Friday, July 7, 2017

Supergirl Pilot Episode Review: How To Make Jimmy Olsen Black

Not a lot of people know this about me, but I am a HUGE Jimmy Olsen fan. I literally have every issue of the golden, silver, and bronze age comic series, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. It took me a long time to collect all 163 issues from 1954 to 1974. (I quoted that statistic off the top of my head--look it up, I have that much confidence. I know I'm right.) But it was worth it.
I am obsessed with my favorite characters, of which he is one. I love the goofiness of the golden and silver ages, and the changes of the 1970s when he becomes "Mr. Action" and gets more politically involved. And I love that his disguises--including cross-dressing--have remained a part of his character since the very first issue.
And even though I chose not to collect the series when it became Superman Family at issue 164, folding in both the Lois Lane and Supergirl series also (again, off the top of my head), my Jimmy Olsen collection is one of my most prized possessions. Number one is not in Near Mint condition, but it is mine.
And I would never give up even one book in my collection, unless I had to feed myself, pay for a medical emergency, or get a degree for a dream job that I love more than Jimmy Olsen. (Ha!)

So it really upsets me when he is portrayed in movies and on TV as anything less than his magnificent, bright-orange-redheaded, freckled, bow-tie-wearing, Superman-worshipping, geeky self. And he is portrayed with brown hair literally every single fucking time.
These casting directors have absolutely no excuse. Rupert Grint exists. If you can find a Ron Weasely, you can find a Jimmy Olsen. But apparently since the 1930s, redheads have only existed in cartoons and comic books.

I also really love Supergirl, almost as much as I love her friend Mary Marvel. In fact, if Supergirl doesn't end up with Mary Marvel, Jimmy Olsen is my first choice. He is the only acceptable love interest, in my mind, for Hetero Supergirl. The only one.

So at first I was very unhappy, watching the first episode of CW's Supergirl, when the character introduced as "James Olsen" was a thirty-five-year-old, tall, muscular black man with no hair--not just non-red hair, no hair at all!
But then I realized, as a Jimmy Olsen/Supergirl super-fangirl, that, if they were going to change his appearance so drastically, the producers of the show could have had a lot more fun with it. In the pilot, he meets Kara (called her Kryptonian name in real life, apparently--if they didn't want to go with Linda, would it have killed them to shorten it to Lynne or something?), then right away hints at his friendship with Superman. She exclaims, "You're Jimmy Olsen!" and he corrects her--"James." Because apparently in a show called SuperGIRL, we have to be reminded that Jimmy Olsen is all grown up.
There is no iconic bow tie to be seen.
But they could have made it so much better. Consider this instead:

Throughout the first episode, Kara keeps running into the new guy from work--who is wearing a bow tie. Most people will not notice the bow tie at first, at least on a black man. He keeps trying to introduce himself, but they get interrupted every time.
Finally, at the very end of the episode, he gets the chance to say, "There you are. We haven't been formally introduced. I'm Jimmy Olsen."
"Oh!" she exclaims in surprise, glancing at his bow tie. "You're...not like I pictured you..."
"What do you mean?" he asks.
"I expected you know...shorter," she answers sincerely.
He appears genuinely perplexed. "Yeah, for some reason, when people hear the name 'Jimmy Olsen,' they picture a skinny little white kid."

In this way, we can have fun with the change. We can take it seriously, because of Kara's sincere tone of voice when she says "shorter," as if she is not thinking of some other word. And his real confusion over why people think of him as white would avoid the "wink-wink" type of fourth wall break that thinks it is so clever, but which is severely overused (and which I can't stand).
But at the same time, we would give the audience a mystery to solve, and acknowledge the big change that is made. The exchange about him being shorter could easily be ruined with bad acting or bad direction to the actors, but if the actors are sincere--if the characters really believe that "shorter" is the most appropriate word--then it can be pulled off beautifully.
 (He also could have figured out on his own that Kara was Supergirl, making him look much smarter than if Superman had simply told him, as in the show. That reveal just makes him look like a real jerk for hinting at it throughout the episode, as if he wasn't trying to figure something out but rather just wanted to tease her and make her anxious about her secret identity.)
And he doesn't even have to wear a bow tie after the first episode. Just give us the pilot, have him say later that his other ties were dirty if you want. But Jimmy Olsen doesn't need a phallic symbol on his neck.

If you're going to change such a major and beloved character's appearance so much from the comic book--not just his race, but also his age, build, height, hair style, fashion sense, personality (more confident, less awkward, no gushing over Superman), and even the name he goes by--you're going to have to address that. While also taking the change seriously, so it doesn't look like you're making a black man, and your entire show, nothing more than a joke.
By making a mystery out of who this guy is--while providing a subtle visual clue--and addressing the change without getting overly jokey about it, we can do this. That is something this white, Jimmy-Olsen-purist, super-fan-girl can get behind.

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