First look–Denzel is The Equalizer (there’s a double meaning in that)

The Equalizer poster A

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)?

Equalizer teaser poster

How much of any of these characters–the essential elements of these characters–is about what their race is?  Is any?

Can Star Trek’s Khan be played by anything but a northeast Asian actor, such as by a Latin actor or a British actor?  Was the miss with the 2013 Star Trek Into Darkness (starring a Brit) or in the original Star Trek (starring a Latin American actor) by not casting an Indian actor?  Or both?  Or neither?

Most would agree that there’s usually good reason to diversify a cast, especially if it changes race or gender for characters not clarified in the source material, or you’re updating old material that didn’t consider issues of race or gender in the plot.  Going from a majority status (say, white or male) to update a role not traditionally played by a minority (say, Latin or female) is usually unobjectionable.  Think of how strangely white and male the original Star Wars trilogy looks, with only its one female and one black lead.  Moving from minority to minority is acceptable, too.  But moving from minority role to majority is the taboo, and what Hollywood casting decisions typically avoid if they don’t want flack from audiences.  It’s probably why so many questioned the casting decision for Khan last year.  But anything else is fair game.

The Equalizer Woodward
Bob Woodward as The Equalizer in 1985.

Who is The Equalizer?  The new film says he is “A former black ops commando who faked his death for a quiet life in Boston comes out of his retirement to rescue a young girl and finds himself face to face with Russian gangsters.”  The original series said Robert McCall was “A retired intelligence agent turned private detective helps various threatened clients to equalize the odds.”  Pretty much sounds like the same guy, right?  Nothing about the character really requires McCall to be British or white.

For the most part, in remakes anything goes.  Any role in a Shakespearian performance, almost since the original plays, have been performed by actors of any race or sex.  Swap anything–a reteller who has something to say should be able to change anything at any time.  But is there a point where you change too many things–too many essential things–and the character is no longer the character?  When does this happen?

Starbuck and Boomer didn’t need to be played by males in the Battlestar Galactica reboot.  Right?  Or M be played by Judi Dench?  Or Moneypenny be a black woman?  Or Felix Leiter be played by a black actor?  Can’t Doctor Who be a woman, too?

John Wayne The Conqueror
A miss from inception: John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

What we’ve shown as a society that doesn’t work are dated tropes, like a white man playing black (as with Al Jolson) or white man playing Asian (as with Peter Ustinov and countless predecessors playing Charlie Chan, or John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror) unless the in-story plot is about that very thing (as in Black Like Me or Soul Man).  That doesn’t mean movie studios and casting agents keep trying (Robert Downey, Jr. as a white character playing a black soldier in Tropic Thunder).  In fact, there’s almost a tradition of anglo actors playing Asian, like Swede Max Von Sydow playing the Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon, or more recently, ½ Brit/½ Indian Ben Kingsley as the ½ Brit/½ Chinese character The Mandarin in Iron Man 3.

When doesn’t it work then?

Mustn’t John Shaft always be played by a black man?

Mustn’t Uhura always be played by a black woman?

Mustn’t James Bond be played by a Brit?

What else can’t be touched, and must be held up as sacrosanct?

Richard Roundtree and Samuel Jackson as John Shaft and uncle John Shaft
Richard Roundtree and Samuel L. Jackson both have played John Shaft on the big screen.

If you happen to have been an Edward Woodward fan, or just like the British-ness of the actor in his performance as the original McCall, then maybe Denzel Washington in the role won’t work for you.  But this first trailer makes a good case for why it shouldn’t matter.  Age is more important than race for what makes The Equalizer (Woodward was 56, Washington 59).  A guy breaking away from retirement, like Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny in Unforgiven, to clean up the streets, one victim at a time.  Remember: If someone has a problem, the odds are stacked against them, and they have nowhere else to turn, McCall will help. He is The Equalizer.

Check out the first trailer for The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington and Grace Chloë Moretz:

The Equalizer hits theaters September 26, 2014.

C.J. Bunce

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