Superman 1.55: The Bad Outfit

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.

Monday:
1.56: The Catch.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

20 thoughts on “Superman 1.55: The Bad Outfit

  1. I just realized that I can’t remember if there’s any Black speaking parts at all in Superman II, which means the first Black character of any consequence in this blog will be…the kid from the gas station in Swamp Thing, I think? It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen that, so I don’t know how problematic he is or isn’t, but I do remember him being the most likeable character in the movie.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Yup, the first Black character of any consequence to hit the blog will be Jude in Swamp Thing, who is difficult to figure out. After that, there’s Richard Pryor in Superman III, at which point things will get more interesting in a hurry.

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  2. As long as there’s a certain kind of rap, huge black stereotypes will always have as big a place in this country as they’ve ever had (it’s just that in the case of that kind of rap, blacks are supposedly in charge of it, so people treat it differently).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this issue — these issues, for there are many — and for being honest about stumbling through where these thoughts take you. This will be fascinating to see how the presence of non-white characters progresses in your journey through the decades of superhero films to come, culminating in your discussion of “Black Panther” in April of 2047.

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  4. And the two black women in the scene wearing short shorts are, by proximity and apparel, meant to be his prostitutes and they don’t even get a line of dialogue. Did anyone interview them?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I had a dream this morning about this scene as you described it in yesterday’s blog. I honestly did not remember it in the movie itself. In my dream, I asked you why would anyone – pimp or not – call Superman “Jim.” Is there some significance to the name or nickname “Jim”? Under what circumstances would anyone call a perfect stranger – especially one in a Superman costume – “Jim”? No one has to answer that – I’m just asking rhetorically.

    I’ve not seen “Black Panther,” but hope to someday. I would very much enjoy reading any future blog posts about Black Panther. Michael B. Jordan got his start on “All My Children” and I am a big AMC fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always assumed Garish B. Pimp was in the middle of a conversation with his friend Jim (OFF-CAMERA) when the two of them spotted the wild costume, and that, even though he was looking at Supey, he was actually talking to Jim. An opportunity for fanfic, I suppose- conversations between Garish and Jim.

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  6. The only way you can deal with race in old movies is to remember that they are a product of their times. You can’t go back and fix all the problems we see now, any more than you can fix the problems Future You will see later. Focus on preventing the problems Today You sees. For a company that was recently run by Ike Perlmutter, Marvel’s doing a pretty good job of making inclusive movies, so progress is happening.

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  7. I don’t consider his outfit garish. Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor’s outfit was garish.
    Perhaps they wanted to make his occupation a bit more ambiguous. If he’s too obviously a pimp and Superman doesn’t have him arrested, it appears that either Superman’s so truly unsophisticated as to not understand that the man is a pimp or doesn’t consider prostitution a crime worthy of his time. Not good either way.
    Of course, this hardly registered to me at all when I watched it but now that Danny has pointed it out, I’m fixated on the fate of those two black women who hardly get any screen time.

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  8. Danny —

    You touch upon a common feeling Black kids (myself included) felt when watching these movies. We didn’t exist, even in a fantasy. There were times in my youth where I resented Superman bc here was a guy from another planet, even another galaxy, and he fit in more easily than I did. (One reason I enjoyed Spider-Man was his essential outcast state.)

    I usually chafe at the “this was a product of its time” comments because, well, I was also a product of that time so it feels as if my actual lived experience is dismissed. 1978 wasn’t that long ago, and I appreciate your thoughts on the erasure of Black people in Metropolis, which is otherwise New York City. Black people tended to only exist as a criminal element.

    One ongoing challenge with superheroes is that so many were created in a time where minorities were invisible. If you are “racially accurate” you wind up with a very white (and straight) cast, which is usually out of step with how a new property would be written, cast today. Yet, there is often resistance when even smaller roles are diversified.

    THE BATMAN has a Black Jim Gordon and Selina Kyle, which isn’t that unusual for a modern film released in 2021.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree with the “it was the times” argument: a more accurate statement would be “it was the times as the power structure wanted it to be.”

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      1. I also think “It was the times”, but to be honest I have never once thought the character was a pimp. I just thought it was 1978 and that was how cool people dressed in 1978!

        But you know, this was a Superman thing. In the Superboy series the question came up about why there were no black people in the 30th Century stories and they actually thought it was a good answer to say that they all left and went to live on an island by themselves!
        Honestly!
        Google “Tyroc” and see!

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    2. Yeah, I was surprised when I went and looked for how many Black people there were in the movie. I knew that this was the only speaking part, but I didn’t realize that there were so few, even in the background. There are a lot of cops in this movie, and I think it was common even in the late 70s to have some Black actors in those kinds of roles.

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      1. Oh, I just realized that there are a couple non-speaking cops — I’m currently writing about the car chase scene, and the cop in the passenger seat of the police car is Black. There’s also another Black cop in the background of the police station after the car chase. But there’s just two of them and they don’t get lines; all of the cops that get speaking roles are white. Still, I want to correct the record.

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    3. I didn’t know that the new Selina Kyle is to be Black. Let’s not forget Eartha Kit as Catwoman in the 60s. (Though it’s sad that all hints of romance ended when she replaced Julie Newmar)

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