This post originally appeared, slightly edited, on the old site.
Steve Landesberg died this week, he was 74 which seems a good age for that sort of thing. This may sound weird, but that dude had an impact on me. Well him, and the character he and the writers on Barney Miller created. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this. There are better examples, but that’s the only one I could find.
Barney Miller was a cop show, situation comedy, regularly cited by cops in the 1980s as the most authentic depiction of life as a police detective. Obviously there’s some room for debate there, but you see its influence in interesting places. Top 10, one of my favorite things ever, has Barney Miller dialog running all through it.
I think I was 9 or 10 when I first started watching Barney Miller and though it was never made explicit, it seemed clear to me we were meant to understand that Dietrich was, on the show, openly an Atheist. Like, we didn’t hear him say it, but the characters on the show all knew and talked about it off camera.
That was huge for me, at that age, to see someone like me, someone who thought the way I did, and who was…you know, part of the team, accepted. Being a middle-class white male atheist isn’t any kind of hardship, don’t get me wrong. But when you’re a kid, you lack all perspective. You only know you’re different. And when it comes up, it can become an issue.
People who haven’t had this experience, of being in some way an outsider and seeing their own outsiderness on TV or in movie, accepted, really have no fucking clue how powerful a mirror our entertainment is on our culture.
This stuff isn’t disposable, it has an impact. Millions of people have seen 12 Angry Men and go into a jury room expecting that experience. People all over the world have watched that movie on tiny, cheap black and white TVs thinking “this is how American justice works,” and being inspired. A whole generation of reporters came up citing All The President’s Men as the reason they wanted to become a reporter. The Hunt For Red October convinced people “this is what it’s like serving on a US Navy Sub,” and they signed up. I have personally met Marines who said it was Aliens that made them want to be a Marine. The culture we create doesn’t just reflect our views, it reinforces them, it creates them.
So Kenneth Branagh is directing Marvel’s new Thor movie. He fits the Marvel Director archetype. Obviously talented, experienced, with vision, but without that huge commercial hit a director needs to be independant. They can trust, in other words, he’ll produce a quality product, while they retain the power to boss him around, and he has to do what they say.
He casts the brilliant Idris Elba in the movie, in a bit part as one of the Norse Gods. Now the actual Norse Gods were fictional. There was no Thor, God of Thunder, or God of Anything. He’s as fictional as Hamlet or Othello. In the comic the movie is based on, the Norse gods are Aliens. They’re Space Gods. Sometimes they’re not, depending on who’s writing it, but in the movie they’re going with the Space Gods angle. So Mote It Be.
If you don’t know who Idris Elba is, he was Stringer Bell in The Wire, which is often cited as the best television series of all time. He was also in The Losers and Rock’n’Rolla. Both of which I liked.
Now some people, like a ridiculously small handful of people, think, or claim they think, that having a black dude as a Space God is bullshit, and then people report is as though it’s news, and then you and I talk about it as though we give a shit, even though I think we can both be honest with each other and admit we do not give a shit.
But it does give me the opportunity to make this point. Fuck those guys. If Ken Branagh concludes rightly that Idris Elba is a great actor and wants to work with him and put him in the movie then he can fucking play Thor for all I care.
A while ago there was a strong rumor floating around that Donald Glover (the kid from Community not the guy from Lethal Weapon) was going to play Spider-man. I thought it was brilliant because he’s perfect for the role. But the people objecting didn’t care if he fit the personality and archetype, they cared that he was Black.
Same thing with Idris Elba. There’s two camps. One camp hears;
“A black Spider-man!”
“A black Heimdall!”
The other camp hears;
“Donald Glover as Spider-man!”
“Idris Elba as Heimdall!”
I feel like there’s an important difference here. You may think “well, I’m all for whatever, but a Black Thor?” Yes. A black Thor. Fuck it. Why do you give a shit? Let’s give up on all the bullshit. I saw Julius Caesar played by a black dude, and it was pretty good. The problem with the production was certainly not that a black actor was playing a real white dude who really lived and people have heard of. I’ve seen a white guy play Othello, one of the most famous black characters in our culture. Let’s have a Chinese actress play George Washington, let’s have an Arab dude play Batman. Let’s have a Mexican guy, by which I mean literally a dude from Mexico, play Winston Churchill.
Let’s spend 100 years doing it until all the people who get worked up over that shit are dead and no one cares anymore. White folks have had a good run, don’t you think? We’ve had enough white heroes for, let’s say, 100 years. We can stand to let…everyone elseinto the show for 100 years, it won’t kill us.
So some young black kid is going to see Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor and it won’t even be a thing to him. He won’t notice Heimdall is black any more than he’ll notice Thor is white. And some other, older, black kid is going to see that same thing and see cynical Hollywood attempts to artificially appeal to as wide a demographic as possible.
But between those two ages there’ll be some black kid who sees Idris Elba as Heimdall and thinks…”That’s ME!!” And 20 years later he’ll look back and say “This may sound weird, but that dude had a big impact on me.”
So mote it be.