Could Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam Contribute to Orientalism?

Dwayne Johnson announced in early September that he’d be playing Black Adam in an upcoming Shazam film adaptation. The same day, Toby Emmerich, president of New Line, confirmed the decision, adding vaguely that the film would have a “tone unto itself” (Franich). In response, news feeds and forums exploded, reciting the few known facts about the film or re-evaluating favorite Black Adam stories. Commenters praised or denounced (mostly praised) the casting choice, or devoted their efforts to repeating the copyright history of Fawcett Publications and the litigation battles over Captain Marvel’s name. Others speculated on how Shazam might fare in the DC-Marvel cinematic war of attrition. All together, nothing new as far as superhero movies go.

What has been rarely discussed, by fanboy or critic alike, is how Black Adam should be adapted to the big screen.

We just need to be careful.

The misrepresentation of race in the US film industry is nearly tradition, harking back to our country’s cinematic origins. However, we (and I’ll define “we” as the collective monetary supporters and contributors to the American film industry from within the United States) must recognize the impact that contemporary American films are making in the global arena. Our films have a second and larger market that determines our successes or failures (“The Economist”). As Sequart scholar Ian Dawe notes, Thor made $170 million domestically but $260 million internationally, with a budget of $150 million (Dawe). Or take the well-explored subject of Transformers: Age of Extinction. The film was horribly reviled, receiving a critical rating of 18% on Rotten Tomatoes and a failing grade by the general public of 54% (“Transformers”). Domestically, as of September 2014, the film has made over $245 million, only $40 million above the production budget. Yet its foreign total has surpassed $835 million, with a major contributor being China at $300 million (“Transformers… International”). If Transformers had been released exclusively in the USA, it’d have been a near-failure. As is, Transformers exists as another assurance to the industry that they should continue to serve easily-digested special-effect buffets.

While superhero movie studios rely on these international markets, they continue to integrate American exceptionalism, or the idea that America is morally and culturally superior, into their films (with a recent exception being Transformers – favoring Chinese solidarity over ‘American values of greed and corruption’). Sometimes the message is as subtle as Occupy Gotham and Batman’s hard-nose justification of the Patriot Act. Sometimes it’s as fun as Captain America trouncing Nazis with his super-Americanness. Sometimes it’s as blatant as Spider-Man jogging past American flags.

American exceptionalism isn’t a conspiracy – it’s business. To the big movie studio, “society is broken up into a pie chart. Children, adults, males, females, minority, non-minority… the divisions vary, but the core idea of the demo pie chart remains the same: know the playing field” (Outlaw). If casting caucasian males into starring roles will sell the most tickets, so be it. If an American flag or two will register emotionally with the predicted demographic, then it goes in.

Usually, these big superhero movies carry such universally bland morals that audiences don’t notice, or don’t care. It’s only when American superhero movies inferiorize The Other, the non-American, that the movie studios run into trouble. For this article, I’m talking about the variety of voices, skin color, and identities that typically are grouped into one broad category – the Middle East.

Look at Batman Begins. In the comics, Ra’s al Ghul was born six hundred years ago among Arabian bedouin. In Christopher Nolan’s adaptation, he’s played by English actor Liam Neeson. Recently, another Ra’s al Ghul has been cast for the third season of Arrow, and again, this time by Australian actor Matthew Nable.

Look at the Iron Man series, with its Arabic-speaking barbarians obsessed with guns, explosions, surly leers, and an undefined jihad against Western powers. All it takes is one American entrepreneur to find a way to shred them to bits. Actually, this turns out to be a recurring motif – American businessmen being the apex predator of the modern world. I don’t mean to condemn, as Iron Man carries many interesting political fantasies and subversions. But the Middle East is underrepresented and devalued in a film that spends a quantity of screen-time in Afghanistan.

Look at Prince of Persia. In a film not exactly characterized as a superhero movie but with all of its trappings, Jake Gyllenhaal (Swedish and German on his father’s side, Euro-Judaic on his mother’s) was selected to play its Middle Eastern protagonist. Nor were any Middle Eastern-descendent actors cast in any starring roles (Obeidallah).

At first glance, Shazam has not made that mistake by casting a “vaguely exotic-looking” actor in the role of Black Adam. However, Dwayne is a Black Nova Scotian on his father’s side and Samoan on his mother’s – not Middle Eastern (as established in Black Adam’s origins in JSA where we discover he’s from ancient Sinai). Furthermore, Black Adam is the villain of Shazam, not the hero, and we can expect from the source material that there will be yet another white American male triumphing over non-Western principalities. Not only can charismatic Americans in power suits defeat “evil” Arabs, but so can troubled white kids with magic powers.

My fear is that Shazam will be a major contribution to the misrepresentation and debasement of Middle Eastern culture through American cinema. As an action-adventure vehicle, Shazam will be consumed on a massive scale by the international community (and, as trends go, will hit national and international markets simultaneously). As a superhero product, Shazam will reduce Black Adam to his simplest forms, that of an evil Arab villain who revels in anti-American values such as medieval justice, psychotic rage, and despotism.

I’m not worried that Shazam will upset ambiguous terrorist groups or lead to threats against American security. That’s fear mongering and not the point of this article. Instead, my focus is on the continued propagation of anti-Middle Eastern sentiments. Every repetition of Orientalism ingrains these incorrect concepts in the public consciousness (and by public, I open the parameters to the global public).

In the comics, Black Adam has been the focal point of many character studies, especially under the helm of Geoff Johns in JSA52, and beyond. These “studies,” or story arcs in which he’s played a supporting or lead role, have explored his motivations and moral dilemmas, granting the character a humanity that his earliest incarnations lacked. Some of these studies have showcased Black Adam’s individualism; others have further confirmed anti-Middle Eastern rhetoric, only through nuance instead of glaring difference.

A trend that has emerged, however, which clearly imitates the tradition of Orientalism has been the character’s response to tragedy. Any of Black Adam’s authentic transformations to “good” are eventually subverted by his volatile reaction to catastrophe, especially the murder of his loved ones. The message seems to be that Black Adam can never be a true hero because he lacks the Westerner’s rational, compassion, and stalwart resolve to higher morals. As one of the few Middle Eastern figures in the DCU, far surpassing others such as Belial or the new Ms. Marvel in regards to public visibility, it’s dangerous territory to portray a Middle Eastern character as never being able to partake in Western enlightenment.

There is hope, and the source of this hope comes from one of the most unlikely places – Transformers: Age of Extinction. As Cracked writers noted, Transformers‘ design shows an intentional transition toward embracing foreign demographics, in this case China. Transformers changes settings from America to Hong Kong, contrasts corrupt American businessmen to benevolent Chinese officials, and even switches the ethnicities of its love interests (Evan, et al). While I’m aware of the ulterior financial motives behind these choices, Transformers could signify a shift. Who knows? Perhaps film executives will predict the commercial success of Shazam in the Middle East and implement more positive cultural portrayals.

That Dwayne Johnson, an actor often placed in empathetic and heroic roles, has been cast as Black Adam is a promising start. After all, let’s not forget G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which disposed of Duke, the main character of the previous film and arguably the protagonist of the franchise, so Dwayne’s character Roadblock could take up the lead. Let’s also not forget The Scorpion King, a spin-off and semi-prequel that starred a minor villain played by Dwayne from The Mummy Returns. As trends go, we can expect a well-rounded Black Adam, and maybe even a spin-off.

Still, the possibility that Black Adam will contribute to the marginalization of Middle Eastern values looms over the undetermined film (and its undetermined release date). Therefore, in response to previous misrepresentations, there are a few things I don’t want to see. Let’s not have robed men praising Black Adam as their new god. Yes, Islam is a major religion in the Middle East, but so is Christianity in the USA, and we don’t show middle-aged white folk prostrating themselves before Superman and whispering Christ has returned. Let’s be wary of showing dirty, unstable urban landscapes that quickly erupt into apocalyptic battlefields and let’s be wary of camels or endless stretches of desert. Let’s see the Middle Eastern people fulfilling roles other than terrorists, rioters, and despots. Let’s see nationalities other than “Arab” represented. Billy Batson and Captain Marvel will likely be caucasian males to remain true to the comics. I have no problem with that. But the wizard Shazam should reflect his ancestry, just as he does in New 52.

Unfortunately, Black Adam cannot be disconnected from his Oriental origins, but he can become a shade of masculine Middle Eastern socio-politics, not an all-encompassing archetype. Already, comics are flourishing with great Middle Eastern-heritage superheroes – Ms. Marvel, Simon Baz, Dust. Hopefully, as the industry realizes the full financial potential in positive portrayals, we’ll see some of these characters make it to the big screen. Until then, I just think we need to be careful.

Works Cited

Dawe, Ian. “Is Having No Wonderwoman Movie Better Than Having a Bad One?” Sequart, 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.

Evans, Robert, David Christopher Bell, J.F. Sargent & Alex Schmidt. “Four Reasons Transformers May Prevent a U.S.-Chinese War.” Cracked, 9 July 2014. Web. 30 September 2014.

Goldberg, Stephanie. “Hunger Games and Hollywood’s racial casting issue.” CNN, 28 March 2012. Web.

“Hollywood Goes Global: Bigger Abroad.” The Economist, 17 Feb. 2011. Web.

Kuo, Lily. “Why the Abysmal Transformers Sequel is about to become China’s Top Grossing Film of All Time.” QZ, 7 July 2014. Web.

Lee, Chris. “Hollywood Whitewash? ‘Airbender’ and ‘Prince of Persia’ anger fans with ethnic casting.” Hero Complex, 22 May 2010. Web.

Obeidallah, Dean. “The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!” Arab America, May 2010. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

Outlaw, Kofi. “The Truth About Superhero Movie Casting.” Screen Rant, 11 March 2014. Web. 30 September 2014.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).” Rotten Tomatoes, 27 June 2014. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction – International Box Office Results.” Box Office Mojo. Web.

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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  1. Ian Thal says:

    “Look at Prince of Persia. In a film less recognizable as a superhero movie but with all of its trappings, the caucasian actor Jake Gyllenhaal was selected to play its Middle Eastern protagonist. ”

    Gyllenhaal is Jewish, consequently, he is of matrilineal Middle-Eastern descent. Arguing that Jews are not of Middle Eastern origin is both contra-factual and, in some contexts, can function as a racist trope (though historically, drawing attention to Jews’ origins in Western Asia has also been used as a racist trope — racism is a fluid thing.) If you want to get more specific, you can argue that Gyllenhaal is not of Persian descent.

    “Caucasian” to the extent it has ever been a category in any scientific or proto-scientific study of race (current fashion is to define race primarily as a socio-political category) referred to peoples not just of European ancestry, but of North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and Central and Southern Asia.

    I get the gist of your argument, but it’s not helped by sloppy terminology or lack of fact-checking.

    • I get the gist of your critique of Desmond’s argument but it’s not helped by your condescending and arrogant tone.

      I think you’re completely missing the point of this article. It’s dealing with the use of orientalism in cinema and how, more often than not, “orientals” or the other are typified as evil and anti-western. It’s important that people of NE descent get fair representation in the mass media and entertainment industry, and the point Desmond is making is that while, Dwayne Johnson is a step in the right direction of even casting a non-white person in the role of an arabic DCU character, he might not even be depicted as a positive character in the film, but as this anti-westerner bent on despotism and ruling with archaic medieval justice.

      Gyllenhaal, by the way, is a Swedish name, and last time I checked Sweden wasn’t located in the Mediterranean basin. Being a practitioner of Judaism also does not make someone ethnically from Israel either, and even then, doesn’t guarantee that a person of Israeli citizenship is even a descendant of someone from the tribal nation states that comprised the cultural milieu of NE culture.

      • Ian Thal says:

        I understand Desmond’s argument just fine. I even agree with much of it in terms of how we represent race and ethnicity in popular media given a long history of negative, even libelous stereotypes. My problem is that real life examples are often too messy to fit neatly into our theoretical schema. Hence, my point that Jewish origins in the Middle East and denial of Jewish origins in the Middle East have both been used at different points and by different people in anti-Semitic rhetoric.

        Gyllenhaal is Swedish on his father’s side of the family. He is Jewish on his mother’s side. This qualifies him as being of Middle Eastern ancestry since Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and Jewish custom is to trace ethnicity through the mother (much as Balkan peoples customarily trace ethnicity through the father.) Westerners, especially North Americans, tend to view ethnicity as separate from religion, and not grasp that in other parts of the world, religion is often aligned with ethnic or tribal identity — especially in the Levant, where one has several examples, not just Jews, but Druze, and Samaratans.

        As to Dwayne Johnson being a step in the right direction, I’m not so sure about that. After all, his being of part Samoan ancestry doesn’t make him a better match for playing the monarch of the fictional country of Kahndaq (which I understand to be on the Sinai Peninsula.) Since all that says is that all peoples with skin darker than the average western or northern European can be substituted for another — is that really a progressive position?

  2. Hey, Ian, thanks for taking a look at my article. You’re right, I underestimated the scope of ‘caucasian,’ so I’ve gone ahead and specified Gyllenhaal’s non-Persian ancestry. The edits will go up in a few days (I don’t know why it takes so long to appear, but it does).

    I don’t think my argument is tarnished because I didn’t specify “Los Angeles-born, but of Euro-Judaic, Swedish and German descent” instead of ‘caucasian,’ but I do appreciate the correction.

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