The recurring problem of the sacrificial black man

Posted: February 26, 2015 in Pop Culture Posts, Theory Posts, Zombie Posts
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I know: with a title like that you are so excited to read this post. But this issue has come up a couple times for me in genre television lately and part of the reason I write this blog is to think critically about such questions, so I’m at least going to try to think my way through it.

Warning: Spoilers for recent episodes of Agents of SHIELDThe Walking Dead,  Captain America: Winter Soldier,  Alien, etc., and frank discussions of race. 

The last…30 minutes or so of Captain America: Winter Soldier, I was on the edge of my seat, completely anxious. Not because the hoverships were going to assassinate everyone in DC and New York or because Cap took a bullet to the gut.

I was worried–frantic–about Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon.

Now, I knew and understood intellectually that Falcon is not a one-time character in the Captain America canon. I knew he should be back. I just didn’t know if he would. In fact, part of me felt pretty sure that Sam Wilson was a dead man.

Not just because he’s a black character, mind you. We’ve gotten beyond the more simplistic days of slasher horror which dictated that the black man dies first. George Romero has allowed a bunch of black men to reach the finish line. Hell, even Parker makes it through the bulk of Alien.

No, what made me worry about Sam Wilson is that I liked him and Steve Rogers liked him. You see, it’s not a sacrifice to off a character we barely know. But a character with motivations and empathy and a moral sense who’s connected with your protagonist–that’s a character you can kill with serious dramatic effect.

(This is after they fake-killed Nick Fury earlier in the movie but that didn’t fool me for a minute. SLJ is friggin’ indestructible.)

Okay, obviously, Sam Wilson makes it through Winter Soldier. Praise Zombie Jesus.

Fast forward seven or so months to the midseason finale of Agents of SHIELD. Shit is going down. Skye and Raina are with the obelisk while the walls close around them. Coulson can’t get in. The others are distracted dealing with an alien-possessed Mac (after a gotcha moment in the previous episode when they may or may not have killed him). It seems like there’s no backup coming–and then Agent Tripp squeezes through the gap and into danger.

Of course, they do a double fake-out, pretending like Tripp is fine while Raina and Skye turn to stone. Of course, they’re fine and it’s really Tripp whom the alien technology destroys.

Tripp was a nice guy. A little underdeveloped as characters go in Agents of SHIELD, but we had been getting to know him better. His grandfather was a Howling Commando. He seemed like the genuine version of Grant Ward–and he had good chemistry with the group.

Given what almost happened to Mac in the previous episode, Tripp’s death felt like a cruel, deliberate yank on our heartstrings, as if to say: you like these characters? Well, too bad!

There has been similar activity on season five of The Walking Dead, a show which seems determined to have no more than three black men in the supporting cast at any given time. The showrunners seem especially fond of killing off whoever happens to be the group’s moral center at any given time, most recently Tyreese and Bob, both–you guessed it–black men. Both solid characters with individual issues and quirks when they appeared in previous seasons; Tyreese in particular saw a lot of development as a fan-favorite from the comics.

But both got a lot more screen time and nuance leading up to their deaths, which is no coincidence. It’s meant to be upsetting. And this is true when any character dies, of course. And naturally I wouldn’t suggest that such action heavy shows should never kill anyone off or even refrain from offing characters of color. I’ll be the first to admit that “What Happened and What’s Going On” from The Walking Dead was a beautifully acted and lovingly made episode. Chad Coleman was as wonderful as ever as Tyreese (which made hurt more, of course). In isolation, I wouldn’t have minded at all. As a larger pattern on the show, it bothers me.

What bothers me  is 1)  the notion that any of these characters (Mac and Tripp or Tyreese, T-Dog, and Bob) are interchangeable 2) that we’re only allowed a relatively brief time to empathize with sympathetic black male characters before they’re killed off–thus making their deaths a kind of cheat or gimmick to get an emotional reaction from the audience and 3) that these characters’ sacrifices end up being mere motivational fodder for the series’ or film’s protagonists, who are so often white.

Simple representation in media (and particularly genre media) is still a huge problem–the numbers are an issue, let alone the quality of the roles. But I think we also need to think about the kinds of stories these characters get to live–and whether they live. Because it does send a message.

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