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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."

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.
Chuck Ruff 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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