I’ve been having strange dreams lately. (And no, Tia, it’s not the gin.) Over the course of the past eight days or more, I’ve dreamt that I’ve engaged in acts that range from the unspeakable to the bizarre. When I eventually find a therapist, I will share those details with him/her. You might not be able to cope with this darker side of Malaka. In those dreams, I was truly a villain.
This morning my husband shook me out of my slumber because he said I was “muttering incoherently”. He went back to sleep and I laid there on the bed reflecting over the events of my dream, and if I’d ever have the guts – or the desire – to pull them off in real life. The answer is: no. Obviously no. Villainy requires far more resources than I have at my disposal (time being foremost), an extended (or permanent) break with reality, a flagrant disregard for consequences and a rich, white benefactor. And commitment. Commitment to a singular cause above all else. I either possess none of these or in inadequate supply.
That’s why I’m such a fan of villains. They have the chutzpah to do what few of us dare. Villains are rarely just inherently evil, just as heroes are never inherently good. They are three-dimensional characters shaped by circumstances and events. Their reactions to those circumstances dictate whether they become scoundrels in our eyes. And yes, we have to make room for the reality that some people are just self-serving douche bags.
There is no shortage of complex central white characters in fiction to capture that part of our imagination. These characters are written in ways that inspire empathy within us. Less frequently is this done with Black villains, who are often lazily written as mindless, violent thugs and strung out mothers hell bent on destroying inner city communities. That trope is why I appreciate writers who dedicate the time it takes to create the complicated personalities of Black villains that we love to hate.
Here are some of my favorites:
Dr. Facilier aka Shadow Man: The Princess and the Frog – Voiced by Keith David, this angular, top hat fiend with eyes the color of lilacs manages to convince a prince – with all the privileges of world traveling and the finest education – to donate plasma and turn him into an amphibian. That’s some mean voodoo.
Ursula the Sea Witch: The Little Mermaid – There’s been some debate about whether or not the Disney character is Black, but she’s definitely a woman of color. The plump and sassy pixie-cut sporting cephalopod lures the King of the Ocean’s impressionable teen daughter into her lair with the promise of becoming bipedal for a few days. Ariel swam past yards of “unfortunate souls” who could not meet the terms of Ursula’s contract and thought that somehow, her fate would be different. Maybe the problem wasn’t Ursula. Maybe the problem was Ariel’s aquatic privilege.
Sho Nuff: The Last Dragon – The shoulder pads, the half man-bun, that twitching eye! All Sho wanted to be was the shogun of Harlem. He had it all: a dedicated crew, an impressive monologue, a Pavlov-ian command to get his subordinates in formation. All that stood in his way was a man who challenged that notion that he was indeed The Prettiest. What makes Sho such a great villain is that while he was willing to take down a fellow Black man in order to fulfill his destiny, he was not willing to take a white man’s money to do it. As he famously told Eddie Arkadian with a toss of his hair, “Just get that sucka to the designated place, at the designated time, and I will gladly designate his ass for dismemberment.” Whew! Who’s the Master??? Soooo close, Sho!
Grace Jones as May Day: A View To A Kill – Y’all gotta remember Grace in that era. The hair, the outfits, the ability to run in spiked heels, her discomforting inability to break a sweat as she is KILLING YOU. I remember being so stressed out by May Day as a child. She was indestructible. She just would not DIE! Why couldn’t someone make her die…or STOP??
As a child, she made me uneasy. As an adult, I consider her goals.
Tony Todd in Candyman – I just discovered – this morning – that Jordan Peele will be rebooting Candyman, set for release in 2020. If you escaped the 90s without having seen this film, count yourself among the fortunate. I didn’t sleep for most of that year. I stopped calling candy “candy”, instead embracing my local roots and referring to any sweets as “toffee”. I used mirrors sparingly. Neither Jason nor Freddy had anything on this eloquent, malcontent killing killer. Candyman is not your typical campy horror character. Candyman could be your physics professor…and that’s what makes him extra terrifying. Will I be watching the remake? Yes. There goes my sleep quality until I hit my 50s.
Octavia Spencer in Ma – If there’s anyone any of us ought to be able to trust, it’s a Black woman with a straight bob and an ample bosom. She’s a soft place to land. She was the face of GOD for goodness sakes! She’s exactly the type of woman under-aged drinkers would ask to buy illicit alcohol. At worst, you might get a scolding…only that’s not the worst Octavia as ‘Ma’ is offering. The movie hasn’t come out yet and I’m already afraid.
Lynn Whitfield as Lynn Whitfield –
Oh? You were expecting an exposition? Is one actually required?
Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner: What’s Love Got to Do With It – It took me 20 years to forgive Laurence Fishburne. Not Ike Turner. Laurence. That’s all I have to say about that.
Adolf Caesar as Sgt Waters: A Soldier’s Story – My family – like the majority of Black families – is very color diverse. We have cousins whose skin tones range from the whitest Shaun King white to the blackest Kunta Black. Watching A Soldier’s Story was the first time I came into confrontation with colorism in film. Sgt. Waters hated Black people. He hated himself for being Black. The military was his escape from the condition of his Blackness and ought to have served as its remedy. You have to watch the film to appreciate how in Waters’ attempt to lift himself and his race, he serves as a cog in its destruction.
Olivia Cole as Miss Sophie in The Women of Brewster Place – I can’t stand a meddlesome old woman…and yet I acknowledge that they are a necessary societal evil. I didn’t know it yet, but this film was the first to introduce me to the concept of lesbianism. Women like Miss Sophie are annoying (and in this instance, her meddling had fatal consequences) but they are like a flame that brings a fever to its crisis. Sometimes, we need them to force hard conversations. Yes. Let’s talk about what ya saw, ma’am!
Othello in Shakespeare’s Othello – This story will always be timely. It’s a reminder to stop listening to ya boys (Iago) and try talking to ya girl (Desdemona). Othello started out as a hero, replete with the admiration of his white peers and superiors. However, his patriarchal, toxic hyper masculinity blocked his ability to have meaningful conversations with his beloved and instead give ear to Iago, his closeted nemesis. By the end of the play, Othello has lost his mind, his position and his wife. Whom he’s killed. Othello wasn’t so much a villain as he was a disappointment.
James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom in Conan The Barbarian – A cold-blooded killer who rides into your village like Liberace on horseback, what’s not to love about Thulsa? What made him such a terrifying and effective villain was how little he said with his mouth and how much he said with his eyes. He made people kill themselves with a look.
Tobias Whale in Black Lightning – Albinos have always had a special place in my heart. Every albino I’ve met has been such a nice person. We were underdogs, the albinos and I. Tobias challenged that notion, which was in danger of becoming a personal stereotype, and for that I’m grateful. Tobias Whale is one of those previously mentioned self-serving douchebags. There’s NO earthly reason for him to be so evil. To what end? The greatest service Tobias has done as a villain is to introduce us all to Lady Eve (played by Jill Scott), a woman with a quirky fascination with the dead and undead alike. She’s an intersection between old-time glamour, science and voodoo.
That’s why we like her.
Marshall’s pick: Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown
Me: Any particular reason why?
Him: I just think he played the part really well.
Who are some of your favorite villains of color? Are there villains or anti-heroes in your culture that hold a special place in your heart? Tweet me or leave a comment. I’d love to hear about them!