*WARNING THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE NEW POWER RANGERS MOVIE*
Saban’s Power Rangers opened in theaters this weekend and it met most of my expectations.The film was a concrete revitalization of the series that for the most part stayed true to the original source material. The breakdown is that a group of 5 teenagers with attitude (no, not the rappers from Compton) are recruited to transform into brightly colored heroes by a talking robot and a previous warrior in order to fight an evil witch that has awakened to steal Earth’s Zeo crystal which would destroy the world. Now, this film has typical teenage angst, surprisingly well-done character development, and some pretty solid action scenes, but what I was not expecting from this movie was for several of those heartfelt moments to come from the film’s black character.
Enter the newly envisioned Billy Cranston, a nerdy teenager on the autism spectrum who doesn’t have a sense of humor but possesses an affinity for various gadgets played by newcomer RJ Cyler. The original Billy was a white kid who was also the geeky one but didn’t have as many on-screen hangups as his rebooted counterpart. Throw in the fact that the new Billy is dealing with the absence of his father through tinkering with some explosive material that keeps getting him thrown into detention, and you’ve got yourself a complex character that grabs you the minute he appears on screen.
What I love about Billy is that he breaks several firmly held tropes about black characters in TV and film. He’s not just the black one who turns and nods affirmatively to the leader. In fact, Billy’s presence is a driving force throughout the entire film. After Jason defends him from a bully in detention, Billy manages to drag him to the abandoned gold mine where his late father used to work in order to test out his detonation device, which unearths the five Power Coins that give the teens their powers. It’s Billy who pinpoints the location of the Zeo Crystal, and he’s the first member of the team to morph into a ranger, which he does by breaking up a fight between two of his teammates.
Billy is no token; he’s an integral part of the overall narrative.
My one gripe about the film’s handling of Billy’s story arc was his “death scene.” Rita drowns Billy after she forces him to give up the location of the Zeo Crystal. After Billy falls, the rest of the team finally comes together as a unit, swearing to give their lives for each other. Their display of dedication activates The Morphing Grid, and rather than use it to bring himself back to his humanoid form, Zordon revives Billy. My issue with this is that mainstream movies have a tendency to enact unnecessary violence on black bodies, especially if they’re the only black person in the film.
Black characters are usually the first ones to die, or if they’re not the first, they’re sure to die before the end credits. I knew they weren’t going to kill him for real because the advertisement shows Billy in the climax of the movie. However, in this current political climate where stories of young black teens being brutalized are as regular as the weather report, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing a black boy drowning to death. On the bright side, the fact that Zordon brought him back to life showed that they truly cared about him, cared about the continuation of his personal development. Billy is the first black character I’ve seen die for his teammates…and then come back to fight right alongside them. That’s some Goku level of awesomeness.
I applaud the film for changing its racial mishap from the original series. True Power Ranger fans remember that the African-American character, Zack, just so happened to be the black ranger (and yellow for the Asian character). While some of us cringed at the mistake looking back at the show, we also remember the joy Zack gave us on screen, throwing out snappy one-liners and breaking Putties in half with his patented hip-hop Kido.
Zack Taylor, the original “Black Ranger” was a source of black boy joy for many young black kids in the early 90’s. In a 2016 interview with The Young Turks, Walter Jones, the original Black Ranger explained that he decided to go for the black ranger instead of the blue because he was written as a nerd, and the black ranger was written as being close friends with the Red Ranger, the leader of the group. Keep in mind that both The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters were on the air at the same time as Power Rangers. Back then, it was a lot more acceptable to be a Will Smith than a Carlton or an Urkel, so I understand why Walter made the choice he did.
It’s a new day and age now, and black nerd boys are finally starting to be accepted in mainstream society, so Billy Cranston being cast as a young black boy really means something to the culture. Black masculinity has always been tied to very loud, very visible masculine traits such as being physically strong, being adept at sports, being able to dance, or being equipped with a silver tongue. TJ, the first black leader of the Power Rangers was the star of the school’s baseball team. Damon, the first African American Green Ranger, was a mechanic on the space station the team lived on.
The next African American ranger, Joel Rawlings, was an aerial stuntman nicknamed the “Sky Cowboy.” He was headstrong, a bit arrogant at times, and spent the entire season trying to use his wit to win the affection of the head scientist, Ms. Fairweather. He even made fun of a nerdy guy during his first attempt at talking to her. The only nerdy black Power Ranger before the new Billy was Ethan who coincidentally also ends up in detention for his gadgets causing mischief. So it’s about damn time we got another blerdy ranger in the mix; we’re in need of more diversity in black male narratives.
So here’s a shoutout to the new Billy Cranston: he’s got heart, smarts, and can kick ass with the best of em’. He’s an inspiration to black male nerds all around the diaspora, youngbloods and oldheads. I personally cannot speak about how he navigates the world with autism, but I know how it feels to look for the kind of friends you need that aren’t always there. I hope the next film shows even more growth for the new Blue Ranger.
And the haters can catch a superpowered headbutt.
Author: Lorenzo Simpson
Editor: Han Angus