BLACK IN FOCUS
AMON WARMANN chews over the main moment in Black film and TV this month
IT’S TIME FOR NONWHITE ACTORS TO BREAK BAD AGAIN
IN RECENT YEARS, the number of Black and brown heroes on screen has risen, and I’ve watched with gleeful excitement as Shuri, Miles Morales and more have taken centre stage and saved the day. But Black and brown villains are few and far between.
It’s a point raised by Kumail Nanjiani, who recently described his desire to play the baddie, referencing Sebastian Stan’s creepy cannibal in Fresh. “He does these big Marvel movies, and then he’ll play a psychopath,” he said. “I was told that’s going to be hard because people don’t want to cast non-white people as bad guys.” Nanjiani has now got his wish, as slippery Somen Banerjee in
Welcome To Chippendales. And with hype for Jonathan Majors’ big bad Kang in Ant-man And The Wasp: Quantumania at an all-time high, Hollywood seems to be coming back around.
The fear is that casting people of colour as evildoers will lead to accusations of stereotyping and racism. But some of the greatest performances by actors of colour have come when they’re allowed to break bad. Think Denzel Washington’s complex, swaggering turn as Alonzo in Training Day, or Giancarlo Esposito’s smart and slick suited drug Kingpin Gus Fring in Breaking Bad — multifaceted characters fully in charge of their villainy.
And that’s the key. If today’s villains of colour are written as one-dimensional foes for the hero to take down — like Michael Clarke Duncan’s Kingpin in 2003’s Daredevil
— then those films and TV shows risk running headfirst into the stereotypes that some Hollywood producers are apparently afraid of. It’s why Marwan Kenzari’s basic, reductive Sabbac in Black Adam stands in stark contrast to Tenoch Huerta’s Namor, and especially Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, the latter managing to remain relatable and even earn some sympathy despite his evil deeds.
Picking up the malignant Marvel mantle, Majors as Kang is set to push Black villainy to exciting new heights. Getting to see different versions of the same bad guy across multiple MCU entries should be the best example yet of the great work that can come when actors of colour aren’t limited by decision-makers. It’s good that Hollywood is thinking about the type of characters actors of colour should play. But they must be careful not to over-sanitise — playing a good guy is great. But playing the bad guy, when it’s done right, can be even better.