To Be Black In 'Thor', Or Not To Be Black In 'Thor' That Is The Burning Hollywood Question?
10:55 AM 3/25/2011 by David L. Watts
“It’s so ridiculous,” Idris Elba says as The Hollywood Reporter magazine looks at colorblind casting and the shrinking roles for African-American actors before Friday's NAACP Image Awards.”…When Kenneth Branagh cast Idris Elba as Heimdall in the upcoming summer tentpole Thor, a furious debate erupted among fanboys, with some insisting it was wrong for a black man to play a Nordic god…But the London-born actor has no patience for the debate. "It's so ridiculous," he said Feb. 24 at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J…"We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley."… Pamela McClintock, Tim Appelo…The Hollywood Reporter…3/4/2011
Marvel’s hiring of Idris Elba to play the Asgardian Heimdall in Thor was not a statement in favor of color blind casting in Hollywood. No, in my opinion, the hiring of Idris Elba is when color blind casting is used as a marketing stunt to make an obviously all-white Nordic Gods film look appealing to younger moviegoers--who want and expect to live in a multicultural and ethnically diverse world. Even if that fantasy world is not real. And let’s be clear unless something is radically different between Heimdall in the Thor comics and Heimdall in the Thor film than basically Idris is playing a super powered doorman. Maybe Heimdall can be black because that character in Thor comics has a limited role? Or maybe Heimdall will be one of the best Nordic God characters in Thor?
"Heimdall is the brother of the warrior Sif. He is the all-seeing and all-hearing guardian sentry of Asgard, he stands on the rainbow bridge, Bifrost and stands watch for any attacks to Asgard. He partly won the role through using his eyesight to see an army of giants several days' march from Asgard, allowing them to be defeated before they reached Asgard, and making their king a prisoner. For ages, he stood as the guardian of Asgard, defending the city's gates from any intruders, and was one of the most trusted servants of Odin”…Wikipedia
Also, casting Idris Elba as Heimdall is a safe move. Marvel is not stupid and neither is Hollywood. Have a white male lead and a black side kick-even a Nordic black wingman--has been always a box office winner from 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, Collateral, etc., Terrence Howard was in Iron Man and Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2. I am admitting up front that I have not seen a bootleg copy of Thor or read the Thor script, but I am 100% certain that Heimdall will be more of an ally of Thor and not a major villain like Loki. No matter what Idris says about being a champion of color blind casting--he never, under any scenario that he could have imagined been cast to play Loki, Thor’s evil adoptive brother. Loki is an extremely central character to Marvel and Thor comics, so having a dark chocolate brotha like Idris playing that part would have sent red flags to anyone in the comic book world that the Thor film was going to suck big time. Marvel would have never hired Kenneth Branagh if he had insisted that Loki be played by a Black actor like Idris Elba and not a white actor like Tom Hiddleston, who actually did get the part of Loki in Thor.
And Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Cleopatra because no Hollywood studio in 1963 would trust or greenlight spending multi-millions on a major international film on Dorothy Dandridge being the lead opposite Richard Burton. And Ben Kingsly actually does have Indian heritage. His father was Gujarati and his birth name is Krishna Bhanji. A better example of recent color blind casting is the BBC show Merlin which has Angel Coulby, who is bi-racial, playing Arthur’s love interest Guinevere (Gwen). Gwen is a role traditionally played in Hollywood by white actresses from Excalibur to Starz’s new show Camelot. And Merlin has Black knights, villains and Black members of Gwen’s family.
“If you know anything about the Nords, they don’t look like me but there you go. I think that’s a sign of the times for the future. I think we will see multi-level casting. I think we will see that and I think that’s good.”…”I looked at the comic books actually because Heimdall, he’s a very central character and I wanted to reflect him as he in the comic books.”[said by Idris Elba]…Mike Eisenberg…ScreenRant…April 12, 2010.
Now to be fair truly fair to Branagh and Marvel’s goal of implementing color blind casting in Thor--there is another Asgardian character called “Hogun the Grim” of the Warriors Three who is played by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano. But there has not been much mention of Asano’s role being as obvious a fanboy head scratcher as Idris being cast as Heimdall. That might because the Thor comic book character Hogun is dark haired and kinda looks Mongolian anyway. Even though Tadanobu Asano is an excellent Japanese actor; if Asano had been cast to play the blond haired warrior Fandral, played by Stuart Townsend, or the blond bearded big gut Warriors Three Vollstagg, played by Rome’s Ray Stevenson, there would be the same huge casting uproar as a Black Heimdall.
(L to R) Ray Stevenson (Rome, Punisher:Warzone), Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer, Mongol), and Stuart Townsend (The League of Extraordinary Gentleman)
But the bottom line is much of this mainly Internet driven controversy about Idris playing a mythical Nordic God could have been avoided if Idris had initially said the right things about landing the role of Heimdall in Thor. All Idris had to do with his manager, publicist and agent’s blessing is put out a short statement that said he had always been a big fan of Thor and avid reader of Marvel comics. Idris could say humbly he was truly excited and honored to even get a chance to read for a role in Thor. Idris could then say he was well suited to play the noble and heroic sentry of Asgard because had just played in big action films like The Losers and Takers. He could also say that he likes strong and stoic characters like Heimdall because he had a similar well written, gritty and dark lead role in the BBC detective series Luther. Idris could then finish up his positive Heimdall color blind casting statement by saying he was amazed at all the intense fighting scenes and special effects in Thor. And also throw out that he hopes he gets a chance to be in the next Avenger films as well.
That’s all Idris had to say after getting the role of Heimdall and that short statement would have quashed any controversy because even a fanboy or Marvel junkie skeptical of Idris being cast as Heimdall would want to know more about his interest of Thor and Marvel comics. And I don’t care if it’s not true that Idris is a big fan of Thor. He can easily fake it if need be. Thor is a multi-million summer tentpole superhero film that does not need any distractions or doubters. A film like Thor wants as much positive press as possible. Not negative press of some fanboys or white racist groups blogging 24/7 about why Thor might be “whack” because they put a Black actor as a Nordic God. Diehard comic book fans are always willing to allow some levels of casting liberties with their comic book film adaptations, but not the comic book’s main characters. So Idris should have seen this color blind casting drama coming miles away just like Heimdall would have seen Frost Giants miles away about to invade Asgard.
Idris Elba cannot win over potential Thor fans or loyal Thor and Marvel comic book fanboys by saying, "We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? You cannot start out your passionate defense of Marvel’s color blind casting in Thor by first clowning, dissing or challenging the very validity of Thor as a character itself. Idris Elba! Your main job as a Thor supporting character is to support the Thor film over anything else! The whole point of Thor is he is one of Marvel’s greatest and most powerful superheroes that does have a flying hammer and wears horns-actually wings--on his head. That’s what anyone who will go see Thor on May 6th, 2011 wants to see the most. And there won’t be many skipping Thor because there is a black Heimdall guarding Asgard or a Japanese Hogun fighting in Thor. If you blink you will miss seeing Idris in the Thor trailer, but he is on the Thor posters. Everyone who is looking forward to seeing Thor will ignore its color blind casting because everyone else who is important in Thor’s Asgard, Loki, Odin, Sith, etc., will be played by white actors. Marvel has a lot riding on Thor being a monster hit that sets up Captain America: The First Avenger being another hit 2 months later. And Thor the mega-blockbuster has to also successfully establish Thor as one of the main stars of next year’s epic Avengers.
Hopefully, Idris Elba playing in Thor will allow Marvel to go back and greenlight him or another African-American or African actor playing the lead in a Black Panther film. To me just getting Black Panther into the Avengers would be more exciting than a Black Heimdall in Thor. So my best advice for Idris Elba is to continue reading every Heimdall in Thor comics, so you can at least be an expert and true fan of your character during the Thor promotional tour. And then Idris can stop angrily and surprisingly wondering about why fanboys, film critics or movie bloggers are genuinely puzzled why Heimdall in Thor looks more like Shaft than a typical Scandinavian looking white mythical Nordic God. Idris should smile and laugh off his Heimdall haters like Heimdall would in Thor.
David L. “Money Train” Watts - thedarkroome.com