No redemption for the whiteness in Black Adam
“We’re here to negotiate your peaceful surrender” are some of the first words uttered to Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam. Yet looking at the character’s mythology and current portrayal, Black Adam might have to put peace talks aside. It’s the terms of his existence that are at stake.
From his 1945 inception till now, the fictional being of Black Adam is at best problematic entertainment and at worst a construct of a white imagination’s racist rubble. Whether drudging through the Orientalist cinematic adaptation or enduring one-dimensional writing in Christopher J. Priest’s concurrent comic run, Black Adam zaps his way from one demeaning trope to the next – all erasing what he is essentially a part of: a Middle Eastern story.
In comic mythology, the Wizard Shazam seeks out a mortal vessel to embody the magical powers of ancient Egypt’s pantheon. He finds a people’s protector in Teth, or Theo-Adam, and converts the former slave into the champion that is the Mighty Adam. After abusing his powers, Mighty Adam is punished and imprisoned by the Wizard Shazam. With his fall from grace, the Wizard Shazam dubs him Black Adam. Thousands of years later, he is released.
"What is missing in both portrayals is the critical question of why he needs to be redeemed. After all, Black Adam’s only crime is that he was born of a white imagination"
Both Johnson’s blockbuster and Priest’s yet-to-conclude 12-issue series are stories spearheaded by men of colour - Johnson is well rooted in a history of pioneering Samoan and Black wrestlers, whereas Priest is a legendary comics writer who brings a formidable Black voice to an industry suffering its own racism. Still, both adaptations only prolong Black Adam’s suspension in a monolithic box.
Johnson and Priest both centre the question of redemption, ultimately asking: is Black Adam worthy of it? For the former, it’s a yes, contingent on a transformation that ends with an epic showdown against Superman. For the latter, despite the opportunity to take a tale of failed redemption to one of a successful revolution, it is a definitive no.
Redeeming Black Adam into a palatable anti-hero has repeatedly failed. But what is missing in both portrayals is the critical question of why he needs to be redeemed. After all, Black Adam’s only crime is that he was born of a white imagination.
What redemption is there for Black Adam – essentially a Middle Eastern Superman – when those who tell his story have no shared identity or experiences with him? What redemption is there for Black Adam the actor who plays him is a millionaire pursuing a cash-cow vanity project? What redemption is there for Black Adam when he is written through the lens of imperialism and a vantage point of Western superiority?
Black Adam: Hollywood returns to a state of cultural blindness— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) October 24, 2022
✍ Hanna Flint https://t.co/ImMYOep613
With Johnson’s portrayal, the ill-tempered god is thrown into the Hollywood ringer and gets the Fast and Furious treatment. Infused with a gung-ho feel of Western Americana, Black Adam quick-draws lightning to save Kahndaq, a fictional nation-state next to Egypt.
There, he thunders through the Intergang “neo-imperialists,” a Western military force carefully given British accents, and later, the Justice Society of America, effectively DC’s NATO-like force for the superpowered. Ultimately, Black Adam defeats an old demon and reinstates sovereignty in Kahndaq, transitioning from a disgraced god to a people’s protector.
Johnson’s Black Adam is a “man in black,” an invocation of Johnny Cash’s stoic optics and an invitation for a global audience to laud a redemption not for its heroic defending of an oppressed pseudo-Arab nation, but because it is that redemption now American-ised.
Priest’s rendition of Black Adam is as riddled with troublesome leanings as his candid interviews with Pop Verse and Comics Beat are. He tells of Black Adam, freshly questioned by the US Senate, as one conspired against by an unknown force with a deadly space virus.
To cleanse his reputation of abusing superpowers and a people yearning for democracy alike, Black Adam seeks out a living descendant. He finds Malik, an obscurely Afro-Arab diaspora kid from the Bronx, New York, first introduced as a medical student treating a neo-Nazi. Black Adam shares his powers with Malik, urging him to be a better person as “White Adam.”
Black Adam then investigates who poisoned him, a quest showing readers another fictional Middle Eastern city, the yellow-tinted and politically turmoiled Bialya. Readers see nonsensical text noted as Arabic translation, Orientalist depictions of Egypt and “sandbox” references to Palestine, all of which aim for an authenticity that serves either an audience that either sees the world through a white gaze or has internalised it.
Priest also introduces readers to supposedly Middle Eastern cultural trademarks like “chai saeedi”, a mystical healing tea when, to many Egyptians, it’s just heavy red tea. In uglier cases, there are moments that paint an untrue incongruity between Arabness and Jewishness, where Malik asks a US State Department official how he, a Jew, could be a friend of Black Adam, an Arab. Tip-toeing around his flimsy racial themes, Priest writes, “Kahndaqis are not Arab.”
"The muddied waters of race, politics and representation in Black Adam reminds us that, despite a growing MENA presence in popular media, truthful storytelling is more than just an invitation to a table built by and for racist systems"
While painting Black Adam as a leader of a failed state, whose people are conspiring to overthrow him through a reformist movement, the comparison falsely paints the region as a collection of doomed nations. With that political positioning, the detached commentary creates a black-and-white people torn between adoring a strongman or installing an edible modernity for the West to stomach.
For Priest, Black Adam’s original sin is not sharing his powers with a nephew he eventually murders. At the heart of his storytelling, Black Adam mimics a run-of-the-mill Arab tyrant, a greedy killer whose penance comes from a fear of death. Priest attempts to decolonise a character he admittedly hates yet does not have the tools or direct lived experience to do so.
Unlike his white counterparts Superman and Shazam, Black Adam isn’t born of hope or a tragedy that fuels an undying desire for justice. Instead, he’s born of murder and betrayal. In Hollywood and the comic book industry, or in the webbings of white supremacy at large, for any storytelling about being Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern or North African, menace is a must.
The muddied waters of race, politics and representation in Black Adam reminds us that, despite a growing MENA presence in popular media, truthful storytelling is more than just an invitation to a table built by and for racist systems. As a complex variety of peoples too often lumped together and endlessly dehumanised in media, we demand more authentic storytelling.
We know that MENA actors can be cast as sidelined comic relief, but can we tell our own stories? How can Johnson and Priest relay a MENA symbol without knowing what it means, or who it signifies? For this calibre of unremitting representation, it’s time we tell our own stories and set a new status quo before others think of telling them.
And if that seemingly impossible equilibrium can’t be met, MENA is bigger than Marvel or DC’s pigeon-holes, and truthful stories can be told outside mainstream institutions. That would truly change the hierarchy of power.
Yousef H. Alshammari is a US-based Kuwaiti journalist and writer with a focus on international politics and culture.
Follow him on Twitter: @YousefWryRonin
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.