Diversity in Valhalla

Rather unfortunately, the British have picked up a story about a white supremacist group here in the U.S. that has launched a boycott of the upcoming “THOR” movie.  Thor, as you may recall, is the Norse god of thunder and Marvel Comics character whose book has now been turned into a film.  Being Norse, one expects the pantheon of Valhallan deities to present a certain phenotype – blond, blue eyes, white skin and a superhuman tolerance for lutefisk. 

Director Kenneth Branagh has, in what is assuredly not groundbreaking or the slightest bit daring, cast a black man to play Heimdall - one of Thor’s Asgardian allies.  Now there is a long tradition of using black actors for roles in Shakespeare (and this Thor movie is having serious Shakespearean pretensions) and other roles that would traditionally have been portrayed by white Europeans.  There is literally no reason that a black actor can’t portray Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, or Macbeth or whoever.  At a certain point in history, it needed to be shown to the larger culture that blacks could perform as well as whites in serious roles.  Very few people (the aforementioned racists being some) question when a movie has a lead who is black.  This is ground well trod.

Idris Elba wears Viking helmet

The Actor in Question. He's black. See?

The suspicion of course is that the casting of a black man for a role one would expect to be filled by a white is merely a cynical appeal to multiculturalism.  “Look and see, we are diverse and open-minded and tolerant.  Also, we’d like a few black people to pay to see our movie so let’s plop one of theirs in here somewhere!“ Patronizing, if you ask me.

Was it really about the talent of the actor?  Might Heimdall have been played by a white man?  These are questions that only the people who made the movie can answer, but I suspect there was a plan to forcefeed us diversity from the start.

Idris Elba has the chops, and I’m no racist, but this casting is odd to me.  It’s kind of like if they did a movie about Shaka Zulu and he had a white Zulu cousin or something.  He might play a great Zulu but he just doesn’t quite fit.

Wouldn’t having an all-white cast of Norse gods be a subtler and stronger message about the state of our diversity?  To say that while there are no black people in this movie, that’s alright – we are strong enough to make a movie about Scandinavian gods who look like Scandinavians?

Here’s a great question to prod the embers of racial resentment: why not have the professor character played by a black man?  Want to know the answer?  The only member of the cast who is actually Scandinavian is playing him.

Ok, ok, so the movie explains that the Norse gods are actually aliens or something.  So why couldn’t one be black since…yeah, that’s contrived too.  But at the end of the day it’s like the actor said: this is a movie with a flying hammer.  I can probably suspend my disbelief that there’s a black Norseman.


  1. and then this guy said... says:

    Heimdall is known as “The White God”, so the casting is funny on that level.
    also this isn’t a line-by-line recreation of a Snori Sturlson edda, this is a re-imagining of a Silver Age Marvel Characters.
    You can’t tell the story of Shaka Zulu without race, colonialism et-al being given their appropriate gravitas. You can tell the story of a EMT who discovers a magic hammer and uses it to bring evil mad scientists to justice,without making it a race issue. However it was popular in the 19th and early 20th century to make the stories of Germanic and Norse Gods a race issue. So if you want to make a clear distinction as to which kind of story you are telling, you make this funny casting decision.
    But if you want consistency, if you are casting a non-anglophone foriegner in your Anglophone production, then that person will be a villian.
    Finally, a press release where Nazi’s say they hate your movie is good press.
    Hell, I wish I had a press-clipping that said Nazi’s were protesting Me.

    [Neal Replies: I suppose my Shaka analogy does fall flat there. Interesting point about the Norse sagas and their Wagner treatment. I suppose my point is that anytime you make the audience do work that it doesn't necessarily have to do, you are taking them out of the moment just that little bit. So it should be worth it. Is this? I dunno, but I'm gonna go see the movie.]

  2. and then this guy said... says:

    This post is entirely worthwhile because it brings to mind Viking-Zulus-which is a thing too awesome to exist in history.
    I was also thinking about this because I watched a movie called “Centurion” this weekend- a low-budget sword-and-sandal flick where the last survivors of a Roman Legions have to make it back to hadrian’s wall while being chased by angry Celts. But one of the centurions was a Numidian slave who escaped and became a greek athelete and then conscripted into the Legions- it was a real complex back story to get racial diversity into 2nd century Hybernia. Especially since they went out of their way to explain it. But some things are eternal, and in any adventure team, you need an old guy, a crazy guy, a dark-past guy, and a black guy
    I’m pretty sure Joseph Campbell explains that in Hero with a Thousand Faces.
    Nevertheless not a half bad movie if your into some hot Roman-on-Pict action.

  3. NealDewing says:

    Alas, I also watched Centurion. I was impressed with the violence, but the plot…oh the plot.
    The black guy got eaten by wolves, if I recall.

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