It’s a moment of celebration — after all this time, with Lois Lane in terrible trouble, Superman emerges triumphantly from the magic revolving door. The music explodes with pleasure: it’s SU-PER-MAN!
And then we see the only Black character in the movie with a speaking part: a criminal, who rents out women for sex. “Say, Jim!” he cries, entering the frame with a hat and an amazed expression. “Whooo!”
Superman lifts a finger in response; our hero has no time to hobnob with the locals. “Excuse me,” he says, and moves on to something more important: a white woman, in trouble.
It’s a funny moment, I’m not going to pretend that it’s not. “Say, Jim! That’s a bad out-fit!” is a funny thing to say to Superman, the first time you see his costume, and it’s delivered in a funny way. It’s intended as an expression of joy — a representative of Metropolis street life, appreciating the arrival of an impossible creature.
It’s a moment in this film that people really like, although it strikes me that maybe it’s a moment that white people really like, and that Black people aren’t necessarily as wild about.
The “incredibly garish BLACK PIMP” — which is how the character is described in the shooting script — was a recognizable comedy caricature of the 1970s. The Black pimp character is ridiculously overdressed for an urban street, in mismatched colorful clothes that humorously mimic the fashions of wealthy white people.
The stereotype was so well-known, in fact, that the character on the screen doesn’t even have to be “incredibly garish” to make the point. He can just be a Black man in shirtsleeves, a couple chains and a hat, and people will automatically get that he’s a pimp, because why would they put a Black guy on the screen if he wasn’t?
So it makes me think about the Black kids in the audience in 1978, and literally the only Black person in all of Metropolis that’s worth paying attention to is a pimp. This is verisimilitude, the movie says. This is truth, justice and the American way.
White people get to be heroes and reporters and evil geniuses. There are white detectives, and cheerleaders, and pilots, and policemen, and newscasters. When somebody on the street says “Gee” or “What’s that?” or “Oh, Superman!” it’s always a white person. White people are in charge of the army and the missile tests — and even in outer space, on a planet millions of years more advanced than our own, it’s still white people in charge, which I find unbelievably depressing.
There are Black kids in the audience, and the only Black person in the movie with a speaking part is a pimp. Thinking about that makes me want to just make Black Panther movies and nothing else, and that will be American cinema from now on.
The actor’s name is Bo Rucker, and in 2011, he was interviewed by author Marc Tyler Nobleman for his blog, Noblemania. The interview is very sweet, and also a little awkward. Rucker is clearly unsure what to make of Nobleman’s interest in him, for a one-line part that he played more than thirty years ago.
“At the time I think I was doing an off-Broadway play,” Rucker says. “I was playing Bigger Thomas in Native Son. I was knocking down commercials. I used to do a lot of commercials — McDonald’s, shaving. The money’s very good in commercials. You get paid for two to three years for one commercial.”
Here’s what he has to say about the character:
Nobleman: Any anecdotes about filming STM?
Rucker: The funniest part is people see you’ve got on this pimp uniform and people see you and actually think you’re a pimp! There’s always a lot of people watching. People asked me if I was smoking dope.
Nobleman: The casting people told you in advance that the role was a pimp?
Rucker: I didn’t know it was a pimp till I got there. I mean, I was excited to get it. They could have given me a rabbi and I would’ve played him. (laughs) I’m a student of life.
Nobleman: When they said it was a pimp, what was your reaction?
Rucker: The casting director gives you a script to read to see what you can do with it. I thought there was something very funny about the line. I liked the way the line sounded. It was easy money.
Nobleman: The fact that they cast you as a pimp didn’t bother you?
Rucker: No, it didn’t. Morgan Freeman was nominated for an Oscar for playing a pimp! In a movie with Christopher Reeve. And Terence Howard in Hustle and Flow. It could be a person negative to society, but [that can be a good] role.
So that’s good to know; he felt good about the role, and being in the film. They talk a bit about what he was doing at the time of the interview — he was a personal trainer, and he was writing something — and when Nobleman asks how he feels about Superman fans being interested in him, Rucker says, “It’s hard to fathom that. That’s mind-blowing if that’s true.”
I’m going to be honest with you, and admit that I don’t really know where I’m going with this post. I keep writing things, and then deleting them. I would like to have something interesting to say, without a) making it about me, b) pretending like I can speak for other people, or c) self-congratulatory virtue-signaling, and I am literally already doing all three of those things in this sentence.
It’s a funny line, but it’s also an unfortunate and damaging stereotype, and it makes me cringe. There are dozens of places in the film where they could have cast a Black person to play the part, and they didn’t. It’s possible that they didn’t even think about it.
This is a problem, in this movie and in American culture, and I don’t currently have a smart thing to say about it right now. But I have a feeling that this is not going to be my only opportunity in the entire history of superhero movies to reflect on this, and I want to put a marker here, if only for myself, to say: Pay attention to this. Don’t forget about it. This is going to come up again.
1.56: The Catch.
— Danny Horn