In the first in a series of opinion pieces he's writing for the New York Times this summer, Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehesi Coates describes the experience of taking his son to see the Cuban Missile Crisis-set X-Men: First Class, an "incredible film" that's "narratively lean, beautifully acted and, at all the right moments, visually stunning," even as it "appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield." He calls it "a period piece for our postracial times--in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes."
The largely white collection of mutants is striking not just because of the movie's setting, but because of the diversity of the X-Men comics. "Over the decades," writes Coates, "there have been gay X-Men, patrician X-Men, Jewish X-Men, Aboriginal X-Men, black X-Men with silver mohawks, X-Men hailing from Russia, Kentucky coal country, orphanages and a nightmarish future." The film is set in 1962, but the mutants exist with no real connection to the world around them. "First Class is not blind to societal evils, so much as it works to hold evil at an ocean's length," argues Coates. "The film is rooted in its opposition to the comfortably foreign abomination of Nazism."
No races, just mutants Although published in the Los Angeles Times the day before Coates's New York Times editorial appeared, Reason magazine writes Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch presented the counterargument that an absence of race was what made First Class so progressive. "The X-Men incarnate what anthropologist Grant McCracken has called 'plenitude,' or the 'quickening speciation of social types.'" they explain. "No one is simply white or black, or even male or female, anymore; we revel in our ongoing mongrelization and hybridization." This is reasonable, up to a point, but even if you accept the notion of the X-Men post-racial super-heroes, the period setting of the movie--right on the cusp of the domestic social upheaval of the 1960s, does make it an odd juxtaposition, as Coates argues in his own piecet:
"First Class" is set in 1962. That was the year South Carolina marked the Civil War centennial by returning the Confederate Flag to the State Capitol; the year the University of Mississippi greeted its first black student, James Meredith, with a lethal race riot; the year George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama.That was the year a small crowd of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and commemorated the 100th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation. Only a single African-American was asked to speak (Thurgood Marshall, added under threat of boycott). In "First Class," 1962 finds our twin protagonists, Magneto and Professor X, also rallying before the Lincoln Memorial, not for protest or commemoration, but for a game of chess.
A deliberate message At Think Progress, Matthew Yglesias offers a slightly different interpretation, arguing neither that the all-white message is progressive nor that it represents ignorance. Rather, the film itself acknowledges the limits to the super Western, Caucasian X-Men leadership.
I think the important thing to recognize is that limiting yourself to the text of “First Class,” Magneto is the good guy and he ends the film leading a rainbow coalition of red-skinned, blue-skinned, brown-skinned, Jewish, and female crusaders for mutant pride. The X-Men are led by a Professor Xavier who’s not just naive, but callow and hypocritical. Naturally he attracts a team of privileged white men and the self-loathing Hank McCoy. But the moral here is precisely that the struggle for justice won’t be waged by a team of enlightened white dudes. The team of enlightened white dudes is offering a kind of craven appeasement, while the multi-hued emergent Brotherhood of Mutants stands for self-respect.
To which we would add: since Professor Xavier ends up being a good guy and friend to the mutants and Magneto turns into an electromagnetic force-manipulating lunatic, First Class, any way you interpret it, should probably be seen as a narrative-in-progress.