J.J. Abrams’ second installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise delivers classic geekery at warp speed, ratcheting up the action sequences, the rapid-fire dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments and the poignant emotionalism at the root of Spock and Kirk’s famous friendship. It’s a film that any fan of the TV shows and prior films will enjoy, rife as it is with in-jokes and shout-outs and a gorgeous flip of a truly memorable sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. However, it’s another sort of flip that holds Star Trek Into Darkness in limbo: the controversial casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the film’s central villain.
Married as it is to its aesthetics, from the sleek, clean grace of the Enterprise to the constant focus on Chris Pine’s stunning blue eyes, this new version of Star Trek and StarFleet cannot and should not be unaware of how much power there is in what we see. And seeing Cumberbatch take on such an iconic role has myriad implications.
Khan Noonien Singh, in classic Star Trek canon, is a genetically engineered superhuman with a South Asian Sikh name, who was played by Mexican-born Spanish actor Ricardo Montalban in both the series and Star Trek II. On the most basic level, having Cumberbatch — at some points in the film so pale that he brought to mind android Data from ST: TNG — play this role is whitewashing, or what some now call racebending. Mind you, Montalban playing Khan was also racebending, but in a far more common Hollywood way, wherein One Brown Fits All. (See also: Andrews, Naveen.) Okay, given that Montalban was a fair-skinned Caucasian, let’s just split the difference and say, “One Tan Fits All.” But I digress. Suffice it to say, Khan has long been considered genetically superior and racially diverse. In Benedict Cumberbatch’s version, we have the former but not so much the latter. Why?
1. “Because…spoilers!” some have said. Casting a man of color would have tipped the film’s hand from the outset, making the surprise reveal null and void. And that’s a stupid argument because, before Cumberbatch, the front-runner for the role was Benicio Del Toro. (How awesome would THAT have been?) That wouldn’t have just tipped the hand, it would’ve knocked over the table and scattered the chips!
2. “Anybody can play the role! It’s no big deal!” O RLY? Then why was there so much drama when Idris Elba played Norse gatekeeper Heimdall in Thor? Why did people flip out when Elementary cast Lucy Liu as Joan Watson? If it’s no big deal to make Khan white, can a revamped Indiana Jones now be played by Sendhil Ramamurthy?
3. “They’re pandering to Sherlock fans.” Um…way to overestimate the impact of BBC’s Sherlock fans on a fandom that’s been around since 1966. I’m pretty sure Star Trek doesn’t need the extra help.
4. “The incidents in ST: ID are an allegory for 9/11 and Al Qaeda, and a brown terrorist would hit too close to the mark.” This is the one argument I think does hold some amount of weight, and one that shows just how precarious the position of Abrams and crew was when handling the terrorism plot within the film. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. On the one hand, if they’d cast Andrews or Ramamurthy or Del Toro, there would’ve been cries of even MORE blatant ties to 9/11 and the painting of non-whites as villains. On the other, going with Cumberbatch seems like a cop-out.
So, in choosing Khan as the antagonist for this film, pitting him against Kirk and Spock and ramping up the tension between the three of them, the reboot was between a rock and a hard place from the start. If you’re going to tell a story about terrorism in a post-9/11 world, even in a futuristic setting it’s going to get messy, and you can’t half-ass it. But that’s not the only story this film was telling. It’s clear that the emotional throughline Abrams & Co. sought was, ultimately, one about loyalty to one’s people and the bonds of friendship. You’re supposed to walk away thinking about how much Spock and Kirk love each other and the crew of the Enterprise, not Khan orchestrating the attack on London and opening fire on Starfleet brass. I think that’s what they wanted to serve in this film, and what they did serve…with the unfortunate side effect of sacrificing a larger racial/political context and conversation.
Would I have preferred someone else playing Khan? Yes. Did I enjoy Cumberbatch nonetheless? Sure. His voice was glorious, holding the power and charisma that one associates with one of Khan’s brilliant intellect. But Khan’s face could have had that power, too…and we’ll never know if going into the darkness would have shed some much-needed light on the future of racial discourse in our society.