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The Marvel character Storm made her X-Men debut at just the right time — 1975. The civil rights movement had morphed into the black power movement. Blaxploitation movies with kickass heroines like Foxy Brown had earned cult followings, and socially conscious African Americans embraced the “black is beautiful” philosophy, which hit back at the Eurocentric beauty norms forced on them for generations.
Storm did not appear out of nowhere; this early black comic book heroine reflects the political ethos of an era.
Descended from a long line of priestesses, likely based on the actual rain queens of South Africa, Storm is unambiguously black, albeit with white hair and blue eyes that signal her superpowers. Her mother was a Kenyan princess, and her father was an African-American photojournalist. Born Ororo Munroe, Storm was initially portrayed in the comics as a dark-skinned black woman, but the actresses who’ve depicted her on the silver screen have looked more racially ambiguous.
Halle Berry played Storm in the 2000 X-Men movie and reprised the role twice, and Alexandra Shipp played the heroine in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse and is reprising the role in the Dark Phoenix in 2019. Both women are light-skinned and biracial, and some fans have criticized their casting given Storm’s look and backstory in the comic books. They argue that colorism in Hollywood has robbed a dark-skinned actress of the chance to play this landmark superheroine, introduced during a time when African Americans unapologetically embraced their blackness.
Shipp has clapped back at fans concerned that’s she’s once again playing Storm.
“We’re not going to have this conversation about a cartoon character,” Shipp recently told Glamour. “You’re not going to tell me that my skin color doesn’t match a Crayola from 1970. Growing up, when I was reading the comics, I pictured her looking like me. For any black girl, for there to be a black superhero, we picture them looking like us. So when I auditioned for the role, I wasn’t like, ‘Oh man, I’m not dark enough.’ I was like, ‘Finally, this is my moment.’”
Arguing that the casting of Storm is irrelevant because she’s a “cartoon character” might not hold water, considering that white actor Ed Skein backed out of his Hellboy role last year after learning that the comic book version of the character was a mixed-race Asian. Moreover, conceived during a time of sociopolitical transition, Storm represents far more to her fans than simply an animated persona. The 1970s were a time when many black Americans began to identify with Africa, cheering on the independence movements of African nations, wearing dashikis, and giving their children African names. Storm is part of this legacy, so is Wonder Woman’s black sister Nubia, introduced by DC Comics in 1973.
When fans push back at Shipp’s casting as Storm, they’re not doing so to suggest that she’s inadequately black but to object to skin color discrimination in Hollywood. It’s well-known that for every dark-skinned actress like Gabrielle Union, Aja Naomi King, or Tika Sumpter, there are handfuls of light-skinned actresses starring in biopics, period pieces, and sci-fi series, not to mention playing romantic leads and, yes, superheroes.
While it’s certainly difficult for any woman of color to succeed in Hollywood, for dark-skinned women the climb to the top is especially steep. But Shipp should know this: She starred in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton,” a hit film with a casting call that sparked controversy because it ranked dark-skinned black women last in its hierarchy of skin tones. Twitter user Casting Gurl Wonder, a self-described Hollywood casting director, says colorism is an open secret in the industry and that clients don’t hesitate to list their preferences for light complexions and European facial features.
But rather than concede that critics might have a point about colorism’s prevalence in the industry and that casting a light-skinned biracial actress in the role of a character with mostly African ancestry perpetuates it, Shipp has portrayed herself as a victim. In December she tweeted that black people have leveled more racism at her than members of any other group have because they’re concerned about Storm’s casting.
You wanna know what I’ve found interesting? That 90% of the racism I’ve experienced in my lifetime has been at the hands of fellow black people. It’s crazy! Why do this? Why tell a woman she’s not enough because YOU THINK SO??— Alexandra Shipp (@AlexShipppp) December 14, 2017
Granted, going after Shipp isn’t likely to change casting choices rooted in skin color bias. The actress, after all, did not cast herself in the role. But using social media and online forums to express frustration with problematic casting choices is pretty much the only weapon that audiences have at their disposal. They can complain online, boycott a movie, or both. They can also support other films, like Marvel’s Black Panther, that showed dark-skinned actors in all of their glory. One reason that blockbuster broke records is because people of African descent reveled in seeing an entire cast of actors who looked like them. That’s what the people invested in seeing a darker Storm are after. The point is not to undermine the biracial actresses who’ve played her thus far but to fight for the representation they deserve.