Power Rangers, Identity and the Five Stages of Grief.
Writer’s note: First of all, HUGE shout out to my friend Shreya who first published this on her blog: Depths of TV, a year ago. That guest posts ignited the idea for me to create this blog.
I love Mighty Morphing Power Rangers. The Black Ranger is my favorite character.
These are two sentences that describe me. The former is a fact. The latter is the most egregious understatement of all time. I love the Black Ranger with an intensity that would concern graduate-level psychology students.
Growing up black in mid-90s suburbia, I rarely saw people that looked like me. As a 6 year old, I understood race but I didn’t quite understand what that meant. While I got along fine with white kids around me, I sensed I was not quite like everyone else. I expressed myself differently; I viewed the world from an alternate perspective. No one looked like me, no one acted like me. And definitely not on TV.
Then one day I discovered the Power Rangers. I was immediately drawn to Zach Taylor because, like me, he was black. Like me, he lived in a virtually white society. Like me, he carried himself a bit differently than everyone else. This brother wasn’t just a bland Angel Grove resident with melanin. He had what kids these days call SWAG. He didn’t just show up to the party; he was the life of it. He didn’t just fight; he created Hip-Hop Kiddo. He put soul in Angel Grove. He was a trendsetter. He popped a wheelie on the zeitgeist.
Unsurprisingly, one of my oldest possessions is a Zach doll that I got when I was 6. For over 20 years this doll has occupied a prominent space in my bedroom, closer to my bed than wholly appropriate. I’ve almost worn out two black Power Ranger t-shirts. During Black History month in 2015, I wrote a Facebook post explaining why Walter Emanuel Jones was one of the most influential black men in my life. I ramble on about Zach because you need to understand how important the symbol of the Black Ranger was to me back then and still is today.
When I heard about the Power Rangers reboot, I immediately wondered which young, black actor would be tasked with the momentous responsibility of portraying Zachary Taylor (Well, after passing out and walking up 5 minutes later from hyperventilating due to pure joy). This was a serious question for me because the Black Rangers more than just a character. It is a symbol that is connected to my identity as a black man in America.
That is why it was so crushing to hear that Zach would be played by Ludi Lin. The Black Ranger, my idol, would not be played by a black man.
Stages of Grief
My reaction was as such:
Denial –This has to be a joke. Good one, Onion.
Anger – This is fucking stupid. They can’t make the Black Ranger not black. The Black Ranger is synonymous with black. Black is in the name.
Bargaining – Maybe if I start one of those Change.org petitions I can get President Obama to convince them to change it back. He’s out of fucks to give these days. (this was back in early 2016, a much simpler time)
Depression – I don’t even want to see this movie anymore.
It is important to note that my grief over the casting of Ludi Lin has everything to do with race but little to do with HIS race. Ludi is Chinese-Canadian but that’s not my issue with him. It’s the fact that he’s not black. If the actor was white, latino, native american, or middle-eastern, my reaction would have been just the same. Making this distinction in my head led me, inevitably, to compare this racial change of a superhero from black to non-black to other changes of heroes from white to non-white.
There is a history in the comic book world of creating alternate versions of superheroes with different races. The most popular example of this is Jon Stewart who replaced 3 white Green Lanterns. Recently, this race-switching been done with varying levels of controversy. Sam Wilson (previously known as The Falcon [Anthony Mackie in the movies]) became Captain America in the comics with little fanfare. However, the mere suggestion that black actor/writer/stand-up comedian/rapper Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) be cast as Spiderman (a role which ultimately went to Andrew Garfield) lead to an insane amount of vitriol from the Spiderman geekdom. One of the more civil detractor’s arguments was that Spiderman couldn’t be black because a black kid couldn’t relate to the struggles the Peter Parker went through. While that statement is absurd, I realized I was making the same statement about Lundi portraying the Black Ranger.
A common argument against changing the race of a traditionally white character is “how come minorities can replace white characters but white characters can’t replace minority ones.” The answer is rather simple. White characters are rarely written in a way that being white is core to the identity of the character. Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Captain America are all complex, intriguing characters whose race is never central into the story line because there are a million other things that better define who these men are. This can’t be said for the relatively few black superheroes. Black Panther is African royalty whose name alludes to the African-American organization that was most active in the Civil Rights Era of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Having a non-African descendant as T’Challa would be in direct defiance of what is core to the character.
I then had to ask myself whether being a black man was central to the core of the character named Zachary Taylor. Could an asian actor rock the jean overalls with one strap as fly Walter Emanuel Jones? …Yeah. Could a latino actor break dance with the same amount of supreme confidence? …Yeah. Could a white actor rock the flattop like WEJ? OK…Let’s not push it.
At the end of the day, I came to the realization that even though the original Black Ranger was black, there was nothing about the character that necessitated him being played by a black actor. Just like nothing about the Red Ranger inevitably requires him to be played by a white male. While I, and possibly thousands of other 20 somethings, believe the Black Ranger needs to be black, that logic make us no better that the Spiderman fan that doesn’t want to see a black Peter Parker. My personal ideas of what the Black Ranger should be does not define what the character COULD be. Once I realized that, I could proceed to the fifth stage of grief, acceptance.
Zach Taylor, a cultural cornerstone of my childhood will not be played by a black man. Do I like the decision? No. Will I forevermore feel less connected to the character? Yes. Will not seeing a face like mine portray this character distract me at times from enjoying the movie? Probably. But I’m OK with all of that. Despite Zach’s race meaning so much to me, the fact remains that Mighty Morphing Power Rangers is still one of my favorite shows of all time. I cherish the playground experiences I had fighting of imaginary Puddies with friends. I think that the guitar/synthesizer solo in the theme song is one of the greatest musical accomplishments of the late 20th century. I will still wear my Black Ranger shirts and wax nostalgia with strangers who love the Black Ranger almost as much as I do.
I wish Ludi Lin the best in this role. Hopefully with witty writing and a composed demeanor, he adds depth and new perspective to the character that wasn’t explored in the series. I’ve always admired Zach because he was different; he never played by anyone else’s rules. I just never thought the rules he wouldn’t play by would ever be mine.