Black Actors Who Played White Characters

Color blind casting, or non-traditional casting, has opened up opportunities for Black actors, albeit slowly. There have been many Black actors who played white characters, but there’s still room for more diversity in Hollywood overall. 

White characters played by Black actors have paid off at the box office because audiences appreciate an excellent performance - regardless of race. While many fans reacted negatively the casting of Black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, others were excited that such an accomplished actress was stepping into the role. Even Potter creator J.K. Rowling defended the casting choice.

In many cases, Black actors who have taken on white roles have changed the way a character was seen forever. Red has been portrayed as Black ever since Morgan Freeman played the part in the film adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption. We will always think of Agent J in Men in Black as Will Smith. Michael Clarke Duncan was so perfect for The Kingpin in Daredevil, that Marvel wrote a tribute to the actor when he passed. 

This list looks at some of the top Black actors who played traditionally white characters. 

  • Zendaya Coleman as Mary Jane Watson

    In August 2016, it was announced that African American actress Zendaya Coleman will play Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man's love interest, in the 2017 Marvel reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming. Zendaya previously appeared in a number of Disney Channel shows, including KC Undercover and Shake It Up!, starring as the title character in the former. 

    Mary Jane (who, according to IMBb, will be called Michelle in the reboot) was played by Kirsten Dunst in the original Sony Spider-Man film series and by Shailene Woodley in scenes that were deleted from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the comics, Mary Jane is a pale redhead. Survey says? Change is good. 

    The casting decision ignited a mini-furor in fan communities, as such decisions have done in the past (and also this). James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, took to Facebook to address these concerns, writing:

    I can’t respond to the racists – I’m not ever going to change their minds. But for the thoughtful majority of you out there:

    For me, if a character’s primary attribute – the thing that makes them iconic – is the color of their skin, or their hair color, frankly, that character is shallow and sucks. For me, what makes MJ MJ is her alpha female playfulness, and if the actress captures that, then she’ll work. And, for the record, I think Zendaya even matches what I think of as MJ’s primary physical characteristics – she’s a tall, thin model – much more so than actresses have in the past.

  • Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger

    Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger
    Photo: Warner Bros. & Movie Pilot

    Play: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

    Despite her accomplishments as an actor, there was backlash over Dumezweni’s casting as Hermione in the play. J. K. Rowling, the queen of having none of it, squashed the criticism, tweeting, “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified Rowling loves Black Hermione.” Other Harry Potter cast members supported Dumezweni in the role. Matthew Lewis tweeted, “And Neville Longbottom was blonde. I really don’t care. Good luck to her.”

    Dumezweni said to the haters, "It stems from ignorance. They don’t want to be a part of the creative act. To say it’s not as it was intended is so unimaginative. I don’t think they understand how theater works. We’re here to heal you, make you smile and whisk you away."

  • Will Smith as Robert Neville
    Photo: Patrick Jones & Warner Bros.

    Film: I Am Legend

    Neville is the last man in New York City, or so he thinks. There have been many adaptations of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, but this was the first time a Black actor played the virologist.

  • Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
    Photo: Fox & Paramount Pictures

    Films: The Avengers franchise

    David Hasselhoff played Fury in a 1998 TV movie, but it’s Jackson who conjures a special kind of Fury.
  • Film: The Shawshank Redemption

    In the book, Stephen King describes Red as white and Irish. The line “Maybe It’s because I’m Irish” was left in the movie as a nod to the book. Stage versions of the book now cast Red as Black, thanks to Freeman's iconic performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination).

  • Idris Elba as Heimdall
    Photo: Paramount Pictures

    Films: Thor, Thor: The Dark World

    In the Marvel comic series, Heimdall is a Norse god, but he’s just as mighty in the hands of Elba on screen.