White characters played by black actors have paid off at the box office because audiences appreciate an excellent performance – regardless of race. While many fans reacted negatively the casting of black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, others were excited that such an accomplished actress was stepping into the role. Even Potter creator J.K. Rowling defended the casting choice.
In many cases, black actors who have taken on white roles have changed the way a character was seen forever. Red has been portrayed as black ever since Morgan Freeman played the part in the film adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption. We will always think of Agent J in Men in Black as Will Smith. Michael Clarke Duncan was so perfect for The Kingpin in Daredevil, that Marvel wrote a tribute to the actor when he passed.
This list looks at some of the top black actors who played traditionally white characters. And while we’re talking about non-traditional casting, which role would you like to see a black actor take on? Let everyone know in the comments
Zendaya Coleman as Mary Jane Watson
In August 2016, it was announced that African American actress Zendaya Coleman will play Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man’s love interest, in the 2017 Marvel reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming. Zendaya previously appeared in a number of Disney Channel shows, including KC Undercover and Shake It Up!, starring as the title character in the former.
Mary Jane (who, according to IMBb, will be called Michelle in the reboot) was played by Kirsten Dunst in the original Sony Spider-Man film series and by Shailene Woodley in scenes that were deleted from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the comics, Mary Jane is a pale redhead. Survey says? Change is good.
The casting decision ignited a mini-furor in fan communities, as such decisions have done in the past(and also this). James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, took to Facebook to address these concerns, writing:
I can’t respond to the racists – I’m not ever going to change their minds. But for the thoughtful majority of you out there:
For me, if a character’s primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks. For me, what makes MJ MJ is her alpha female playfulness, and if the actress captures that, then she’ll work. And, for the record, I think Zendaya even matches what I think of as MJ’s primary physical characteristics – she’s a tall, thin model – much more so than actresses have in the past.
Play: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Despite her accomplishments as an actor, there was backlash over Dumezweni’s casting as Hermione in the play. J. K. Rowling, the queen of having none of it, squashed the criticism, tweeting, “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified Rowling loves black Hermione.” Other Harry Potter cast members supported Dumezweni in the role. Matthew Lewis tweeted, “And Neville Longbottom was blonde. I really don’t care. Good luck to her.”
Dumezweni said to the haters, “It stems from ignorance. They don’t want to be a part of the creative act. To say it’s not as it was intended is so unimaginative. I don’t think they understand how theater works. We’re here to heal you, make you smile and whisk you away.”
Film: I Am Legend
Neville is the last man in New York City, or so he thinks. There have been many adaptations of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, but this was the first time a black actor played the virologist.
Film: The Shawshank Redemption
In the book, Stephen King describes Red as white and Irish. The line “Maybe It’s because I’m Irish” was left in the movie as a nod to the book. Stage versions of the book now cast Red as black, thanks to Freeman’s iconic performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination).
Films: Thor, Thor: The Dark World
In the Marvel comic series, Heimdall is a Norse god, but he’s just as mighty in the hands of Elba on screen.
Film: The Manchurian Candidate
Richard Condon’s 1959 novel was made into a film in 1962, with Frank Sinatra asBennett Marco. Washington, who lends something to every role he takes on, played Marco well enough in a so-so remake in 2004.
Many actors have take on the role since 1982, most notably Aileen Quinn. But Wallis was a refreshing update to the white, freckled redhead. Wallis’s performance received a 2014 Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical.
The 1997 ABC TV special was the first time Cinderella and other characters were played by black actors. Besides Norwood and Houston, Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle played Cinderella’s stepsisters, and Whoopi Goldberg was Queen Constantina. Filipino-American Paolo Montalban played Prince Christopher.
Film: The Fantastic Four
Say what you will about the 2015 film, but Jordan was a refreshing update to Storm. Chris Evans, who played Storm in 2005, thought Jordan was a fine choice as well.
Will Smith as Agent J
Films: Men in Black franchise
In the Aircel comics, Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers depicted both agents as white. Smith, being a huge star (especially in 1997), was an easy choice as Agent J alongside Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K.
Duncan played the villain to perfection in 2003, and left his mark on the character. So much so that Marvelhailed him after his passing in 2012.
Film: Jackie Brown
In Elmore Leonard’s book Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a blonde flight attendant. Tarantino saw the character as black and specifically wanted Pam Grier for the role in his 1997 film.
The Batman comic series portrayed Dent as white. Williams added his own special qualities to the villain onscreen in Tim Burton’s 1989 film. He also revealed that he was on course to play Two-Face in the sequel, but producers went another way, choosing Tommy Lee Jones.
Film: The Wiz
One of the first black casts to take on the beloved 1939 The Wizard of Oz, the 1978musical was an instant hit with audiences and continues to be produced and toured worldwide.
Film: Steel Magnolias
The all black cast – rounded out by Jill Scott, Adepero Oduye, and Condola Rashad – appeared in the 2012 Lifetime remake, but faced a tough reception from the diehards of the 1989 movie.
Film: Hercules (2014)
Hercules is Greek; The Rock is not. However, that didn’t stop him from being an awesome Hercules. Steve Reeves, who played Hercules in two different movies in the late ‘50s, would pull down some columns in approval. Kevin Korbo’s popular portrayal in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys ran from 1995 to 1999 and he was irked when producers turned him down for a cameo in the Dwayne Johnson film.
Film & TV Series: Catwoman & Batman
On the page of the comics, Catwoman is white and many fine actresses from Julie Newmar to Michelle Pfeiffer have played the character. But Eartha Kitt made Catwoman iconic with her famous growly voice in the late-’60s TV series and Halle Berry brought Catwoman back to black in the 2004 film.
Films: James Bond franchise
Several white actors have played Leiter over the years in the Bond franchise, most notably Jack Lord. Casey took on the role in 1983 in Never Say Never Again; Wright brought weight and realness to the character in 2006’s Casino Royale and 2008’s Quantum of Solace.
Will Smith as Jim West
Film: Wild Wild West
Robert Conrad played James T. West in the popular 1960s TV series, with Will Smith portraying the character in the 1999 film.
Play: Henry VI
In 2000, David Oyelowo was the first black actor to play the English king for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
TV Series: Smallville
In the comics, Clark Kent’s friend is white. Ross became a fan favorite when he stepped into the role in 2001 on the TV series.
When fans saw 2005’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they were delighted and puzzled to find Mos Def in the role of Ford Prefect opposite Martin Freeman’s Arthur Dent. Prefect is a red head in Douglas Adams’s book. Def’s version is significantly more cool than David Dixon’s Prefect on the BBC TV series, but both work in their own way.
Film: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight
Loeb was a corrupted baddie in the comics. McFarlane’s Loeb played him with complicated motivations in both films.
Lois Maxwell played Miss Moneypenny for 23 years. Then four other actresses (Barbara Bouchet, Pamela Salem, Caroline Bliss, Samantha Bond) took on the role. Producers and cast kept the secret until Skyfall’srelease in 2012, as Naomie Harris became the first black Miss Moneypenny.
Film: Man of Steel
Fishburne portrayed the first black the Editor in Chief at the Daily Planet in 2013’s Man of Steel. Several white actors, including John Hamilton, had portrayed the character up until then.
Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford
TV Series: Hannibal
Crawford has been played by Scott Glenn, Harvey Keitel, and Dennis Farina. Fishburne was tapped for the role of the FBI agent in the NBC series from 2013 to 2015.