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Critic’s Notebook: For Gen Z Kids, ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Shooting Stars’ Offer Much-Needed Multiracial Joy



I vividly remember the first time I saw a Black woman in a toothpaste ad.

There I sat on our shag carpet, my goldfish behind me and a poster of The Fonz just steps away, taped to my bedroom door. I was watching TV and suddenly a beautiful woman in a short natural filled my screen, her teeth perfect and gleaming. I sat, mesmerized, and watched her shine. When her 30 seconds were up, I raced back to tell my mother: “Mamma, there was a Black woman on TV!”

All Gen X kids timed their day around Saturday morning cartoons, Zoom and Kids Are People Too. After, we rode our bikes till the streetlights came on. For Black Gen X, the jumble of Huffies, Big Wheels and metal skates on someone’s front yard let the little kids know it was time for Fat Albert, What’s Happening! or Good times. Together, we laughed with The Jeffersons and finger-snapped to Soul Train. Beyond that, TV, movies, even our favorite books were as white as Wonder Bread.

I was staying with my cousins ​​in West Philadelphia one summer when Claudine (1974) came on the color console, and Timmy — he was the 2nd oldest — carefully adjusted the tint and brightness so we could actually see James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll fall in love.

My Gen Z son is tired of hearing these stories of my 1970s childhood. His life is way richer in beautiful Blackness. He does not pop up from a beanbag to signal an all-family alert: “Mamma! Black people are on TV!”

And still…

It wasn’t until 2018, his 9th year on this earth, that he saw a larger-than-life Black superhero onscreen. The overwhelming success of Black Panther helped dismantle the long-standing Hollywood fallacy that, while the world would willingly pay to cycle through seven variations of Batman, no one could make money with a true Dark Knight.

My son is now 14, and this summer he is seeing himself on screen in multiple expressions of creativity, aspiration and what we call Black Boy Joy. 2018 was a good year, because we also shared a bucket-load of popcorn to watch Miles Morales spin his way into the Spider-verse for the very first time. We’ve had to wait five long years to get a similar summer. Finally, after the devastation of COVID, as my child stands strong at the portal to young adulthood, we get a super-powered, fantasy-fueled, jubilant manifestation of the limitlessness of the human imagination. We get to escape, for just a few hours, into realms where Black people soar, score and sing under the sea. Finally, we get to have fun.

Despite its less-than-satisfying ending, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse serves the coolest animated kids I’ve seen since Miles felt that first bite from a radioactive spider five years ago. The movie opens with an all-girl, multiracial garage band coping with Gwen Stacy’s (Hailee Steinfeld) malaise and ends with a team as powerful as rock stars ready to save the world. In between, I flew through the real New York, the Brooklyn my son is being raised in, a city portrayed here with bacon-egg-and-cheese authenticity. Through the rooftop party scene, I could practically smell the arroz con pollo, feel the DJ drop each beat, and truly did chuckle out loud as Miles’ parents grappled with Gwen calling them by their first names.

My son’s world is as diverse as Miles’, as was the Brooklyn theater where we watched the film on the big screen. As much as I want my son to see himself reflected in the speculative realm of Marvel-level coolness, I also want his white, Asian and Latino friends to experience this other-verse where Black boys save the world with a team that looks just like them. All of them. Together. This other-verse looks, smells and sounds just like their ultra-cool home.

Basketball is the official-unofficial sport in the County of Kings, so my family was eager to watch the LeBron James-produced Shooting Stars, a film adaptation of the book James wrote about his childhood crew. They called themselves the Fab Four, then added another to their winning group of beautiful Black boys struggling into manhood together. As an African American mother, I have so much to fear in this world, so I was relieved to experience nearly two hours of Black boys just being kids, from riding bikes as they exited 8th grade to driving cars in high school.

On their road to a future that keeps them all connected to their favorite team sport, their biggest hurdles were those erected by LeBron’s growing fame. But the film does not center him, which is another welcome relief. Instead, shorty Dru Royce III anchors their friendship and shifts the gaze from the superstar to the shooting stars. Their cohesion would make them the best high-school team in the country.

Dru, played by Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things fame, drives the boys out of their all-Black public school and into the white world of the local Catholic school. Race surfaces in organic ways, with tension and even anxiety in certain scenes, but these realities do not dominate the story. Instead, these beautiful Black boys come of age together. Positioning their joy at the center of the film feels true to my own son’s childhood; their onscreen laughter echoes the sounds I hear when the neighborhood boys who love the game of basketball crowd our Brooklyn apartment. After a full day on the courts they’ve been growing up on, they crowd around a console, just like Dru, Bron, Sian and Avery. I need my child to see and understand films like 13th and When They See Usbut I also want him to enjoy the ebullience and familiarity of Shooting Stars.

I know he has to see movies that examine the worst of our past, because a Black girl can’t even be a mermaid without white supremacy surfacing like an old and dangerous beast. When the beautiful Halle Bailey emerged from the coral to sing her way into the hearts of Black girls all around the country in the new The Little Mermaid, old white racists lost their minds. It’s a shame, because they’re missing the boat to the future, where Gen Z is already singing together — just like Gwen Stacy’s girl band.

Thank goodness for social media, as Black parents taped their daughters’ precious reactions as they sat, wide-eyed, to see that Ariel is a Black girl. These children do not need to know about the African orishas Yemaya, Yemoja and Olokun to know that they, too, belong in the speculative realm, where sea creatures are powerful and beautiful and also Black.

And yet…

When I scroll my feed and witness their joy at seeing a Black princess emerge in the Disney trailer playing on their TV, I can’t help but feel a kind of bittersweet pang deep in my bones: All these decades later, almost a quarter of the way through a new century, they are just as shocked as I was at their age by the anomaly of a Black woman appearing onscreen in certain contexts. That they, too, are delighted and surprised by the sudden appearance of their own selves is its own kind of witness. Somewhere in the wonder of Black Girl Magic like Ariel’s and Black Boy Joy like the shooting stars, there is a sadness. The 70s were a long time ago; none of these kids could tell you what a jukebox is, much less identify the greasy-haired guy famous for magically causing it to play. But it’s like nothing has changed as they sit on hardwood floors, gazing at smart TVs. There are no foil-wrapped rabbit ears to adjust, no knobs to turn to get the color and contrast just right. And still there they are, just as we were, our bikes scattered around the yard, cross-legged, peering, unaware of how deep the ache is to see ourselves on screen.

May their magic and joy be a balm, a healing, to normalize Black and Indigenous and Latino and Asian and Samoan children too. I want to see us all, every one, triumphant and strong and heroic and bigger than life in worlds we can only imagine.

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