/Answers: Our Favorite Heroes of Color

Heroes of Color

Every week in /Answers, we answer a new pop culture-related question. In this edition, tying in with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther, we ask “Who is your favorite non-white movie hero?”

Hoai-Tran Bui: Mulan

Is it predictable that I chose Mulan, the first Disney princess through which I could finally see myself on screen? No, she’s more than just a reflection (heh). She’s a daughter, a warrior, a reluctant hero, and the savior of herself and China. Disney did right by the legendary Chinese warrior who was immortalized in the ancient epic poem The Ballad of Mulan. In the poem, Mulan is a loyal daughter who goes to war in place of her father, with the support of her family. In the Disney version, her story is both simplified and modernized: Mulan is a tomboyish daughter who struggles to fit into society’s standards but fails miserably. But it’s not out of that rebellious streak that she decides to join the army, but out of love for her weak father.

What I love about Mulan is that she is not instantly a prodigy as a soldier, despite her tomboyish ways. She struggles to keep up, and it’s only through ingenuity that she is able to rise to the top — with the help of a rousing, catchy song, of course. Seriously, I can’t count the number of times I have howled the entire Mulan soundtrack at the top of my lungs.

I have no illusions about Disney’s history with POC characters — even in the ’90s Disney Renaissance, the animation studio’s depiction of Pocahontas and Esmerelda were exotic, flat, and almost leering. But thankfully, they avoided that pitfall with Mulan. She is a fully fleshed out and empathetic character who is not simply defined by her race, but not completely disconnected from it either. There would be no Mulan without the rich backdrop of China, but never is the country’s culture diluted into its biggest stereotypes.

Mulan was and is a hero to me, voiced by a wonderful — and just as badass — Chinese-American actress, Ming-Na Wen. I’m glad I had both of them to look up to while I was growing up.

Chris Evangelista: Ben in Night of the Living Dead

George Romero always maintained that casting black actor Duane Jones as the lead character Ben in Night of the Living Dead was nothing more than chance. To hear Romero tell it, there was no hidden social message in casting a black lead; this was colorblind casting done simply because Jones was the best actor for the job. Whether or not that’s true is arbitrary. The fact of the matter is, Jones’ casting gives Night of the Living Dead an entirely new dimension.

Romero and co-writer John Russo originally wrote the character of Ben as a white, lower-class trucker. Jones is, of course, the complete opposite of this. He comes across as sophisticated; almost like a college professor. In the film, Jones’ Ben is the sole level-headed character surrounded by white people who are, to be blunt, losing their shit. It’s Ben who comes up with the good ideas, like boarding up the house. It’s Ben who becomes the default leader of the group, much to the dismay of bitter jerk Harry Cooper. And while Romero may not have intended to send a social message, the social message is hard to miss. In one scene, Ben punches Cooper right in the face. A black man openly punching out a white man, on the big screen in 1968, was not something that happened very often.

Ben’s fate is ultimately tragic – he’s mistaken for just another zombie and shot dead by a group of gun toting’ rednecks. Here, again, Romero has instilled a commentary on racism in his zombie narrative, whether he intended it or not. Jones’ performance is phenomenal; the actor commands the screen, and has more screen presence than the entire cast combined. He’s one of the most iconic heroes in horror cinema. “I doubt that our movie would have been a success without him,” co-writer John Russo later said. “His screen presence was one of the key ingredients that helped lift that low-budget pipe dream up by its bootstraps and make it into something that it almost had no right to be. The dream became reality, partly because of Duane Jones.”

Lindsey Romain: Nyota Uhura in Star Trek

I obviously have deep-rooted, nostalgic, and appreciative love for Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura from the original Star Trek series and its corresponding films. She’s the root of this answer, along with Zoe Saldana’s spunky take on the character in J.J. Abrams’ new universe of movies. There are plenty of heroic characters of color, but I love Uhura because her only “super” power is her mind. She’s beautiful, yes, but her foundation isn’t sex appeal, and her weapon isn’t literal (usually). As a communications officer, her expertise is language, which she uses to great effect, her skills a more peaceful antidote to Spock’s dry reasoning and Kirk’s masculine posturing.

Though Nichols’ version of the character looms large in my mind for her place on the TV series, it’s Saldana’s take that re-captured my science-loving heart in 2009, and who I continue to look after fondly with each subsequent film. Yes, Star Trek Into Darkness may be a mess, but it contains perhaps my favorite-ever Uhura moment in any interpretation: when she confronts the Klingons to protect her crew: “You brought me here because I speak Klingon. Then let me speak Klingon.” It never fails to nail me right in the chest.

Vanessa Bogart: Django in Django Unchained

A natural gunslinger, a truly hopeless romantic, and the snazziest dresser this side of the Mason-Dixon lone, Django (Jamie Foxx) is the slave turned bounty hunter turned hero of Candyland. Django Unchained holds an interesting record in my movie viewing history. It has not one but two scenes that I absolutely can’t watch. In all of the blood soaked horror that I have stomached in movies, Django Unchained has me hitting mute or leaving the room the most.

That being said, the evolution of Django and his bloody justice are just too damn good. The very barbarism that makes me turn away, makes the full “unchaining” of Django at Candyland such a massive pay off. Django is the fastest gun in the south and he is fueled by freedom, revenge, and love. What better motivations? The ruthless cold-hearted men in his way don’t stand a chance against it. He follows his heart through the most nightmarish part of America’s history. He may not carry around a red, white, and blue shield, but I think it is safe to say that Django is an American hero. Plus, he looks really cool walking through smoke and standing in front of explosions.

Jacob Hall: Wang Chi in Big Trouble in Little China

Kurt Russell may loom large on the poster for John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, but he’s not the hero. That honor goes to Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi, the restaurant owner who just wants his fiancée back from the powerful demon-lord and his followers who kidnapped her. Russell is a hoot in this movie, breaking out a John Wayne impression and transforming Jack Burton into one of his most memorable characters, but the movie isn’t about a white guy marching into Chinatown to save the day. Oh, no. It quickly becomes apparent to anyone paying attention that Jack is a bit of a dim bulb, the bumbling sidekick dressed up to look like a hero.

Big Trouble in Little China is a movie with many pleasures, but this hidden-in-plain-sight truth is its greatest accomplishments. Wang Chi is everything you want in a leading man and a movie hero: handsome, determined, noble, and able to convincingly kick all kinds of ass on camera. But he’s also an Asian man. So the movie sly positions the goofy best friend, the character who probably would have been played by an Asian actor in another movie, as the hero…only to constantly pull the rug out from under him and paint him as ineffectual in nearly every encounter.

But thankfully, Russell’s subversions don’t dilute Dun’s performance. In a better universe, this role would have made him a star and he would have headlined a number of other action movies. He’s a delight to watch, the hero movie the needs, and a constant reminder that genre entertainment can always escape the shadow of the omnipresent white male lead if everyone involved gives a damn.

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