Up until the official launch of Marvel’s Black Panther next year, the only representations of black super-heroism on film have been far and in between. Yes, we’ve had Spawn and Blade, but somehow they feel totally removed from the comics’ hero resurgence we’re experiencing. As far as the last decade or so, we have had Storm barely cause one in five Xmen films;
Terrence Howard Don Cheadle as Robert Downey Jr.’s War Machine; T.I. as an associate of Ant-Man’s associate; and, Anthony Mackie as Falcon. That was until last Friday.
Growing up I don’t really remember many black fictional characters I grew up idolizing. Outside of Storm, I had no recollection of Wakanda or the five other blacks in both the DC and Marvel universes. Perhaps because I wasn’t fully conscious of colorism at that age, I didn’t seek myself in these mediums. However when I was represented, I took notice. And there was no other larger form of representation than Zack of the Power Rangers.
The original black ranger of Saban’s weekly action series was a large first. He was as vital to the team’s success as every other member. He even got his own focused episode. Aside from the now very apparent racial undertones of his casting, he was as mainstream as black had been. Since then a black ranger has pretty much been present in every iteration of the franchise. We even had one awarded the lead as Red Ranger. With new life in 2017, RJ Cyler takes the mantle as Billy Cranston. And he’s every bit of what we deserve in a black superhero today.
Billy Cranston – the Blue triceratops commander – of the Power Rangers reboot film has become a beacon of what we want in a black superhero of 2017. He defies expectations of what blackness looks like on-screen, breaking barriers and putty ass with ease. The original black ranger was essentially the black dude: naturally athletic and rhythmically-inclined. In contrast, 2017’s black guy is now the blue ranger, a character commonly associated with being a nerd.
Nerdy Billy Cranston is a tech-savvy prodigy, catching heat for his mechanic mishaps exploding during class. He’s seen as not only smarter than his peers, but essentially one of the smartest individuals of Angel Grove High. A definite rarity in the depiction of blacks in mainstream films. Other than maybe Lucious Fox, TJ Henderson and Steve Urkel, black intellect is largely dismissed. (shouts to Hidden Figures)
Cranston’s pure talent is part of another wholly separate characteristic writers intertwined into his story. Billy is on the spectrum. As an autistic individual, he explains how his mind doesn’t comprehend humor or sarcasm. While his social skills may be limited because of his neurological makeup, his mind ascends normal thought. Even to the point where he scientifically understands the advanced technology of Zordon’s command center. A black autistic teen as part of one of the most famous superhero franchises in the world is huge.
Characters with disabilities lack representation across all mediums. Off the top of my head, I can only recall Sinbad’s wheelchair-bound government friend in First Kid, who raced through the mall to track a disgruntled employee from killing the president’s son. More recently a character on NBC’s comedy Superstore. Ironically NBC also tried the defunct Ironside reboot with Blair Underwood. As underrepresented groups go, members of color in these groups receive even less exposure. Cranston is a step in the right direction.
In addition to the mere existence of this character, Cyler’s performance is done poignantly. As the heart of the team, he earns your laughs and tears justly throughout the film. Too many times these characters suffer from poor writing or settle for third-rate supporting roles. Cyler’s Cranston is a whole hero and character you root for from start to finish.
Here’s to Billy Cranston of Angel Grove. The Blue Power Ranger who just happens to be black and autistic.