Star Trek: Into Darkness came out this past weekend, and like any good Trekkie, I was eager to see the film. Although I came away from the theater satisfied, there was one thing that stuck in my craw. Its name was Benedict Cumberbatch. An actor who I love, playing a character whom I love, in a franchise that I love, but I wasn’t happy about it. Because, by all accounts, Cumberbatch is a white guy.
In “Space Seed”, the original Khan episode from 1967, and subsequently in “Wrath of Khan” in 1982, Khan was played, famously, by actor Ricardo Montalbán, who was Mexican born and of Spanish descent. Not a perfect casting, seeing as Khan is described in the script of “Space Seed” as a Northern Indian Sikh, but considering the studio pressure on Gene Roddenberry to cast only white actors, it was an important statement just to have Khan played by a person of color. Especially since, amongst Star Trek’s villains, Khan is famously complex, intelligent and iconic. By whitewashing Khan, Into Darkness director J.J. Abrams is going back to a tradition where complicated, sympathetic villains are white guys, whereas garden variety angry bad-guys are more likely to be people of color.
This isn’t the only disturbing thing about having Cumberbatch cast as Khan. There’s some history behind this character that makes him work better as a person of color than as white. As iO9 points out in their discussion of the casting choice, Khan is genetically engineered—he’s a product of a eugenic experiment, a superman/übermensch whose genetic superiority makes him feel justified in positioning himself above others. Khan is a genetic composite of all the best parts of humanity as a whole. Gene Roddenberry specifically wanted to make him not the Aryan man that indelibly lingers as our image of the eugenic ideal. By making the “ideal” man Indian, Rodenberry he was pointing out that genetic composite of all humans probably wouldn’t wind up white. It was a brave choice, and it’s a shame to see it undermined by Abrams today.
I should note that Cumberbatch wasn’t actually Abrams’ first choice to play the role: originally, he was seeking out Benicio del Toro, but when he pulled out, he went with Cumberbatch. I find this somewhat comforting to know, although the question remains as to why nobody thought to cast an Indian actor in an Indian role. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the movie (and Cumberbatch’s acting) anyway, but it was definitely disappointing, especially in a franchise famous for its promotion of diversity, equality, and the inherent worth of all human beings.
The situation is further complicated by the secrecy that surrounded Cumberbatch’s role in Into Darkness right up until the film’s release date. Until last week, Abrams, Cumberbatch, and everyone involved with the film was still swearing up and down that Cumberbatch was playing a new character called “John Harrison,” despite a lot of hint-dropping and references to “Space Seed” and “Wrath of Khan” in trailers and other promotional materials. It’s great for marketing and publicity to keep the casting decision a secret, but not so great for organizations who fight against practices of whitewashing in media. It’s hard to mount a large-scale protest when no one can actually confirm whether the thing you’re protesting against is happening or not.