Thor (2011) - Heimdall (Idris Elba)
Why is a black man playing a Viking? Aren't all Vikings blonde-haired and blue-eyed? Here are six good reasons that it makes total sense to have a black man in Thor: The Dark World.

(This post is part of the Thor Love blogfest)

Race isn't a major issue in the Marvel films, although two characters stand out. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Idris Elba as Heimdall.

When the Thor movie came out, there was an uproar and backlash from people claiming it was wrong to change the Thor character Heimdall from white to black. Mainly this was on racist and white supremacist websites, but some in the media picked it up as a real thing. In the end, the backlash was unfounded because as Harry from Ain't It Cool News said, "To those people who asked, 'Why cast a black man as a Viking', every scene Elba is in is [a] resounding THAT IS WHY!" He's incredible.

So, to end the controversy once and for all, here are reasons why it makes sense for there to be a black man in Thor: The Dark World.

1. Vikings Visited Africa
The Viking ships are renowned for their long voyages. These ships allowed the Vikings to travel as far east as Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia, as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, and as far south as Morocco. Maps of the Viking travels show them stopping in North Africa. The black African tribes were mainly in subsaharan Africa, but trade routes were common. While the Vikings were mainly traders, they would sometimes take people as soldiers, slaves or wives. Some Vikings had "jungle-fever."

2. Some Vikings Are Described as Black
There's a rather controversial article at Rasta Livewire that suggests that all Vikings were black. This is based on historical descriptions of the people. I'm not going that far, but at least some of them must have been black.

“The Irish annalists were a lesson to all with their division of Norse invaders into White Foreigners, Norwegians(Finn-gaill), and Black Foreigners, Danes(Dubh-gaill), but it was a lesson no one heeded; nor do we know why they distinguished them by colour.” See A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS by Gwyn Jones (1968)

“The Welsh chroniclers, for example, made no such clear distinction. The Danes coming in by way of England and the Norwegians by way of Ireland were pretty well all black: Black Gentiles(y Kenedloed Duon), Black Norsemen(y Normanyeit Duon), Black Host, Pagans, Devils and the like.”(CONT.) See A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS by Gwyn Jones(1968)

“There was a man hight Thorvard; he married Freydis, a natural daughter of Erik the Red; he went [219] also with them, and Thorvald the son of Erik (100), and THORHALL who was called the hunter; he had long been with Erik, and served him as huntsman in summer and steward in winter; he was a large man, and strong, BLACK AND LIKE A GIANT, silent and foul-mouthed in his speech, and always egged on Erik to the worst” See SAGA OF THORFINN KARLSEFNI.
“According to Egils Saga, of the 2 famous sons of Kveldulf, Thorolf was tall and handsome like his mothers people, but Grim took after his father was black and ugly. Grim’s sons Thorolf and Egill, born out in Iceland, repeated the pattern- Thorolf was the image of his uncle, tall, handsome and sunny-natured, and many Egill was black, even uglier than his father, totuous and incalculable,…..etc. craggy head, broad nose, heavy jaw and swart visage.” See A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS, GWYN JONES pg 86

3. Black Asgardians Could Be Moors
The Moors were the medieval Muslim inhabitants of Morocco. In the movie The Long Ships (1964) Sidney Poitier played a Moor, named Aly Mansuh, who worked with a Norse king to find a treasure.  We know that the Vikings encountered the Moors, who were black. See there could be a Moor among the Vikings.

4. Lots of Actors of Color Have Played Scandinavians
Changing the ethnicity of a character happens in Shakespeare all the time. In 2001, Adrian Lester played Hamlet in Paris. David Oyelowo was the first black performer in the Royal Shakespeare Company's history to be cast as Henry VI. "This is not a defining moment for black actors," Hugh Quarshie, who was the first black Hotspur on a British stage, said. "It is a lot easier to have non-traditional casting with Shakespeare. In fact, this seems only possible in the classics at all these days. The real problems for black actors come with modern plays and the cinema." There's no definitive evidence that William Shakespeare intended Othello to be black, but most productions cast a black man in the role. Director Kenneth Branagh often compared his Thor movie to Shakespeare, so why not follow the same casting rules?

5. The Asgardians Are Not Scandinavian
The Asgardians are not from Scandinavia. They're from another dimension. When they showed up the people revered them as "gods." That means they aren't required to be any specific race and don't have to look anything like the blonde-haired, blue eyed people in the history books.

6. It's a Movie
The most obvious reason is that it's a movie. They can have Vikings played by Latinos if they want to. The casting call for Thor: The Dark World said "any ethnicity" so there's not reason not to hire black people as Asgardians. Thor 2 wasn't the only movie to do this. In the movie The Norsemen (1978) the late Deacon Jones played an African slave named Thrall.

MARVEL’S THOR: THE DARK WORLD releases in theaters on November 8, 2013
Marvel’s "Thor: The Dark World" continues the big-screen adventures of Thor, the Mighty Avenger, as he battles to save Earth and all the Nine Realms from a shadowy enemy that predates the universe itself.  In the aftermath of Marvel’s "Thor" and "Marvel’s The Avengers," Thor fights to restore order across the cosmos...but an ancient race led by the vengeful Malekith returns to plunge the universe back into darkness. To defeat an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor sets upon his most dangerous and personal journey yet, forced into an alliance with the treacherous Loki to save not only his people and those he loves…but our universe itself.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano and Jaimie Alexander with Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Marvel’s “Thor: The Dark World” is directed by Alan Taylor, produced by Kevin Feige, p.g.a., from a story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat and screenplay by Christopher L. Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, and is based on Marvel’s classic Super Hero Thor, who first appeared in the comic book “Journey into Mystery “ #83 in August, 1962.

Thor: The Dark World” is presented by Marvel Studios. The executive producers are Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Craig Kyle, Alan Fine, Nigel Gostelow and Stan Lee. The film releases November 8, 2013, and is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

What do you think? Does it make sense to have minorites in the world of Thor: The Dark World?

This post is part of the Thor Love blogfest hosted by ST Bende and Amalia Dillin. Sign up today!
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Rusty Webb said...

I rewatched the first Thor movie the other day and had forgotten that Idris Elba was in it. He was horribly miscast by marvel... he needs to be a centerpiece of whatever movie he's in, not someone who's role is to play a statue most of the time.

But, that said, I didn't know there if there were any black norsemen, I didn't care either, a great actor trumps everything IMO. Elba just bleeds charisma on screen. Cast him as anything you want and I'm probably going to be more interested in the project than I would be without him.

Heck, he's the reason I watched Ghost Rider 2.

Pat Dilloway said...

Author A Lee Martinez told me it's fine because they're aliens. To which I suggested why aren't they blue or green or have tentacles or something? Anyway, how do you explain the Asian guy? Viking foreign exchange program?


Idris Elba....Thats my answer!
We should have him kick those complaining into a pit ....

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's right - they were Scandinavian Gods, not Scandinavians. They could be any shade or color.
Number six is the best answer - it's a movie, folks! Relax.

Tyrean Martinson said...

I don't know if it's good or bad, but I didn't pay any attention to Heimdall's skin color. I just thought he had a cool role. That's it.
I think all of the reasons you've stated are good ones. It drives me nuts that we have to pull out historical evidence to clout people over the head with the truth of past diversity.

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Amalia Dillin said...

Thank you for writing this post -- it's absolutely 100% spot on. But I'd like to add this as well: why on earth does anyone feel compelled to place human limits upon the gods, at all? There are plenty of examples of shapeshifting among the Giants, and Odin is known to disguise himself through any number of means -- for all we know, their natural state was PURPLE, and even if the took on the skin tones of the people who worshipped them, you're absolutely right that it is COMPLETELY possible that the people who worshipped them were more than just white Scandinavians, BECAUSE of how widely traveled the Vikings and Norsemen were!

This is one of those issues that boggles my mind. It's such a narrow interpretation of history and reality. Such a shame, and I only wish that Marvel had gone further, honestly!

Thanks for being part of the blog hop!!

Nisse Söderström said...

as a scandinavian, and as an avid norse mythology enthusiast, there's a lot to be said about the accurate depiction of thor, and the asgardians in the marvel universe. A LOT. however, i am also a nerd, and have therefore always seen this (the movie as well as the comics) as marvels world and also as marvels characters. they bare some resemblance to the scandinavian myths and lore, but not much is accurate.

having said that, one shall also know that not much is said in the norse mythology concerning how the different gods looked. only in cases when they have distinguishing features (odins eye or the length of the midgård snake for instance) or when they change or switch form (which they do quite a lot) you will get a hint of what they look like.

it is very true that the vikings traded with african people, and africans (dark skinned people) are often described in scandinavian texts from this period, however (side note here) rather than describing them as black, norse traders saw their skin more as blue, and therefore called them "blue men" (roughly translated). they were often mentioned as cunning business men, skilled traders, and good fighters.

seeing it this way it is very possible that vikings, describing the looks and characteristics of their gods described some of them as black (/blue if judged by the times). i would argue that a viking influenced by what he saw of a great african warrior, skilled especially with the bow, then would describe the god vale as black for having the same characteristics.

rounding up this rant i have to say that i agree with #5 and #6 equally.

msmariah said...

I'm kinda tired of people saying things like "Laurence Fishburne shouldn't be Perry White" or "Idris Elba shouldn't be Heimdall." It's a freaking comic book, not 'Pride and Prejudice' or Shakespeare. Comics are supposed to be fantastical. There are not literal interpretations of anything.

Also, considering when most of these comics were originally written (Superman in the 1930s), black people were not necessarily appearing in those comics for obvious reasons. So pre-1960s/1970s, we would essentially have all white comic book characters were it not for these tweaks in casting. America is much more diverse than it was 70 years ago. Comics should be reflections of the time.

Maurice Mitchell said...

"Repeat to yourself 'it's just a show, I should really just relax'" ;)

Maurice Mitchell said...

You know they never did explain why there's a Japanese man on Asgard even in the comics Pat.

Maurice Mitchell said...

These are insightful points Nisse and it's great getting the perspective of a Scandinavian, a myth fan and a fellow nerd.
You might enjoy this io9 article: 8 Things Marvel got Wrong about Thor and Norse Mythology

BTW do have a blog or twitter account I can follow? You always leave great comments.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Yeah, we think we're past that but, sadly, we're not Tyrean. Elba is awesome.

Maurice Mitchell said...

He could be in the 300 sequel David!

Maurice Mitchell said...

Great point indeed. Everyone complaining about messing up their heritage should remember that mythological characters aren't heritage. They're just stories. Great stories, but just that.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Mystery Science Theater 3000!! You rock. Now I'm going to go pull one up in NetFlix...

Maurice Mitchell said...

I knew you'd get that one Alex!

Tyrean Martinson said...

Elba rocks! And I wish we were past it.

Nisse Söderström said...

thanks for the link, that was a good condensed read! its true as the article says that the odin of norse myth is far from the sophisticated anthony hopkins.

one thing here that has bothered me since the start of thor is the absence of the valkyrie (and im not talking about brunnhilde). these are, to me, such an obvious addition to any mythological hero arc since of their unbiased and unstoppable nature. anyone, god and man alike, who fell in combat (einhärjare) was taken by the valkyrie to valhalla. these fierce warrior women were not to be messed with, rather something to feared more than anything, since they would pick the winners of battles.

come to think of it, story arcing wonder woman as part valkyrie may actually work... hmm... *sidetracked

also, here is my blog. i write mostly of social media and internet trends, but at time the raw geek slips through. enjoy!


ST Bende said...

I'm with Alex -- number 6 it is. Love this post, and I can't wait to see Thor2 this weekend! Which character are y'all most excited to see again?

Kater said...

People, please learn some history... they were NOT only scandinavian gods and certainly not 'viking gods'. They were germanic gods (not 'geman' but 'germanic' gods, aka gods of the several germanic tribes that existed), which means that they were known in the whole ancient germanic territory. That would be roughly todays Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, parts of Poland, parts of Austria and Switzerland.
I'm so tired of swedes claiming them only for themselves... simply because it isn't true at all.

ghb said...

1. I would not call maroccans black. More arabic looking.

2. I have been to several museums, eg. Birka, Swedish national history museum Norway national history museum etc. Nowhere is there any mention of black Vikings. But you probably know better right?

3. Do you see how point 3 and 5 contradict each other :-) You say that the asgardians are certanly not scandinavians but then why would they be moors?? Maybe you are not so "logical" as you claim. More the retarded kind of person I would guess.

4. I think when a black actor is playing for example Hamlet, it is more an interpretation of the original Shakespear story. Nobody actually think that a black prince of Denmark have existed.


6. True. And keep up the good fight :-)


M. said...

Imagine a film depicting the Dreamtime of Aboriginal Australia with white fellas portraying the heroes of black myths and legends. Would you then say that the indigenous people offended by this decision are overreacting because it is only a movie? Because that would serve to demonstrate that you're the culturally insensitive ones. If you can't see how offensive your own simplistic excuses are then you are as thick as a post. Plain and simple.

The irony in all of this is that _you people_ are as racist as you claim your adversaries to be. Thinking it's perfectly acceptable to insult and undermine the identity and autonomy of ethnic groups by insulting their religions is in and of itself inherently imperialistic and racist. This is one of several fallacies of cultural liberalism and it evidences the intellectual shortcomings of its disciples.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Thanks for your comment M. You make an excellent point. I would never say that it’s OK to distort the religions of any people either black, white or Native American. The point of this post is that it’s possible that the people of that time saw black people on a more regular basis than people assume. I have no intention of condoning the disrespect of any religion, but you could argue that Thor has very little to do with religion since it clearly states the people in the film are not gods.

gregCall said...

While I have enjoyed the acting of Idris Elba in other movies I did find his being shoehorned into Thor offensive simply because he's only there to meet the "diversity" quota.
The case of Samuel Jackson playing Nick Fury is acceptable mainly because the original character of Nick Fury wouldn't translate to modern movie audiences, Nick fury was a world war 2 250 pound cigar chomping, bearded, one eyed leader of a commando squad. So in reworking the character making him black was a no harm no foul situation. Conversely making a character black just to have a black in the film is insulting and pointless and does detract from the film. And keep in mind i do think Idris Elba is a good actor and it isn't his fault in any way, he took a part that was offered to him, the one to blame is the race conscious social engineers at the studios.

Smitty said...

Modern day North Africa is not Ancient Africa. Its like comparing modern day USA to ancient USA

Smitty said...

Well you have white characters playing historical black characters all the time. why complain about a black character playing a fictional one?

sonny said...

All the original Norse were black

sonny said...

Forget everything you knew about history, the original Norse were black even the pictures on cave walls and sites show them as black.

Patrick Sandoval said...

Point #2 is silly. In that context black means darker haired or maybe even tanned skinned but not black skinned or African looking. Similar to the term black Irish. Are you seriously suggesting that the medieval pperiod Danes were black?

someone said...

Heimdallr is desribed in Thrymskvidha as being "whitest of all gods". Idris Elba is an awesome actor, but portraying Heimdallr with a black man would be like casting Tom Hanks to play Malcolm X.
It has nothing to do explicitly with racism -- Heimdallr is white. You don't cast an apple to play an orange, so why cast a black man to play a white deity?

>it's just a movie
so was "birth of a nation".

Ten said...

Heimdal in the myth are actually described as the Whitest of Æsir.
but it's a movie, so i have no problem with it

amphiox said...

There are actual historical records, records left by the Vikings themselves, of black-skinned Vikings. If you portrayed ALL the Asgardian Viking gods as black in some work of fiction, that would be one thing. But to portray one single god (or 2 or 3) out of an entire city of gods, all of the rest of whom are white, as black, is wholly historically appropriate.

If a small minority of Vikings were black, as historically documented, then portraying a small minority of their pantheon of gods as black is perfectly legitimate.

Jacob Tautiaga said...

SMH The Moors were NOT black African. They were Arab/Berber. And you seriously used that joke of a website? No peer reviewed journals or anything? You might as well have used Wikipedia. You also contradicted yourself. First you say it was ok for blacks to be cast as Vikings as they visited Africa and took slaves, soldiers and wives, along with that dodgy webpage about them being black. But then later, you point out that the Asgardians were not Scandinavian.


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