‘Supergirl’ Casts Mehcad Brooks In A Move Toward Diversity That Is Refreshing In The All-White Superhero Genre
In case you haven't heard, Supergirl is amazing. I mean, it was already amazing by virtue of being a CBS TV series with Supergirl a.k.a. Kara Zor-El as the main character, rather than as one of Superman's many sidekicks, but Supergirl has cast Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen in the upcoming series. To save you a Google trip, the former True Blood star is an actor of color who will be portraying the red-haired, freckled comic book character in a brand new way. This places Supergirl on par with the wildly popular CW show The Flash, which shook up comic book canon by casting Candice Patton as Iris West — who was also Caucasian with red hair in the original comics.
Between Supergirl and Indiana Jones, I've spent a lot of time appealing to Hollywood to stop thinking of our tradition heroes as having to keep their skin color the same even if you change nearly everything else about them. And, on the surface, Brooks' casting represents the first time in 2015 that my cries have not gone unheard. Seeing a Jimmy Olsen who is portrayed by an actor of color is so important for diversity on television, especially since he is cast as Kara Zor-El's love interest and, by that virtue of that role, is the male lead of the program. With his casting, Supergirl's main focus is on a woman protagonist and a person of color as the potential deuteragonist.
Just one of those things would have represented more diversity than we're commonly used to getting from the average superhero show these days. Getting both of them before the show has even aired? Yeah, Supergirl is already my favorite. To give you an idea of exactly the kind of television landscape the show is breaking into, let's look at the numbers. Of the superhero shows (Agent Carter, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Arrow, The Flash) showing on the major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and the CW), only one of them (Agent Carter) features a female lead while three of them feature a main character of color (Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Arrow, The Flash), depending on your definition of the word main. Zero of them have both, which makes Supergirl even more unique for making that their goal here.
It's been noted many times that the superhero game is not a very inclusive field for women and people of color. It is only after years of complaints that we have a Black Panther, a Captain Marvel, and a Wonder Woman movie in the works, but there are still no concrete plans for a Black Widow movie. While TV is slowly but surely becoming more diverse, that diversity doesn't seem to apply to the ever-popular superhero genre often enough for us to consider it a changing landscape as well. At this point, the comic books from which these TV shows and films derive their material are diversifying at a much quicker rate than these blockbuster shows and films are. (Female Thor, anyone?)
While it's most likely that, as the rest of the Supergirl cast comes together, Supergirl and Jimmy Olsen will become outnumbered on their own program by a cast that otherwise mainly consists of Caucasian males, the fact that they were the first two signed gives me high hopes that things might be different with this CBS program. CBS took a risk on putting together a TV show based around a female superhero as the protagonist despite the flagging ratings of mini-series Agent Carter. They took a risk changing Jimmy Olsen's comic book appearance to put a talented actor like Brooks in the role instead. Unfortunately, it's still true that these kinds of changes are so rare that making them does present a risk. People will judge all works starring female superheroes or people of color by the standards of the one occasional show. And failing ratings means people will be unwilling to take this chance again in the future.
And that dose of cynicism is exactly what makes what the CBS is doing so amazing. It's as if they've collectively decided to stop caring and instead focus on giving women and people of color the visibility in this genre that they have deserved. Changing Jimmy Olsen from a freckled red-head to a man of color may not seem like much, but, when you're a member of a minority who can only expect to see someone of your skin tone in sidekick roles or supporting roles at best in your beloved superhero genre, it means a lot. I look forward to whatever else CBS has in store for us with regards to Supergirl, but, as far as I'm concerned, they're already winning.
Image: Getty Images