The New Mutants casting has had about as much controversy as its prolonged timeline for release. When the cast list was revealed, fans were quick to notice that Henry Zaga didn’t quite match up with the comics’ iteration of Sunspot. Now that another trailer has been released, the conversation surrounding the issue has lit up again on social media, garnering all sorts of different reactions.
To avoid any misinterpretation: No, The New Mutants isn’t automatically a horrible movie with nothing good to offer just because of this casting choice. No one is a “bad person” for enjoying the trailer or looking forward to the film. No one is a “bad person” just because they’re white. No one is saying that Henry Zaga is an awful actor who should never get work again. These kinds of slippery slope extreme assumptions often lead to people automatically refusing to listen to these conversations. There’s plenty of interesting things offered in the trailer, such as the near spot-on portrayal Anya Taylor Joy seems to be giving Magik. However, the casting issues regarding Sunspot (and Cecilia Reyes) are certainly worth the conversation they have sparked on social media amongst comic fans.
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To avoid any other misinterpretation: Whitewashing in this conversation is referring to the term Merriam-Webster defines as, “To alter (an original story) by casting a white performer in a role based on a nonwhite person or fictional character.” In the context of this conversation, the definition is a bit malleable because, although Henry Zaga isn’t totally considered white (his mother is of Native Brazilian ancestry), his casting is nonetheless, inaccurate and part of a larger problem regarding erasure (and colorism) in popular media.
To break down the controversy: Roberto da Costa is Brazilian. Henry Zaga is Brazilian. Roberto da Costa is specifically a black Brazilian man. Henry Zaga is not a black man. Therein lies the context of the arguments being made against his casting for this specific role. Many are quick to point out that anti-black racism was a clear and obvious point in Roberto’s backstory. In the first issue of New Mutants, when Roberto’s powers first manifested, he was being violently attacked by a group of racist children at a soccer game who specifically targeted him because he was black. Roberto’s mother is canonically white, but his father is a black man, this makes him a mixed-race, Afro-Brazilian.
This attack caused Roberto’s powers to manifest. In The New Mutants film, they deliberately took this moment out of his backstory. Henry Zaga, the actor who plays Roberto in the film, isn’t a black man, so how can he be the recipient of an explicit anti-black attack? He can’t. So, the movie gives Roberto a new backstory, erasing any trace of anti-black racism from his narrative. In the trailer, he is seen with the other New Mutants as they discuss where they were when their powers first manifested. This new Roberto burned his girlfriend on accident during an intimate moment. Clearly haunted by the event, he says, “My girlfriend…I burned her…”
Part of the original New Mutants book’s goal was to replicate the success of the (at the time) newer incarnation of the X-Men. This group of X-Men was explicitly more diverse, featuring characters of different backgrounds from all over the globe. In the “Giant-Size X-Men” team, Storm was from Africa, Nightcrawler was from Germany, Wolverine was Canadian and Thunderbird was Apache. This uniting of different nationalities, races and ethnicities was one of the many things that set the X-Men apart during this time period. The New Mutants team followed in a similar suit: Wolfsbane was Scottish, Illyana was Russian, Sam was a country boy from America, Mirage was Cheyenne, Karma was Vietnamese and Roberto was Afro-Brazilian. Diversity isn’t just important for the New Mutants series conceptually, it’s one of the things the team was founded on.
There are millions of Afro-Latino Brazilians and for a company as well-known as Fox (who initially was responsible for casting since this predates the Disney acquisition), it’s not as if taking the steps to hire appropriately would have been impossible. In 2014, Fox made the same mistake by inaccurately casting Roberto for his small part in Days of Future Past. When The New Mutants material began to release, many fans became frustrated because they felt like the company had learned nothing from that previous mistake.
The idea that casting accurately for this role is “too challenging” is kind of lazy. Within the US alone there are millions of Afro-Latino people. And yes, there are tons of Afro-Latino celebrities — Tessa Thomspon, Alfred Enoch and Tristan Wilds are just a few notable examples. It’s not that Afro-Latino actors don’t exist, it’s that Fox wasn’t trying hard enough to find them.
Roberto’s casting controversy does raise another important issue: the unfortunate truth is, not many people even know that the character is black. As previously mentioned, Roberto was initially depicted as explicitly, a dark-skinned Afro-Brazilian boy. Compare his initial appearances to how he’s looked in some more recent comics, and you can see just how people have drawn the incorrect assumption that he is a light-skinned, nonblack Brazilian character.
Similarly (though far less often discussed online) Cecilia Reyes was inaccurately cast. In the comics, Cecilia Reyes is a dark-skinned, black Puerto-Rican woman. In The New Mutants, she will be played by Alice Braga. Needless to say, these two people look nothing alike.
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An argument that often comes up is something along the lines of “well, Rahne wasn’t cast with a Scottish actress.” Yes, Maisie Williams isn’t Scottish, but Scottish isn’t a racial identity, so the comparison doesn’t really stick. There are Scottish people of all sorts of racial backgrounds. Rahne is a white character and Williams is a white actress. To bring up her Scottish roots then isn’t an argument about race, it’s an argument about nationality. Similarly, Roberto da Costa’s nationality is Brazilian. He is culturally Brazilian. He is racially a black man. Zaga may be Brazilian, but he isn’t black. Thus, the casting is racially inaccurate. It’s important to understand that black people live everywhere –just as there are black Americans, there are black Brazilians and Roberto da Costa is one of them.
Another argument that comes up is the idea that because Zaga is a man of color, his casting is acceptable. Zaga is a man of color, but he is partially Native Brazilian, not black like Roberto. To say any person of color can play the role of another person of color almost implies there are two races: “White” and “Of Color.” No one would cast John Cho as the Black Panther just because they’re both people of color after all. Each race is different.
To be clear, this conversation is complex, as are all conversations about race and media, but it’s worth a deeper examination. Yes, The New Mutants does have plenty to be excited for and isn’t automatically this “horrible, no good, bad movie that no one should see.” The New Mutants could very well be the best (or one of the best) X-Men movies to date, however, it wouldn’t change the fact that the film erased Roberto da Costa’s blackness. This blatant miscasting will always be a disappointing truth about the film and it’s important to recognize and spread awareness about these things in hopes of inspiring better, more accurate casting in future projects.
In short, it’s an important conversation to have and it’s far bigger than just The New Mutants film –which is why it keeps coming up across social media and other sites’ think pieces.
Directed and co-written by Josh Boone, The New Mutants stars Maisie Williams as Rahne Sinclair/Wolfsbane, Anya Taylor-Joy as Illyana Rasputin/Magik, Charlie Heaton as Sam Guthrie/Cannonball, Henry Zaga as Roberto da Costa/Sunspot, Blu Hunt as Danielle Moonstar/Mirage and Alice Braga as Dr. Cecelia Reyes. The film arrives in theaters April 3.
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