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Azie Dungey Headshot

Yes, There Is a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Recast Race

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I was recently asked what the difference is between Michael B. Jordan playing Johnny Storm and Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily. The question was rhetorical and the implication was that there is no difference. But there is, and it's a big one.

We have a canon of stories. Every culture has a canon of stories. Stories that are old, tried and true, much beloved, and often recycled. Stories that shape our cultural identity. Among those stories are fairy tales with magic and princesses and castles, children's literature with nannies who fly via umbrella, and the lost children of Neverland. We also have science fiction and adventure stories with superheroes who save the day.

This is all very wonderful, enjoyable, and frankly necessary. Every society need their stories, the collective myths that connect us to our shared humanity. The only unfortunate thing is that our cannon was all created in a time when there was incredible racism. So they left out peoples who were non-white. Of course, there are tons of African folk tales and fairy tales -- tons of African princesses, for example. Tons of Native folk tales and stories. But those stories were not brought into the canon because they were not seen as relevant or equal. In short, because our entire way of looking at the world was through the lens of white supremacy.

You can't expect a fiction writer in 1961 to write a black superhero when a black man could not even eat a lunch counter or vote.

You can't expect a black princess story to make it into the American canon of storytelling at a time when the majority of people in this country believed that black women were not even human beings.

So now it is 2014, and guess what? We have the distinct privilege of not being bigots. We can identify the problems of the past and lack of representation (or the presence of offensive, inaccurate representation when there was any at all) and we can correct it. We can correct it by making a television and film world of stories that reflects actual racial and cultural realities in our society, which were ignored because of racism in the past.

We get to make Johnny Storm black. Because black men deserve a seat at the table and always have. There were black superheroes in 1961, and there are today.

We are correcting something. We are making a more suitable and equitable representation, even if authors of those stories could not conceive of such a thing at the time in which they were written.

However, to take AWAY a role, in a context in which there are quite literally none, is the absolute opposite. There are no representations of Native American women anywhere in popular media. No opportunities for Native performers. This is a problem. You can't correct a problem by giving the role of Tiger Lily to a white woman and erasing her ethnic specificity.

The role of Tiger Lily is horribly problematic for other reasons: it perpetuates the image of Natives as mythic relics of the past, absent from our contemporary socio-political sphere; and it marginalizes Native women as docile, thoughtless creatures, who are prime for the taking of the good white man. It's an imperialist fantasy. This is why we all know the story of Pocahontas, but not the story of the Queen of the same tribe, Cockacoeskie. Tiger Lily is the work of a Scotsman in 1911. She is an "Indian" maiden, with an "Oriental" name, who is part of the "Picaninny" tribe (derived from the English Creole for "little nigger"). #ThanksJMBarrie.

Reimagining Peter Pan and the character of Tiger Lily presents an opportunity to reform a role that was written in a marginalizing, demeaning way. If we are going to retell these stories, it is our job to do this hard work. To reconceive her as non-Native in order to avoid the problems the role represents is a cop out, as well as a disservice to Native people who also deserve a seat at the table.

Native people want to be part of contemporary stories, in which their characters are three-dimensional with personal agency, and created with the same respect and consideration as their white counterparts.

No more caricatures. No more stereotypes. No more imperialist fantasies. Think outside the Land o' Lakes box.

Do we want our stories -- whether old and reimagined, or new and contemporary -- to continue to overlook the reality that our people are and have always been multi-cultural? Should all princesses be blonde and fair? Should all superheroes be white? Should we just white-wash parts and take out references to differing ethnicities when faced with the difficulty of representing them responsibly? If you ask me, the answer to all these questions is no.

Our stories are our identity. And as far as I am concerned, I've always been a beautiful princess in a castle with futuristic super powers who is the strong and wise leader of her dynamic tribal nation. Even if no one has noticed.

Now THAT is a movie.