16 Examples of Race Swapping in Movies and Television [UPDATED]
With heads popping over race-swapping the Little Mermaid, we take a look at several instances where a character's race was swapped going from page to screen.
We originally brought this subject up last year when rumors started on the internet indicating that Idris Elba was being considered to succeed Daniel Craig as James Bond after Craig's upcoming 5th, and likely final, film as Agent 007. Though the rumor was shot down, there was a vocal response on social media from people saying that a black man should not play Bond, citing that Bond was written as, and always portrayed as, a white man. Ian Fleming's original literary work seemed to be the go-to defense for anyone who didn't want to see Bond with a darker complexion, but they didn't seem to be taking into account the multitude of other changes the franchise has gone through in the last five decades. And now with the announcement of the live-action Ariel not being played by a white girl, the internet is ablaze with people saying that the character must be white.
Yes, there are characters where ethnicity is a defining trait and necessary to the portrayal of the character. Shaft and Black Panther can never really be portrayed by anyone other than a black man. How many times have we seen articles bashing movies for the whitewashing of ethnic characters? But there are plenty of characters where their ethnicity is such a minimal point that they can be race swapped and not fundamentally change the character. Honestly, did you know that Bond is half-Scottish and half-Swiss, or did you just chalk him up to being British? With what the average audience knows about 'The Little Mermaid', is there anything about the character that dictates is MUST be played by a white woman?
Swapping races for characters is nothing new, and frequently results in someone amazing playing the part.
Here are sixteen instances in movies and television where a character's ethnicity was changed in the transition from page to screen.
A prime example of a character who has always been portrayed as one ethnicity, but ultimately its not necessary to the character. When Jason Mamoa, a Polynesian actor, was cast as Arthur Curry for 'Justice League', more people were iffy on the casting because of his acting ability and not really about the race-swapping. But Mamoa's casting proved to be a great decision and 'Aquaman' went on to be a major success for Warner Bros. in a time where the DCEU was in a slump.
If Idris Elba were actually cast as Bond, this wouldn't be the first time a previously white character from a Bond novel or movie was played by a black actor/actress. Bond's friend from the CIA/DEA Felix Leiter has had more actors play the role than any other character in the franchise, and all but two have been white. In the unofficial Bond movie 'Never Say Never Again', Leiter was played by Bernie Casey, and when the franchise was rebooted with 'Casino Royale', Jeffrey Wright took the role as Agent Leiter. As for Moneypenny, she had also been regularly portrayed as a white British woman until the part was given to Naomi Harris in 'Skyfall'.
Created by Jules Verne for his books Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island, Captain Nemo, aka Prince Dakkar, is the son of an Indian Maharaja. But in the multitude of live-action adaptations, Nemo has regularly been portrayed by white actors including James Mason (pictured), Patrick Stewart, and Michael Caine.
In the original 1959 novel, author Robert A. Heinlein clearly identified the lead character Juan "Johnny" Rico as Filipino. When the film was created nearly forty years later, Casper Van Dien was cast in the role of Rico, keeping the name but changing the character and his family to undeniably white.
When adapting Isaac Marion's zombie romance novel to the screen, several changes were made to the source material like changing a character's fate here and there. But the biggest change made was to the character Nora, who was Julie's best friend. In the book she was described as Ethiopian, but former model Analeigh Tipton was cast in the role for the film.
Debuting in 'The Amazing Spider-Man' back in 1967, Wilson Grant Fisk is known as "The Kingpin", a crime boss in the Marvel universe. Kingpin made his first live-action debut in the 1989 TV movie, 'The Trial of the Incredible Hulk', played by John Rhys-Davies (Gimli from the Lord of the Rings movies). But the most famous portrayal has to be the late Michael Clarke Duncan's run as the character in the much despised 2003 'Daredevil' movie. Though the film was panned by fans and critics, Duncan's portrayal of Fisk was regularly considered the high-point of the film.
Originally created with Halle Berry as inspiration, the character Fox serves as the main character's mentor and love interest. When the comic was made into a movie in 2008, A LOT of changes were made to the source material, including Fox being played by Angelina Jolie.
Nick Fury first hit the pages of Marvel comics in 1963 as a WWII soldier and part of the Howling Commandos. Originally depicted as a white man, Fury was played by David Hasselhoff in a TV movie. In 2000, Marvel launched an alternate universe of their primary books under the "Ultimate" title. Nick Fury re-debuted in 2002 with Samuel L. Jackson as the visual inspiration (before he took the role). This version of Fury would go on to be the most recognizable, with Jackson playing the role in eight Marvel films, and counting.
Until Tim Burton created his Batman movie in 1989, the character of Harvey Dent/Two-Face has been shown as a white man for over 40 years. In 'Batman', the role of Dent went to Billy Dee Williams with the clause in his contract that he would play Two-Face if/when the character was used. When Warner Bros decided to change the direction of the franchise, Williams was paid out on his contract so the part could be given to another three-name actor, Tommy Lee Jones.
Idris Elba is no stranger to race swapping in movies, taking the role of Nordic mythological icon Heimdall in the 'Thor' movies. Initially, fans did speak out against the casting of a black man and a Japanese man (Hogun from the Warriors Three) as Nordic gods, but the complaints were dropped after seeing how well they did in their roles.
Debuting in 1940, it only took 28 years before the part was played by a black woman. Not only was this a race swap from the original comic book character, it was a swap from the original actress from the show. For the first two seasons of the 1960s Batman series, Julie Newmar played the role in the first two seasons, being replaced by Eartha Kitt for the final season.
Debuting in 1940 as a villain for Batman, Dr. Hugo Strange was created as the stereo-typical Eastern-European mad scientist, specifically Austrian. Though the character has made appearances in several animated works, his first live-action appearance wasn't until quite recently, appearing on the Fox TV show 'Gotham' played by an American actor of Chinese descent, B.D. Wong.
Bane arrived on the scene in 1993 in a big way, being the first character to nearly kill Batman by breaking his back and paralyzing him. In the comics, Bane is of Hispanic/Latin origins, and is vocally portrayed as speaking with a heavy accent in cartoons and video games. The character was poorly used as Poison Ivy's oafish henchman in 'Batman and Robin', and didn't make another live-action appearance until played by Tom Hardy in 'The Dark Knight Rises'. Bane's backstory and ethnicity was completely abandoned, with Hardy's version having a non-descript European accent.
If Idris Elba as Bond triggered people, then they were pretty quiet with their rage over Perry White being played by Lawrence Fishburn in 'Batman v Superman' and 'Man of Steel'. The editor of The Daily Planet has one of the biggest number of portrayals of any character on this list, appearing in the comics since 1940 and a multitude of live-action TV shows and movies, always by a white actor.
For decades, Mary Jane Watson was the gorgeous girl next door who is so pretty that people wonder why she's with Peter Parker. Until 'Spider-Man: Homecoming', there had only been two live-action portrayals of the character, Kiristen Dunst in the first three films and Shailene Woodley in deleted scenes from 'Amazing Spider-Man 2'. When actress/singer Zendaya was cast in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming', several changes other than race were made to the character, including changing her name to Michelle and making her a social outcast.
When popular DC comic book 'Lucifer' was turned into a live-action series on Fox, many fans were outraged over the switch that the blonde Lucifer would be played by a brunette. Strangely, they must have gotten out all of their angst since there wasn't too much of an outcry over the demon Mazikeen and the angel Amenadiel, regularly drawn as white characters, being played by Lesley-Ann Brandt and D.B. Woodside.