Saturday, 29 September 2018

Mary Elizabeth Winstead Cast As The Huntress In Upcoming Birds Of Prey Film. Did Warner Bros. Make The Right Casting Call?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead
From the moment director Christopher Nolan concluded his epic Dark Knight trilogy in 2012, Warner Bros. has since been looking to capitalise on the trilogy's success by applying a similar formula to the rest of DC's stable of characters, leading to the formation of a DC cinematic universe. A formula Warner Bros. could use to compete against Disney's Marvel cinematic universe with matching success. Unfortunately for Warner Bros., their attempt at creating that DC cinematic universe has been met with mixed reception, and have since changed their course.

Rather than create a series of films that are part of a tightly-knit universe like the Marvel films, Warner Bros. appears to be going for a more "Elseworlds" approach. A series of films that are part of a shared continuity, but not necessarily existing within the same universe like in the case of Joaquin Phoenix' upcoming Joker film.

This approach will afford filmmakers more creative freedom to tell the stories they want to tell, and reimagine DC characters in ways that fit their stories. One of the films that appears to be following this approach is the upcoming Birds of Prey film by director Cathy Yan, with actress Margot Robbie reprising her role as Harley Quinn.

Earlier this week saw casting calls for Black Canary and the Huntress for the upcoming film. They were interestingly looking to cast a black actress as Black Canary while seemingly limiting the casting choices for the Huntress to white women. The roles eventually went to Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead respectively.

I admittedly found the casting call for the Huntress to be odd considering the Huntress we all assume will be appearing in the film--Helena Bertinelli--is a Black Sicilian woman in the current comics continuity. (If Winstead tried out for Helena Wayne, then that's different, but we'll get to that in a minute.)

Helena Wayne, Batman Family (1978)
Considering that Warner Bros. has actually been progressive with their casting choices by giving actors of colour opportunities to portray iconic DC characters who are historically white (like Black Canary), it is a significant step backwards to only look for a white actress to portray a character who is explicitly a woman of colour in the comics.

At worst, this continues a damaging trend in Hollywood to whitewash POC-led roles in an industry that already offers little opportunities to actors of colour to start with. In the unique case of Sicilian representation, it continues another harmful trend of POC erasure in a part Italy that has an abundant POC population.

Given that the Huntress is a character who has been depicted as white for four decades--first as Helena Wayne, then later as Helena Bertinelli--does it a really matter that a white actress like Mary Elizabeth Winstead takes the role? If the goal of the Birds of Prey film is POC inclusivity (right down to having a POC director), then yes, it absolutely does.

It goes without saying that a discussion on casting choices for the Huntress cannot be had without first addressing the complicated history of the character in the comics--a topic I already discussed in depth in my video "Wayne or Bertinelli" earlier this month. While DC has a history of treating the Huntress as a single character with an interchangeable origin story for a good part of three decades, the fact is this is no longer the status quo.

Since 2011, Helena Wayne and Helena Bertinelli have been existing as two separate characters, with Wayne reclaiming her iconic appearance, and Bertinelli getting a completely new look to make her more distinguishable from Wayne. For the first time in DC Comics history, we finally have the company's two most popular Huntresses co-existing with one another without looking like identical clones of each other. Given that very progressive move on DC's part, it literally doesn't make sense for Warner Bros. to continue treating Helena Bertinelli like a clone of Helena Wayne.

Helena Bertinelli, The Huntress (1989)
But wait? Are we sure Warner Bros. cast Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli? After all, they didn't specify which Huntress they were casting. What if the Huntress casting call was for Helena Wayne? Well, see, that's the other part of this discussion. Depending on which Huntress Mary Elizabeth Winstead was cast to portray, her casting is either perfectly justified or completely problematic.

If Winstead was cast as the original Helena Wayne version of the Huntress, then her casting is perfectly justified. Truthfully, she really does look like the actress who could easily rock at playing Helena Wayne (preferably in a Justice Society film), and the type who would have Power Girl as her best friend.

While Helena Wayne doesn't necessarily have to be white in film and television adaptations, it isn't wrong for a white actress like Winstead to be cast to portray her either. As the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, Helena Wayne has always been depicted as white in the comics continuity and in other media.

If any changes have been made to the character's ethnic background, it can be argued that Helena Wayne at this point counts as a Latinx character because her mother, Selina Kyle, was portrayed as Latinx for two decades prior to the New 52. Even legendary DC artist George Pérez updated the character's look to a more Latinx appearance to stay consistent with this aspect of her mother's history in the current continuity. But even with a Latinx ethnicity, Helena Wayne is still white, or at least white-passing. The same, however, is not true of Helena Bertinelli.

Since the character's inception, Helena Bertinelli has always been assigned a specific ethnicity as a woman of Italian origin. Even in her first comic appearance in the 1989 Huntress series by Joey Cavalieri and Joe Staton, Helena Bertinelli did not posses a white Germanic look despite being based off of Helena Wayne. She was mostly given a Southern Italian look, was even given a slightly darker skin tone than Helena Wayne, and the character would later be firmly established as Sicilian. Since her first appearance, Helena Bertinelli's look has fluctuated between Southern Italian and "Helena Wayne 2.0", but her more iconic look--I would argue--is the Sourthern Italian look.

Helena Wayne, Worlds' Finest (2012)
Since the start of the New 52 in 2011, the "white Helena Bertinelli" Huntress was retconned back into Helena Wayne and a new version of Helena Bertinelli made her debut in the Grayson series as an agent of Spyral in 2014. This version of Helena Bertinelli has a much darker skin tone than her previous incarnation, curlier hair, and a more African-Sicilian inspired look. The current version of the character has been confirmed as being biracial, and her Sicilian heritage is still intact.

Given the character's Sicilian identity coupled with her status as a biracial woman, there isn't any question that Helena Bertinelli is a woman of colour. It is therefore not appropriate for a white actress to be cast to portray her without continuing the harmful trend of whitewashing POC roles in Hollywood.

The casting choice is especially in poor taste in a film that is looking to assemble a largely WOC cast with Cassandra Cain (an Asian character), Renee Montoya (a dark-skinned Latinx woman), and a Black Canary that will be presented as explicitly black. In this particular case, criticism against casting a white actress for the Huntress--if she turns out to be Helena Bertinelli--is perfectly justified.

For anyone looking to pull the strawman argument of "well, if black actors can portray white characters on film, isn't it hypocritical to say white actors can't portray black characters?" The short answer is "no, it isn't" because this false equivalence draws on the myth that POC actors have the same opportunities as white actors in Hollywood, which is statistically untrue.

The point of the criticism is that white is seen as the default race in American society, whereas all other racial groups are placed in the "other" category. This normalisation of white identity is quite literally the reason every role in a film (from protagonist to antagonist to supporting role) is up for grabs to white actors, whereas POC actors can only get whatever is offered to them, which isn't much.

Helena Bertinelli, Grayson (2014)
A white actor in Hollywood, for example, will never compete with a black or Asian actor for the role of Batman, Superman, James Bond, or even Harry Potter because those roles will always be offered exclusively to white men. An Asian actor, however, will always compete with white actors for Asian roles like Light Yagami, Go Mifune, Shotaro Kaneda, Khan Noonien Singh in both Asian and American intellectual properties.

The point is white actors get every opportunity to portray characters from every group, including people of colour. Actors of colour on the other hand rarely get the opportunity to portray themselves as leads in a film, even with film adaptations of their own intellectual properties. They especially have less opportunities to grab lead roles in films that don't call for a specific racial background. This is the machine of Hollywood, and the playing field is anything but even.

Applied to the Birds of Prey casting situation, a black actress is not actually stealing the role of Black Canary from a white actress because that same white actress will still get opportunities to portray other DC heroines, including the original Dinah Drake Black Canary and even the original Helena Wayne Huntress.

A white actress taking the role of Helena Bertinelli, on the other hand, is stealing a role from a Black Sicilian actress because that same Black Sicilian actress will likely not be offered the role of the white, blue-eyed Helena Wayne. That is the reality that's being criticised, and the one that needs changing.

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