[Content Note: Racism, X-Men: First Class Spoilers]
Husband and I went to see X-Men: First Class this week for the most pathetic of reasons: I really love the pizza at a nearby movie-theater-slash-diner and it feels silly to me to buy the pizza but not stay to watch a movie. Since Husband was humoring my dinner urges, he got to pick the movie, and the X-Men film seemed like the most promising thing on the menu.
Funnily enough, although we're both X-Men fans, we came away with very different impressions of the movie -- probably because of our different expectations. I rather liked the film and was pleasantly surprised, since I had assumed in advance that it would be the worst thing I would see all year; Husband was rather disappointed with the film, I think because he'd expected it to be quite a bit better. It's so tricky to manage expectations.
And, really, the film has a lot of ups and downs. There are plenty of moments where the stuff on screen just doesn't make sense, not to mention the fact that the film steps all over the toes of the established X-Men continuity. There are at least two cameos of actors from the older, better trilogy, and these seem rather desperately shoe-horned in, as though the film makers were hoping you'd carry over nice feelings from happier times, but like all clumsy cameos the effect is jarring and propels the viewer out of the movie and into unpleasant mental comparisons between the current movie and the nostalgia-filtered memories of the older ones -- not really what you want viewers to be doing in the middle of your summer blockbuster.
But what I loved about the movie was the delicate characterization of the two main characters -- Professor Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr -- which I had honestly assumed would be trodden all over by two clumsy actors attempting to recreate the perfect magic of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Instead, the two actors chosen for X-Men: First Class performed admirably well, and I thought the film was a delightful and touching love story between two young men torn apart by ideology. I was disappointed that the two didn't actually kiss in a scene that otherwise screamed 'tortured romance', but I figured that was just Hollywood being prudish. And while you may think I'm being tongue-in-cheek, I defy anyone to argue that Xavier/Erik didn't have more chemistry with each other than with their clumsily crowbarred-in female love interests.
But if X-Men: First Class should be held up as this year's best example of how to construct a natural, flowing romance between two male leads, it falters on other major fronts, notably with the portrayal of minorities on the screen. In the entire cast of characters in this movie, only two of the characters are any color other than "ghostly white" and "brightly colored stage makeup so thickly applied that my own mother wouldn't recognize me"; in the whole wide world of X-Men, we get exactly two people of color: Armando Munoz/Darwin and Angel Salvadore.
In a move that seems ripped right out of the "how to be offensive" screenwriter's playbook, Darwin and Angel are integrated into the 8-person X-Men team (Xavier, Erik/Magneto, Raven/Mystique, Angel, Hank/Beast, Alex/Havoc, Sean/Banshee, and Armando/Darwin) only to be immediately discarded before the characters get very much beyond the "introduce your name and powers" phase of team building. The Big Bad teleports into the CIA headquarters where the mutants are being housed, rips up the place in a nicely horrific sequence, and then gives his impassioned plea for the other mutants to join them in the coming struggle against the non-mutants.
The mutants kids are understandably horrified at this proposition. Most of them have parents or other family who are non-mutants, and even if there is a war of oppression building on the horizon, they aren't yet ready to start using their mutants powers to murder and kill innocent bystanders. The extreme violence with which the CIA headquarters have been invaded has deeply disturbed them, and they draw away from the open arms of the Big Bad, huddling together like the young children that most of them are and wishing for a return to the lighthearted team bonding they had moments ago been engaging in.
Well, at least the white mutants do. After a moment's quick thought, our single solitary woman-of-color steps out to take the hand of the Big Bad in possibly the fastest Face Heel Turn I've seen in years. Our remaining man-of-color immediately steps out to follow her, but it turns out to be a clever ruse on his part -- he covers the young woman with his body and yells for the team to take out the Big Bad and his minions in this crucial moment of distraction. Of course, his brave plan fails, the black man becomes the first major casualty of the film (and the only member of the X-Men team to die in the entire film), and Angel calmly walks off with the man who just murdered her would-be protector.
It may be somewhat easy to criticize a film for so blatantly shoving its token black characters aside so that the white characters can get back to the important business at hand, but it's rather shocking to me to see such obvious side-lining in a film made in 2011. I realize that electing a black man as president of the U.S.A. didn't actually undo all the racism in the world, but did not at least one person on the 7-person production team for this movie have a moment's reflection that maybe, just maybe, in a movie franchise that has built itself deliberately around the twin evils of racism and homophobia and about how Hating Someone For Being Born Different Is Wrong, it might send mixed signals to have all the important characters be played by white actors, while the black characters are minor, easily turned to evil, and/or killed ten minutes after being introduced?
What's more irritating to me, even more than having the black characters so quickly sidelined, is having them entirely characterized by their jobs instead of by their personalities. In the Recruiting Montage, as Xavier and Erik start gathering up nearby mutants into the ranks of the CIA, the white characters are shown doing things that exhibit their personalities. Alex/Havoc is in prison, and is a rare prisoner who requested solitary confinement, because his dangerous mutant abilities and hair-trigger temper combine to disastrous effects and he doesn't like to hurt people. Sean/Banshee is at the aquarium, desperately trying to seduce a local woman and laboring under the belief that if a woman says she'd rather date fish than you, the answer is to get rid of all nearby fish, thereby reducing her options to one. The Logan/Wolverine cameo in the same montage shows him drinking resolutely in a bar, and being generally rude to people -- a well-established aspect of his personality.
The people of color, on the other hand, are introduced in the montage via their job descriptions -- we don't learn anything about their personalities and we know nothing about them besides what they do for a living. Armando/Darwin works as a taxi driver, whom the two leads direct to drive them to a particularly distant location so that they'll have time to talk on the way. Angel works at a strip club and Xavier and Erik purchase a private room with her, and teasingly offer to show her theirs, if she'll show hers.
This strange framing of the characters creates the odd impression that white people are characterized by their private personalities, but that black people are properly characterized via a job description. Think about your job for a minute, and how closely it characterizes you. For myself, I'm currently employed as a software engineer, but I don't fit anything but the loosest stereotypes for that profession, and if anyone were to limit my characterization to simply "software engineer", I would feel that a good 99% of my personality and essence was being completely overlooked -- and also that a good deal of stereotypes that are not true about me were being incorrectly taken as fact.
We don't learn Sean/Banshee's job as part of his characterization, because it's not important to the film. His personality is important, his power is important, and how he will fit into the team is important, but whether he's a roofer or a submarine biologist doesn't matter, because that job will be nothing but history once he joins the X-Men team. By contrast, however, we don't get to learn Armando/Darwin's personality or even his power except in brief glimpses, because it's not important to the film -- he won't have even ten minutes of screen time before his utterly pointless death.
The black characters aren't just expendable to the producers in X-Men: First Class; they're expendable to the main characters. Xavier and Erik talk a good talk about discrimination and how bad it is, but they have blinders on when it comes to dealing with the black members of their team. They meet with Sean/Banshee and Logan/Wolverine on those characters' free time, away from their jobs and away from distractions. They treat the white characters with dignity and respect, relying on their own persuasive arguments to convince their target to hear them out. (Or, in the case of Logan/Wolverine, they respect his request to be left entirely alone, and immediately leave him to his drink.)
They don't extend this dignity and respect to the black recruits. Instead of meeting them as equals in a moment where they can have a quiet talk between mutants, Xavier and Erik buy their time. Angel isn't a woman who could be talked to at the supermarket or phoned up at home; she is a stripper to be bought for an hour. She doesn't have the ability to tell her recruiters that she isn't interested in their spiel; interested or not, she will have to listen to their arguments for the full hour, or face losing her job. Armando/Darwin isn't a man who can be approached in a bar and whose surly "fuck off!" (courtesy of Logan/Wolverine) would be immediately respected; he is a cab-driver to be purchased for the distance between wherever-they-are to wherever-they-can-afford-to-go. He doesn't have the ability to tell his recruiters that he'd rather not be risking his life in service to the CIA; he has to listen for the entire drive or face losing his job and livelihood.
One of the important aspects of building a character is understanding that a character is a person. Even the most minor character in a story, in order to be realistic, must have hopes and dreams, a history and a family, goals for the future, established personalities and hobbies. Understanding a character means understanding that they exist off-screen, that when the focus isn't on them, they are still doing something with all that free time. In order to convey a character to an audience, you have to let them glimpse those fragments; you have to be willing to acknowledge -- however briefly -- that they exist.
Otherwise, without that characterization, all you are writing is heavily stereotyped cannon-fodder cut-outs with token minority status.