From left to right: Naomi Campbell at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 press conference, Starfire on the cover of Starfire #6, and Anna Diop in DC Universe's Titans.Image: Jemal Countess (Getty, DC Comics, DC Universe)
Soon after the first trailer for DC Universe's upcoming Titans series dropped during San Diego Comic-Con, actress Anna Diop — who plays DC Comics character Starfire — shut down the bulk of her Instagram account in response to a wave of racist backlash and trolling from people unhappy with her casting.
It's become all-too-common for self-proclaimed "fans" of genre franchises — who feel an inexplicable ownership of fictional characters they had no part in the creation of — to turn their rage on actors they don't feel are "right" to portray said characters. For instance, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, and Daisy Ridley have had to deal with hordes of pissy fanboys (it's almost always men) balking at the reality that after decades of being centrally focused on the stories of white men, Star Wars is finally following the adventures of women and people of colour. In Diop's case, the backlash to her casting is somewhat more complicated for two reasons: 1.) Starfire is an established character who has been appearing in one form of media or another for decades 2.) Diop is a dark-skinned black woman.
While it may come as a surprise to the uninformed, colorism is still a pervasive problem in Hollywood, an industry that has a history of tending to only cast black women with lighter complexions, especially in big-budget, action franchises. For that reason alone, Diop's casting was a notable and important decision proving just how easy it is to address this problem. What makes the racist reaction to Diop playing Starfire particularly exhausting and eye-roll-worthy, though, is that, this isn't even the first time that a black woman has been the basis for Starfire's design.
In the softcover trade for DC's Identity Crisis, artist Rags Morales revealed that he designed many of the characters' likenesses using actual people. For Starfire, Morales went with model Naomi Campbell, and you can see her signature high cheekbones in Starfire's face.
Nightwing and Starfire visiting the Graysons' graves in Identity Crisis #1.Image: Rags Morales, Michael Blair (DC Comics)
Even if a black woman's likeness had never been the inspiration for one of Starfire's major appearances, the way that some people have responded to Titans' take on the character is ludicrous and, again, patently racist because...Starfire isn't real. She's an orange, alien princess from a comic book who flies through the sky and shoots bolts of energy from her hands. Diop, on the other hand, is an actual person, meaning that the critiques about her not being "attractive enough" or looking the part (again, the part of an orange, alien princess) are ultimately being leveled at her.
The radical reimagining of comic book characters for live-action adaptations is something that both makes it easier to fit them into the larger context of the stories they appear in and allows films and series to help address Hollywood's ongoing problems with on-screen diversity and representation. Titans easily could have cast a white actress, spray painted her bright orange, given her a questionable shake-n-go wig and called it a day, but the show did something better. It cast a strong actress with the range to bring Starfire to life and took the opportunity to make sure that an even larger audience could see something in one of the show's titular heroes.
The racists might not like it, but you know what? Who cares about their misguided and wrongheaded feelings for a comic book character? They're only going to get louder and even more wrong when Titans airs later this year and Dick and Princess Koriand'r end up making out.