We welcome a guest post today from Marvin McAllister, author of the forthcoming book Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance (November 2011). In the book, McAllister explores the enduring tradition in which African American actors, comics, musicians, and even everyday people have studied and assumed white racial identities. In this guest post, he discusses the casting of a black actor (Idris Elba) in the role of a Norse god in the film Thor.–ellen
Well before the premiere of Marvel Studios’ motion picture Thor, white supremacists denounced the casting of black British actor Idris Elba as Heimdall, the “whitest” of the Norse gods. The Council of Conservative Citizens accused Marvel Studios of assaulting white heritage and introducing unnecessary social engineering into European mythology. Elba, the actor in the eye of this representational storm, responded by claiming his Heimdall was an example of the kind of “multi-level” casting that would define the future of moviemaking.
So what are the multiple levels operating in Thor? Far from attacking white heritage, Marvel Studios’ serious treatment of this comic book deity actually expands Norse mythology well beyond Vikings and other Nordics.
At the culture-defining core of this filmic adaptation is an important clarification: legendary figures like Odin, Thor, and Heimdall were not gods at all, but simply extraordinary beings from another realm. In this specific cosmology there are nine realms, or worlds, each with its own distinct race. Thor concentrates on thee realms and races: Jotunheim and its overly aggressive, menacing Frost Giants; Midgard, or the planet earth, with its hopelessly mortal human race; and finally Asgard, with its population of superior warriors.
Asgard is a uniquely positioned realm where science and magic have merged, thus allowing its warriors to function as protectors for all the realms. One specific peace-keeping intervention involved a thwarted invasion by the Frost Giants into Midgard, which resulted in Odin and other Asgard warriors being deified and mythologized by grateful earthlings.
In this process of expanding Nordic mythology, Thor does traffic in predictable racial imagery, specifically a blonde, blue-eyed savior-figure with ridiculous abs. The narrative’s inciting incident emerges when Odin, Allfather of the nine realms, banishes his fair-haired, good son Thor to Midgard for disobeying his biological dad. On earth, the once-thunderous Thor is rendered weak, mortal, and unworthy; he can no longer wield his prized hammer (mjolnir), which Odin has also thrown down to Midgard to taunt and teach his son.
Ultimately, Thor does reunite with his magical weaponry, but only after agreeing to lay down his life to save earth—or at least a small town in Nevada—from a relentless Terminator-like robot. This fire-blasting fusion of magic and science has been dispatched to Midgard by Loki, Odin’s dark-haired, shape-shifting, dubious “son” (I won’t spoil the entire film).
To prove he is worthy of his hammer and superior heritage, Thor confronts the destroyer and suffers a mortal death. But then “reborn” and thus immortal, this white savior with his weapon rescues the Midgard hamlet and even ventures to Jotunheim to prevent a usurping Loki from annihilating the Frost Giants.
Yet as the white supremacists feared, Thor does introduce a surface multiculturalism into Asgard, complete with a motley crew of female, Asian, black, big-boned, red-headed, and fair-haired warriors. Throughout popular media, especially commercial television, we see similar multi-colored, multi-figured images of inclusion. As a projection of that “next level,” this commodified diversity creates a desire for constant exchange across ethnic, racial, and gendered lines, a level of culture flow and combination which probably does not exist in our everyday lives but is in the process of becoming.
Returning to the controversial casting decision, Elba’s Heimdall is the lone black warrior in this visually inclusive Asgard. He is a heavily armored guardian and operator of bifröst, the rainbow bridges that connect the nine realms. On a superficial level, this dark-skinned British actor of Ghanaian descent initially reads like a gold-plated doorman keeping watch over a high-end apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
But looking past common racial and class imagery, Heimdall’s defining characteristic is his powerful gaze, which the film visually highlights through Elba’s eerily red irises. With these glowing red orbs, Heimdall functions as an indispensable, all-seeing, all-hearing sentinel who tirelessly monitors and connects all nine realms.
On a universal level, this image of Heimdall as a dark-skinned bridge-builder links Norse mythology to another religious pantheon. Elba’s multi-level presence aligns Heimdall with Ogun, the Yoruba orisha of metal work, war, and roads, who ventured into chaos and nothingness to bridge the worlds of the ancestors, the living, and the unborn.
Ogun braved personal destruction to create passageways through the Yoruba cosmos. Similarly in Thor, Heimdall sacrifices himself to create bridges between Asgard, Midgard, and Jotunheim, thus allowing Thor and his multicultural warriors to circulate between realms and races.
Marvin McAllister is assistant professor of English and African American studies at the University of South Carolina and author of Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance (forthcoming November 2011) and White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Colour: William Brown’s African and American Theater. He has worked as a dramaturg for theaters in Chicago, the District of Columbia, and Seattle.