'Green Lantern' Reopens Debate Over Racism in Science Fiction

Critic argues that the genre can't shake its use of offensive stereotypes

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Martin Campbell's Green Lantern, starring the somewhat smarmy if occasionally amusing Ryan Reynolds, could use all the positive reviews it can get, as it is currently being panned by critics. It's consensus on RottenTomatoes, where it presently has a 24 percent approval rating, is that it is "noisy, overproduced, and thinly written" and "squanders an impressive budget and decades of comics mythology." So it could have used the few kind words by New York Press critic Armond White, who found it to be "watchable if unexceptional entertainment" and "amusing enough" -- until it began presenting offensive racial stereotypes. White writes that, "No matter how fanciful, quixotic or faithful to their original source, most of this year’s comics-based movie sink when their pop-art legends are confronted with the modern world... these contemporary, multimillion dollar productions keep dragging audiences back to the oldest, most decrepit social stereotypes."

According to White, this year's crop of science fiction films have had particularly racially offensive elements. He cites these examples:

  • Idris Elba in Thor. "Casting black British actor Idris Elba as Heimdall, Guardian Sentry of Asgard, confronted archeological complexities more than it disputed history... The character’s conception was, essentially, a butler. His purpose was to admit and greet—aligned with 1930s Hollywood stereotype rather than divine or cosmological possibility."
  • Edi Gathegi in X-Men: First Class. "Gathegi as Darwin becomes the first to graduate to oblivion. He is gruesomely dispatched when his sketchily revealed 'gift' is used against him... Gathegi’s Darwin was X-Men: First Class’ Second Class citizen."
  • Michael Clarke Duncan in Green Lantern. "Duncan voices a character named Kilowog, a member of the Green Lantern Corps, brother from another planet... Duncan’s speech patterns seem to dictate the character’s physical appearance; he looks like a police suspect sketch (a dark-skinned, menacing hulk as if derived from the British racial epithet “golliwog”). Essentially emulating the famous Lou Gossett Jr. badass drill sergeant role, Duncan suggests that racist stereotyping exists even among alien cultures."

Noting that only "Michel Gondry’s Green Hornet escaped this problem," White asks:

"Is it possible that the comics franchise is inherently retrograde? ...Green Lantern should be better than it is but improvement would begin with sustained enlightened casting and characterization... Stereotyping has gotten so bad that smart viewers have come to expect the insult. They know beforehand that if it’s an action movie and there’s a black guy in it, his doom is certain—the ultimate spoiler.

The Green Lantern comics apparently are more notorious for another ethnic stereotype: Hal Jordan, the protagonist, had a sidekick played by an Inuit who was called "Pieface," (played by Taika Waititi in the film). There is some conjecture that this was an ethnic slur, and it has not been used in the comic for some time.

Whether or not White's take on films released this year seems excessive, racism in science fiction and fantasy has been documented by many. Earlier this year, i09 came out with a list entitled "10 of the most embarassing racial and ethic stereotypes in science fiction," where Annalee Newitz called out characters from "the natives in Twilight" to "Jar Jar" to "Pretty much every person of color in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
Mostly I've chosen stuff from the last 40 years here, just because we could easily fill pages and pages with all the wrongness before that - think Ming the Merciless (evil Asian guy) or the many stereotypes of African Americans that emerge in stories of visiting "savage" planets. What's sad is that we haven't come that far since those overtly racist days.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.