We need more black villains in our stories.
Now, I don’t mean more drug dealers or gang leaders or warlords. I mean taking over the world, mass destruction, global economy destabilizing, mass genocide causing villains. But they don’t even have to be that big. I’ll take a homicidal maniac who has been hiding bodies in the backyard for decades or a leader of a team of professional bank robbers. Something that gives us more than an over the top/on the nose/stereotypical character.
Now some of you read this and cry “Why would you want this? Aren’t black people vilified enough in the media? Why would you want more negative representation of us? Shouldn’t you want more positive portrayals instead?” To which I reply, “Well, hypothetical reader, the short answer is because we’re people.” After which, you’d ask for the long answer because the short answer sounds vague and stupid. But that’s basically it: we are people. We are just as intelligent, just as stupid, just as nice, just as petty, just as noble, and just as fucked up as everyone else, and our narratives should reflect that. Black people are as much villains, heroes, and everything in between as the next person; that’s life, and art is supposed to imitate it. However, art for art’s sake is not the only reason.
We already have positive examples of black people as main characters. They’re few and far between, but they’re there. And some of them are pretty great. They have their issues though. For example, the two most notable black superheroes of the past year: a big bulletproof black man in the middle of Harlem dealing with cops and gangsters is a bit spot on, and an African king who’s a better fighter than Captain America, smarter than Batman, and richer than Ironman can be viewed as overcompensating by some. Regardless, it is a wonderful thing for characters like that to be the protagonists of their own tales. But that’s only one side of the coin.
Think about your favorite stories. They could be novels, movies, comic books, tv shows, or cartoons — anything that you enjoy over and over or share with others because you want them to know how good it is. Most people have at least a few that they really enjoy. Now, how many of those plots have a memorable bad guy, even if the only thing that makes them one is being an asshole? A lot, right? What makes most stories great is conflict and conflict can derive from the situation and/or the people involved. Long story short, a big reason we like to watch movies and read books is because we like the villains. We love the villains. We can love to hate them and want to see them taken down, we can feel sorry for them and wish they’d had a better life or chosen a different path, and some of us will even root for them to win. Regardless, a good antagonist can make a story, striking a chord with us that has us remember them for years to come. We need more black people in those roles, but the writers aren’t putting us there.
It seems like a lot of writers don’t want to put a black person as the main bad guy, most likely to avoid negative feelings and responses relating to this country’s racial and racist history. We can be a regular person, we can be a victim, and we can even be a small time bad guy all day long; not the main villain, though. What the writers may not realize is that they do black people a disservice, both on and off the page, by keeping us from that position. On the page, by relegating us to a regular citizen, they’re saying we’re ordinary. When we’re just victim number five, they’re saying we’re helpless. And when we’re a low level thug in a criminal organization, they’re saying that’s as far as we can reach. On top of that, none of those three, in general, are memorable roles. But the bank robber? He’s not ordinary. The serial killer? He’s not helpless. And the leader of the organization that is destabilizing the global economy? He’s reached the upper echelons of power. As for off the page, that bank robber, that serial killer, that powerful leader, they may be animated by, voiced by, and/or portrayed by black people. Every character that moves beyond the page is an opportunity for black people in the entertainment industry to get more work and for black audiences to be exposed to roles beyond the stereotypes we currently see.
“But think of the children”, someone exclaims (because someone always does). “Do you want the children to aspire to be a bank robber? Do you want the children to be influenced towards being a serial killer?” And my response is “Why are you letting the children watch a movie about serial killers anyway?” If they’re young enough to be easily influenced by such a story, you should either not expose them to it or be there to guide them into a better understanding. Don’t expect the entertainment industry to be parents to your kids when that’s your job. Of course I don’t want children, black or otherwise, to grow up to be bank robbers, serial killers, or destroyers of the global economy. However, I would argue that there are plenty of negative portrayals of black people in the media, and that they’re mostly racial, racist, and stereotypical. I want all children to see black characters in memorable roles other than the stereotypes we have now — that black people are, again, just as intelligent, stupid, nice, petty, noble, and fucked up as everyone else.
We already have a few notable heroes, but we need more of them. We already have some main characters in dramas, and we need more of them, too. But villains, antagonists, big-bads? Those are few and far between. And almost all the characters, be they hero or villain or in between, have trouble stepping out of stereotypical roles to simply being flawed realistic characters in their own right. Writers, either in an attempt to avoid stirring up racial topics, or simply because they don’t know how to write black characters, have been keeping us from opportunities to be remembered throughout time and from being examples of something different to our people. That needs to change. And who better to upset the status quo than a villain?