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Cautiously Optimistic

I Can’t Decide Whether To Get Excited About the Wachowskis’ New Netflix Show Or Not

It’s been almost a year since we first heard about Sense8, a sci-fi show being developed exclusively for Netflix by Andy and Lana Wachowski alongside Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski. At the time all we knew was that it would be “a gripping global tale of minds linked and souls hunted,” which is predictably vague considering it’s the Wachowskis.

But now we finally have a synopsis. And it sounds interesting! And also like there’s the possibility of it being racist as hell.

According to TVLine the main gist of the show is that eight people living all around the world start sharing the same violent vision, which sounds interesting. One character (or “entity”) tries to bring the group together while another tries to kill them. And when I say “all around the world” I mean all around the world—the show’s shooting locations are the UK, Seoul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Berlin, Mexico City, San Francisco, and Chicago.

As for the characters, they include:

”a closeted Mexican telenovela hunk, an Icelandic party girl, a German safe-cracker, a Korean businesswoman, an African bus driver and a transgender American blogger (a la Lana?).”

Is that a wide array of diversity I spy? Bring it! Considering our readership it’s preaching to the choir to say there needs to be more diversity in film and on TV (major studios could stand to learn it, though). But it bears repeating that in this social media-heavy age having a diverse cast can really only help a show attract viewers. When a good show comes along, its audience will watch it and blog about it. When a good show with a diverse cast comes along, its audience will watch it, blog about it, and bend over backward to support it (see: Sleepy Hollow, Elementary, Orange is the New Black). Not that “it’ll increase your viewing numbers!” is the primary reason a show should avoid being 90% straight white dudes—there’s, y’know, common decency. But shows being so homogenous doesn’t even make any damn business sense, and you know studio execs are all about their bottom line. It’s like they’re saying “Meh, I don’t want this show’s viewership to be as big as it could be.”

So what’s my problem with Sense8? This:

“Perhaps most intriguing, though, are Jonas, an apparently magic African-American who appears to all of the ‘visionaries,’ and his evil counterpart, Mr. Whispers (arguably the best-named villain since The X-Files’ Cigarette-Smoking Man).”

Back away from the Magical Negro trope.

The “Magical Negro trope, for those not in the know, is where you have a black character (the word “Negro” is used to emphasize the archaic and offensive nature of the trope) who helps the white characters by dispensing homespun wisdom and, occasionally, magic. It diminishes said characters to what they can do for the white leads. There’s no way to tell this early on whether Jonas will fall into that trap, but “magic African-American” sets off all sorts of bells for me. And it’s not like the Wachowskis have a history of racial sensitivity: There was the Cloud Atlas yellowface scandal, and the Oracle from The Matrix is a textbook example of the Magical Negro.

As always, it’s best to take these concerns into consideration but forestall a final verdict until the show actually lands late this year. It could very well be amazing. Jonas could be a wonderfully complex character with his own agency. And, of course, the fact that Netflix is continuing to produce shows with a diverse cast is a wonderful thing. Please pull through for me, Sense8. Be the show you can be.

(via /Film, top photo by Anna Hanks)

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  • Kenneth England

    So if you have a Professor X – type character who also happens to be black, this is a problem?

  • Revolution of Eva

    The Wachowskis explained this more in a previous interview. The idea is….the concept that as humans have evolved, we have developed progressively wider social groups, empathic groups. It used to be that anyone outside of your immediate family was an alien, animal. Then this broadened to a clan level, then tribal level, then city level, then ethnic/national level. At every level of advancement, we formed a wider group that we “empathized” with. So isn’t the logical next step in evolution…not necessarily X-Men style superpowers, but simply, a new broader level of connection? So the central idea is that the next step in evolution is that people start forming psychic bonds, even people from around the world from different nations/ethnic groups – because the next step in evolution, bigger than the jump from clan to city or city to nation, is all of humanity.
    So the way they explained it, it kind of made sense; that it’s this next evolutionary jump.

  • Rebecca Pahle

    If Professor X’s sole narrative purpose were to help the white protagonists, yes.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a little wary given how they responded to the criticism of Cloud Atlas (“Silly Asians! You’re just encouraging racism by pointing it out!”) but this has potential to be good. And it does sound like it has a diverse cast.

    It really hinges on whether or not Jonas is an actual character and not just a wise mysterious oracle who serves no purpose other than to drop helpful hints.

    Now I wanna link to the Key and Peele magical negro sketch.

  • Anonymous

    Which protagonists are white in the characters listed above?

  • Rebecca Pahle

    Like I said in the post: Based on the few sentences about the show we have, I don’t know that Jonas will be the magical negro trope. I am only expressing worry that he might be.

  • Kristina Meek

    Just as long all these people all around the world don’t all witness a solar eclipse at the same time… because that is physically impossible.

  • AverageDrafter

    It really just comes down to what comic book they are lifting this from… any guesses?

  • Kenneth England

    Hrm, let’s see, a person with powers decides he needs to gather up a certain group of people to save the world. Yup. Sounds exactly like Prof. X.

  • Saraquill

    Not necessarily. The dad from the Umbrella Academy did the same thing, and he and Professor X. are rather different.

  • Marshall Hitch

    My problem with the ‘magical Negro’ is that it seems to want to make the point of “Whoever heard of a Negro who wants to help a Caucasian?” People who want to help people is a positive thing….and Negros, Caucasians, Asians, Inuits or any other race are first and foremost humans

    If someone thinks, “Oh, what a caring person that is to willing to help out- Wait a minute, she’s black??? What kind of racist BS is this???”…I kinda consider that perspective to be racist in and of itself.

  • Ryan Colson

    From the creators of magical negro Morpheus comes another one?

  • Miss Cephalopod

    Eh, that’s not the point. It’s not about whether or not a black person is helpful to a white person. It’s about whether or not that black person exists in the narrative solely for the purpose of helping out a white person: the difference between being an actual (helpful) person and a walking, talking utensil.

  • aerinha23

    It’s not like an Asian businesswoman, precise and efficient German thief, northern European party girl, and (topping it all off) a hot telenovela lead are exactly sterling examples of avoiding stereotypes either…

  • Skol Troll

    Well, today I learned another racism-related term that I didn’t know existed. I also learned that, in a show that appears to have very diverse characters, said show still has a chance of being racist.

    I also learned today that the Thor movies are racist because Idris Alba likes using his Rainbow Powers to help Hemsworth win.

    I really need to work on not being so apathetic over skin color. I guess I was raised wrong.

  • AnnaB

    So if you pretend to be obtuse, you think we have an obligation to explain this to you?

  • debijl

    I’ll be glad to see Straczynski on the creative end of a new story. Babylon 5 has a special place in my heart.

  • Lea Tapp

    I know you think you’re joking, but you do need to work on your ignorance and apathy over racism.

  • Lea Tapp

    Wow a white dude who doesn’t understand racism and gets angry when people call it out. That so very ….commonplace and irritating.

  • Lea Tapp

    So your in denial about racist tropes in media. Let me guess…you’re a white guy. Gee…I wonder if maybe instead of being rude and incredulous, you might take time to learn about racism instead of scoff at it.

  • Marie

    I think “racist as hell” is a little strong given the amount of diversity in the cast. This may be a misstep in the midst of a gender/race friendly show, and not necessarily something to condemn the whole show for.

    Also, if the only magical person were a white guy, that wouldn’t necessarily look good either.

  • Marshall Hitch

    True, and if I come to the conclusion that this Jonas character is put in the story solely to “Step’n Fetchit” to white characters, i’ll buy the accusations of racism.

    Right now the only two things I know about this character is that he helps people and that he’s black. I can’t just take those two facts and leap to the conclusion of screenplay bigotry. I will certainly be disgusted if that becomes the case….but considering that Jonas would be a main protagonist in the series, it sounds like they’ll develop his character in a more rounded 3-dimensional way.

    I prefer to think that non-Caucasian heroes are more like Abbie in “Sleepy Hollow” or Dorian on “Almost Human” or Zoe on “Firefly”…and that they are fully explored as characters. Guess I might be a bit of an optimist.

  • kbroxmysox

    Yeah, one thing i don’t get about the “magical negro” is, is it really a problem if this person has character? I guess the homespun, old man wisdom but if they have are black and just happened to have magic, and sometimes assist the white characters(which this cast isn’t all white…so…) with their magic, is it a magical negro? And if they’re serving themselves by helping the white people. Is that a magical negro? I think it’s a tricky thing. Like killing off a woman in comics, you risk getting accused of being racist/sexist, even if you aren’t.

    For example, I’m writing a story where I’d say the third most important character in the book(making her a supporting right after the two main characters) is a young, black witch. Yes she helps the main white character but in truth, she’s helping herself just as much as she’s helping them. In fact, more so. Helping them is a consequence of helping herself. She needs them(despite maybe not wanting too), they need her(despite, in one of their cases ,maybe not wanting too). And I’d say she’s a fully realized character. So does that make her a magical negro because she’s both black and a witch?

  • Ana KH

    Yeah, I’m not clear why this particular trope is the lynchpin of the article, rather than making a grocery list of all the ways that every character described has the potential to be a damaging bit of representation.

    At this point, we are judging based on two to three descriptive words about each character and our knowledge of the filmmakers, so it seems odd to pick out one in particular as though it has some greater chance of being a step backwards than all the others.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I think movie/TV makers are in somewhat of a catch 22 when it comes to a few things.

  • Lisa

    I think I’ll probably hold off voicing any opinions until I actually see the show.

  • Anonymous

    I thought the Cloud Atlas was rather well done, if not a little bizarre. In context of the film making the characters up as different races fit. If gender is something that’s flexible (actors play the opposite gender fairly regularly, people pay money to change their birth gender), why isn’t race? And anyways- yellow face implies something slanderous and insulting, and if you saw the move it wasn’t going for that.

  • kinoumenthe

    Exactly. There’s not much of a point getting up in arms over a blurb. It’s a blurb !

  • Mark Matson

    I’ll toss in a generic comment I could probable cut and paste into many posts. I do think many, including this author, are too sensitive to potential racism and historic precedents. But the vast majority of us are far too insensitive. I always find this perspective extremely valuable as it points out what I, as well off white dude, often miss. Even if this point of view isn’t the only valid one, it is still very much valid and pushes back against the norms society has become all too comfortable with.

    So regardless if I always agree or not, please keep pushing back. We need more of this, not less.

  • Mark Matson

    I’ll toss in a generic comment I could probable cut and paste into many posts. I do think many, including this author, are too sensitive to potential racism and historic precedents. But the vast majority of us are far too insensitive. I always find this perspective extremely valuable as it points out what I, as well off white dude, often miss. Even if this point of view isn’t the only valid one, it is still very much valid and pushes back against the norms society has become all too comfortable with.

    So regardless if I always agree or not, please keep pushing back. We need more of this, not less.

  • Rebecca Pahle

    Claiming to “not see race” doesn’t do anything to counteract the lived experiences of people who ARE discriminated against because of the color of their skin. In fact, it tries to erase those experiences. Not acknowledging that there are, for example, negative stereotypes about POC in the media doesn’t mean that those stereotypes don’t exist.

  • Mark Matson

    Personally, I think it only counts as a magical negro if the character otherwise has not personality, plot or character. In the case of Morpheus, I don’t think he qualifies, even with the famous pill scene. (Though the pill scene in isolation very much pushes all the magical negro buttons, I’ll admit.)

    The Oracle, though, very much counts in that trope, in my opinion. She was literally created to fill that role, even in canon.

  • Marshall Hitch

    I admit that I don’t understand racism. It has nothing to do with my skin color, however.

  • Anonymous

    When I first read the synopsis on another site I immediately thought ‘Magical Negro.’ What gets me is that the character is specifically identified as African-American, whereas none of the other characters are classified by ethnicity, just nationality (they didn’t specify an ethnicity for the transgender American blogger, for example; and don’t get me started on the continued refusal to identify specific nations in Africa rather than just referring to the continent as if it were one big country – we don’t do that with Europe).

    Hopefully all involved will avoid gross stereotypes going forward as sci-fi is certainly a genre suited to breaking down such stereotypes.

    In response to discussion about The Oracle in The Matrix, that’s one example that I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to considering the character has her own backstory and motivations. Like the architect, she was a program with a specific task, she was integral to exploring the unique nature of humanity and free will, and she has fought against the enslavement of humanity by the machines, not to mention she’s guided people of all etnicities, genders, and ages. Her physical depiction certainly doesn’t help in dispelling concerns about the nature of the character, but at least she’s her own person, which is much more than can be said of most characters in this vein.

    And, dammit, if the Wachowskis had been able to get Will Smith for Neo as they wanted that movie would have been even cooler.

  • Pink Apocalypse

    If you are committed to striving for personal education and enlightenment, your reply is something you’re going to look back on sometime in the future with embarrassment. If you did understand racism, you would know that it has *everything* to do with your skin color.

    The specific power of privilege is making people blind to their own, and unaware of how central their own color is to just about everything in their life. Trying to deny that is a glaring indicator of a lack of self-awareness.

  • imelda

    Right, as long as the character has both personality and a real character arc, it’s not a problem. I’m a little annoyed by this article, to be honest. Just because “magic” and “black” are written close together doesn’t make things racist.

    But if these are indeed the folks behind the Cloud Atlas movie, THAT does incline me to worry.

  • imelda

    Actually, I don’t think any of those are stereotypes? Nor is any one defined exclusively by their race. I don’t think the stereotype of Asian women is “businesswoman,” nor northern Europeans as party girls, nor telenovela actors as gay. I actually really appreciated that they did that.

  • imelda

    No, they’re not. I think this article is just really misguided.

  • imelda

    Morpheus most assuredly does not qualify. Give me a break. He is a leader, a driver of the storyline, and really interesting in and of himself. I don’t know about the Oracle; Greg’s comment below is interesting, but your point is also fair.

  • imelda

    Please read some of the articles discussing Cloud Atlas. Their attempts at bending ethnic lines were really pathetic, and offensive.

  • imelda

    Hahahaa! Guess again.

  • imelda

    I really appreciate that TMS keeps an eye out for these issues, and is so careful and open in pointing out and discussing racism in pop culture.

    I’m a little…put off, however, by this post. Based on what you quote, it seems that the creators have gone above and beyond (relatively speaking) in developing a diverse cast. Why in the world are you jumping to magical Negro trope? How about – oh, cool, there is a black character who, from what will can tell, may be really important and powerful.

    In addition to the fact that they have put together a diverse cast of characters, they have more than one (presumably) black character included. That alone gives them more leeway. If you have a weak black character, you still have room to not be racist if you have other, well-developed black characters. This is (part of) why The Vampire Diaries is racist, and Community is not.

    Another way of looking at this is: we should keep an eye out for potential positive examples of race in media, not just potential negative ones.

  • Anonymous

    Sure, stereotypes exist, cliches exist, tropes exist. They are in everything. Does that mean they are necessarily bad? No. They just are. Companies get flack for not including different ethnicity’s in their marketing, but when they do it’s racist because there’s some stereotype out there.

    Like KFC. My friends complained the other day that KFC was racist because there was a black guy in one of their commercials.That by the very act of having a black guy eat fried chicken (with a white guy) that meant they must be racist. (I still don’t get why fried chicken is racist, it’s tasty, but whatev.)
    So I said, because there’s this random stereotype out there KFC should never use black actors?

    Their response was pretty much, “well yeah.”
    So KFC shouldn’t present a diverse group of people (well, black and white) eating their product?

  • Anonymous

    Instead of watching the movie and forming my own opinion based on what I saw? Which is what I did. I’m find with my opinion on it and really don’t feel to make sure it’s the “correct” opinion. What it the best movie ever? No. But it sure as hell isn’t some modern day equivalent of “Birth of a Nation”.

  • Pink Apocalypse

    “Racism exists in the head of the person who’s racist.”

    I’m not sure if you’re saying a savage physical assault that’s been committed only exists in the mind of the criminal, not on the victim…..or…. if you’re saying that people who speak out about savage beatings are themselves criminal for speaking out about them, because they would ‘never happen’ if they just ignored them.

    Please take a sociology class as soon as possible. Wow. Just….wow.

  • Amanda Gun

    They could make the character in question asian/hispanic/middle eastern or whatever, though, and completely sidestep the issue. None of those ethnicities have that kind of baggage. Definitely not saying that this show will necessarily be racist, but if they made the mistake of thinking it could only be a black or a white guy, that’s fairly misguided.

  • Mark Matson

    Ok, I’m over a season behind on Vampire Diaries, but last I saw their only black character was the last one remaining who still had the slightest pretense of morality, who still vaguely believed killing people was bad, even if they weren’t your friends. Has that changed?

  • Joanna

    My thinking is that the Magical Negro trope applies if the character only pushes the story of the white protagonist. Here we have a diverse range of characters that he appears to. Does the trope still count in this instance?

  • Joanna

    Really? I thought it was kind of interesting but felt that the racial bending looked a little unnatural probably due to limitations with visuals. Though it has been a while since I’ve seen the film so I can’t really remember it within context.

  • Joanna

    It’s easy to miss the patterns in story telling if you consume entertainment passively rather than thinking critically about it. When we have a serious trend of minorities and women only being represented as plot points to the white male protag, it starts to become offensive. Diverse representation doesn’t just mean throwing in a load of tokens into a narrative, it means representing these characters as fully rounded people with their own stories and agendas that don’t revolve around the generic white guy.

  • Skol Troll

    “I know you think you’re joking.” It’s always a great start to an insult.

    I’m not ignorant, but I am apathetic. It comes from being taught not to hate based on skin, religion, orientation, gender, et al. After a while, apathy shows me who’s in it for acceptance and who’s in it for attention. I see it every day in my kid’s school. I see which kids have been taught to recognize differences, and those who aren’t taught to recognize differences. Take a wild guess which group tends to not have tendencies to stereotype…

    Back to the show. I, for one, have no hope for it as it seems like it’s about psychic evolution via Facebook.

  • Skol Troll

    Part of understanding is seeing both sides, which, after reading your responses, I realize you cannot do.

    Kenneth’s a geek. I’m a geek. Marshall up above is a geek. And I think we’re THAT first and foremost. And it’s likely why we’re here.

    It’s sad you pass judgement and refuse to accept us. But I guess that’s what being human is, right? Find someone different and berate until that comply.

  • imelda

    I agree with you, and that’s a very good question. I think that, for example, if the entire cast were black, and you had a magical character who furthered their needs…then no, it wouldn’t apply. When it comes to such a diverse cast, though, I don’t think we can tell without getting other indications from the text.

  • Marshall Hitch

    *sigh* You are correct, and I am embarrassed.

    I reacted poorly to the reactions of my initial comment, One thing I need to realize is that I do not have the perspective. I am indeed a ‘white dude’ who had my childhood in the rural Midwest with little to no contact with minorities. While I was raised to think of all people as equals, I had no direct experience with people of other racial or ethnic types than the typical White Anglo-Saxon Protestant that dominated rural Iowa in the ’80s.

    I hate having biases, and I feel terrible when I find I’m missing the point when I thought I was on the side of equality. I need to clairify that when I say I don’t understand racism. I mean that I don’t understand my place in racism.

    I don’t want to encourage racist views, and I believe that we are not a race or a gender or a sexual orientation first….but we are people first. My apologies to anyone and everyone who I irritated. I still have a lot to learn.