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2013 S&A Highlights: Dwayne Johnson - 'Race Shifter' In A Post Racial World?

Shadow and Act By Sergio | Shadow and Act January 3, 2014 at 12:01PM

2013 S&A Highlights: Dwayne Johnson - 'Race Shifter' In A Post Racial World?
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Dwayne Johnson

Editor's note: As 2013 ends, and 2014 begins, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published during the last year. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's the 14th of many to come, originally posted in late March 2013. Happy New Year to you all! 

We all know that there’s been a lot of talk about how we are all now living in a “post-racial” society. Though I think, most of us will respond to that with a “Yeah right.”

But things are changing, albeit slowly, but they are changing. And it dawned on me last night, during  an advance screening of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, that the one person who could be an example of this post racial utopia we're supposed to be living in, is Dwayne Johnson.

It should be very obvious by now the Johnson has been positioning himself to be a major A–list movie star. He easily could have just gone on to be a B-movie actor, content with doing supporting roles in action/exploitation films, and starring in direct-to-video movies, like some of his former WWE cohorts. But Johnson has much higher aspirations.

And it’s not just the film projects that he’s attached himself to, but also, either by design or by happenstance, how he's been perceived racially by the public. He has become a “race shifter” for lack of a better word.

Through his obviously ethnic, but not clearly defined looks (he’s black Canadian/Samoan), he has managed to become “identified” as it were, by different audiences, as different things, and has used that to his advantage.

I should say that, of course, we identify him as black on S & A, or else we wouldn’t always be reporting news about his various film projects. And Johnson has neither ever obscured, or refused to acknowledge his bi-racial heritage, unlike Vin Diesel, who has gone out of his way to not publicly acknowledge his mixed heritage, preferring to instead let people think he’s, perhaps, Italian.

For example, in Johnson’s recent film Snitch, he was clearly identified as “white” helping to save his white son in trouble with the law. However in G.I. Joe, he’s clearly identified as being “black”. His character in the film has two young black daughters who he dearly loves.

Yet, interestingly, the mother is never seen in the film, and there’s no explanation or even a reference about her. Is he a widower, or did she happen to be in the kitchen in those scenes when he’s with his girls? And perhaps one can argue that she’s purposely not seen in the film to keep Johnson from appearing “too black”.

However, later in the film, Johnson, on the run from enemies out to kill him, goes back to his old black urban ghetto neighborhood, where his old homies still live, as a hiding place. So he is definitely clearly identified or “coded “ as a black man in G.I. Joe.

Yet the fact that Johnson can smoothly switch from “white” to “black” to even “other,” without any comment or seemingly any notice from audiences, is intriguing.

Possibly a major factor for that is simply because Johnson has an incredibly charismatic and likable persona. Like any genuine movie star, he pulls you into the screen, not pushes you away. As the old saying goes, when Johnson is on the screen, Johnson is on the screen. 

He has slightly comic self-awareness of his whole physicality and effectively uses it to even mock and send up the whole macho man image, which makes him instantly likable. It’s almost as if he’s saying: “Look ,I don’t take myself seriously, so why should you?”

And that fact may have crossed over to the audiences' perceptions of his own racial identity. Johnson can be whatever he wants to be because he’s somehow bigger than life, a  fantasy creation as it were, and, therefore, transcends any labels that can be put on him. 

He’s human Teflon.

But is this racial shifting a good thing? Is it a genuine sign of progress, or is it just an easy way to avoid dealing with the serious issues of racism and intolerance that still linger? 

It could be easy for people to easy: “Look at Dwayne Johnson. He doesn’t make race an issue, so why do you people still have to?”

What do you say?

This article is related to: Dwayne Johnson


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