“I am not my hair, I am not this skin/
I am not your expectations, no/
I am not my hair, I am not this skin/
I am a soul that lives within”
– India.Arie, “I am not My Hair,” Testimony: Vol 1, Life & Relationships (2006)
As you probably know, this past weekend saw the release of Dark Phoenix, the final entry in the single longest-running (19 years) consecutive comic book film franchise. Said franchise was first the big-screen success for Marvel, if you choose to forget Blade exists. The franchise has been a billion-dollar box office boon for studio 20th Century Fox as well as its various directors, who’ve ranged from alleged rapist Bryan Singer and alleged rapist Brett Ratner all the way down to noted feminist-hater Matthew Vaughn.
I have yet to see Dark Phoenix (and given the reported grosses, very few of you saw it either), but I can appreciate how far the series has come from the merely-rumored-about film discussed in various issues of Wizard magazine. Who’da thunk a funny book “inspired by” Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (yes, really – though it got both their philosophies wrong) would lead to a lucrative film series in which White people are all the central focus? So lucrative and influential is the film series that it’s said to have been a major factor in Disney’s bid to purchase 20th Century Fox in the first place.
But as this film version of the series comes to a close – setting the stage for their inevitable MCU introduction – I have but one question about what the future will bring:
Can we get a Storm with some kinks in her hair this time?
Look, I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t thrilled about Disney buying Fox. It’s all-but-made-certain that the Mouse House will be a media monopoly on par with their main rival, Comcast/Universal (whom Disney beat out for the Fox bid). Both the Disney and Comcast conglomerates have far too much power and should be broken immediately by anti-trust litigation. Having said that, if this new acquisition results in MCU top-dog Kevin Feige giving us a Storm whose hair is strong enough to break a comb, it will have been worth it.
Ah, Storm. Ororo Munroe. The Weather Witch. The master thief. The Wakandan Queen. The Goddess. What can one say about her that hasn’t already been said?
There are few characters in the history of comics that have left such a distinct impression. One of the industry’s first Black characters (and the first Black X-man), she was a wonderfully progressive step away from the Ebony White stereotypes of Will Eisner and his peers – even if her origin was steeped in a different set of stereotypes (more on that in a minute). Nevertheless, she’s always been presented as carrying herself with an effortless dignity that matched her outer beauty.
Yet, what makes her appealing are the dimensions that make her grounded. Her crippling claustrophobia is as relatable as the familial and romantic heartbreak she’s had to endure time after time. She’s even-tempered, but possessed of a fatal wrath. Even if she couldn’t summon a hurricane by blinking, she’d still be willing to cut a bitch. I’m not kidding: she once became leader of the Morlocks by accepting Callisto’s challenge to a power-free knife fight. It did not end well for Callisto.
Oh, but those powers, tho. As her handle suggests, she’s all ‘bout them storms. But the movies have never shown off her true potential. Sure, they get the lightning (which she’s supposed to shoot from her hands) and the tempestuous stuff right, but none of them have shown that she can control the atmosphere itself. I’m talkin’ she can manipulate the atmosphere around you and, if she’s feeling merciful, shatter your inner-ear. She can control and create cosmic storms. She may or may not be able to sense dying plant life. And if that ain’t enough to get’cha shook, think about this: she’s considered a possible Omega-level mutant who has yet to reach her full potential. What, you may ask, is an Omega-level mutant? In short, one who has the potential to, y’know, “end” things. Goddess help us if she ever reaches her full potential.
What I’m getting at is that it’s easy to see why she’s still so popular 40+ years after her introduction. She’s a Black character whose popularity isn’t limited to her Blackness. She’s a hero defined by more than her heroics. She’s been the leader (yes, leader) of the X-Men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and even the goddamn Hellfire Club at one point. Hell, she’s even wielded Thor’s hammer Mjolnir multiple times. Whenever lists are made of The Greatest Characters of All Time, it’s no surprise to see her name pop up independent of the X-Men proper. Storm is just that great.
So… why, oh why, can’t they get her hair right?
Storm is neither the only Black X-Man nor the only Black comic book character whose hair has been, shall we say, Anglicized. Seriously, look up Marvel and DC’s history with Black characters (particularly post-Silver Age) and you’ll see a host of dark-skinned do-gooders whose hair comes in two varieties: straight or bald. Occasionally, you’d have Monica Rambeau, Rhodey, or that-Black-cop-Archangel-once-dated, but they were the exceptions. Whether it be X-Men like Bishop (whose hair seems to have all the curls that Storm’s doesn’t) or semi-Avengers like Luke Cage, you’d almost think some editorial mandate forbade illustrators from accurately portraying Black hair. Riri and Miles are good steps in the right direction, but c’mon!
Storm’s appearance is a White man’s interpretation of The Perfect Black Woman: not too dark; straight hair; no pronounced nose or lips; and (in her pre-2000s stories) almost never talks about, thinks about, or has any reason to feel anything about being Black. It’s the sort of “paper bag test” mentality that can make light-skinned sistas like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé into worldwide stars whilst the Tracy Chapmans and Me’shell N’degeocellos of the world hang on the fringes. It’s the sort of profiling that makes cops see lighter/White suspects as non-threatening, but dark-skinned suspects as an immediate threat. To paraphrase Do the Right Thing: Storm’s origin and appearance make her Black-but-not-Black.
As such, one of the most definitive features a Black African can have – kinky hair – is removed from her entirely.
This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about this. And every time I do, the Whitesplainers inevitably crawl out of the woodwork.
They always have the same baseless argument: that Storm shouldn’t be considered “Black” or “African” in the traditional sense because Chris Claremont created her to be a mutant, like Nightcrawler. As such, Storm’s appearance shouldn’t be chalked up to a White creator crafting an idealized Black character, but rather a fantasy author creating a fantasy character.
Putting aside the fact that 1 – Chris Claremont didn’t create Storm (that was Len Wein and Dave Cockrum), 2 – the fact that Claremont himself admits that not everything he wrote in his early-‘80s run on X-Men should be considered canon, and 3 – the fact that Storm, unlike Nightcrawler, is supposed to have an easily-recognizable human appearance, this bullshit argument forgets one simple thing: Storm isn’t some Tolkien elf, Hyrulian fairy, or boldly-going Vulcan (all of whom have traditional European features, BTW) – she’s a Black African woman. No matter what little tweaks have been retconned about her here and there, that one trait has remained consistent. And she was created by White men who created the most non-threatening, idealized Black woman they could imagine. The holes in the “not really Black” theory require more leaps in logic than a Shakespearean farce.
Don’t believe me? Let’s step away from Marvel for a second and take a look at their “Distinguished Competition”. Specifically, let’s look at Amanda Waller. Go on, look at her.
That’s the quintessential design of the character with so few fucks to give that she’s known for constantly putting Batman’s punk ass in check. She’s the definitive anti-hero. She’s also dark-skinned, heavy-set, and as kinky-haired as Pam Grier in Scream, Blacula! Scream!. She exists in blatant defiance of “Mammy” stereotypes and as one of DC’s most intriguing wild cards.
Then the New 52 happened…
They took one of the industry’s most popular non-conforming body types and turned it into blatant spank material. I could go on about how the New 52 oversexualized its entire female roster (weep for poor Starfire, whom they turned into walking blow-up doll), but we’d be here ‘til the Rapture. Let’s just say they all deserved better. Amanda Waller deserved better. (In fact, when you’re done reading this, you can read this great Medium essay about Amanda and her body image.)
And whilst we’re on the topic of Shakespeare…
When I’m not screaming my lungs out here on the interwebs, I’m doing so as a director, writer, and actor. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone White pull a “this character’s not really Black” argument, I’d never worry about funding again.
When I first started acting in high school, I was naturally drawn to Shakespeare. I even got to play Othello once for a Shakespeare festival. Bookworm that I was, I later did research into portrayals of the character. The dispute over Othello’s “real race” is almost as old as the text itself. Despite Shakespeare explicitly describing him as a Black African moor, the Harold Bloom-breed of Shakespearean scholars, historians, and black-faced White actors have spent the last few hundred years debating whether or not one can really consider Othello to be, y’know, Black.
In The Norton Shakespeare’s intro to Othello, the authors write of the controversy:
The meaning of the play primarily depends on how one understands Othello’s movement from nobly loving husband to insanely jealous killer. Critics and audiences alike have often agreed with Brabanzio, seeing in the conclusion the triumph of Othello’s homicidal, inferior African essence over his civilized, Christian, European surface. [But] when they have defended Desdemona’s and Othello’s nobility, they have denied that Othello was Black. Basically, those who considered Othello beastly thought he was Black; those who found him noble were sure he was White.
You see, Hamlet, Lady MacBeth, and Brutus can all dramatically shift from “calm” to “killer” at the drop of a hat without their whiteness ever being brought into question. But Othello? How can such a dignified character actually be Black… despite the playwright’s explicit text stating so?
The same goes for Storm. In fact, it may count even more for her, given that Wein and Cockrum’s origin was as stereotypically African one could get without showing the Africans as cannibals.
Storm’s first appearance was in the Wein- and Cockrum-created Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975. Her racial and cultural origins are explicitly shown as being from a country (Kenya) and continent still reeling from the effects of centuries of European colonialism. She’s worshipped as a literal goddess by a primitive African tribe (my guess is it’s the same tribe that had King Kong behind a wall) who offer her animal sacrifices if she’ll end the drought.
After she literally makes it rain, she finds Charles Xavier waiting for her, ready to knock her off her implied high horse. He flat out tells her that she’s not a goddess and that she should leave her native land and people to work for Xavier’s li’l mutant club. For some reason, she doesn’t even think about it – she just goes with him. Mind you, all of this happens in the span of one page.
So, yeah… a primitive African village straight out of a B-movie serial worships one of their own – the only one with straight hair, mind you – as a goddess until some White guy tells her she’s nothin’ special, but should just come work for him. That is Storm’s actual origin.
And to be honest, I don’t think Wein, Cockrum, or any of Storm’s subsequent writers and illustrators have consciously been malicious; they probably thought they were being complimentary. But, just as Denny O’Neill did Wonder Woman no favors when he stripped her of her powers, Storm’s creators did her no favors by stripping of her African features. They’re part of a long tradition of “foreign” stories only having legitimacy when seen through White, Western eyes. She may not be Ebony White, but that’s the same limp argument David O. Selznick made to differentiate his film Gone with the Wind from DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
Real change happens at a languid pace, and the creators’ side of mainstream comics has traditionally been, and continues to be, a (White) boy’s club. Sure, there have been strides made over the past few decades, but by and large the roster will both look (and behave) like both competing fraternities from Animal House.
Look at it from a purely gendered perspective: the “Holy Trinity” of heroes is indisputably Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Yet, the latter one just had her first cinematic solo appearance two years ago, whereas the former two have nearly 20 combined big-screen appearances between them (that’s just their solo features – I’m not even counting their film serials from the ‘40s). The former two have gone through a myriad of changes in their long histories, whereas Wonder Woman can’t even put on a pair of pants without the world losing its collective shit.
Which leads me to the key question of this long-winded rant of mine: what would it hurt to have a Storm with naturally kinky hair? I’m seriously asking – given that the X-Men infamously change uniforms the way most people… uh… change clothes, what would it hurt to switch up Ororo’s hair to be natural?
In fact, can y’all do me a favor real quick? Can y’all scroll back up to the top of this essay and look at that mohawk photo?
See it? Cool. Now look at this:
I found that from a cat named Rahzzah (formerly of DeviantArt, where I found the above, now on Twitter and Instagram). It’s Storm in, debatably, her most recognizable outfit: her punk look. The only difference is that Rahzzah gave her the sort of hair one would actually expect to see on a Black woman. Rather than taking away from this great character, it actually adds something special to her.
Want another one? Here’s one I saw on Twitter from illustrator Jen Bartel:
Goddess ⚡️✨ https://t.co/5AFuFGw5UY—
Jen Bartel (@heyjenbartel) March 12, 2019
Just… just look at that. Tell me that’s not the most gorgeous damn thing you’ve seen today? That right there is the Storm I’ve always wanted to see. The Storm I’ve always feared I would never see. Not on the big screen.
But there’s hope yet for the cinematic Storm in the form of the MCU. And, just as in the comics, that hope comes straight from Wakanda. Despite Blade proving to the world what a non-DC, Black-led superhero flick could do, every studio flat out refused to make another superhero movie with a Black lead. When they finally threw us a bone in the form of former-Storm Halle Berry in Catwoman, its failure was blamed on the Black woman in the lead, rather than all the incompetent White people who wrote, produced, directed, shot, edited, promoted, and released what Berry herself eventually called a “piece of shit”.
Then… we got Black Panther. Y’know all that money Dark Phoenix is currently losing? Black Panther made 13 times that. Y’know all the critical acclaim Logan got? Black Panther got nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. And y’know how the X-Men movies have spent the past 19 years slapping dime-store white wigs on Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp? Black Panther was chock-full of nappy heads as far as the eye could see!
So, here’s my plea to Kevin Feige (because I know he’ll give full credence to some rando on the Internet): when Marvel’s favorite mutants make their inevitable debut in your world of talking trees, Viking gods from space, and US Airforce pilots who can punch through comets… please, Please, PLEASE make Storm a Black African woman in every sense. You can even keep her hair the color white – it fits in with the whole “lightning” thing. But cast her the way you cast Cloak and Dagger. Cast her the way you cast Luke Cage. Cast her the way you cast the Academy Award-nominated film Black Panther. And if you don’t know where to find Black actresses like that, just ask the casts of those properties! They’ll be glad to tell you.
You’ve spent the last decade showing me that anything done in the comics can be done on the big screen. You’ve also shown me that sometimes the big screen can make up for the mistakes done in the comics. Now’s the time to do both.
After all, it couldn’t hurt.
(This story is also available to read on my Medium profile.)
BBC News – “How Black women were whitewashed by art”: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190114-how-black-women-were-whitewashed-by-art
Medium/Timeline – “How Turbans helped some Black Men avoid Jim Crow-era Racism”: https://timeline.com/korla-pandit-jesse-route-racism-jim-crow-south-turbans-history-video-c2e3d2a18c9a
CNN – “Why do so many Egyptian Statues have Broken Noses?”: https://www.cnn.com/style/article/egyptian-statues-broken-noses-artsy/index.html
YouTube clip, Dazed – “Dark-Skinned Girl”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01oiMNAfVx4
BBC News – “Actors call for more Black hairstylists in Hollywood”: https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-47538191
Yahoo! – “Rachel True slams coverage of The Craft reboot for ‘erasing the one brown character’”: https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/craft-actress-slams-coverage-movie-reboot-dont-erase-one-brown-character-142935743.html
Kotaku – “What it’s like to Write about Race and Video Games”: https://kotaku.com/what-its-like-to-write-about-race-and-video-games-1832886047
Yahoo! – “Will Smith’s rumored new role causing controversy”: https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/will-smiths-rumored-new-role-causing-controversy-skin-color-113504252.html
TheDailyBeast – “Beyoncé’s Dad and Quincy Jones highlight America’s Colorism Problem”: https://www.thedailybeast.com/beyonces-dad-and-quincy-jones-highlight-americas-colorism-problem
Vimeo clip, School Daze – “Good and Bad Hair”:
TheRoot/TheGlowUp – “For Colored Girls… Who need to Talk about Colorism”: https://theglowup.theroot.com/for-colored-girls-who-need-to-talk-about-colorism-1821484954
TheMarySue – “Why People want a Dark-Skinned Storm”: https://www.themarysue.com/dark-skinned-storm/
io9 – “The List of Actors who were Almost in the First X-Men Movie is Downright Crazy” (includes Angela Bassett as Storm): https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-list-actors-who-were-almost-in-the-first-x-men-movi-1792900509
TheWrap – “Chris Claremont’s Dream X-Men Movie” (incl. Angela Bassett as Storm): https://www.thewrap.com/chris-claremonts-dream-x-men-movie-james-cameron-kathryn-bigelow-and-bob-hoskins-wolverine-3/
Forbes – “Science says Superman should be Black”: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jvchamary/2016/03/31/black-superman/#6354d9d63b18
Vulture – “Dark Phoenix: How Magneto became Jewish”: https://www.vulture.com/2019/06/dark-phoenix-how-the-x-men-magneto-became-jewish.html
Categories: Creativity, Film, Literature, Long-Form Essays
This was a very well written and interesting read. Fingers crossed for execs to make the right casting decision in the next movie. Unrelated side note; Charles, you are a very handsome man, I fell down a rabbit hole of your videos on YouTube. You’re simply gorgeous. 😍
Wonderful post, great illustrations. And you made the ideas comprehensible even to a non-comics fan aged 76. Loved your Insight essay on the SF Chronicle today. I’m looking forward to reading your old posts, too.