of marvels top characters. there NO WAY he would have gone back to playing johny storm. so it not like the casting director chose jordan over evans, evans wasnt an option. from what ive seen jordan is one of the most talented younger acters out there
Me February 25, 2014 at 10:25 AM
Lucinde, can you pick a movie from the 21st century? It has shown that some movies DON'T do well when the race is not depicted correctly in recent movies. Avatar: The Last Airbender was ruined because of bad casting (white actors are asian characters). Lone Ranger, where Johnny Depp was casted as an Indian, didn't do well. Just to name a few. I'm not saying that was the reason it didn't do well, but I'm sure it was detrimental. A reason that Samuel Jackson works as Nick Fury is because he's got huge pull in the industry. People will go to see him. Look at "Snakes on Plane". Horrible movie but he "made" that movie! Think of this the other way. What if they recasted black superheroes as white, such as Blade (a popular movie) or Storm (from the X-men), or War Machine (from Ironman)? There would be an uproar about that and the movies probably wouldn't do as well. People were even upset at the Tobey McGuire's Spiderman because Peter Parker didn't shot web from his own body, but used "wrist-mounted devices of his own invention" in the comics. This is not about race but following the comics. When you mess with the comic books' history and storylines, people know and the movie doesn't do well as it could have.
Loretka February 25, 2014 at 01:39 PM
It is just plain ridiculous to change the race of a character that has been around for years and years. Makes no sense at all. Just stupid. I wonder if they would make a movie about Martin Luther King and have him played by a white actor? If there is a need for black characters, then create a new character and make him/her black.
Joseph M. Gerace (Editor) February 25, 2014 at 02:42 PM
Loretka, you know that Martin Luther King Jr. is an historical figure who fought for the civil rights of black Americans, right? That's a different circumstance than The Human Torch.
Harland February 25, 2014 at 04:14 PM
Joseph - your comment about Martin Luther King being a historical figure is fair, and I agree it's a completely different circumstance. Let's try a different example - what would happen if they made a Fat Albert movie and cast a white actor in the title role? What sort of reaction would this get? Would it be seen as a bold and exciting opportunity to introduce diversity to a cartoon which was completely void of diversity?
yasay February 25, 2014 at 05:40 PM
Loretka your a fucking idiot! Everyone else... Who cares... Its a comic... IT'S NOT REAL!
Ruth Rouff February 25, 2014 at 06:23 PM
I couldn't care less about who plays Johnny Storm, but for the record, Cleopatra wasn't black. She was a Ptolemy, a member of the Greek royal dynasty that took control of Egypt many years earlier. Look it up on a reputable history site.
Hookerman February 25, 2014 at 06:43 PM
Jesus Christ, who was a middle-eastern Jew, has been played by various white-anglo actors, including Jim Caviezel, William DeFoe, and Max Van Sydow. Funny how that caused no stir, yet if an actor portrays a comic book character of a different race, that is sacrilege.
John February 25, 2014 at 10:43 PM
Hookerman , really ??
Loretka February 25, 2014 at 10:51 PM
Joseph Gerace, I know that Martin Luther King, Jr., is an historical figure. I just couldn't think of any black fictional character to compare this with. Thank you Harland for using Fat Albert as a comparison.
John February 26, 2014 at 06:51 AM
Who can ever forget when Gary Oldman played a black drug lord in True Romance 1993. Not to mention that incredible line "Ain't this white boy day" he delivered. White actors playing Jesus , I get it. Eli Wallace (Jewish) playing a ruthless Mexican bandit in The Good , The Bad, The Ugly I get it. But sometimes the old crossover just doesn't work Unless you are among the elite "method" actors like Daniel Day Lewis whose about to play Obama. It's really about how well the actor plays the role.
Hookerman February 26, 2014 at 07:35 AM
As a rabid James Bond fan, I've had no problem with African American actors (like Jeffery Wright) playing Felix Leiter, an obviously white character in Ian Fleming's books.
Anthony T. March 04, 2014 at 10:11 AM
We should all be complaining about the lack of decent stories in films before arguing over this. If you want a decent story you have to watch some artsy film which I can bet most of us won't find interesting,.
Lincoln Farquharson March 21, 2014 at 12:15 PM
I feel like I will be repeating what's been said, but I think it was foolish to cast a black character as Johnny Storm. How will they explain his sister being white? and regardless of how they explain it, the dynamics of their relationship may be lost to the viewer. They are taking a big risk there. With that said, had they cast the Thing as black or possibly even Reed Richards, you would get no argument from me. It's not that the characters were originally drawn white or black because that decision is personal bias on the past of the artist and the economics of what image will sell, but it is based on their personal character. Not other race can play Malcolm X or Robert Kennedy or Mahatma Gandhi, because their race is part of what made them historical figures. A white person, as another example, can not play Storm or Black Panther, but one could play Bishop.
Hookerman March 21, 2014 at 12:52 PM
Lincoln, there is a big difference between an actual person and a fictional character. Characters are often portrayed by actors whose physical appearance is much different from that described in literature. For example; in the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the character of Randall McMurphy was described as being tall, with thick red hair. Somehow, people had no problem accepting the portrayal of Jack Nicholson, who is short with thin brown hair.
Lincoln Farquharson March 21, 2014 at 05:26 PM
It's about depiction. Real or fake. Comics are visual books, so a character isn't described. If we want to be strict, most of the real life depictions of comic book characters are wrong (Rogue, Iceman, Magneto). Since we apparently are not going for exact replicas, we have artistic license to change a few details. Race plays a part in the character development and ultimately the storyline of several characters and comics. You can't change the race for those characters without affecting everything else (Storm, Black Panther). Other characters were simply drawn that way because, as I said, artist bias and marketability (Nick Fury, Reed Richards). For this particular case, the Storms are brother and sister and the stories and development of character is based largely in part on that relationship. If the race of one changes, without proper explanation, then the race of the other should change. Throwing a black character in the movie just for sake of doing it without respect to canon or continuity is disrespectful to fans and unimaginative. Had Reed Richards or Ben Grimm been made black for this movie, no arguments can be made.

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