A Black Heimdall? Thor Controversy and Ethnic Tokenism

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A Black Heimdall? Thor Controversy and Ethnic Tokenism

So, a black Heimdall, huh?

I’m going to join with Penny Arcade by saying that the racist groups currently protesting the casting choice aren’t really to be taken seriously. The Council of Conservative Citizens has been recognized as a hate organization; their interest in the issue lies only in their bigotry.

So we can dismiss the issue of agreeing with racists and the underlying awkward shame. It’s ridiculous to seriously believe that the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall is some sort of sinister attempt to deny Europeans their cultural heritage. It’s far more likely he was chosen simply because he was a good actor fitting the role of Heimdall for the movie than the producers are out to indoctrinate children and young adults.

It does, however, raise an interesting question: do authors and creators of media have a responsibility to enforce diversity? And how important is ethnicity to verisimilitude when it comes to a setting?
In the case of Thor, Idris Elba’s casting was deliberate. Sure, Heimdall is often explicitly known as the White God, but this is Marvel’s version of the Norse mythos, so nobody promised anything like a rigorous Nordic feel. And it’s really rather unlikely to hurt the story or the atmosphere of the movie; it’s more important that the Asgardian gods embody the virtues with which they’re associated (courage, pride, honor, strength) than it is they have the proper melanin count.

Take another controversial casting choice, though. When it came time to make a movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a popular cartoon set in an almost universally Asian world conspicuous in its absence of a Europe-analog, the movie instead chose to cast white actors as some of the major characters. It stirred up a firestorm on discussion forums and caused no small amount of backlash. What makes The Last Airbender so different from Thor?

Is it simply, as some would claim, that the targeted demographic is non-European? I think not. I think the casting choice violated a deliberate setting aesthetic important to the work’s themes. When fans of Thor go to see the film, they’re expecting an awesome battle between warrior immortals inspired by Norse mythology; the fact that one or two of them might be black in a modern setting is hardly pertinent. But when fans watched The Last Airbender, the cartoon’s strongly Asian aesthetic was part of what drew them to the show in the first place, and it would be no less obtrusive if it had been a token Asian character in a wholly European world.

What do you think? Do artists’ obligations to include diversity outweigh their desires for verisimilitude? And when is that verisimilitude affected by divergences from historical ethnicity?