Last month Warner Bros announced plans for a Nightwing movie from Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay, set within the evolving DC Cinematic Universe. The announcement is a logical next step for the studio, as it places a spotlight on one of the most popular characters in the Batman family.

It's also news that makes a lot of fans of the character nervous, as Nightwing is one of the few positive mainstream representations of Rromani identity in popular culture. Many fans fear that this element of the character won't make it to the big screen, in the latest example of live action comics adaptations ignoring opportunities for diversity and minority representation.

Nightwing, aka Dick Grayson, was introduced as the original Robin in Detective Comics #38 in 1940. His Rromani identity was only established in the last twenty years, and has rarely been explored since, but it's become important to fans who see few other positive examples of the often maligned Rromani people in mainstream media. As an unambiguously popular, appealing, and heroic character, Nightwing challenges the pervasive prejudice that surrounds people's ignorant and often stereotypical attitudes towards the Rromani.

Vicente Rodriguez is one of the organizers of Rromani advocacy group RomaPop, which seeks to advance the representation of Rromani people and culture in popular entertainment. He and his cause gained attention at last year's New York Comic Con, when he asked the panelists at an X-Men panel about their approaches to Rromani inclusion, and author Peter David offered a shockingly prejudiced response. You can read the details of that encounter here, including our previous interview with Rodriguez.

In light of the announcement of a Nightwing movie, ComicsAlliance again reached out to Rodriguez to get his thoughts on Dick Grayson's representation in comics, and to hear first hand what it would mean to have Dick's heritage acknowledged on the screen.

 

DC Comics

 

ComicsAlliance: Hi Vicente. Thanks for talking to us again! Let's start with the biggest question; how important is it to you that a Nightwing movie acknowledges Dick Grayson's Roma heritage, and why does it matter?

Vicente Rodriguez: I think it's crucial; it's very important for many different reasons, beyond my personal feelings or thoughts. This could be an outstanding way to break the curse of whitewashing that the Rromani community suffers in most comic book-based movies; it could be an advancement for the rights of people of color in comic book narratives in Hollywood; and it could mark the way forward for the industry.

Representation matters; it's not a Rromani issue, it's a human rights issue. So far, nobody has had the courage to represent us in any positive light, in a human light; if it happens just once, we could have a precedent, a small light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

CA: Do you have thoughts on how you would like to see Dicks' Roma identity presented? 

VR: At RomaPop, we believe it's possible to discuss, explore, and deepen understanding of many aspects of Roma identity within pop culture narratives, but it depends on writers and companies being respectful and accurate in their research. Unfortunately, most people don't deem it necessary to make the effort.

I think Dick is an amazing character, and there are so many positive and interesting ways to approach his Rromani background. I've met a man called Raymond Gureme, a Rromani Holocaust survivor who worked in a circus as a child acrobat, until the Nazis captured him and his family. He escaped over 10 times from concentration camps in France and Germany, using his acrobatic skills, and joined the French resistance!

Today, with 93 years on his shoulders, he's still fighting against the French state, and defending human rights. I think there are many real-life stories of Rromani heroes like Raymond that could be inspiring for writers, if they just do a little research.

CA: Is there anything you'd like to see the filmmakers avoid?

VR: I'll like them to avoid ridiculous stereotypes. Please, no more witches and kidnapped children!

 

DC Comics

 

CA: Dick's Roma identity was mentioned in a 2014 Secret Origins story by Tim Seeley, Tom King, and Stephen Mooney, and in a recent Nightwing story by Seeley and Javier Fernandezbut it doesn't come up very much in the comics. Is there more the comics could be doing to address it?

VR: During the last 40 years, the American comic book industry has had a very strange relationship with Rromani identity. They've reconnected characters with Rromani ancestry after their creation, like Doctor Doom, Magneto, Dick Grayson; and they've given abandoned children a Rromani adoptive family, like Nightcrawler and the Maximoff twins.

And then, as an ultimate act of editorial cruelty, they've erased those Roma narratives, or played with our identity and history. All we want is to receive the same consideration as any other minority in comic book narratives! I think the treatment of Roma identity is a sign of poor writing, honestly, but in many cases it's simple good old fashioned racism.

In one of the last Scarlet Witch issues in the recent series, there was a comment referring to Rromani people thinking that red is a symbol of terrible things. I was shocked to read that, as in reality, Rromanies use red ribbons as a symbol of good luck almost everywhere! I asked myself, how can an author select information in such a way that they manage to find the only incorrect source? I think authors are not interested in the truth, and it's more interesting for them to use the material they think sounds cool, no matter how harmful or fake.

CA: Do you think it's important to cast a Roma actor in the role of Dick Grayson in the Nightwing movie? Do you think that's likely to happen?

VR: In an ideal world, yes, I would love to see a Roma actor portraying Dick Grayson. I think it's important. But I think it will not happen this time.

The entertainment industry changes by force; if they feel that there is a risk of losing money, they'll do anything. Morality and the right to be represented fairly are not priorities; even good stories are not important anymore; all we can do is try to impact the box office. Deadpool and Logan are great movies, but they never would have been possible without fans making it clear to Hollywood that they want more faithful comic book adaptations.

CA: Nightwing has traditionally appeared white-passing in the comics. The same is true for Marvel Roma characters Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, who were cast with white actors in the movies, and had their Roma identities erased. Do you see the Nightwing movie as an opportunity to cast a person of color who is not white-passing in a major superhero role?

VR: I know many Rromanies who are able to pass as white; however, the fact that Rromani comic book characters are depicted as white-passing all the time is not just disappointing, but racist.

 

Art by Pablo Raimondi / Marvel Comics

 

I really like the work of Pablo Raimondi in Books of Doom, trying to portray Victor Von Doom with darker Rromani traits. When I look at his work, I'm convinced that he actually looked at pictures of Rromani people to get an idea of how most Rromanies look. We are an Indian diaspora, so despite the fact that there are Rromanies of all colors and shapes, we usually don't look like Elizabeth Olsen!

Could this be an opportunity to cast a not-white passing actor of color in a major superhero role? Yes, of course. Now, will this happen? I doubt it.

CA: Keith Chow at Nerds of Color led a call for an Asian-American actor to be cast as Iron Fist in the upcoming Netflix TV show. Netflix and Marvel cast a white actor anyway, but the campaign helped advance the conversation about diverse casting. Do you plan to launch a similar campaign for Nightwing, either for how the role is cast, or how the role is presented?

VR: In Europe we face terrible persecution, segregation, sterilization, evictions, hate crime and hate speech; however, in the United States, most people, including human rights activists, have no idea of the Rromani struggle, nor do most authors and fans of color, so it would be very difficult for us to single-handedly manage an online campaign in a really successful way, as we lack the necessary networking capacity.

What should we do, then? The episode at last year's NYCC shows us that one of our best chances is to increase Rromani participation in mass events, using a civil rights approach, which companies are not used to facing.

We plan to bring around 30-50 people to NYCC this year, to ask DC and Warner Bros directly, what exactly is happening with Nightwing? We will keep up our efforts, and maintain a constant presence at such events.

One of the results of RomaPop's participation at the last NYCC is that many people who had never listened to Rromanies or heard about their struggles started to research, and to reach out to us for a better understanding of the situation.

But there is still a long way to go till we receive a human consideration in the world of pop culture.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity, with the subject's involvement and approval.

To learn more about RomaPop and its aims, visit the Facebook page or follow RomaPop on Twitter. RomaPop recommends visiting the Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative to get a better understanding of the challenges facing the Rromani people, or watching this two-minute animation by the Open Society Foundations.