Black characters slowly start populating mainstream media

FAMU student Kendrick Walker is part of a growing population that enjoys Eastern animation. Photo by Isis Climes

The weather outside was below 60 degrees when Kendrick Walker slid on his black hoodie. Walker stepped out of his apartment and began to head to class to avoid being marked late.

His hoodie drew attention from on-lookers as he passed them by, with the words “It’s an Anime thing, you wouldn’t understand” splayed across his hoodie’s front in big white lettering.

As Walker hurried along the sidewalk, he didn’t stop to explain to those who gave him unusual stares that he was a fan of anime and wasn’t ashamed to show it.

In today’s presentation of mainstream media, the narration of black characters is changing. Themes of Afrofuturism are becoming more prominent in black speculative fiction. Afrofuturism deals with futuristic or science fiction themes incorporated in elements of black culture and history in the areas of art, literature, music and movies.

It is not unusual to see black characters in anime –  Japanese animation; they are usually cast as secondary characters side roles are very rarely shown in the main character spotlight.

Walker is a member of Florida A&M’s Anime Club where he meets with peers who have similar interests in anime to discuss the current trends in the genre.

“We would meet up once a week to watch animes that we suggest and then discuss the show and our opinions on how we feel about what transpired,” the senior political science student said.

“Sadly, most black anime characters are used as character development for the protagonist,” said Walker. “In my opinion, black anime characters are seen like a shooting star. You always wait for one to appear and once one does they are gone as quick as they appeared.”

Still, even in Eastern animation, specifically Japanese anime, black characters hold a role in storytelling.

Time travelers, superheroes, space voyagers – these old roles are introducing more diverse faces to those who can play the part. Movies like “See You Yesterday,” “Brown Girl Begins” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” are helping to broaden the spectrum of the portrayal of black characters by putting them at the forefront of mass media.

Karama Horne, a contributing editor to SYFYWire, freelance producer and writer, notes that the shift of black storytelling has already begun to take effect.

“I think the shift has already started to happen,” Horne said. “There’s one way that we see that black folks see our characters on screen, there’s another way that mainstream sees it.”

Hollywood, one of mass media’s major pipelines, is known for whitewashing their characters based on the belief that movie sales won’t be high if the cast is diverse. Yet, movies such as “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, and “Crazy Rich Asians,” directed by Jon Chu, have disproved this theory by breaking records and ticket sales.

“When we talk about mainstream media, we’re looking really at Hollywood and Hollywood, generally, doesn’t think that money can be made off of movies and television shows that have black leads,” said Horne. “But what’s happened in the last couple of years, there’s really been so much push across the board for diversity.”

Horne added, “I think that also streaming media has leveled the playing field, specifically for black creators. We can now have a crazy sci-fi movie like Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” exist at the same time as Ava DuVeray’s ‘When They See Us.’”

From mainstream media to literature, there’s been an increase in black peoples’ presence.

HBO recently announced a new collaboration for a television series with the President of Stranger Comics LLC Sebastian Jones. His comic series is set in the fantasy world of Asunda, where the main character Niobe’s backstory is explored through his graphic series.

“We’ve [Jones and his colleagues] seen a very positive impact based on what we’ve achieved,” said Jones. “What we’ve managed to achieve, according to fans and some industry folk, is more of a three-dimensional folkstory that we as readers can see ourselves reflected in emotion as soulfuly residents ways.”

Although comics series like Jones’ are taking strides in diversifying roles, there’s still a long way to go before the presentation of black people in mainstream media becomes prominent.

“There are very few black anime characters. If there are [present], they are either a side character or a [character with] off-color skin. Example, Piccolo from DBZ [Dragon Ball Z] is green but his attitude and habits are black,” Walker said.

“We still have more work to do I think, in terms of mainstream Hollywood, more black folks need to be hired behind the scenes as directors, editors, producers to get things greenlit and pushed through,” Horne said.