What if the ‘Dark Knight’ was a black knight instead? (A review of Dark Knight)

(Warning: spoilers ahead)

I finally made it see the latest Batman flick. I am not a superhero junkie, nor am I anywhere near an expert on superhero lore. However, I did want to see Heath Ledger as the Joker.

One of the things that stood out to me about the film, besides Ledger’s great performance, was the ATTEMPT to be racially diverse in regards to casting. Yet, sadly, this attempt failed. Although Morgan Freeman played an honorable research and development expert, the majority of the other POC parts were of the usual variety – thugs and criminals. The Asian man was portrayed as a money-hungry control freak and the Latina detective was the character who took Rachel Dawes to her demise and also tricked the Lieutenant into nearly getting his family murdered by the Joker. One ‘black criminal’ played against expectations when he stepped forward and threw out the detonator that could have destroyed a boatload of people but, for the most part, the heroes were white (and male of course!) and the baddies were POC. However, as per usual, the evil mastermind, the Joker, was also white. You see, regular old thugs and drug lords can be people of color, but the ‘smart villains,’ the ones that control all the shots and have all the power, are often white.

Would it have been better if a non-white actor had played the Joker? Well, not necessarily. But it certainly would have been better if all the criminal mob thugs were not represented as African-American, Eastern European, and Italian (the last two categories of course being groups not defined as white at various historical junctures). What would have been even better than that is if the ‘dark knight’ was played by a person of color – or, literally, a ‘black knight’ ?However, to my knowledge, no big budget superhero movie has ever cast a POC. Superman: white. Spiderman: white. Hulk: white. Batman: white. Even Wonderwoman and Supergirl were white! (Note: I have not seen Hancock to know whether this character counts as a ‘superhero.’ Even if he does, he is not a well known, established hero like Spidey or Hulk, and, if the trailers are any indication, the emphasis is on humor, not on action and super heroism).

This reminds me of a recent article in Entertainment Weekly regarding the paucity of big roles that cast women of color. A reader replied in a letter that more roles should be written for WOC. Huh? I didn’t realize one had to specially write in POC roles. Silly me, I assumed POC are people too and can play all roles, not just ones ‘specially written’ for ‘them.’ On that note, I doubt it specifies in the scripts for action/superhero movies that certain characters are white. Doubt that Spiderman character description reads: “to be played by pasty white guy.”

Now, I can here the naysayers chiming in that Dark Knight had mainly white characters because the majority of Americans are white. This argument surfaces all the time. However, what this facile comeback does not acknowledge is white people are the majority due to a history of colonialism and genocide. There would be a lot more non-white faces if good old Columbus hadn’t “discovered” America or if whites hadn’t co-opted prime sections of Mexico for themselves.

In addition to the failed attempt to make Dark Knight racially conscious, the film traded in the typical valorization of violent masculinity and female as arm-candy message. Yes, I get it, it’s a superhero flick, but why must such movies always suggest that to be a good man, a ‘hero,’ one needs to be ultra-violent and wear a mask – or, as Jackson Katz would put it, a ‘tough guise.’ The Joker mocks other men as sissies with lines like “Did your balls drop off?” and jabs at the “group therapy sessions” of the other males in the film. Even Batman’s car has an “intimidate” setting. Wow. Talk about failing to depict men as fully human rather than as violent, aggressive, emotionally stunted brutes. I would think men might be bothered by this representation too…

As for female roles in the film, well, besides Rachel, there is no major role. There is the Russian ballet posse and the Latina detective (who, as noted, is a traitor). There is also the wife of the Lieutenant who has no role except that of grieving wife/panicked mother. Guess it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. No surprise there. Although, as Izzibeth at Nicest Girl writes in the film’s defense, Rachel is an improvement on Pepper Potts. I agree that as a character, she is stronger than Potts and has more verve. If only she got to live. But, alas, she is brutally killed. As John Pistelli points out at Dissident Voice:

“she spends her brief screen time torn between the two men, before being brutally dispatched in a glaring instance of the ‘women in refrigerators syndrome,’ a sexist literary trope identified by feminist comic-book readers in which male authors kill, maim or de-power strong female characters as a woman-devaluing plot device”

In addition to providing those of us wearing feminist lenses with lots of race/sex issues to critique, as Brightwallflower at Feministing notes, the film also provides great fodder for the analysis of masculinity:

“The Dark Knight is not a complete loss for those of us who tend to see the world through a gender lens. I think that we can use the same perspective that inspires the analysis of female characters in the movie to discover how Batman reveals constructions of hegemonic masculinities.”

One thing I did like about the movie, besides Ledger, was the social experiment angle that questioned humans’ capacity for good/evil. But, this was short-lived and then undercut by the closing message – that humans need an enemy. Seems as if the screenwriters took a cue from George Bush et al with that one. I guess, as the Joker might say, the writers “are only as good as the world allows them to be.”

Dana Stevens over at Slate reads this strand of the film as interrogating a post-911 world, noting that “Chris Nolan does more nuanced thinking about the war on terror than we’ve seen from the Bush administration in seven years.” While I agree the film pulls off some interesting interrogation regarding fear as a weapon, I disagree with Stevens claim that “Just as the United States can never get back to what it was before those hijackings, Gotham will never be the same after the appearance of the Joker.” All errors regarding “hijackings” perpetuated by such claims (let alone any knowledge of 911 truth) aside, this argument equates the Joker as terrorist with the “hijackers” when the real terrorist is Bush, not the hijackers! Bush, like the Joker, wreaks havoc, mayhem, and death for sport, with no apparent plan or raison d’etre. He even has a similar sinister grin if you ask me.

In this vein, the film also toys with various questions about democracy, freedom, the government, the law, etc. But, as the excellent post at Dissident Voice mentioned above clarifies, the film offers us the all too common either/or options:

“The moral is as old, and as conservative, as Hobbes: we can live in a wild, murderous wasteland or a lawless, authoritarian police state. It doesn’t matter which of these options the film presents as more appealing or fun; all that matters is that no other options-e.g., left-wing anarchism, participatory democracy, decentralized communism, democratic socialism etc.-present themselves.”

Like the moral of the story, the representation of race and gender is old and conservative too — but at least the movie is nicely wrapped in a good acting, fast action, semi-thought provoking wrapper. If you are willing to go for the nice packaging and mull over the sometimes sweet sometimes downright sour content, I recommend giving the Dark Knight a viewing.

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11 thoughts on “What if the ‘Dark Knight’ was a black knight instead? (A review of Dark Knight)”

  1. Love the review. I haven’t seen the movie but I’m planning on going this weekend. One thing you pointed out that I was fairly intrigued by was this:

    “But it certainly would have been better if all the criminal mob thugs were not represented as African-American, Eastern European, and Italian (the last two categories of course being groups not defined as white at various historical junctures.)”

    It’s interesting that you note that Italians and Eastern Europeans were not quintessentially “white” at various junctures in history. Usually, nowadays, when we think “white” we think of European descent, not particularly Western European descent (e.g. English, Scottish, Irish, etc.) I think it gets a bit complicated because — to a lesser extent — personally, I would exclude the Dutch, Spanish, French, Italians, and even Germans. When I think of “Westerner” or “White” in an academic sense, I think British Imperialism. I don’t think of other “Westerners”.

    I don’t know. Maybe you can elaborate on that a bit and clarify the “Western” or “White” notion to all of us, past and present. Just wanted your two-cents. Thanks.

  2. “You see, regular old thugs and drug lords can be people of color, but the ‘smart villains,’ the ones that control all the shots and have all the power, are often white.”

    Now if people would apply this to actual crimes that takes place in society, because its the truth.

    Good review, I seen the movie ..

  3. Minority Militant,
    Glad you liked the review. Let me know what you think of the film once you see it.

    I would love to elaborate on the ever-changing concept of who counts as white. Historically, many groups with white skin have been defined as ‘not white’ — usually in order to justify colonization, enslavement, or being barred from immigration. In 19th C America, for example, Irish was not considered white. As I have far more than two-cents to say about this topic, I will write a post on it soon. Thanks for the idea!

    C. Jarelle,
    Good point about Catwoman. Makes me think of the argument put forward in the article “Why are there no Asian male anchormen.” This text convincingly claims that WOC are often given positions of power prior to MOC because they are not as ‘threatening’ to the racial hierarchy as women.

    Tiffany,
    Great point about the truth of actual crime. Alas, far more whites commit crimes but popular culture perpetuates the idea that POC are the criminals and suspects…

    Thanks for reading.

  4. I think this review was fair. However I feel there is no way we can ever make movie’s as equal as you would like to see them. There is real life bias and real life discrimination that takes place everyday and if you take that out of the movie, then it would be hard to relate to. For example you can’t make a movie about a college and have everyone on campus be a minority(well i guess you could) but then there is no reality. The real world isnt always like that and I dont feel that movies should be like that either. I do agree whole heartedly though that minorities are not given always the best of roles. Like why did Hancock, the only black super hero, have to be a drunk bum. Many times I watch a movie and wonder why the plot constantly revolves around the white males perpective. Like if you watch a cop movie or a war movie why is the main person always one of the white soldiers or white police men. And women have it even harder. A guy like seth rogen can be a star but if a woman had his characteristics she would be easily thrown aside in favor of an Angelina Jolie. Wven woman such as america ferara who was known for her not so hot looks has changed to fit hollywoods stereotypical view of how a woman should look.One thing I don’t understand though is how Angelina Jolie was able to play a black woman rather than casting a black woman because I am sure no matter how famous will smith gets they will not let him seriously play George Washington!

  5. Waking Life,
    Great points. I agree with you regarding the idea that movies understandably reflect reality. However, the crux is whether they do so from a critical perspective. If Dark Knight would have critiqued the black as criminal, Italian as mafia motif, that would have been one thing, but it did not. Instead, it (like most movies) perpetuated these racialized hierarchies as natural. In so doing, films perpetuate the inequality of society…

    Great point about Jolie — yes, it seems whites can represent POC, but not the other way around. Can you imagine studios casting Will Smith as Batman? In another comment, someone pointed out that Halle Berry was Catwoman. Yet, the cynic in me says that a WOC would never get to play a ‘big’ superhero — such as Wonder Woman or Supergirl.

  6. One non-white hero: Spawn. His popularity has waned since the late 90s, but between ’90 and ’98 he was all the rage and had his own movie. As for the majority, well, they were all conceived in an era where only whites were acceptable in mainstream society.

    Yes, you can change the ethnicity of a traditionally white hero, but that will only anger and alienate the majority of fans. Sometimes you can get away with it (Kingpin, Green Lantern, and Harvey Dent -in the animated series- were all changed from white to black), but a black Batman would have just been posturing.

  7. first of all… awful review … no black hero …big budget ?…hmm…. BLADE … there arent many because …… lets face it …. majority in prison is …..? thought so …. catwoman was black in that one big budget movie , what was the name of it ? …. chances are you’re black …and just outraged batman doesn’t have many …. too bad … world doesn’t owe you anything … so really stick with you tyler perry BS and leave batman alone ……blacks ruin good movies anyways ..THE HONEY MOONERS …THE WHIZ … THE FIRST BATMAN HARVEY DENT …..billy d williams….

  8. Born to a Mexican-American mother and an Anglo father in Miam, Arizona, Linda Jean Córdova Carter was the original Wonder Woman in 70s

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