Is IronE Singleton aware that the internet’s support for him is ironic in nature? Hell, is the internet aware? (SPOILERS for the TV show The Walking Dead, the movie Chronicle, and the video game Binary Domain.)
Perhaps the support is part comic, part pity, and part ironic. Perhaps there is legitimate respect in Singleton’s portrayal of T-Dog, the now-deceased African-American character on the hugely popular but extremely flawed The Walking Dead. Perhaps the internet – showing a surprising amount of critical savvy in the realm of developed characters – supported Singleton because he was working with so little of a character, with so little worth. T-Dog, metaphorically, was awesome because T-Dog, literally, was not, and Singleton did the best he could.
This is nothing new. African-American characters dying in horror films (and in all forms of entertainment nowadays) have been normalized to the point way past parody. I’m not even concerned about that, per se, as problematic as it is. The Walking Dead, however, seem to have codified it into something uncomfortably explicit – practically a rule of the show. To be specific, when another African-American male was introduced in an episode, they would kill off the previous one. They killed T-Dog when they introduced Oscar. They killed Oscar when they introduced Tyreese. They barely even let an entire episode pass by without two African-American males alive and well, and they never even spoken to each other at any length. (To be fair, there are two African-American females – Michonne and Sasha [and they have not talked to each other yet either]. I don’t have too much hope for Sasha, but as of right now, progress is progress.)
T-Dog’s death was particularly sloppy. A character whose development was as detailed as a sponge, T-Dog suddenly had a religious epiphany as he sacrificed himself to save Carol, which left Glenn alone with the wonderful, completely-out-of-nowhere exposition of detailing T-Dog’s background (he apparently drove old people to church). I’m willing to give a little benefit of the doubt though. The Walking Dead has had a number of issues behind the scenes, with creatives and executives alike. It has a number of issues with its female characters as well – a point that deserves its own essay and has been written about extensively. But being alive, they can redeem themselves – or at least redeem themselves in death, which Lori in some ways had done (lesser so with Angela, but writing isn’t the show’s strong point). The Walking Dead has made its black men disposable to the point that two black characters can’t even talk to each other, without a dramatic reason why. The Token Black Man Death has gotten so uncomfortably common that I can’t even laugh at it anymore.
I was watching Chronicle, a short but interesting film that takes on the emotional struggle of mentally unstable teens through the thematic use of burgeoning super powers. It was a taut, surprisingly thorough film that kept me quite interested… up until the point that they killed off Steve (Michael B. Jordan). I wish to god that didn’t effect me like it did, but my heart sank and I had to leave the room for a moment. Steve was nice, charming, and genuinely helpful towards the end of his life. He tried to really help the troubled teen Andrew as he grew more angry and antagonistic. The film clearly used that death to spur the impetus to get Andrew’s cousin, Matt, to deal with Andrew once and for all. But the “death as motivator” trope is already overdone. Adding that racial component only speaks to the systemic issues within the creative field.
How overused has this become? When reading a list of underrated video games of 2012, many people mentioned Binary Domain as one of them. And it was a surprisingly solid game, with tight mechanics, great graphics, and a delicious and deep sci-fi plot bolstered by very unique, personality-filled characters. It didn’t take itself seriously, and the VO was perfect for the tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Boss fights were tough and huge. Everything was running smoothly… until the end. The black character, Bo, sacrifices himself to save the love interest of Faye, in service to protagonist, Dan. There’s a dramatic, touching scene of Dan talking to Bo as he lay dying. It’s well done, especially in context with the series of big reveals that came before it. But of all the characters – and there are a lot of them – did it have to be Bo? And why only him? There’s five other perfect characters that could have been the lamb.
Here’s the kicker. Three completely different pieces of entertainment from three entirely different media all killed off their only black male characters solely in service to the white protagonist. This is ridiculous. And yes, people of all races, generally speaking, were killed (not so much in Binary Domain, but it’s a moot point since mostly everyone were robots). And I’m not claiming that creators should be forced to do something they do or do not what to do, creatively. The problem is that there are already so few black characters in our media, fewer of them developed beyond a single note. (Odd, since The Walking Dead is located in Atlanta with a high black population, and Binary Domain often deals with military groups, groups that often have large African-American numbers.) Why can’t they live happy lives? Why can’t they survive? Why are they seemingly always killed to ensure the happiness/survival of their white peers? Why did THREE totally different development teams all make this same decision?
Women in media are killed for white, male protagonist to go on revenge sprees (add in a little rape or refrigeration to make it “serious”). Black men, on the other hand, are killed in sacrifice to save their Caucasian others. Both are awful, but at least now there seems to be an attempt to really make it a point to bring the treatment of female characters in media to light. African-Americans and other minorities need to definitely speak up and campaign strongly against this, and demand better from writers and creators.