On ‘Titans,’ people of color play orange and green characters. Of course there was backlash.
Japanese-American actor Ryan Potter was overjoyed when he found out he’d been cast to play Beast Boy on Titans, which premieres on the DC Universe streaming network on Friday.
The new show provides fans with live-action incarnations of the characters from Cartoon Network’s immensely popular Teen Titans, an animated series that Potter and millions of kids grew up watching in the 2000s and 2010s.
For Potter, the voiceover star of Disney’s 2014 film Big Hero 6, playing Beast Boy has been the realization of a childhood fantasy.
“When I moved from Japan to America as a kid, Teen Titans was the first cartoon I fell in love with,” the actor told Mic during a recent press junket at New York Comic Con.
But the biracial fanboy had one major reservation when his character’s costume was first unveiled.
In the comics, Beast Boy, aka Garfield Logan, is an emerald-skinned, shapeshifting teen with the ability to take the form of any creature in the animal kingdom that he’s encountered or seen. (For anyone curious, the hero’s signature hue and powers were side effects of the experimental serum his scientist father injected him with to save his life after he’d contracted a rare, incurable illness as a child.)
“I think everyone’s initial reaction was, ‘Why is he not green?’” Potter said, referencing when his character’s look was first revealed. In the new live-action series, Beast Boy has green hair, but not green skin. “There is very good reason for why he’s not green. He’s not Beast Boy yet. He’s still Garfield Logan. He’s changing.”
The subtleties of developing a character over time were lost on some Titans fans when set photos of the cast in their early season one costumes hit the internet in April.
The target of most of the outrage wasn’t Potter, though. It was Senegalese actress Anna Diop who plays Koriand’r, code-named Starfire, an orange-skinned, alien warrior princess from the fictional planet of Tamaran.
In the comics, Starfire’s species can absorb and convert ultraviolet radiation into energy, which gives her superhuman strength along with the abilities to fly and fire destructive blasts. Her tangerine pigment stems from her alien physiology.
The live-action version of Starfire has curly, ruby-red hair and wears a brown fur coat over a florescent purple dress and knee-high boots. In fact, on the show, Starfire is initially unaware that she’s not human. Some Teen Titans fans didn’t know that earlier this year when many recoiled at the sight of Diop’s costume.
“This is unacceptable,” @BatCatLove tweeted. “Starfire is orange, I hope they fix this and Beast Boy is supposed to be green.”
“If cosplayers can paint themselves green, gold, blue or whatever color the character is — then a professional TV show can do the same,” @maquisleader replied.
Both Diop and Potter have been forced to maintain the delicate balancing act of being a model of representation for people of color onscreen, while simultaneously doing their best to portray fictional characters of “color” who don’t have human skin tones.
It’s a creative challenge for casting directors tasked with increasing diversity in Hollywood and costume designers charged with making unnaturally hued characters look as real as possible for hard-to-please fans. Their canvasses aren’t comic book panels or animation cells. They’re human beings whose natural flesh tells its own unique story.
“When we were filming, there were times where I had to be like, ‘OK, we can’t say and do that,’ or, ‘That would work if I wasn’t ... this,’” Diop said, pointing at her skin during an interview at New York Comic Con. “In this [fictional] world I’m not this, [but] there were just a couple times where I had to edit the writing to make sure that it wasn’t offensive.”
Deciding whether or not to change a person of color’s pigmentation can be dicey and self-defeating. What’s the point in casting someone from an underrepresented demographic if you’re just going to paint over them and effectively erase their identity? And yet, losing one’s self in another identity is exactly what actors are supposed to do.
“The reality is you put yourself in that character because you want to embody everything about that character,” costume designer and professional cosplayer Ivy Doomkitty said at New York Comic Con. “It’s harder to do if that character doesn’t quite look like you. There are ways to become that character without looking at it as a race thing or a sex thing.”
For Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana’s role as Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise in the Marvel cinematic universe, costume designers and makeup artists chose to stay true to the alien character’s source material, airbrushing the actress’s skin a distinct shade of jade. The body paint seems to have helped Saldana avoid the racist backlash received by Diop and other women of color whose natural pigmentations were incorporated into their costume design.
In Deadpool 2, costume designers Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller — whose work you’ve seen in both installments of The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay — used black actress Zazie Beetz’s natural skin tone to create a unique version of Domino, an X-Men character who has chalky-white skin in the comics.
Both of those stars and their films were embraced by fans and celebrated by critics, but Beetz’s costume was a subject of initial controversy. Early on, the curly haired star’s natural afro drew as much ire as her skin tone from comic book purists.
“But please tell me Domino will still have her bright white skin” Twitter user @JezzaHolmes tweeted in 2017, shortly after photos Beetz’s Deadpool 2 character first surfaced, according to the Mary Sue.
In the end, however, her confident swagger as a nonchalant mutant mercenary imbued with the power of luck mattered more to fans than her shade or her makeup.
Back in April when set photos of Diop’s character were first released, there were some Titans fans who simply couldn’t envision a live-action Starfire — the living, breathing object of many male childhood affections — as a black woman.
“They got the ugliest black bitch to play Starfire,” @taedollaz_ tweeted in July.
“Beast Boy and Robin look good to me, can’t say the same about the nigger Starfire or the lame Raven,” @fitipaldi93 added in September.
“I actually forgot that #DCUTitans made Starfire a black hooker lol,” @ElementZer0 tweeted. “This is why I’m a Marvel fan.”
“#notmystarfire this is the REAL Starfire,” @drwhodude tweeted in July. “Making every character black (when the closest to our skin color was Latino for her) doesn’t promote diversity just seems forced.”
To be fair, there were many who simply disliked Diop’s attire and look, not her race. “Why did they do sis like this?!” the blog Pretty Brown and Nerdy tweeted.
The Twitter uproar may have compelled DC Entertainment to unveil more detailed photos of the cast showing Beast Boy and Starfire with their more familiar skin tones.
By the time Diop hit New York Comic Con in October, it was clear she was tired of the topic.
“It’s one of those things where if I was a white actress this question would not be asked, but because I’m black it is,” she said. “I’m still very proud of this team for making the choices they did. I hate to have to say that, because that implies there was something not right and they went with it anyway because it was the right thing to do.”
Diop said backlash from fans has dissipated for them as it did for Beetz as more details about their new show have been unveiled and critics started publishing mostly favorable reviews.
“It’s like, dude, relax, it’s going to be OK,” Diop said, referencing Titans fans. “I know you love Starfire. I know people do, and I do too. I’m grateful for all of the fans, even the angry passionate ones because I understand where it’s coming from.”