I sat down to watch the first episode of the thrilling new zombie apocalypse show Fear the Walking Dead, by the creators of The Walking Dead. This follow-up series promised to rectify all the wrongs that were committed in the original.
For the three of you who are unfamiliar with the original show, stop now, and go watch it. Epic. For those of you have yet to watch the new series: Spoilers are coming.
(Though in truth, what I am about to reveal will demonstrate that nothing has changed.)
The anxiety builds from the very first scene. A young man wakes in confusion. Something is off, the audience can feel it, but he is naïve to the impending collapse of civilization. He sees something that is beyond his ability to comprehend. He flees, gets hit by a car and becomes disoriented.
The intensity decreases as we enjoy the heartfelt interactions as each unwitting character is introduced. We have the black sheep son who has been reconciled with his family, the flawless teenage daughter who can’t wait to escape the pressures of parental expectations, and the mother and stepfather who are trying to enjoy their newfound relationship, despite the conflicts of an ethnically diverse (White and Latino) merged family system.
In this new series we are also introduced, over the course of the first episode, to three Black men. This is highly significant for any person of color who watches horror shows. Why? Because, of course, Black men are always killed off first. So, with three Black men being developed right off the bat, it seemed Fear The Walking Dead creators were bucking a trend.
When watching the original series The Walking Dead, it was almost comical to see the way Black dudes were merely used as walking meat-sticks. With one exception, these Black male characters were only developed to the extent that the writers needed victims who tugged at our heart-strings, without actually turning us off of the show because, well, who cares? They’re Black. The Black guy was always a one-dimensional caricature of a person, and as soon as a new Black man was introduced, the existing one was sure to fall prey to the ravenous hordes.
Oh, and that one exception, Tyreese? The Black dude who was complex and vulnerable and strong and kind all at once? Yeah, he was eaten.
So, when the first Black guy in the new series – a kind principal who bears a striking resemblance to Obama – was introduced, my buddy and I joked that he would be the first to go. When the second sympathetic Black character was introduced as the boyfriend of the perfect daughter, we joked again, “Ha! Poor Matt. He won’t last!”
But when we were introduced to the third Black guy in the first episode of Fear The Walking Dead, I dared to let a spark of hope ignite in my cynical heart… Could it be that this time, in this new iteration, they would actually let a Black man live? And not only live but be central to the plot of the story as opposed to inconsequential zombie fodder?
Black folks, especially men, are used to seeing every African American character be systematically eviscerated, bludgeoned, eaten, or torn apart in horror movies. It’s a long-standing joke. We all know it’s coming. We laughingly shout at the screen, admonishing the hapless black dude, “Don’t go in there!” as he takes it upon himself to go check out that weird noise.
Because, despite our jokes, we’re painfully aware of the paucity of nuanced representations of Black men. We have come to expect that in mainstream entertainment, Black lives don’t matter.
If they did, then there would be at least some murmurings of confusion within the general (read: White) television-watching public when every single principal character who is killed in the first two episodes happens to a black man. How can this be?!
One, okay. Two, sure, but all three?!
You may say that it’s just a television show. To that I say yes – a television show that has broken the record for the most views of a season premiere in the history of cable television, with 10.1 million viewers. Yet, nary a peep about the fact that the only main characters who were zombified were Black men.
When Vanity Fair journalist, Joanna Robinson, asked about this alarming trend, Fear the Walking Dead showrunner, Dave Erickson, responded thusly:
When we were writing the pilot, it wasn’t something that came up in conversations in the room or with the network… For us, it was about casting that felt reflective of the community and getting the best actor and that was the final determining factor.
I realize it’s clearly become an issue and it’s something we are mindful of. But ultimately it’s trying to tell the story the best way we can and cast the best people we can. I wouldn’t want to go back and recast a character just to avoid … When you’re dealing with a show where you have a cast that is as diverse as ours is, it’s inevitable that characters of color are going to get bit and are going to turn or die.
As Erickson demonstrates, even when we don’t consciously mean to devalue the lives of Black men and boys, we do. Somehow they just don’t seem to be the best way to “tell a story.”
Despite our uproar about the recently recorded shootings of Black men and children, the truth is we have a social unconscious, and that unconscious equates Black bodies with threatening objects that are best used as target practice, free labor and zombie bait.
Our media is a reflection of our society’s unconscious biases. The fact that Black men are portrayed almost exclusively as thieves, gangsters, prisoners and zombie fare goes unnoticed. The fact that you are relatively unfazed by these portrayals of black men and kids in media points towards the ways in which you, too, hold Black lives in your mind as disposable.
I will watch Fear The Walking Dead and I’ll love it. I, too, want to participate in society. Unfortunately, my participation requires the knowledge that the creators of this show, along with those who set the standard for the major news outlets, and even those who create the laws of my country have little regard for my father’s life and the life of those who look like him.
The next time you turn on the television or head to the movie theater, pay attention to the way Black bodies are used to tell the story. Ask yourself whether Black lives matter enough to be worthy of taking up your screen time as nuanced, relatable protagonists.