For ‘It’s’ Mike Hanlon, and ‘Stranger Things’ Lucas Sinclair’s sake, let’s just call racism racism.
(cn: use of the N-word in reference to Stephen King’s original use in ‘It’)
Mike is cycling away from the most sociopathic, and greasiest, of high school bullies when his name is said aloud amongst the core group of Stephen King’s ‘It.’
‘The home-schooled kid?’
The rest of the gang nod, clutching aspirators and tucking hands into pockets and wandering along with their own private traumas. These are the things that will form individual plot-points for this group of kids: their reputation as unabashed outsiders. This is the exact appeal of Stephen King’s ‘It.’
Stuttering Bill and his thick, claustrophobic grief. Eddie Kaspbrak’s hypochondria. Beverly Marsh’s abusive father. Richie Tozier’s giant mouth. Ben Hanscom’s body image. Stan Uris’s Jewishness. ‘Here is the Loser’s Club,’ the film says unabashedly. ‘In all their flawed, unforgivable glory.’ And so the plot pedals on, like Mike’s legs on that bicycle, pushing desperately against chaotic laughter and the sweat running down his legs and the repeated bullies’ refrain: ‘stay out of my town, stay out of my town, stay out of my town.’
Like the others, Mike’s status as outsider offends the sensibility of main bully Henry Bowers. Mike cannot fit into the mould of toxic masculinity that King so helpfully lets us is know is the making of a needless brute like Henry. Why?The rest of the Loser’s Club get an explanation to the torment they are put through, the offence they cause. But why Mike specifically? The answer to the question is obvious. It’s so obvious that the fact that someone penned the line about Mike being ‘home-schooled’ into the script as a partial explanation is laughable. He’s home-schooled. My friends turned to me in the cinema with raised eyebrows. We tittered, knowing full well that that isn’t all there is to it. But whether the script would be brave enough to say what we all knew is another story.
The refrain that follows ‘It’s Mike Hanlon, significant because it is discriminatory but subtle, also shows its face in The Duffer Brothers’ ‘Stranger Things 2.’ In the new season, Lucas Sinclair, one of the show’s most recognisable faces, and a major character, is involved in a plot-point which centres on crushes and puberty and race. The conversation pertaining to the latter starts confidently.
Lucas, Mike, Dustin, and Will argue about The Ghostbusters as they stand in front of Hawkins Middle School, discussing the strengths and flaws of Winston Zeddemoore’s character. Mike doesn’t want to be Zeddermoore. He can’t be Zeddermoore. ‘Why?’ Lucas argues. ‘I have to be him because I’m black?’ Mike refutes him. ‘I didn’t say that!’ And the awkwardness of talking about race rather than tiptoeing around it like the elephant in the room ensues. But the tension that surrounds this mini-argument between best friends is welcomed. In contrast to the lack of truthful conversation King’s Loser’s Club have about their Mike Hanlon, it’s realistic.
But it doesn’t last long. As the season goes on, Lucas’s crush on new girl Max develops. So too does the ridiculous wrath of her brother, tough guy, and Rob Lowe rip-off, Billy. When he picks her up from school, spotting Lucas’s retreating face in the background and muttering something about how there are ‘people in this world… we have to stay away from,’ Lucas’s blackness is once again placed only in ambiguity. It’s something Billy knows, and Max knows, and Lucas knows, and yet it’s left unsaid. And perhaps it’s something many of us require little educating on.
Like Mike Hanlon’s blackness in a small town in the ’80s, Lucas Sinclair’s blackness in a small town in the ’80s is obvious. We recognise the way history works, the dynamics that race will always provide, even if these facts won’t make it into the dialogue of a TV show or film. They inform the lived experiences of those who lived through the period, and who experience it today. They made it into King’s initial novel, too. Microaggressions and racism spark off the page most memorably when Richie Tozier puts on what he refers to as his ‘Nigger Jim Voice.’
‘Lawks-a-mussy!’ Richie screams in the reader’s imagination, stereotypical and imitative of film tropes today’s media would be stupid to even consider using. ‘Jest don’tchoo be fallin on dis yere black boy!’ He ‘salaams’, falling onto the floor in front of his friends in the barrens, displaying the manner of a kid who’s seen way too many outdated culturally insensitive films. And of course, he is that kid. King doesn’t pretend that he isn’t. But it doesn’t make these passages any less shocking. They’re anachronistic to the eye in our age of cultural criticism. They also provide an easy contrast to the information we receive watching the 2017 release of ‘It.’
Mike Hanlon is ‘home-schooled’, the kids say. He doesn’t belong in the town, Henry Bowers spits. The obvious fact of racism hangs over these scenes, refusing to truly show itself in a way which makes the film a pleasant derivation from the offence King refuses to hide in his book. But there is also the shadow of something more insidious at work, something reductive, in refusing to state Mike’s blackness and hiding it in metaphor. Mike’s blackness is the reason why he is pursued by Henry Bowers. Lucas’s blackness is the reason why he finds himself being hauled against the wall by an angry Billy in ‘Stranger Things.’ The intention behind these actions, the history of racialised experience, shouldn’t be an easter egg.
Perhaps it’s a faith in the critical skill of the audience that lets these scenes play out without anyone, aside from Lucas in an unrelated incident, daring to say the word ‘black.’ Perhaps it is a trust in an active audience, that we can engage with media and have an awareness of what is being said within everything that isn’t being said. But for some, tweeting away, denying Mike Hanlon’s racialised struggle, or refusing to confront why Lucas Sinclair faces what he ends up facing, we can’t be so sure. And then that trust in the audience feels naive.
We’re a little further away from the days of the horrifically offensive films that spurned Richie’s adoption of a foreign, inaccurate film ‘voice’, played for laughs, and King’s writing of it. But we are not so far from the days of tense racial interactions, and a disputing of exactly what racism is. That happens every day. And the implication of racism is always heavy when it affects black and non-black people of colour, fictional or not.
For viewers of colour, it isn’t up for debate. Mike’s fear is recognisable. Lucas’s fear is understandable. But the context of this fear cannot be positioned as the whole story when it happens on our screens. There is a way to provide the struggle of specific racism with more than blithe, ambiguous references to not belonging, or being a distrusted part of society. In a genre that deals with honesty, it shouldn’t be so difficult to leave the audience with one confident, consistent understanding that cannot be disputed because no one said it on screen:
‘It’s because he’s black. That happened to him because he’s black.’