The internet may still be upset that Deadpool didn’t get Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nods, but in 2016, the stars aligned for Ryan Reynolds. Since debuting in the ‘90s, Ryan Rodney Reynolds has been a reliable, unremarkable blonde mainstay of B-level TV comedies like Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place, and B-level action flicks like Blade: Trinity or Smokin’ Aces. But when Deadpool dropped, Reynolds—25 years into his career—finally became a bankable star.
Now let’s see that happen to anyone who isn’t a good-looking white guy.
Because Reynolds didn’t simply move up from the C-list to the A-list. He was considered a viable lead throughout his career, even as DOA box office bombs piled up around him. What black actor could say the same? Scrolling through his IMDB page, Reynolds isn’t just getting bit parts in flop after flop—he’s the leading man. Consider critical catastrophes like Green Lantern (barely made profit) and R.I.P.D.($20 million loss).
The Deadpool moment, then, could be defined as a star-making role that comes as the culmination of a uniquely forgiving career marked as much by talent as it is failure. Who else can boast of constantly getting leading roles after a years-long string of failed flicks?
The two highest-grossing black actors are Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson. Will Smith’s certainly had his share of shitty movies, but he catapulted out of the mid-‘90s with Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black, while still wreathed in the Marketable Black Man shine of Fresh Price of Bel Air. In short, he can demonstrably turn a profit, though less reliably than he used to. Samuel L. Jackson had star-making turns in Pulp Fiction and Jungle Fever, but other than Tarantino collaborations, he’s rarely the lead. Instead, Jackson serves in ensemble films where his name adds a veneer of prestige: The Legend of Tarzan, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, and the Marvel flicks.
So even the most prolific and bankable black actors have had to be exceptional to learn their leading man roles, while Reynolds was able to stay both in the public eye and the good graces of casting agents and directors alike by showing off his comedic chops in routinely sub-par to mediocre level movies. It’s a double standard, albeit an irritatingly unsurprising one.
But Reynolds’ countless chances as a leading man and his late-career success as Deadpool also shows why the casting for popcorn fare like superhero and action movies are actually just as important as blockbusters and Oscar bait: it introduces audiences to actors, lets critics and industry members discern their strengths, and is, frankly, easy money. So when black actors are stymied, appearing as sidekicks instead of leads, they lose these opportunities.
Let’s talk about superheroes. Consider Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) in Captain America or War Machine (played by Terrence Howard, then Don Cheadle) in Iron Man. They have ample screen time and sizable followings, but they’re stuck in the sidelines as the respective black best friends of the titular heroes. Will anyone spend 15-plus years trying to make either of them into action stars?
Reynolds, meanwhile, has sunk three franchise and is, astonishingly, still being considered for the role as Hal Jordan in the reboot, even after the first Green Lantern went up in emerald CG flames. Supposedly, this film would also feature John Stewart, the black Green Lantern, a character DC apparently feels needs to be paired with a white Green Lantern, despite the complete narrative incoherence that bringing back Reynolds as Hal would cause to the extended universe they’re building.
So the question emerges: when will we see the black Deadpool? When will a black actor be given the chance to float by in a string of C-level movies and put out their biggest hit to date at age 40? Could any black actor? Could any woman, regardless of race?
I don’t doubt that Reynolds is hard working. He’s undoubtedly prolific and very gifted. But it’s a mistake to believe that being prolific is only about hard work. It’s also about opportunity. And with his easy, Canadian attractiveness, Reynolds is simply given dozens more opportunities to just be in the business.
My hope is that black actors will finally have that chance. And not just already recognizable talent like Taraji P. Henson, John Boyega, Michael B Jordon, or Sterling K Brown, but rising stars untested in the box office, like French actress Karidja Touré or Amandla Sternberg. Rather than relying on actors who “look” like they might be bankable, past time to challenge and change what a bankable star looks like.