Joss Whedon Denies Racism Charges by Saying Black Man Is Just a White Man’s Pawn

It's an unsurprising development given the way Whedon has depicted—or not—people of color during his long career.

Jan 18 2022, 6:27pm

It was never very difficult for me to believe that Joss Whedon was racist toward Ray Fisher on the set of Justice League. I’ve seen how he treats characters of color in his work.

Yesterday, New York magazine published an in-depth profile of Whedon in which he tried to explain away accusations of cruelty and abuse against him, both as a romantic partner and as a boss. The details sometimes sound like plot beats out of his own shows—like when he dated a woman who told him that her worst nightmare was being broken up with on her birthday, which he promptly did. In all, they serve to make him look even worse than he already did.

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What’s especially egregious is the way he talks about Fisher, who said that Whedon’s treatment of him on the set of Justice League was not just abusive but also racist. Whedon said that Fisher can’t possibly really believe that, and implied, as unnamed sources close to him outright told reporter Lila Shapiro, that Fisher must be being manipulated by the original director of Justice League, Zack Snyder.

“We’re talking about a malevolent force. We’re talking about a bad actor in both senses,” Whedon told New York.

“I don’t know who started it,” Whedon continued. “I just know in whose name it was done.”

Let us be frank: Claiming that a black man only hates you because a white man told him to is racist. The things that Fisher said Whedon and other managers on the set of Justice League asked him to do and subjected him to are also obviously racially motivated. Even if Cyborg says “Booyah” in the Teen Titans cartoon, Fisher has a right to object to uttering a dated catchphrase that is rooted in black slang. It was a weird thing to add to the character in the first place, and based on Fisher’s comments to The Hollywood Reporter, it was humiliating for him to film.

“As he arrived on set, he says, Whedon stretched out his arms and said a line from Hamlet in a mocking tone,” Fisher’s account from the Hollywood Reporter reads. “‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you.’ Fisher replied, ‘Joss—don’t. I’m not in the mood.’ As he left the set after saying just that one phrase for the cameras, he says, Whedon called out, ‘Nice work, Ray.’”

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Fisher would also say on Twitter that Whedon and the studio wanted to reshoot a scene to focus attention on Cyborg’s penis, while also diminishing the roles that black characters would play in the movie overall. 

“They dared not speak those things to me, nor any other Black person associated with the film,” Fisher wrote. “Instead, they chose the cowardly route of gaslighting—complete with extremely problematic requests such as asking me to 'play Cyborg like Quasimodo'; and forcing a scene to be reshot so they could highlight the existence of Cyborg's penis.”

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

It doesn’t seem like a huge mystery as to why Fisher would call this experience racist. Looking broadly at how Wheon has written characters of color, it’s also not surprising. 

The issue of race in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Whedon’s signature productions, is thorny, mostly because there is very little racial diversity in these shows. When characters of color do show up, it’s a mixed bag. The blaxploitation vampire Mr. Trick in Buffy’s third season was a hilarious villain, but underutilized and killed off way too quickly. Los Angeles gangbanger-turned-vampire-hunter Charles Gunn, who joined the main cast in the second season, is by far the least developed character on the show. His most significant long-running storyline has him in competition for the romantic affections of Fred Burkle, a white woman with whom he has absolutely no chemistry. He ends up losing her (and then she dies).

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Things get worse in Firefly, Whedon’s next major production, which has two black leads, but a sketchy relationship to Asian-ness. In the universe of the show, space exploration was a joint effort between the United States and China, which is mostly expressed by having characters swear in broken Chinese. Despite how important China appears to be in the lore of the show, there are no major Asian characters at all. Whedon’s next show after that, Dollhouse, had a major character who was played by an Asian actress, the wonderful Dichen Lachmann. This character was raped, on screen, in two different episodes in two different seasons of the show, playing into racist tropes about the sexual availability of Asian women.

Whedon would also preside over the only all-white Avengers team in the first and second Avengers movies. His superhero team in Astonishing X-Men is also all white, as are the Victorian X-Men of The Nevers. Non-white characters may appear, but white characters unilaterally take center stage and are the people who move the plot forward.

Of all these weird portrayals of non-white people, one sticks out in my mind the most. Firefly is a jumbled mess of Western tropes, given that it was designed to be a space western similar to Outlaw Star. It is also famously inspired by the novel The Killer Angels, which is about Confederate soldiers after the American Civil War. These perspectives come into play in two ways in the show. 

Firstly, because the show is meant to be a Western, Whedon makes the choice to preserve the trope of the always-chaotic evil threat of violence from indigenous peoples, but somehow even more flattened than the way that Native Americans have been very racistly depicted in Westerns of yore. Instead of indigenous people, there are reavers, wild tribes of humans who went mad in deep space and now terrorize the fringes in wild murder bands that always murder and always torture. The racism of this idea is both obvious and egregious.

Secondly, the show itself is enamored with the idea of the nobility of Confederate soldiers, but not the reason why they fought. It ends up in strange mixed metaphors, like when a late season villain, played by a black man, is named after a Confederate general. If there’s an intentional irony to this casting, it doesn’t come through in the text. Now, all I can think about is how humiliating it would be to be a black actor put in the position of playing a character named after a man who went to war for his right to own slaves.

As a black person watching these shows, there’s a sense of loneliness. It’s hard being the only black person in a social group—I always wondered how Gunn felt, having largely abandoned his black friends for Angel Investigations. But that level of interiority was never afforded to characters of color in the universes of Joss Whedon. Their violence and anger can only be explained as being some white man’s plans.

Tagged:

RACISM, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, ray fisher

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