Warning: The following contains spoilers for the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Sleepy Hollow” season two mid-season finales, the “Person of Interest” season 3 mid-season finale in 2013, a plot point in Chronicle from 2012, and the fact that Snape killed Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in the 2008 film and the earlier 2005 book.
With that out of the way, I suppose I should introduce myself. I am not Tegan. My name is Micah Pearson, and I’m the Web Designer/Executive Producer of JustTegan.com. Tegan asked me to gnash my teeth and growl at you for a while regarding the topic to which I’m eventually going to get. Well, that’s not exactly what she said, but that’s the end result nonetheless. To be fair, I’m not exactly growling at you, per-se; but mostly in a general direction of at the world as my fingers stab the keys on my laptop with ever-increasing intensity over the general irritation I have about today’s subject. There. I’ve introduced myself. Now It’s time to get to the heart of the matter.
In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, after which he became one of the most bankable actors of his day. In 1971, the Melvin Van Peebles classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and the studio produced Shaft blasted into the box office and established that black cinema could possibly be a thing and began a full-blown movement, creating it’s own genre and subculture. But even with a legacy that powerful, it’s forty three years later, and we’re only just now seeing any significant diversity in some parts of Hollywood. And yet for every cast like the one on Sleepy Hollow, a great genre-show-that-could on TV, we end up with big budget whitewashed behemoths like Exodus: Gods and Kings. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, because that’s a whole other problem. It just lays the groundwork, because even on shows like the aforementioned Sleepy Hollow, they feel the need to kill the black guy.
When I was watching the mid-season finale, Orlando Jones finally got pulled out of his under-utilized corner, like Baby from Dirty Dancing, and was given his time to shine. Occasionally referenced in order to provide a plot point or do a favor for the protagonists, only to be forgotten about entirely moments later, Captain Irving’s character had been beyond squandered after earning a place in many a fan’s hearts last season. So to see him back with the crew, a full-blown soldier in the war for humanity, I was ecstatic! He fought the Horseman of War! He kicked its ass!
Then he died.
I was upset, of course; but only from the perspective of a fan who’d lost one of his favorite characters. However, there was another itch in the back of my skull that hadn’t quite registered. Especially when even the writers of the show said that “he was the real first soldier on the hero team to die. We wanted people to know the stakes.”
A week or so later, I’m chilling out catching up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and its rather bananas finale. They established Inhumans! They gave Skye powers! They killed off the supposed season villain in Whitehall! They turned Mack into a zombie sentinel! They killed Trip!
Then the writers came out and said, “we wanted to show the dangers of Terragenesis and needed one of the others to pay the consequences.”
They killed one of two black male leads, and turned the other one into a zombie automaton.
Suddenly, I’m flashing back to 2013, and the mid-season finale of Person of Interest when they put a bullet into Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson). You see, it was a twist. They’d spent the entire episode (and ads in the preceding weeks) making you think it was going to be one of the other leads in the show that was going to die. Then, almost as an afterthought, blam. The only black lead in the show? Dead.
“We wanted a death that would resonate with the fans. Something that would drive the rest of the characters.”
In a world where there are so few positive black characters in entertainment, in a world where there are so few minority leads in entertainment, in a world where I can’t turn on any media without seeing another black person being murdered by those sworn to protect them, can I please have my fantasy that black people have a chance of survival?
When Officer Daniel Pantaleo got away with murdering Eric Garner scot free and without indictment, I sighed and shook my head. Again, the country in which I inhabit is one where the leading cause of death for black men is murder, and systemic institutionalized racism is nothing new. This case is another in a long line of cases. The difference is that people have finally noticed that this has been the status quo since before any of us were born, and that people who think that the Civil Rights movement won in the 60’s were living in a pipe dream filled with self-denial.
But that said, when I go to the movies in 2012 to escape to a fantasy where people have telekinesis and can fly around with nothing but a thought, I’m just tired of seeing characters like Michael B. Jordan‘s Steve Montgomery killed for no real reason that we could tell. Aside from the villain who killed him, Steve was the only really defined character. The “hero” Alex Russell was a barely sketched out “bro” dude. But the creative team “wanted a death that would resonate.” Look. I’m glad they’re creating characters that fans are bonding with and casting minorities in those roles. But then why do they always have to be the ones to die?
I didn’t gnash in this as much as I originally anticipated. This is such a ridiculously predictable trope that has gone from being upsetting-to-laughable-to-tiresome. Find something new, Hollywood. Be better. Show us that it’s possible for us to have a different outcome than violent death. Show us that we have a realistic hope to be something more than a victim of circumstance. Show us that things can change and we can stand on equal footing, with an equal chance of survival and success. Then maybe, just maybe…
Someday it will be true.