Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thor's Misguided Lack of Diversity

From EFavata.com

Let's start with a note: there's a boycott of Thor being organized by racist and neo-nazi organizations. They're upset because the movie based on a comic book about made-up deities has cast a black man as one of the important made-up deities.  No, really, they're pissed off and organizing a boycott of the film.This post is not about that boycott or about Idris Elba--who is totally great in the movie. No, this post is about a different aspect of Thor's casting. 

 Thor is set in three equally fantastic realms—Asgard, where Anthony Hopkins and lots of dudes in armor live; Jotunheim, home to the very literally named Frost Giants; and a town in New Mexico that is completely devoid of Mexicans.

Marvel Studios built a fake town and named it “Puente Antiguo,” spanish for “Ancient Bridge.” They also filmed a bar scene in a Santa Fe stripclub (sans strippers) and other locations throughout the state. A look at the film crew's dozens of Spanish surnames shows there are enough people named Gonzalez, Flores, Martinez, Luna, etc that the filmmakers were at least aware of all the brown-skinned people that have been living in that area for the past few millennia. 

Go ahead, watch Thor, you should, it’s good, but keep your eyes peeled, watch the background. There’s a nurse who looks like she might be Latina, and one of the SHIELD agents is played by an actor of Honduran descent, but that’s it.

So, why is this a problem?

Isn’t it better to give actors of color prominent speaking roles instead of only limiting them to the busboy or farmer in the background? Well, yes and no. Idris Elba is a great actor, and he’s cool as Heimdall the gatekeeper, and they even have an Asian Asgardian in Tadanobu Asano--both of whom pissed off all the neo-Nazis who've adopted Thor as one of their own.

But the problem is that those minority actors are only used in the fantastic locales. The actual, real-life, Earth-bound human beings are all white and African American. Marvel misses the point of diversity entirely by not casting any Latino extras or principal actors. 

Now that doesn’t mean I’m arguing for token inclusion of Latinos. If a film is set during the Russian Revolution there’s not going to be a Montoya chilling in the background. 

But for a film set in a town with a Spanish name, in a majority-minority state, and with a crew that has a strong Latino presence, then at some point the filmmakers have got to realize that they’re missing something vital in their film. This absence is made even more stark in light of the open casting calls that happened in Santa Fe.

An obvious response would be to point out that the movie’s not real. That it’s not meant to reflect reality because it’s about a guy in a cape who throws a hammer around and who kills fifteen feet tall killer robot things. But this “lighten up it’s not real response” overlooks the fact that what supposedly sets these most recent superhero films apart is their devotion to reality. These are supposed to be set in a recognizably real world—don’t believe me, ask Kenneth Branagh who talked repeatedly about bringing some reality to the military and scientific aspects of the film. 

The “Puente Antiguo” set was built in the northern New Mexico high country near the town of Galisteo, about 25 miles south of Santa Fe. According to the latest Census numbers, nearly half of New Mexico’s population is of “Hispanic” descent, and more than half of the residents of Santa Fe County are of “Hispanic” descent.

Northern New Mexico is home to some of the oldest cities in the entire Western Hemisphere. Santa Cruz was founded by the Spaniards in 1598 and Santa Fe celebrated its 400th anniversary last year.  And of course Native Americans were living in the same area for thousands and thousands of years.

Seriously, this stuff is everywhere.
Let me put this another way—if Puente Antiguo was real, it’s possible it could have been inhabited by Spaniards or Mexicans for 130 years before George Washington was even born. But you wouldn’t know it from watching Thor—there’s not even a Mexican restaurant or green chile stand in the film. As you may have noticed, one thing that Latinos have never really been into is naming cities and then leaving them.

There was at least one Mexican woman cast in the movie. Oscar-nominated actress Adriana Baraza was cast as the owner of the diner where Thor breaks his mug and asks for more coffee. She had two small scenes, both of which were cut from the final film.
At least she OWNED the diner that gets blown up.

I enjoyed the movie, and I’m not calling Kenneth Branagh or Marvel studios racist.  But I am saying that their treatment of diversity, while admirable at times, still lacks a basic connection to reality. By having actors of color in the realm of Asgard only, and completely removing them from the town in New Mexico, they’re only reinforcing the notion that diversity is something that’s cute, but ultimately fantastical or impossible. 

I feel like this is not a particularly revolutionary statement. When a movie is not only filmed, but also set in a town with a Spanish-name in a part of the country where a near-majority percentage of its residents are Latino, then that should be reflected in who appears on screen. The Avengers film and Thor sequels will also be filmed in New Mexico. Hopefully next time the filmmakers will figure out how to use the other half of the state’s population.


  1. *nods* Exactly how I feel. I only got into the Marvel Universe with The Avengers, and still haven't caught Thor on HBO yet, but I'm a New Mexican born and bred. I was really excited that New Mexico was likely to get some real nation-wide attention, but outside of informing some people that it exists, I never got the feeling that much of 'real New Mexico' made it on screen.

    It could be taking place in any Bumdiddle, Nowhere, with the state name plastered on since it was filmed here. And with all the great little towns in the Land of Enchantment, why make one up?

  2. Oh wah. How petty. Get the best actors, period.