Today in entertainment headlines: Thor director likes his Norse gods like he likes his coffee


Today is Festivus, the traditional time for the airing of grievances and feats of strength, so it’s appropriate to air a grievance about someone noted for his feats of strength.1 There’s been an outcry from certain quarters about the casting of Wire actor Idris Elba as the god Heimdall in the Kenneth Branagh-directed adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Thor. At first, I was totally on side with this objection. I mean, an English actor playing a Scandinavian deity? He’s going to butcher the accent worse than Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Then it turned out that the issue was more about Elba’s not-so-Aryan skin colour. “If all racism was so clearly ridiculous and idiotic, it wouldn’t be a problem,” said my pal Matt, when he originally drew my attention to the controversy. But hold on: Is it the outcry over the casting that’s ridiculous and idiotic? Or is it the casting itself? I’m not saying the folks organizing a boycott of Thor aren’t racists. They are. I’m just saying that it’s a little facile to call this particular complaint inherently racist.

A black actor in almost any other role in the film wouldn’t be as silly. It’s not like gods can’t be any colour they like. Blue is a popular colour in India, for example, and for that matter, capital-G God himself looked just like Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty, and no one got bent out of shape about it. And black Scandinavians aren’t unheard of anyway. Look at Swedish defenceman Johnny Oduya from the Atlanta Thrashers, or, if you want a more authentically surnamed example, Carl Gustafsson of Rögle BK.

But Heimdall is specifically referred to in the Edda—the main source of Norse mythology— as hvíta ás, or “the white god”. He’s called the “whitest of the Æsir,” born of the sea foam of the ninth wave—so, white as a whitecap. Sounds like the right part for a Johnny Winter type, or maybe the guy who played the albino in The Da Vinci Code.

So, isn’t casting the guy who played Stringer Bell in the part at least as ridiculous as, say, casting Angelina Jolie as murdered journalist Daniel Pearl’s wife, an African-American? Of course, you might object that Mariane Pearl was actually a demonstrably real person, unlike Thor. Fine. How about Swedish actor Max von Sydow as Jesus, who was reportedly born in the Middle East and probably looked like it. If you want to argue that Jesus isn’t as fictitious as Thor, that’s a theological argument you can take elsewhere, but I’ll also point to Jake Gyllenhaal playing the titular character in Prince of Persia but not being Middle Eastern either. The main difference seems to be that the Thor casting is either politically correct or perversely contrarian, while the others seem either tone-deaf or plain thoughtless.

However, while the Council of Conservative Citizens, a bona fide hate group who would surely be appalled to realize that the comic-book version of Thor was created by a trio of Jews, is organizing a boycott of the film, you don’t see the disembodied head community whipping themselves into a fury about a full-bodied actor being cast as the decapitated god Mimir, when that part rightfully belongs to Vic Morrow. (And they’d better get the most equine-faced actor possible to play Beta Ray Bill; the only acceptable choices are Hilary Swank or Sarah Jessica Parker.)

Not seeing Thor simply because a black man was cast in what you think ought to be a white man’s role may be racist; however, not seeing it because you think the casting may be symptomatic of many other boneheaded directorial choices isn’t. It’s not okay to complain about this because you’re a racist. It is okay to complain about this if you’re a fanboy, the same kind of person objects to the casting of Stargate: Atlantic actor Jason Momoa as Conan the Barbarian because his eyes are brown rather than the “volcanic blue”2 described by Robert E. Howard (who was a racist, which complicates matters).3

But it’s certainly nothing to organize an active boycott over. I probably won’t see Thor either, but that’s only because I already passively boycott most films by simply not leaving the house.

1. My own main grievance is that my girlfriend made me throw out my Festivus pole when we moved in together a couple of years ago.
2. Whatever “volcanic blue” means. I’ve never understood this one. Last time I checked, volcanoes were grey to brown and threw up in reddish orangey colours. This must be what they call colour-blind casting.
3. As much as I love his pulp fiction, imagine how badly someone like Robert E. Howard would do as a casting director, given his reliance on broad, crude racial stereotypes. “Need a sinister villain? You want a Chinaman. Get me Jackie Chan’s agent.” “Crafty? Let’s get a bankable Jew. How’s Adam Sandler sound?” “Brutish? That part’s made for a Negro. Is Sidney Poitier still working?” It just wouldn’t work.

8 Responses to “Today in entertainment headlines: Thor director likes his Norse gods like he likes his coffee”

  1. “As much as I love his pulp fiction, imagine how badly someone like Robert E. Howard would do as a casting director, given his reliance on broad, crude racial stereotypes. “Need a sinister villain? You want a Chinaman. Get me Jackie Chan’s agent.” “Crafty? Let’s get a bankable Jew. How’s Adam Sandler sound?” “Brutish? That part’s made for a Negro. Is Sidney Poitier still working?” It just wouldn’t work.”

    Oh come now, that’s just ridiculous and not borne out by any sort of analysis of Howard’s fiction. The vast majority of villains in Howard stories are white men. Pick a Conan story: it’s more likely than not Conan’s enemy is a sinister white sorcerer, a crafty white general, or a brutish white warrior. Sure, Howard was writing in the age of Yellow Menace and Jim Crowe laws were still in effect, but if you break down the stories, white men outnumber all other ethnicities combined. It is simply false to state otherwise.

    Besides, if you pluck most pulp fiction authors of the 1930s, of course they’re going to have “broad, crude ethnic stereotypes.” That’s how bad it was in the 1930s. It was illegal for a black person to marry a white person in most states. Miscegenation was outlawed. Lynchings, while not common, were frequent in the south during Howard’s lifetime. Scientific theory, at the time, was inundated with the pseudoscience of racial theory. Is it really any wonder that Howard said and wrote things that would be considered incredibly insensitive nowadays?

    In any case, Howard would clearly cast Sidney Poitier as Ace Jessel, the intelligent, cheerful, courageous, sympathetic boxer, the only of Howard’s boxing heroes to be a world champion. For a supposed racist, it’s strange that Howard wrote two stories featuring an intelligent, sympathetic black man, especially one where he has to overcome the town’s prejudice towards him – and succeeds.

    “Volcanic blue” is a reference to larimar, a very rare and highly prized variety of volcanic rock noted for its vibrant, intense blue hue.

    • 2 Peter Lynn

      Ha! Here come the REH fanboys! Welcome; I’m a fan myself, and devoured as much as I could back in high school. However, as L. Sprague de Camp said, “Howard was, if a racist, a comparatively mild one by the standards of his time.” I totally agree that he was a product of his age, and certainly, he wasn’t as virulent in his prejudices as Lovecraft (though both got more progressive over time). I was going to mention Juma as another heroic black character in addition to Ace “They call me Mister” Jessel, until realizing that he was actually a de Camp/Carter invention. So instead, I’ll mention the pirate queen Bêlit, who’s very Semitic and very appealing. Plus, he was pretty proud of his Irish heritage at a time when the Irish were barely considered white (though, if you remember Gangs of New York, it was (and is) often the newly assimilated recent arrivals who were the most xenophobic; having managed to squeeze through the door, they wanted to pull it shut behind them). That said, I wouldn’t say he typically went up against white wizards; Thoth-Amon, for instance, is Stygian, or basically Egyptian.

      I actually knew about larimar, but only because I Googled it this afternoon. It comes up as the first reference, and Conan comes up as the second.

      • L. Sprangue de Camp was a guy without ideas that take all his material from a dead author and spent most of its time insulting him. Thoth-Amon and Conan NEVER fight in the original tales so he is not a valid example.

        The “long black hair” and “cristal blue eyes” are the ONLY features of the character that are mentioned in every one of the stories. It is logical that the fans wants that in the movie (remember that Arnold had brown hair and grey eyes). But the race was never an issue. Momoa looks pretty good as a cimmerian and, actually, it seems that he will have blue eyes.

      • 4 Peter Lynn

        Thoth-Amon and Conan don’t actually fight in the original tales, but the wizard certainly does threaten Conan indirectly, so he is in fact a valid example. That said, the point is that the ancient and decadent Stygians, as a people, are generally portrayed as sorcerers, thieves, and assassins, and as more foe than friend.

  2. 5 Yag

    Regarding Momoa as Conan, most REH have probably resigned themselves to “take the best available option” – the other top two actors in the running were one of the prettyboys from Twilight and one of the brothers from Supernatural, who is built like a beanpole. Also, eye color is not nearly as contentious as his ethnicity. Granted he’s not Celtic, but at least he’s not Austrian again eh? He looks much better with straight hair, but the daft folks at Lionsgate made it sure that for months we only had Baywatch and dreadlocked images of him.

    • 6 Peter Lynn

      I was dubious about Momoa after seeing the dreadlocked images, but I’ve seen one photo of him as Conan now, and I think he looks all right. As you say, he looks much better with straight hair, and he’s definitely (at least in that one photo) got Conan’s low and broad brow, as described by REH.

  3. 7 hilly

    All of you know way way way too much about Conan and Howard. Which begs the question, was “Conan the Barbarian” a great movie or the greatest movie?

    Also, do not trust any organization that uses only the same three letters in their names: CCC, KKK, AAA. Pure evil, all three.

    • 8 Peter Lynn

      Only a great movie. The non-canonical “Wheel of Pain” bit never really worked for me. Young Conan was a respected warrior who sacked Aquilonian outposts, not a slave.

      Also, I’d argue that the Better Business Bureau (or BBB) is a force for good, rather than evil.

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