This weekend’s release of the first trailer for The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington as Robert McCall, a role originally cast in the 1980s by British actor Edward Woodward in a successful four-season television series, brings up yet again the age-old question of when you can change a character’s race or sex in a retelling and when you can’t, or shouldn’t.
Can Kojak, originally played by Telly Savalas, an American actor of Greek heritage, be played by a black actor, so long as he’s also bald (as played by Ving Rhames in the 2005 remake)?
When adapting comic books to film, can you change Perry White (as in The Amazing Spider-man series) and Nick Fury ( as in The Avengers movie series) from white to black? Can you change Johnny Storm from white to Latin (as in the next Fantastic Four)? Does it matter that his sister is played by someone white? What if the sister is Latin and the brother is white (as in the first Fantastic Four movies)? Should Wonder Woman be played by anyone who isn’t Greek (see American Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV series or Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the forthcoming Superman vs Batman)? Can Harvey Dent be black (as played by Billy Dee Williams in the 1989 Batman)? A black orphan Annie (another new film)?
How much of any of these characters–the essential elements of these characters–is about what their race is? Is any?