X-Men: First Class and race and stuff.

This post will contain spoilers aplenty. If you haven’t seen First Class and want to maintain your surprise, do not read ahead. Also, up front: I’ve never read any X-Men comics. I want to, after seeing this movie, but at this point, literally everything I know about X-Men I learned in the films.

First things first: guys, this was straight-up awesome. I mean it was awesome. It is narratively tight, well acted, well written, well directed, well edited. It has funny moments both subtle and overt. (Full disclosure: I laughed about ten times more than anyone else in the theatre, and I’m not sure everything I laughed at was intended to be funny (though not in a so-bad-it’s-funny way, more humour coming from a lack of irony and a lack of self-consciousness)). It is exciting and it is engaging and I loved the shit out of it.

That said, I’m not so much interested in writing a traditional review as I am in exploring what this film did and didn’t have to say about race, gender, oppression, and minorities. Walking out of the theatre, I was struck by how morally open-ended First Class was. While later films obviously paint Magneto as a villain, this one draws him much more sympathetically. His arguments resonate. Given the evidence as presented in the film, there’s no reason not to agree with him that the only way for mutants to survive is to cast humans as the enemy and consider themselves at war. Matt Yglesias discusses this in two short pieces he wrote over on ThinkProgress:

… In the text Magneto is clearly in the right and Xavier’s X-Men are a bunch of dupes. The film is a pretty serious departure from the conventional depiction in this regard, but it’s quite thoroughgoing. Magneto’s mutant pride attitude is in every way more admirable than Xavier’s preference for the closet, and Xavier’s political view that mutants and humans can coexist peacefully if mutants avoid provocations is directly contradicted by the events at the end of the film.

There are obvious parallels here to race relations in the US, with Magneto as a Malcolm X figure and Charles Xavier as an MLK figure. I’m not saying, and I don’t in fact believe, that First Class is intended as an allegory for the history of race relations in the US, but I do think that in crafting different possible mutant responses to their treatment at the hands of the government, the writers of this film and the writers of its source material cribbed heavily from real life.

These parallels are especially interesting to consider in light of the film’s historical setting: 1962, the Bay of Pigs. Brown vs. Board of Education was eight years old. The Civil Rights Act was two years from being signed into law, and the president who would do so had not yet been forced into that role. Malcolm X’s chickens hadn’t yet come home to roost and King had not yet had a dream. And yet First Class ignores race as a plot point entirely. Director Matthew Vaughn acknowledges that, basically saying that it was too big of an issue to tackle, and while I get that, there’s a difference between choosing not to tackle an issue and acting as though it’s not there. Ta-Nehisi, as always, says it better than I could:

I’m not arguing that X-Men should have been “about” the Civil Rights Movement … The appropriate comparison for me is Mad Men. The show is about an exclusively white world, but it is never blind to race. I can’t think of only one “racial” story-line, and I am fine with that. But race is always there, in the subtext, in the side comments, in the jobs which black people work … These debates often devolve into a call for tokenism. But tokenism isn’t awareness …

Here’s where it gets really weird, though. First Class ignores race as a plot point, but that leads it to trip over race constantly in some pretty uncomfortable ways. The film contains, arguably, two characters of color, Darwin and Angel. Darwin is unambiguously black, and we’ll get to him in a minute. Angel, on the other hand, is racially ambiguous. She’s played by Zoe Kravitz, who is half black and half Jewish (Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet’s daughter), but I have no clue what the character’s race was supposed to be. I read her as a character of color, but I could easily see her being read as Italian or something. Anyway, let’s call it two characters of color. Does the first mutant death really have to be the black dude? Really? I’m always shocked when movies, seemingly without a shred of awareness, kill the black dude first, but First Class does it. Not only that, it does it right after a really heavy-handed moment where, enumerating the risks of mutant-human cohabitation, the villain says, “Enslavement,” and the camera rests on a close-up of Darwin’s lovely face. Ta-Nehisi says they turned Darwin into Crispus Attucks, and I can’t really argue with the analogy.

So there’s that.

Then there’s the fact that Angel winds up joining Magneto’s team at the end, leaving Professor X’s team with muscle-bound Aryan dream Havok, so-white-he-shines Banshee, and formerly nerd-orable, now-blue-fuzzy-and-self-hating Beast. (Did I mention they’re all dudes? They’re all dudes.) Magneto, on the other hand, has Angel, Riptide, also somewhat racially ambiguous but played by Spanish actor Álex González, blue-skinned “Mutant and proud”-evincing Mystique, and – oh yeah – Magneto himself, a fucking Holocaust survivor with a number on his arm. (Also, he’s got three chicks to Xavier’s zero. Winning on all diversity fronts? Check.) Matt has something really interesting to say about this, which I’m not sure I agree with as an intended message but is worth contemplating nonetheless:

Magneto is the good guy and he ends the film leading a rainbow coalition of red-skinned, blue-skinned, brown-skinned, Jewish, and female crusaders for mutant pride. The X-Men are led by a Professor Xavier who’s not just naive, but callow and hypocritical. Naturally he attracts a team of privileged white men and the self-loathing Hank McCoy. But the moral here is precisely that the struggle for justice won’t be waged by a team of enlightened white dudes. The team of enlightened white dudes is offering a kind of craven appeasement, while the multi-hued emergent Brotherhood of Mutants stands for self-respect.

In either case, these factors up against the film’s total ignorance of any real-world racial politics whatsoever create a very strange cognitive dissonance which I’m once again going to turn to Ta-Nehisi to articulate.

“First Class” is set in 1962. That was the year South Carolina marked the Civil War centennial by returning the Confederate Flag to the State Capitol; the year the University of Mississippi greeted its first black student, James Meredith, with a lethal race riot; the year George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama. That was the year a small crowd of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and commemorated the 100th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation. Only a single African-American was asked to speak (Thurgood Marshall, added under threat of boycott). In “First Class,” 1962 finds our twin protagonists, Magneto and Professor X, also rallying before the Lincoln Memorial, not for protest or commemoration, but for a game of chess. “First Class” is not blind to societal evils, so much as it works to hold evil at an ocean’s length. The film is rooted in its opposition to the comfortably foreign abomination of Nazism.

It’s just weird, y’all.

However, as a broader allegory for “the minority experience,” First Class does a pretty solid job. It does excellent work elucidating the frustrations felt towards mutants who can pass as human (Xavier, Magneto) by mutants who can’t (Mystique, Beast). (Insert any number of arguments within oppressed groups regarding things like conforming to the privileged group’s standards, benefits garnered from passing as a member of the privileged group, etc.) It presents a variety of responses to oppression and allows us, however briefly, to explore the various rationales behind these responses. It also nods to the oppression of women, if not very skilfully. I found the character of Moira MacTaggert somewhat implausible (I’m skeptical that the CIA would have had a female agent in 1962), but I’m pretty sure she’s comic book canon, so whatevs. What I did not find implausible were the gross comments made about and to her by the various men she works with. The women’s fashion may be anachronistic (or so I’m told), but the parade of miniskirts makes its point.

Have you seen First Class? What did you think? Inquiring minds are really, really curious.

Link Round-Up
X-Men: First Class by Neo-Prodigy
Some Concerns About X-Men: First Class by Susana Polo
Magneto Was Right by Matt Yglesias
You Left Out The Part About… by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Quintessential Mutants of America by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Magneto Was Right, Part II by Matt Yglesias
Mutie Go Home by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“X-Men: First Class” Flunkies by Naima at PostBourgie

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About Sara

I like to talk about media, food, and gender.
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17 Responses to X-Men: First Class and race and stuff.

  1. I really loved it, for a couple of reasons:

    1. I’m a sucker for backstory, and always suspected there was more to Magneto than the “KILL/MUTATE ALL HUMANS” thing he was doing in the first three movies. I liked how he was cast in a completely different light in First Class.

    2. I, too, caught onto the Civil Rights-ish undertones, and thought that they added a nice layer of complexity to the film, for all the reasons you stated.

    3. I really like superhero movies.

  2. Sara says:

    I am absolutely unappeasable when it comes to backstory. I will take all of it, and then I will take more. I suspect this is why I’ve always ashamedly hung out in fandom: when I meet characters I like, I want more and more and more of them, and fandom provides that. In some cases, it does a better job than the creators of building believable worlds for characters to hang out in.

    Superhero movies are the bomb diggity dog.

  3. jtoddles says:

    yeah Moira was canon
    I was a lil disappointed they killed off Darwin. 1) because he was cool. 2) really? (as stated) kill off the black guy 1st?! come on!
    still… It was my favorite X-men movie yet!

  4. Red Jenny says:

    Although in a sense X-Men is about all oppressed classes of humanity everywhere, I think that in a much more real sense it is about gays to a greater extent than racial or religious minorities. Most mutants, like most people who aren’t heterosexual, can pass as “normal” which is not the case for most people belonging to racial minorities (although obviously some). Mutants, like gays but unlike non-whites, grow up thinking of themselves as undifferentiated from the mainstream, with mainstream (hetero IRL, mutant in Marvel) parents and perspective, until the usually horrific “Oh my God, I’m different, I’m a freak, I have to hide who I am or run away or be driven away, is there a cure for what I am?” scene. There’s a reason beyond Sir Ian McKellen’s personal awesomeness that he is Magneto. This doesn’t mean that X-Men movies should ignore race or continue harmful Hollywood traditions, but I do think that the African-American experience and the Civil Rights movement are less then intended analogy than people are assuming. The conflation of gay with white is, of course, another problem Hollywood always has.

    The racial makeup of the specific mutants in XFC is “canon,” for what that’s worth. Darwin is black in the comic books. His survival power also recreates his body after he is converted into pure energy, so it’s possible that he is still alive in the X-Men movieverse, although I think bringing him back would be a comic-book move that wouldn’t work well in film. Darwin and Shaw are both essentially invincible in the comics because of the broadness of their defensive powers, but obviously they killed Shaw (I’m assuming that he had to consciously direct his ability to safely absorb kinetic energy, so Magneto’s projectile could kill him while Xavier held him down telepathically.) In X3 they killed off four of the main characters, basically precluding any more movies that take place after. I’m not surprised that in the prequel they only wanted to lose the least well-known character and one whom they could resurrect if they want to. The fact that the expendable guy and the black guy are the same guy is, of course, par for horrific Hollywood tradition.

    My “date” said that Angel is a character who was created in the 90’s and is not very interesting in any media, unlike the other mutant of the same name who is formerly a rich white dude and is now (as Archangel) one of the chief henchmutants of Apocalypse (metallic eagle wings instead of gauzy fairy wings, knives instead of fiery hiccups). Havoc and Banshee are traditionally white, although since they don’t appear in “later” movies they could have been played by non-white actors while maintaining continuity within the movies. AFAIK Xavier has never been written as a douchebag, so obviously they are consciously changing the characters where they see fit. Azazel, the red Nightcrawler guy, is apparently also something of an embarrassment for Marvel, originating in a very unpopular line of comics. Storm is the proud, powerful racial minority figure and always has been. Her absence from the movie leaves that role unfilled on Team Xavier. Despite the obvious problem of tokenism, Storm is pure awesomesauce and never cast as the least bit subservient or dependent (although Halle Berry failed to capture her grandeur).

  5. Red Jenny says:

    Basically, the desire in recent years to add mutants-of-color has led to more mutants-of-color, but because they’re new rather than classic characters they are expendable. Darwin and Angel lack tenure.

    There’s no really good reason they couldn’t have used non-white actors for Havoc or Banshee or Hank (Beast) although with Hank they showed his (white) human skin momentarily in X3. Xavier and Magneto had to be white to match their back stories and their portrayals by Picard and Gandalf in the other movies.

    • Sara says:

      RJ, those are great points all.

      I agree with you that sexual orientation is a better analogy for X-Men than race, and we saw this explored in one of the sequels (I can’t remember which). I have no good reason for why I didn’t write about the lack of inclusion of gay characters, except that at this point I’d be more startled if a mainstream superhero movie did include gay characters. (Let’s be real, though. Magneto and Xavier were totally fucking in the mansion. Jesus Christ, I have never seen a film slash itself harder than this one.) That said, I’m relatively sure when X-Men was created, it was as a racial analogy at least in part. I guess we’ve just been handed a better one by the world =\

      • Red Jenny says:

        Other than Cyclops, Jean Grey and Wolverine’s triangle I don’t recall sexuality coming up in the other movies at all. Rogue kissed a boy and he didn’t really like it but c’mon, we’ve all been there. I watched XFC thinking Mags and Xavier were romantically if not sexually intimate, but IRL it’s possible for two guys to be really close without it being all gay. So maybe this was the landmark first depiction of a consequential male friendship that wasn’t sexual, brothers-in-armsy, or played for a joke (“bromance” (puke)). Magneto and Nightcrawler were/are played by openly gay (and in Sir Ian’s case quite politically active; I don’t know about Alan Cummings) actors and Bryan Singer who directed X1 and X2 (would to God he had done X3) is also gay. Of course gay and gay friendly actors and directors still have to make a summer blockbuster that heteros will watch. Wiki says that “Anole, Destiny, Karma, Mystique, Northstar, Graymalkin, Rictor, Shatterstar and the Ultimate version of Colossus” are gay or bi in the comics, but only Colossus and Mystique mean anything to me from those names.

        X-Men was introduced in the early sixties, just when the new movie takes place and when race relations were certainly on everyone’s mind. People knew about homosexuality back then too though, even if Nice People pretended not to. I’m not sure what exactly my point is at this point, but I think it’s a safe bet that homosexuality was a core element of what mutation was meant to represent from the beginning.

  6. Sara says:

    maybe this was the landmark first depiction of a consequential male friendship that wasn’t sexual, brothers-in-armsy, or played for a joke (“bromance” (puke)).

    Maybe. idk if humans are just sex-obsessed or what, but it’s really hard to see all that and not see it as sexual/romantic. I’d say the same, I think, if it was two women or a man and a woman depicted in precisely the ways Magneto and Xavier were. But idk.

    I think it’s a safe bet that homosexuality was a core element of what mutation was meant to represent from the beginning.

    I would be very skeptical of this unless one of the creators was gay, because while people knew about it it was still so fringe.

  7. Red Jenny says:

    Maybe. idk if humans are just sex-obsessed or what, but it’s really hard to see all that and not see it as sexual/romantic.

    I dismiss that as wishful fangirl ship-thinking. You want them to so badly you’re convincing yourself they are.

    I would be very skeptical of this unless one of the creators was gay,

    AFAIK Stan Lee isn’t gay, just Jewish. I don’t know about any of the other creators.

    because while people knew about it it was still so fringe.

    Rather like mutants in the X-verse and rather unlike African-Americans IRL? 🙂 Or . . . like Comic Book geeks?

    I don’t see how the Mutant Experience parallels the African American experience on any but the broadest terms that could substitute in any oppressed minority. There’s always a fight-back vs. accommodate split. There’s always a conformist vs. separatist split. But there are many key elements of the Mutant experience that uniquely track with gays; being considered freakish and unnatural, being born to “normal” parents, being brought up with a “normal” identity, being able to pass in many cases, being thought to be “curable”. In the 80’s and 90’s “Mutant Plague” story lines that were obvious references to HIV/AIDS made the connection very clear, but I’d be very surprised if gays weren’t part of the story from the beginning.

    A better comic-book metaphor for racial oppression is aliens (as in District 9 or BSG) or fantasy races (as in Dragon Age Origins or Shrek).

  8. Sara says:

    You want them to so badly you’re convincing yourself they are.

    idk, you said you saw it too! I also can’t tell if it’s ship-thinking or if it’s also being open to those possibilities in my films.

    As to the rest, idk. I see your points and think they’re all spot-on, but I do think, seriously, that it was meant to be a broad allegory for race at first. If it evolved to accomodate homosexuality, I can see that for sure. But I don’t know anything about the comic series, so you’d probably be more in a position to answer those speculations than I.

    • Red Jenny says:

      Well, we didn’t see them kiss or have dinner by candlelight, but we also didn’t see every minute of their lives between joining forces and the big breakup, so it’s all a matter of interpretation. I suggest that their love is that of Romeo and Mercutio, Hamlet and Horatio, or Thomas Becket and Henry II. In fact the last pair is remarkably close.

      As for the other, again it’s all up for interpretation unless Stan Lee has made definitive statements (and even then . . .). I still submit that self-discovery and coming out (or staying in the closet) as a mutant are very close to key elements of what I imagine the gay experience to be and without parallel in what I imagine the African American experience to be. Regardless, X-Men certainly speaks to prejudice, fear, persecution, tolerance, love and coexistence in many ways and is awesome.

  9. Phoebe says:

    I admittedly don’t tend to look for PC violations when I go to the movies but some of the racial stuff you mentioned really bothered me. Also the way they have a react shot of Darwin when Shaw mentions the threat of mutants being “enslaved.” I don’t get why they have one of the only two non-white mutants (Angel) go over to the enemy, then have the other (Darwin) seem to go over to the enemy but then even when we discover it was just a plot, he gets killed first (and only). (Btw, Darwin is supposed to be “half African and half Latino,” whatever that means – his real name is Armando Munoz, so I would interpret him as being Dominican or whatever, but the actor who plays him in First Class is Kenyan-American) It’s like they had to hit every stereotype in one go and it ended up seeming pretty weird to me.

    I DON’T think that Magneto ends up the “good guy” in the film, even if he is clearly the most interesting and sympathetic character, and if James McAvoy as Professor X is all smug and goody two shoes. So to me, that invalidates any kind of positive multi-cultural message regarding the Brotherhood of Mutants. I think that if you look at the events of the film in the context of the comics and of the 2000’s-era movies you could come away with a pretty strong anti-Brotherhood of Mutants message. However, all of these competing ideas are what makes the split between the two groups so interesting, it’s depressing but understandable that Mystique leaves, etc.

    That digression aside, the seeming randomness of the racial stuff bothered me because one of the distinguishing features of X-Men is its repeated emphasis on multiculturalism and social issues. My boyfriend pointed out to me that the original sixties First Class was mostly white Americans in the comics and that they got more international/multicultural later on in its run, which we sorta do see represented in the 2000’s-era movies, but I don’t really see that as such a great excuse. (Though they did have a couple of Russian characters early on in the comics, which was probably a bit of a thing for the time period.) Your observation about the Malcolm X/MLK thing is something that people have said a lot about the comics too. Even if X-Men is traditionally more applicable to gay issues than race (they had an AIDS analogue thing too in the comics), I think that its overarching themes about social tolerance are broader than that. I don’t know, I guess I too wanted to see more social issue related shit in First Class. Maybe they’ll get into it in the sequels.

  10. Pingback: Super 8, Part 1: Director’s Cut. | Ends and Leavings

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