The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Frank Darabont is Walking Dead to me.

“My friends in Chicago have a saying, Mr. Bond.  Once is happenstance.  Twice is coincidence.  The third time, it’s enemy action.”
—Goldfinger (Ian Fleming, 1959)

I’m reading my way through the 1000-page Walking Dead compendium (one of the fun things about my job is doing “research” that would otherwise be called goofin’ off.  The point is to see what the creators (Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore, and Cliff Rathburn) did in the original comic, so that my work on the “Devil’s Wake” series doesn’t accidentally  duplicate imagery, thematics, or plot points.  Doing that as a deliberate echo is one thing.  But when lurching through the world of zombies, I have to assume that readers will be familiar with what has gone before, and out of respect to them and the WD creators, I want to be informed.  A couple hundred pages in, some things are clear:

1) Walking Dead, the comic, is brilliant stuff.  Maybe the best “zombie” story I’ve ever read.  Total kudos. The characters are very real (both flawed and heroic), the plot twists wrenching, the sense of a microcosmic humanity is simply excellent, far beyond most fantasy work I’ve read.

2) I never want to meet Frank Darabont, who adapted this to television.   In my experience, he now has the most offensive pattern of negative racial imagery in current cinema or television.  He achieved this Sambo Trifecta through two films  The Mist (100% death rate for black men), and The Green Mile (leaving out a little detail Stephen King had the wisdom to include in the book: the Tom Hanks character tried to save John Coffey’s life.  Unlike the book, in the film Hanks KNEW this man was innocent, and didn’t lift a finger to try to save him.   The number of times people have suggested “time constraints” [oh.  We had time for ten minutes of stupid mouse tricks, but not thirty seconds to pick up the phone?] or “Coffey was tired and wanted to die” [oh.  So   every film I’ve seen my whole life where someone wanted to give up, followed by an inspiring speech and a phoenix-like rise from the ashes is b.s., and the only film that got it right just happened to be one in which the character was the only black man, surrounded by whites.    Never, ever, ever have I seen this before.  Sorry, but they smuggled him out to heal a white woman.   This was purely reducing a human being to a symbol.  The absolute worst case of combined Spiritual Guide and Sacrificial Negro I’ve ever seen).

But The Walking Dead is the nail in the Coffey.  I mean, coffin.  You see, I noticed the “T-Dawg” character very early.  Lumpy, not too bright, cowardly (he, an Asian kid and an old man are all intimidated and abused by a redneck who is casually slapped down by the white hero.  All right…)  He has little to say, nothing to do, makes no contributions to the movement of plot or theme, no interest in any of the women (WTF?), no background, no apparent emotions.  He’s just…there.   And “T-Dawg”?  I daresay I know ten times as many black people as any white guy  working on that show.  Never met one named “T-Dawg” or anything close to it.    And week after week, I got more irritated.    It was suggested that the actor was at fault.  Well…even if that’s true, that’s the fault of the person who hired him, I’d suggest.  There are plenty of fine, fine black actors out there.  Someone, at the least, wasn’t on their job.

But the problem got worse.   According to fans, the original source material had a black character named “Tyrese” who some hoped would come onto the series and compensate for T-Dawg.
I do odd things, like wander over to the Storm Front site to see what the racists are up to.    And I found a thread there about…The Walking Dead comic books (which at that point I hadn’t read).  And the topic of conversation was this “Tyrese” character.  They were complaining.  Tyrese, it seemed, was too macho, too competent, was immediately the target of white female attention.  Just a stereotype “supernigger” according to Storm Front’s fans, and thereby offensive to the Klansman in their soul.

And a horrible suspicion began to form in my mind.  Wait a @#$$ing minute, I thought.   WHAT IF T-DAWG WAS TYRESE?    Holy crap. What if Darabont literally transformed one black man into another, inferior one?   What might indicate this?  Well…I would multiply the percentage chance of the first letter of their names being similar (1 in 16) times the percentage chance that their race is a coincidence (1 in 8) and come up with about 1 in 208 chance that it’s a pure coincidence. Or about .5%.   

Then, on another matter altogether (yeah, right) I picked up the 1000 page compendium and began to read.  It was and is terrific. The non-white characters are treated EXACTLY like the white ones, so far as I can see: they have the same humanity and depth.  Tyrese, who comes in after about 100 pages, is ex-football player who left sports after an injury, and had been selling cars.  He has a daughter he loves, who has a white boyfriend.    He is courageous, intelligent, the strongest of them, a powerful force in the group contributing to their survival.   One of the women begins flirting with him immediately.  Everyone is the comic is having sex—as is realistic, given human psychology under survival stress.  

Then I looked at the fact that the exact things that BOTHERED the avowed racists were the very changes Darabont had made in the character.  Inwardness.  Strength, courage, intelligence, sexuality, force in the plot and thematics.

Holy crap.

I really enjoy TWD the series, but this is as offensive as anything I’ve seen on television in a very long time.   Some will say that the Michonne character, a bad-assed black samurai woman, coming onto the show should fix this.  No.   It doesn’t.    The treatment of minority females and minority males is different.  In war, the men are killed or emasculated, the women turned into sexual chattel.  So my prediction is that Michonne will jump into bed with one of the white guys, and the white guys writing this will start singing “We Are The World” and think they’ve done something to compensate for the transformation of Tyrese into “T-Dawg”, a white fantasy of a black man.

No, it doesn’t.     Incidentally, if/when that happens, I stop watching the show.

I remember a writing teacher talking about the movie “Psycho” where you thought the lead character was Janet Leigh, who  (SPOILER!)…um, shall we say “leaves the movie” about 25 minutes in.   This creates psychological disorientation as the audience tries to figure out who to identify with, that disorientation cannily used by Hitchcock to mold the overall effect of the film.  Bear with me—there is a point here.

The 1954 Brown versus Board of Education case, I believe, included a demonstration of the damage of segregation, where black children preferred white dolls as a result of the pain of racial prejudice, something considered damaging to their psychology.

Again, bear with me.

Combine these two ideas.    When I was a kid, and went to see adventure or SF films, either there were no black characters or, totally disproportionately, they died.    Black kids in my neighborhood wondered why I bothered to go.   “How’d they kill the brother this time?” they’d ask.  

The exclusion or distortion of minority characters or creators in the SF field is obvious to anyone whose eyes are open.  And I’ve literally had SF editors suggest that, well, maybe black people just aren’t interested.   Something innate, I suppose.  I wonder what…

I’d gag, if that weren’t so transparent.  Readers who ask “well, why don’t you write such a movie with good black characters” are ignoring the implications.  I’m not asking people to make them.  I’m saying that the pattern of exclusion and insult is a measurable expression of unconscious hostility and fear.  I’m just watching the barometer, not asking anyone to make rain.
Back to the subject. 

The reason we’re given that most films, books, television shows, comic books etc. feature white characters is that white audiences, quite reasonably, identify more with them. Fine.   Turnabout’s fair play.

Studies have suggested that people in hospital waiting rooms reading fiction cope with death and fear better than those reading non-fiction.  In other words, fiction contains valuable philosophies and perspectives that actually make it easier to cope with life.  And by implication, the more one immerses one in the fantasy of the story, the more of these values are conferred. Reasonable?   See where this is going?   It seems reasonable to me to suggest that we are seeking perspective as well as stress reduction, and most entertainments mirror the ethnicity of the target audience so that the maximum of this is conveyed.

Well, then…

When there is only a single black character on screen, if black audiences are like white audiences, they will tend to identify more with that character, on average.  But if that character dies, or is emasculated, or is offensive…that same black audience, seeking the psychological values contained within fiction, will experience cognitive and emotional dissonance: they need the values, but cannot identify with the character that looks like them without fearing that that character will die, or be mistreated, or prove a buffoon.  So they begin to identify with the racial Other more than the people who look like them…a result that is great for whites, and devastating to blacks, especially if they are as unconscious about it as everyone else seems to be.

I saw it in my own reading of Tarzan, or Conan, or James Bond—I needed the “male” imagery enough to ignore, or crush down, the sometimes horrifically racist implications or statements in the work.  As I’ve said, I “sacrificed my melanin on the altar of my testosterone.”

And the damage was deep.   And now I have a son.  And he’s started noticing that black characters tend to die in these films.   Which means that he will experience the pain of fearing to identify with the character which looks more like him—an emotional hill whites are careful not to ask their own children to climb (try to name a single American film where all the white characters die, leaving only non-whites.  You can’t.  In fact, I’ve only seen such imagery in foreign films that are hostile to whites or some other group, dealing with war or occupation—in other words, expressions of anger and fear.    No relation to anything here, of course.)

Tyrese becomes T-Dawg.  Darabont “accidentally” doing exactly what Storm Front wanted.   His previous films (but wait!  You say.  What about Morgan Freeman in “Shawshank”?  Wipe that smirk off your face.  Morgan Freeman is the go-to Spiritual Guide, the ultimate emasculated figure, who has played God onscreen more often than he’s kissed a woman.     He’s exactly who you cast to convince yourself you aren’t a racist.  He played Alex Cross.  Now they’ve cast Tyler Perry.    Do the cultural  math.)

You, reading this, will probably try to say it’s coincidence.  If not, it is something isolated in Darabont.  Or Hollywood.  Or America.  Or white people.

Wouldn’t that be comforting, if you didn’t have to take responsibility?   If it had nothing to do with who you see in the mirror?

There is only one way I can look at this without jumping on the Farrakhan bandwagon.  And that’s by considering it just human stuff, which I have the misfortune to be on the losing end of.  Whites do it to blacks, men to women, straights to gays, thins to fats, liberals to conservatives—and vice versa, right down the line, when they can.  I’d suggest an average of 5-10% “emotional disconnect” to anyone who can be defined as an “other.”

That’s average.  But some people have more of it. A lot more.

So Frank…sorry, but I don’t want to do that lunch with you.

But don’t worry.  There are a couple guys over on Storm Front who would be happy to buy you a sandwich, and shake your hand.  You’ve made ‘em proud.

Steven Barnes


BC Monkey said...

On the subject of the racial bias, I'd like to see your opinion on the Australian movie "Tomorrow, when the war began". (Just watch the trailer on Amazon and you'll see why)

Steven Barnes said...

Looks like fairly typical "Red Dawn" type film. What was your specific thought?

BC Monkey said...

Your previous comments on non-white leads, if they get laid, they die. (Sorry, going to spoil) The asian lead here does get the girl,(The lead heroine, no less) and lives. Mind you, no explicit sex scene, but then the movie doesn't have any. Also, the invaders are asian, so I thought there might be an interesting angle there.

I'll admit, when watching the film, after reading your previous entries on the subject, I fully expected him to get killed in self-sacrifice.

Steven Barnes said...

My comment is this: if a non-white male character has sex, the box office won't top 100 million. If the invaders are Asian, then the filmmakers have done a good thing: given the audience a positive Asian character. Good on 'em.

Some guy said...

Maybe I'm being naieve but I can't help wondering: then why don't a bunch of black SF authors write SF books with a bunch of black characters? There'd have to be a sizeable black readership even if we stipulated that no one white would ever read a single copy. And, realistically, I think a lot of white fans would read them if they were any good. I read your stuff primarily for other reasons, but I do feel as if it helps me understand better how it feels to be black in this society. (And, yes, I DO know how naieve that one sounds.) And that's sort of a "bonus point" that I think would appeal to a lot of white fans.
So why, especially if there is a generally perceived lack of black role model characters, don't black authors write many SF novels in which the primary, or all, the characters are black? (I'm reluctant to presume the simple answer of bigoted editors, because of the potential profitable audience mentioned above. Besides, I'm biased in favor of SF types.) And if white theater-goers are reluctant to identify with black characters, identifying with them on the printed page first might be easier and help make the transition to the screen.
So what am I missing...?

Steven Barnes said...

There are black people writing black books with black heroes. I've done more of that than most. The reason you don't know about them is that the entire machinery of distribution is 99% controlled by whites. Seek out black book stores, and you'll find them. That, ultimately, is a little like saying: "if blacks aren't represented in textbooks, why not just start your own schools..." My perspective: won't work. Society is intermeshed, and there is no way to do much through moving AGAINST that tendency to interweave, and pretend we can create separate islands. My own approach is to do my work, point out the problems without asking white people to grow up or wake up more than the average human being can do, and watch the demographics shift. Which is happening. It's interesting to watch the pain and fear in white people as they are forced to awaken from a dream that the world revolves around them, and that God loves them more. Everyone loves that dream, but no one can hold onto it.

Reluctant Lawyer said...


I would be interested in getting your take on Falling Skies. Initially, I thought, wow, a great series with a racially diverse cast. Then the cast started shrinking. The black father and his son were killed. The hyper competent asian guy (who of course has no family and no visible interest in women) basically disappears into being a named extra. The black cop fades into the background. I had hopes for the black mechanic, but literally the episode after he was shown in a very deep emotional scene with a female character, he is killed.

Since I got rid of cable, Falling Skies is one of only 2 tv shows that I watch. I'll probably still watch it, but damn, do they think that people don't notice this s***.
This is part of the reason why after being a sci-fi fan for most of my life, I've pretty much given up on the genre.

Walter Mwasi Williams III said...

Thank you for this article. It is thoughtful, well written, and you make several indisputable examples throughout.

But the truth is that many people in this country simply cannot wrap their heads around the fact that a story can take place without one Anglo-Saxon Male being present.

Some guy said...

That's discouraging. I never thought that the publishing situation would be fair or equitable, but I did assume that there had been enough change so that there would be SOME legitimate distribution channels available (and eager for profit). And I thought books rather than movies because I figured there would be fewer of those interwoven elements you're talking about directly affecting the former medium.

So maybe the current move towards (non-vanity-press)self-publishing will have a good influence. Those authors have a lot more hands-on control of distribution (though not of the whole distribution chain, I realize).

Oh, and if it makes any difference, not all whites think the world revolves around white people. Personally, I'm entirely confident that it revolves around ME... :0)

P.S. I can actually spell "naive". I was writing late at night and half-asleep.

Edward Wolf said...

Powerful article, thank you so much for write.

A friend pointed me to this, when we (as native American) were talking about the effect seeing only weak and "needing to be rescued" native American characters in cinema has had on us, and more importantly what effect it will have on our children.

We are lucky if the native American character is not some chief 'such and such' stereo type who says "how" and looks like they plucked him out of some reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Anonymous said...

I was DONE with this stupid show after that 'big bad racist' episode I did a post about how the 'brother always dies first' in horror on the Brotha Wolf website. And from what I understand the Micheal Duncan character lives in the book of The Green Mile smh.

akhet said...

Great stuff.
Its frustrating. As a life long horror, science fiction, comic book, video game fan (geek). It gets really difficult trying to talk to non black folks about this problem. They get down right nasty and angry for even bring race up.
"Why do people have to play the race card with everything."
"Its just fiction, its not real."
"If you feel that way why do you watch, read, play it?"
Cant even find much of it on the internet.
So thanks for your post, it helps to know that others see it too.

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