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Armond White on Dwayne Johnson, ‘Hercules’ and Multiracial Men in Traditionally European Roles

Armond White on Dwayne Johnson, 'Hercules' and Multiracial Men in Traditionally European Roles

Armond White can be a difficult figure to reckon with in contemporary criticism. At his best he’s a remarkably erudite and thoughtful critic who’s simply working on a different wavelength than most. At his worst, he’s wasting time in his reviews misrepresenting the other side – see his “Boyhood” review, in which he claims that the Antoine Doinel or “Up” series aren’t mentioned in any of the film’s positive reviews, rather than almost every single damn one – or allegedly heckling Steve McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, an incident that got him expelled from the organization. 

This week sees him at his best. Writing for Out Magazine, White discussed the new not-bad “Hercules” film starring Dwayne Johnson. White didn’t go over the moon for the film itself, saying that it was split between parody and full-blown adventure spectacle and that Brett Ratner’s workmanlike direction couldn’t compare to Renny Harlin’s superior work on this year’s earlier “The Legend of Hercules” (that’s the Armond we know!), but he praised Johnson’s performance and noted how Johnson represented “an advance in masculine sexual iconography by including multiracial features, skin tones, and subtle ethnic echoes.”

It is The Rock himself who, by taking on a role usually limited to European types, helps broaden awareness of gender icons and idealized figures of male sexuality. “Hercules” is a minor film but The Rock’s image recalls the breakthrough made by legendary Hollywood photographer Georges Hurrell who, in 1929, posed Mexican actor Ramon Navarro for a landmark series of mythological portraits: one as the Knight Percival shown contemplating his own sword and, another of Navarro, in the signature softly erotic Hurrell style, wearing a crown of laurel leaves. Hurrell titled it “The New Orpheus.”

White’s essay touches on Johnson taking on an iconic role traditionally played by white men, but it could also stand to serve as an example of just how multiracial actors can take on and improve upon classic or cinematic heroes. He mentions how Johnson’s “wall-of-man immensity” and black and Polynesian background makes him unique among actors who have played Hercules, but why can’t that carry over to, say, an Asian Superman? Let’s get a hispanic Jedi in one of the next “Star Wars” movies – in a lead role. And in terms of male sexuality and heroism, a black James Bond (the internet wants Idris Elba, but Chiwetel Ejiofor would do nicely, too) wouldn’t just broaden possibilities, it could make a nice bit of semi-subversion of a traditionally white imperialist figure. Johnson’s among the first (and Michael B. Jordan’s taking on Johnny Storm in “The Fantastic Four”), and he shouldn’t be the last.

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