Today is the opening day for the new movie, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. I first saw the trailer for this film when it played before Avatar. It seems like a perfectly adequate young adult movie based on a young adult book series. I have no problem with that. I accept that I’m not necessarily the target audience for this kind of film.
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, is a film adaptation of the first book from Percy Jackson & The Olympians series of young adult novels by author, Rick Riordan. It appears to be a coming-of-age story cut from the Harry Potter cloth, wherein a young man discovers his hidden birthright of magical powers along his fate as the only one who can destroy an ancient evil. In Percy Jackson’s case, he’s a halfbreed demi-god, the son of Poseidon, the God Of The Seas from Greek mythology. I sought out the background information of the Percy Jackson series, because there was one aspect of the trailer that caused me to literally, and ruefully, laughed out loud: the Black kid. No, I’m not laughing at Brandon T. Jackson, the young actor in the role. I’m certain that he does a fine job. What made me laugh was the point at which the trailer flashes a title card that states “THE HERO,” and then a displays series of shots which clearly establish the clean-cut White kid, Percy Jackson, as the protagonist-the hero. Next, the character of Grover Underwood-the Black kid- is established as “THE PROTECTOR.” Even from the trailer, you can tell that Grover’s the guy sent to guard and guide Percy through his hero’s journey and introduce him to the wonders of the strange new world he is about to enter. He’s a cross between Yoda and Bagger Vance, I guess.
I appreciate Rick Riordan’s attempts at inclusion; to get a bit of diversity on the page, and ultimately, the silver screen, but we’ve been down this road before. We’ve been the stalwart Black sidekick. If Grover’s tough, resilient, plucky, or whatever enough to protect Percy Jackson from whatever threats he may encounter while he discovers, and learns to use, his powers, then it stands to reason that good ol’ Grover would have the fortitude to BE the hero, right? (Hell, with a name like ‘Percy Jackson,’ I’m shocked that he ISN’T Black.) I know, the Black kid can’t be the hero in this particular story, because the Percy Jackson & The Olympians is rooted in Greek mythology, so their gods obviously weren’t Black. I would give you that argument, if Rosario Dawson hadn’t been cast as the Greek goddess, Persephone.
Perhaps she’s described a little lighter in the books. Then again, maybe Percy Jackson can’t be Black, because he’s the son of the God Of The Oceans, and everyone knows that Black folks don’t swim.
One thing I missed in the trailer, but realized later, was the fact that Grover uses crutches. Apparently, Grover does this to hide the fact that he’s actually a satyr, and the crutches help disguise the unusual posture and gait caused by his cloven hooves. Because I’m already approaching 1000 words, for the time being I’ll ignore the fact that the Black kid is secretly a mythological being whose has traditionally been portrayed as a sex-crazed, indolent, half-animal with a huge schlong that does nothing but play music all day. That’s a post for another day. Instead, I’m going to focus on Grover Underwood as yet another example of the plucky, Black, crippled sidekick that seems so popular in fiction. Rick’s cashing in all his EEOC chips with Grover, huh? But, where have we seen this archetype before? Let me see:
Well, there was that one kid, Stevie Kenarkin from the Fox sitcom, Malcolm In The Middle, played by Craig Lamar Traylor:
As much as I love the Teen Titans, I have to regretfully add Vic Stone, Cyborg, to this list. His dangerous Black virility was dampened by the fact that his limbs, part of his face, and possibly his junk, was burned off by an other-dimensional protoplasmic creature:
Hammer (no MC) was a minor character from the comic book, X-Force, who was paralyzed during a mission with The Six-Pack, a team of mutant mercenaries led by Cable. His teammate Kane (a White dude) had both his arms blown off, but he received superior cybernetic replacements for those. In a fictional universe where characters return from the dead with alarming regularity, Hammer still remains confined to his wheelchair.
A recent addition to the ranks of the crippled Black sidekick is Marvel’s James Rhodes, aka War Machine. Seems like he had his face blown off in Avengers: The Initiative, along with a lot of his other pieces. Fortunately, it seems that he may get better in time for the next Iron Man movie.
However, my favorite example of the plucky Black, crippled sidekick is from no less a writer than Alan Moore himself. When Rob Liefeld hired Moore to revitalize his Youngblood property, Moore introduced Max Doyle, a robotics expert who piloted a number of of giant robot bodies. Collectively, Max and his robots went by the name of Big Brother. Get it? ‘Brother’ can be slang for a Black dude and he zips around in a giant…Uh, I’ll let Alan Moore describe the character in his own words:
Big Brother is the final male member of the team. His real name is Max Doyle. He’s Waxman’s adoped son; he’s seventeen; he’s black; he’s only about five feet tall, and he’s crippled in both legs.
I actually dug the concept, but once you read the description out loud, it sounds like Johnny Sokko played by Arnold Drummond from Dif’frent Strokes.
I’m not saying that these attempts at greater diversity are not appreciated. They are, because these portrayals are a far cry from the days of Stepin Fetchit and Aunt Jemima. However, if you’re a writer in a position to create a new character and their supporting cast, just stop for one second and ask youself: “Why can’t the HERO be Black? Asian? A Woman? Physically challenged?” I think if you answer it honestly, you’ll find yourself with something more challenging to yourself and your readers than a token nod to cultural diversity.