Heimdall as drawn by Olivier Coipel
Mark Millar’s been highlighting an interesting story on his blog this week. It seems that white supremacist groups are rather ticked off about the casting of black actor, Idris Elba as Heimdall in the upcoming Thor movie. According to the rather bluntly named Boycott-Thor.com “Marvel has now inserted social engineering into European mythology.” They’re also quite keen to point out that The Guardian newspaper wrote an article saying that Thor was probably going to be crap (nothing to do with the racial aspect, The Guardian just don’t like super hero movies). Yep, white supremacists are quoting the Guardian as a source. Go figure.
I wouldn’t normally bother responding to something as daft as this. Pretty much every fantasy movie manages to offend some nut job about something or other, but in this case it relates to a question that we actually had to look at in the course of one of our projects. The first film that Steve and I did together was a Viking horror short called Ragnarok Dawn set in the mid 11th Century in the twilight of the pagan Viking era. During the casting process we were offered a chance to work with a very talented black actor by the name of Noel Wesley and so found ourselves asking the same question that is being banded around here: were there black Vikings?
Well the short answer is, ‘we don’t know.’ Despite what the people behind such campaigns as Boycott-Thor might wish you to believe, a pile of bones don’t tell you a lot about the colour of a person’s skin. But we can make an educated guess based on what we know about Viking history. It’s easy to think of the Vikings as a bunch of guys who lived on the coast of Denmark and occasionally popped over to pillage Yorkshire but this is a long way from the truth. The term ‘Viking’ is a catch all term for an extremely varied set of groups which, at their peak, were active in almost every corner of the known world and beyond. There are the Vikings of Leif Ericson, who landed in Canada; the Rus, whose influence stretched all the way to the walls of Babylon and Constantinople (and who may or may not have a fairly major modern country named after them depending on who you talk to); even the Normans, those great paragons of Frenchness, were originally of Viking stock. By the end of what we could rather loosely call ‘the Viking age’ being a Viking was far less about where you were from and more about the way you lived and thus it was very hard to say exactly what a Viking was. So it’s safe to say that Vikings would have had direct contact with black people but did they recruit any into their fold? Again it’s hard to say for sure, but it’s important to remember that the Vikings were, above many things, practical. If you are putting together a Viking crew on the shores of the Black Sea and you don’t have enough native Scandinavians to make up the numbers are you honestly going to trek all the way back to Norway to find more? Cities like Constantinople were melting pots of different cultures and to assume that the Vikings were immune to the kind of natural multiculturalism that occurs in such environments defies logic.
I actually pinched this image from a neo-nazi blog, so thanks go to them for providing high res images with which to undermine their hate filled bullshit.
So we can say that historically speaking, there is a basis for saying that you could find a black man on a Viking crew (which is why you can see Mr Wesley’s fine performance in our humble film), but what about having a black man playing a norse god? Well this can probably best be summed up with the following statement:
IT’S A FUCKING SUPERHERO FILM!
Seriously. This is a movie about a guy who throws a shoots lighting out of his face, fights trolls on the streets of small American towns and has a cape that considers the laws of physics to be ‘something other people do’. It’s based on a fictional comic that is based on fictional myths about fictional people. That’s so many levels from reality that you don’t get to complain about historical inaccuracies any more than you get to complain about the fact that Tony Stark can land the Iron Man at full speed and not turn to jelly inside the thing. Elba himself was interviewed about this by the Radio Times a while back and I think he probably sums it up better than anyone:
“Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the color of my skin is wrong? I was cast in Thor and I’m cast as a Nordic god. If you know anything about the Nords, they don’t look like me but there you go. I think that’s a sign of the times for the future. I think we will see multi-level casting. I think we will see that, and I think that’s good.”
Good on you sir.