Tropes: Black Dude Dies First

[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.

How nice.

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.


Azraelmacool said...

Hello, long time lurker, first time commentator. I had similar feelings for this movie as you, I was pleasantly surprised, but had issues with how the movie treated Darwin and Angel. In their defense, its entirely possible that Darwin is not in fact dead. Something similar happened to him in the comics, and he survived it by becoming the energy, and later reconstituted himself. So, I'll reserve final judgment for the sequel, but I was overall unsatisfied with how things went down. I mean, his power is literally to be unkillable. If he is dead, I'll he pissed. He had the most interesting power by far, and what's more, I found the character likable. They obviously spent far too little time with characterization, but maybe the actor impressed me, maybe I just saw so much potential, I dunno, but he could have been something. Instead of token black guy. Now, Angel just annoyed me. For one, they could have had the token traitor actually BE one of the many X-men who has turned traitor, instead of Angel, who quit to be a stay at home mom or something. I forget. but still, she was a pretty random character to choose at all, and having her take such a turn was a travesty. And totally random. And a waste, because Mystique could have easily filled that role. I dunno my X-men like I used to, but I do hope we can get some strong characters of color into this thing. In fact, its kinda crazy how whitewashed the movies are, considering how multicultural the X-men are. Well sorry for rambling, but this is the first post of you're I actually felt somewhat able to comment on.

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, as far as the recruiting convos go, the mutants in the movie are in general so pleased to have someone else "different like me" to talk to that they all sign up for the CIA without really thinking twice. There's some hinting that Angel's past and job have left her bitter: IIRC, she draws an analogy between the way the men at her work look at her and the way the CIA normal humans look at her. 

(The filmmakers also apparently decide -- for no reason that makes sense to me -- that her stripper uniform should also be worn as her new CIA uniform.)

She may be driven by narrative mandate more than anything else. Everyone knows that each side must have exactly one girl. By adding her to the team, the X-Men have *two* girls and the bad guys have *none* (since their Token Girl has recently been captured), so one of the X-Men girls pretty much HAS to switch sides. Between the "light" girl (Raven moonlights as a blue-eyed blonde) and the "dark" girl, which one would be shunted over to the evil side is pretty much fait accompli.

Later, when Raven decides to join the bad guys, she will drop the blue-eyed blonde guise and opt for her natural dark-skin, dark-hair form. Make of that what you will.

Azraelmacool said...

OOh, and she didn't seem uncomfortable as of such I don't think... as far as I remember, they just role her they were mutants, she showed her power, then there was a scene later where some idiots at the CIA were gawking at them like freaks, and she says she prefers men looking at her naked than like that. Or something.

And also, I was displeased by their portrayal of mystique joining the Brotherhood. She's joining a terrorist group, founded on the idea of killing everyone different from you so people who are different can be safe... and everyone is just kinda okay with this. Xavier tells her to follow her heart, instead of trying to convince her that that will only fan the flames of hate, and her and Beast just decide to keep in solidarity of their mutant heritage. Was I the only one who felt that they should have tried to keep this from happening? I mean, if Magneto's mission weren't to kill/enslave/put in camps everyone who isn't a mutant, I would be fine with their "agree to disagree" parting. Maybe I'm just not seeing it correctly, i dunno.

Kevin_d77 said...

I thought Angel was a male character in the comic books, not a female character. Guess I could be wrong, it has been a while since I cracked open any of the comic books.

BUT, I guess can we really expect too much from Hollywood since in the Transformers Series BumbleBee is one of the coolest cars that Detroit has put out in years and in the original comic/cartoon/toy series he was a VW Bug...strange if you ask me...

Ana Mardoll said...

There's another Angel -- if you saw movie 3, The Last Stand, you got to see him. He has white wings and flies. No halo, though. ;)

Ana Mardoll said...


Oh, I completely agree that the ending was very WELL I GUESS MYSTIQUE WILL BE BAD NOW BECAUSE THIS IS A PREQUEL. Xavier's "go with him, you love him" was utterly out of character and silly to boot. (They had, what? MAYBE one night together? Yeah.)

I like to believe that Xavier was upset because HE loved Erik and he's irked that he's been dumped for his adopted sister. It makes slightly more sense that way, imho.

Azraelmacool said...

Yeah. Especially maddening because with a little more hostility to the character, Mystique would have been the perfect traitor.

And Kevin, the Angel you're thinking of is Warren Washington III, and has Angel wings. Angel Salvador is her actual name, and is half fly, essentially. She never got a code name because she never actually got far enough in Xavier's program to get one, because she got pregnant and dropped out or something. In the comics, I mean. I. the movie, she just, I dunno, decides to go by her real name for some reason when they all pick code names.

Chelsea said...

Erik and Xavier have always struck me as being so obviously into each other that I won't be surprised at all when X-Men books ~from the future~ write them as having been a couple.

Comics in general are having a big problem with race these days. Well, bigger problems than usual. There's this push for nostalgia, but all of the traditionally nostalgic characters are white. So you get people like Adam Choi, the awesome version of Atom, getting killed off so that Ray Palmer can be the Atom again. Adam Choi is Asian, Ray Palmer is white :| I doubt comics writers are doing it intentionally, but it still very much sends the message "Only white people can be proper legacy superheroes."

Nathaniel said...

Darwin was bad, Angel even worse. "People are mean to me, therefore ALL SHALL PERISH!!!!!!! And no one will point this out to me or Mystique, because they are morons."

Nenya said...

Ana, thanks for this. Although it makes the racefail in the movie even worse than what I had noticed--I picked up on the "black guy dies, WOC goes evil first" part, but not how they were defined by their jobs and recruited on the job. I guess we see a lot of that--at least recruiting on the job--for other white characters in other movies, but now that you mention it, it is jarring. And in 2011, and especially for a show that claims to be inspired by the civil rights movements (and obviously equates mutant rights with gay and POC rights), it's all the more wrong.  Gah.

I did really like Mystique though.  My usual reaction to her (I've seen the other movies but not really read the comics) is to find her hot and fascinating, but not particularly sympathetic, so it was cool to get to watch a plotline where I could identify with her a bit more. And the Charles/Erik was totally a love story, naturally. (Though as you say, "Y'all go have fun with that"  seems like an odd way to react to "We hate most of the planet and may Kill Them All." )

Azraelmacool said...

Yeah, some people think I harp on too much about this, but THEY WANT TO KILL OR SUBJUGATE MOST OF THE PLANET. Respect for your enemy is one thing. Understanding, I get. But when someone's main solution to a problem is genocide, maybe you should try REALLY HARD to keep him from building an army. I think sometimes people forget that at his core, Magneto is essentially another Hitler. He wants to genocide before he gets genocided, as it were, maybe put the non mutants into camps, and has become the thing he hates. It's called tragic irony.

Ten St Louis said...

After Darwin died, and was the only mutant to die (other than Kevin Bacon, who was destined to die ANYWAY) i just wanted to walk out of the cinema. I mean... no one got it. All the women were stick thin and, wow, CIA lady agent automatically wears garters and lace underwear... WOW. Who didnt see that coming? I didnt even feel the whole Xavier/Magneto vibe, because I want them to spell it out for me with caresses and kisses. That movie was immense fail, and I thought the directors would have at least NOT killed off the black man, have had more ethnic diversity.

Ten St Louis said...

I thought he said "Go with him, you know you want to." I don't even understand why she had sex with him in the first place. She clearly showed interest in Hank, so why go off and have unhappy sex with someone else and have the cinema whooping (...the cinema was whooping when I went to see it... -.- to my anger). *shakes my head*

Nenya said...

I was pretty sure that Raven/Mystique slept with Erik/Magneto because (of the men present) he was the only one who thought she should be able to be herself and that she was beautiful when she was blue, not just when she was white and blonde or otherwise human-looking. Charles saw her as a sister, Hank wanted to cure her, but Erik was interested in *her*, and more interested in her as her real blue self than in any of her guises. I can see that being a powerful attractant for someone just coming to terms with her own identity. (Whether it was a good thing that they showed us how she was seeing herself by showing us which man she slept with, is another question;  I personally think that it would have been great to see more of Mystique un-mediated-by-men, but that on the other hand sleeping with the hot older guy who shows he values something about you that you've always had to hide...well, having been a young uncertain woman myself, it doesn't seem unrealistic to me. Even or especially when the person you really want is unavailable for whatever reason. )

Darwin's death...yeah. :( :( :(  Especially since my girlfriend pointed out to me later that his power IS to be basically unkillable. Ugh, they really made a stupid, racist choice there in killing. I hope they bring him back in the sequel but I'm not holding my breath.

Mystique, of course, didn't have to be white when she wasn't blue. But most of the time we've seen her she has been. That could change but again, not holding my breath.

As for garters/stockings, though, I had the same reaction as you, but someone pointed out to me that that probably *was* what you'd wear under a skirt at the time. Conveniently enough.

Ana Mardoll said...

I personally think that it would have been great to see more of Mystique un-mediated-by-men

+1. I'm fairly certain that the movie doesn't pass the Bechdel test, but the matter is still being hashed out online.

Carrie said...

 We so totes are. Fear not, Ana. We are BFFs on the astral plane.

Carrie said...

how did I do that again I am so good at this. 

John said...

Moira McTaggert was a good female lead.  She infiltrated Shaw's secret meeting, she stood up against corrupt politicians, and fought for the X-Men through thick and thin.  She was the embodiment of a strong-willed woman.  How was she stupid?  Maybe a little bland, but perhaps not having a crazy mutant power had something to do with it.

Ana Mardoll said...

John, I can't speak for Carrie, but I don't see Moira as a strong female character except in the "she makes a better prize that way" sense that others have explored better than I:

Several major problems exist with Moira:

1. She only infiltrates Shaw's meeting by virtue of her body type and lace underwear. The act took gumption, yes, but was not particularly skilled or courageous and still kept her successes within the realm of appealing to the male gaze.

2. I cannot think of a single point in the movie where she acts particularly sensibly. One moment in particular outraged me when she yells at the young mutants for bonding by showing off their (destructive) powers. They've just recruited these kids (and most of them are fairly young) and they expect them to work, fight, and die as a unit, but they aren't supposed to have bonding or training? The outburst made her look dumb in the "doesn't understand people sense".

3. Moira's "love" for Xavier seemed completely shoehorned in at the end. They'd had very few scenes together at all, and instead of betraying the CIA because it was The Right Thing To Do, it came off like she was betraying them because She Has The Hots For Xavier. Once again, her motivations were reduced to a male gaze area -- she's not acting out of principle, but out of how she feels about a man.

4. The "Kiss and Forget" scene made me VERY uncomfortable. The filmmakers really should have known that there's a particularly problematic Does This Remind You Of Anything issue involved.

5. The "Oh, and she's a doctor, too" ending was whiplash for me. Suddenly she's fixing up Xavier and it's a throwback to Last Stand when she's an actual doctor. Where was that mentioned at ALL in the film? It sounds like the standard Hollywood "She's Hawt And Strong So Let's Make Her A Doctor AND A Physicist AND An Electrical Engineer AND Have Sexy Underwear!" Once again, it looks like she's less of a PERSON and more of a PRIZE. Ick.

That's my ramble on the subject though. I think she could have been a good character if the writers had been completely different. :)

duckliverpaste said...

i completely agree!  thank you for posting this blog....the boyfriend and I noticed that the first character killed off was black, as well.  it's a shame, we thought, that out of all the people in the film (mostly white), that the first real character we meet that is a minority, gets killed off.  hollywood is not as diverse as we would like to believe.....

Morven said...

Not being someone who much followed the X-Men, I think those above who mention "but the Brotherhood and Magneto are EVIL!" are using their knowledge of how it turns out, rather than working from what's seen in this film.  Erik/Magneto, in this film, is not yet evil, and not yet genocidal.

The split here is not yet good/evil; it is hope/fear.  Erik gives in to fear, yes -- and fear will eventually lead to evil, as we know -- but here, here he is not yet evil, only afraid and feeling that only in strength can he and his kind be safe.

stoatess said...

OMG Charles and Erik are Dumbledore and Grindelwald!
(Sorry, I know I'm a year behind, but I just recently started on an X-Men bender.)

Ana Mardoll said...

Crud, usually I post under "Carrie" on this blog. Pardon me.

Haha, well that makes more sense. I was reading the first post thinking, "But CARRIE and I are twins!" :D

Cdeal said...

First of all, Ana, you are totally right about all of the race schenanigans in the film. Very well-observed. I feel like they just stuck Angel in there so that they coul have a super cool air battle between her and Banshee at the end. 

Second of all, what really irked me about the film was that there WERE NO GOOD FEMALE CHARACTERS IN IT. Angel was a poorly-characterized, team-betraying sex object (not that I think empowered women cannot be sexy and show a little skin, but she was not an empowered woman), Emma Frost was a lacky who was NOTHING like how she is in the comics (though she is Shaw's henchlady, she's at least a jerk to everybody else), Mistique was a door mat, constantly passed around by dudes and obsessed with her appearance, and Xavier's love interest was bland and stupid and bland. 

FINALLY, I wholeheartedly agree with you about X-Men: First Class being a touching love story about two brilliant young men torn apart by ideaologies. You are so totally right. They had some magical chemistry going on. Especially with them gazing lovingly into one another's eyes and weeping, and Xavier helping Erik to find himself, and them going to a strip club together, and that thing at the end where Erik is just HOLDING Xavier, totally inconsolabe... 

Yes. It was a beautiful love story totally overshadowed by sub-par storytelling and most of the other characters being problematic duds. We are clearly twinners. 

And Erik killing Nazis is a movie that I would watch in and of itself. 

Carrie said...

Crud, usually I post under "Carrie" on this blog. Pardon me. 

JarredH said...

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.

I'm curious.  In the movie, is Angel portrayed as wanting to get out of the conversation she's trapped in?  The reason I ask is because I'm curious how her past plays into her decision to join the Big Bad.  Because I can see to obvious character portrayals here.  The first is of someone doing a job she doesn't really care for to make ends meet finding the allure of a much better life at the side of the Big Bad.  The second is not so nice and can be summed up with a not so nice "Well, is it any wonder she decided to go for easy power?  I mean, she was a stripper!"  I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on which of those character portrayals the film might be more likely to suggest.

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