Commentary: Race, Racism and the Man of Steel

Through the new Superman movie's casting diversity, a look at America's changing demographics.

Posted: 06/14/2013 02:06 PM EDT

He was "faster than a speeding bullet," more powerful "than a locomotive," and able to "leap tall buildings in a single bound." The 1950s version of Superman was comically steeped in the limited vision of his times, in a day when trains were still known as "locomotives" and tall buildings weren't quite yet the skyscrapers of today.

But the core of Superman was always a morality play about his never ending battle for "truth, justice, and the American way." It's a concept that has survived in the American psyche for 75 years since the comic debuted in 1938.

Although the Superman franchise has grown and matured over the years, the new Man of Steel film that opens today alternately subscribes to and challenges the old and dying version of America.

In the old America, African-Americans were an afterthought not even worthy of inclusion for a featured role in a superhero film. Christopher Reeves’ iconic 1978 depiction of Superman took place in a film that featured no Black characters in major roles. In contrast, the new Man of Steel film casts two prominent Black authority figures, Harry Lennix as U.S. General Swanwick and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

The casting of two Black actors symbolizes not so much an earth-shattering shift in Hollywood but the rapidly changing demographics of our country. Today it's just smart business for filmmakers to cast a few people of color in an effort to appeal to more sophisticated audiences who've tired of being ignored or tokenized for decades.

Yet this simple act of racial representation goes too far for some critics, who attack the new Superman as too politically correct. Conservative writer Debbie Schlussel, for example, sarcastically questioned when Superman will come out as a "vegan Muslim Wonder Woman trapped in an carnivorous atheist Superman’s body."

In the fabled days of yore when Clark Kent, Lois Lane and her editor were all white, the virtuous man of steel allowed America to feel good about its exercise of power, even as the country repressed and exploited people of color at home and abroad. But those days are disappearing, as indicated by the Census Bureau report this week that more white Americans are dying than being born. It's a reflection of a new America where whites will soon lose their status as the majority race. And it is the great fear that has kept some older white Americans grasping for their tri-cornered Tea Party hats in a futile attempt to re-enact a scene from a faraway past.

But even as the new Man of Steel wisely acknowledges the changing racial composition of Metropolis, it sometimes dwells in a hagiographic retelling of Clark Kent's coming of age in an idyllic Midwestern farming community. "I grew up in Kansas," Superman tells a suspicious U.S. colonel. "You can’t get more American than that." But the Manhattan audience where I saw the film immediately snickered. Why is Kansas still considered more American than New York or Detroit or Los Angeles?

Although Kansas famously and ironically gave birth to the white mother of America's first Black president, it's a state that remains 87 percent white and only 6 percent Black in a country where 13 percent of Americans are Black and nearly 17 percent identify as Latino. But even Kansas is changing, as the Latino population has grown to nearly 11 percent in recent years.

In the classic 1939 film Wizard of Oz, Kansas was the land of hard-working, white middle-class American farmers. Blacks were virtually invisible in Kansas or in Oz. But in the new 2013 prequel, Oz The Great And Powerful, Black characters are finally given voice in the form of the master tinker building a machine that brings the wizard to life and a powerful palace munchkin who helps bring down the wicked witch. The implicit assumption is that Blacks were always in Oz, although sometimes in the background, even before Dorothy squeezed her Kansas-sized feet in those famous ruby slippers.

That's the hidden truth behind America. As much as the old guard tries to delay the inevitable, their America is gone for good. In the old America, there were no Black presidents, generals or newspaper editors. There were no women on the Supreme Court and the concept of same-sex marriage was just as fictional as Superman or Oz.

But today's America is different, and any film whose hero is dedicated to "truth, justice, and the American way" is obliged to tell that story.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

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