Git Back, Git Back, Git Back: The Nonexistent Racial Politics of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy

Header image description: A promotional photo for season 2 of The Umbrella Academy, which shows the seven adopted Hargreeves siblings standing in front of a black background with a white vortex. They each wear sunglasses that reflect an image of what they’re dealing with that season. Allison, the lone Black sibling, stands on the far left; her yellow sunglasses depict a civil rights rally, and you can see a Black person holding a poster that says “FREEDOM NOW.” Most of the others are white; the two other nonwhite siblings are Diego, who is Latino, and Ben, who is Asian. [Credit: Netflix]

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of The Umbrella Academy.

A few notes: (1) This article is about the racial politics of The Umbrella Academy the television show, not the comics. (2) I asked friends and colleagues to contribute their thoughts to this piece before I wrote it; they are all nonwhite. I didn’t ask specific questions; I just asked for their thoughts about the “racial politics” of the show. (3) Both seasons of the show so far were filmed before actor Elliot Page publicly announced that his pronouns are he/they; his character, Vanya, is referred to by she/her pronouns in the show. Because the showrunners have not yet said what Vanya’s pronouns will be in future seasons, I refer to Vanya with they/them pronouns in accordance with Page’s identity.

Now I want you to tell me brother

What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?

Now if you was white, should be all right

If you was brown, could stick around

But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back

Big Bill Broonzy, “Black, Brown, and White” (1938)

Once I finished my finals in December, I had exactly six weeks for my winter vacation; like any good twenty-first century college student, I spent the entire break binge-watching television. I managed to get through The Wilds on Amazon Prime, season 4 of Riverdale, Shondaland’s Bridgerton, and even rewatch Avatar: The Last Airbender for the fifty-leventh time.

I also watched both seasons of The Umbrella Academy. As a *ahem* “reformed” emo kid, I’d been meaning to read the original comics — which the show is based on — for years now, and when I heard that Netflix was creating a TV adaptation, I was determined to watch it at some point. (The comics were written by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance fame.)

The TL;DR premise of the show is this: at noon on October 1, 1989, forty-three women around the world gave birth, despite not being pregnant before that morning. Reginald Hargreeves, an eccentric billionaire, adopted seven of these children and trained them to use their superpowers so that they could save the world from evil. Instead of naming them, Reginald numbered the children from one to seven; they eventually received names from their mother (who is an android). The basic rundown of the siblings and their powers is as follows:

  1. Number One — AKA Luther — super-strength — white man
  2. Number Two — AKA Diego — metal telekinesis — nonwhite Latino
  3. Number Three — AKA Allison — mind control — Black woman
  4. Number Four — AKA Klaus — able to commune with the dead — white man
  5. Number Five — no AKA — able to jump through time and space — white teenage boy
  6. Number Six — AKA Ben — able to turn himself into a monster — Asian man — died as a child in a mission, but Klaus summons him regularly
  7. Number Seven — AKA Vanya — believed to not have powers for most of season 1, but in reality can bend and control waves of energy — white person

In the comics, all of the Hargreeves siblings are white; this was changed for the show. I guess Netflix must have a bit of sense, because they didn’t make the same mistake as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (You send golden tickets all over the world and only white kids find them? C’mon, now!) Still, most of the seven siblings are white, including the group’s leader, Number One AKA Luther.

Of course, the leader character was gonna be a white boy. They wouldn’t dare have a PoC [person of color] be a lead in what they hope is a show that will bring in majority white audiences…In fact, when we look at the folks who get the most screen time, or the longest plots, Diego, Allison, and Ben get crumbs compared to Five, Vanya, Luther, and Klaus.

Jenna, a friend and classmate

In season 1, which is set in 2019,  race is never mentioned. I assumed that it would be like most colorblind adaptations, where race isn’t a thing. As I said in my last blog post, I like a good colorblind production — emphasis on “good.” I’m not saying The Umbrella Academy handles race badly, but they certainly don’t handle it well. The show’s racial politics are simply nonexistent.

Image description: A season 1 promotional photo. The siblings, from left to right, are Vanya, Five, Allison, Luther, Diego, and Klaus. Ben is not pictured. [Credit: Netflix]

The showrunners seem to have made certain characters white without much thought; namely, Allison, Diego, and Lila (who I’ll get to later). Or, as my friend Heejin put it, nonwhite characters were “slapped on for the Netflix version and it really shows.” It doesn’t really matter in season 1, because race never comes up. (Though, as Heejin sardonically noted: “ah yes…their multiracial adoptive family that has no racial tension because racism-is-over™.”)

The show is very clearly written by white people and the diversity of the cast isn’t necessarily bad in my opinion (unlike Hamilton), but there’s nothing substantial that the show attempts to say. It just feels like the new characters of color are tools for a white writer to say ‘look, diversity!’

Hock, a friend and classmate

However, race comes to matter in season 2 because the siblings have traveled back to 1960s Dallas. As soon as Allison lands (literally) in that context, she unknowingly walks into a whites-only restaurant and is subsequently harassed and chased by a group of white men. She finds refuge in a Black hair salon that doubles as a meeting spot for the Southern Justice Coordinating Committee (SJCC). [Is this the Hollywood version of “just change the answers a bit so it doesn’t look like we cheated?] In the two years between her arrival in Dallas and the start of season 2, Allison has become an integral part of the civil rights movement in the city. Or, as Klaus dismissively puts it: “Allison has been very involved in local politics.”

Before I move forward, it’s important to be aware of the fact that Allison, as a leader of this civil rights group, is light-skinned; as Iyanah, a classmate, said, the latent colorism is “its own mess.”

Also, throughout seasons 1 and 2, Allison and Luther seem to be romantically interested in each other. (Yes, they are brother and sister, and refer to each other as such.) This swirl incest storyline was brought up by four people who contributed their thoughts to this, and we’ve all agreed it’s weird AF. My friend Jenna has a theory as to how the showrunners approached this little plot point:

Luther and Allison’s relationship can go to hell. They knew damn well if Allison was white they wouldn’t try it. Black women and white men have the most distance from each other socially so they hoped the audience would be virtually incapable of perceiving them as siblings.

Jenna
Image description: A screenshot of a gif from the season 2 finale, which shows Luther giving Allison CPR. In this particular fan-made gif, the creator slowed it down and isolated it from the context of the episode, so it just looks like Luther is kissing her. We’re not gonna talk about it, we’re not gonna talk about it… [Credit: Netflix, vanyahargreaves on Tumblr]

A former classmate said this about season 2: “At first I thought we were supposed to suspend belief that racism existed…but one of the plot points was the Civil Rights Movement.” Another friend said that because this is a fantasy show, she didn’t think it would tackle any complex or serious storylines; it was weird for civil rights to become a “focal point” of the second season As that classmate said, there’s a “disconnect” between the colorblindness of season 1 and the focus on race and racism in season 2.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: the civil rights storyline is incredibly clumsy. Zan, a former classmate, accurately pointed out that the civil rights movement in the show is an idealized and glossed over version of the actual, historical campaign. The refrain of the SJCC is “honor and dignity”; in other words, “don’t beat these crackers’ asses even though they deserve it.” My friend Khalid noted that “the show disregards other movements for civil rights that weren’t as nonviolent.”

In the third episode, Allison’s [Black] husband, Raymond, is being beaten by a racist white cop after a failed sit-in at the same restaurant Allison accidentally walked into earlier. When Allison uses her power to get that cop to leave him alone, Raymond sees her in a negative light despite the fact that she literally saved his life. Zan said that besides being unrealistic, this only serves to further the belief that Black people aren’t even permitted to use force in the name of self-defense.

Throughout season 2, the other Hargreeves siblings actively ignore the fact that Allison, their sister, is facing racist violence. Adora, a student at my university, said it was unrealistic that her siblings would be “walking [around] freely while Allison is fighting for her life.” The lack of involvement of her siblings — or any non-Black people at all — in the SJCC’s campaign implicitly tells viewers that fighting racism is the onus of Black people and Black people only. Besides being irresponsible to signify such (especially considering that this season premiered in the summer of 2020…), it’s also completely ahistorical: the real life Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, the organizing home of leaders such as the late John Lewis) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, the organizing home of Dr. King) were intentionally multiracial coalitions.

Image description: A screenshot of a gif of season 2, episode 1; it shows the characters Lila Pitts, who is South Asian, and Diego Hargreeves, who is Latino. [Credit: Netflix; shesnake on Tumblr]

The second season of The Umbrella Academy also includes a conversation about proximity to whiteness that, while unintentional, is emblematic of our society’s racial mores. Though Allison is not the only nonwhite character, she is the only one who faces racism. (This is just more fuel for my theory that when the race war finally does pop off, it won’t be white people versus people of color; it’ll be niggas versus errbody else.) Her brother, Diego, is a nonwhite Latino; however, his race is rarely mentioned, despite the fact that it’s Dallas in 1963. In episode one, a newspaper calls Diego “a man of Hispanic descent,” while in the season finale, a news anchor refers to him as a “Cuban exile.”

At the beginning of season 2, Diego is institutionalized in a mental hospital (the staff of which regularly harasses and violates its inmates) because he’s been stalking Lee Harvey Oswald, trying to stop him from shooting JFK. Two things: (1) since when do nonwhite people go that hard for the Kennedys? (2) The normalized ableism endemic to this show…whew, chile. That’s a whole other article right there.

In the hospital, Diego meets Lila, a South Asian-British woman whose sexual tension with him from her first onscreen moment is cringe-y, to say the least. (I have thoughts about this relationship too, but I’ll just sum them up with this: while searching for images of Diego and Lila to use above, I mostly found shipping fanart and gifs. My face was set in a grimace the whole time I was scrolling.)

As far as viewers can see, the hospital has no Black patients; yet, somehow, a Latino and a South Asian woman can be there. Later in the season, viewers also see Lila at a bingo game with a bunch of old white people (in Texas! In 1963!); she is the lone nonwhite person in attendance. Nobody comments on her presence. Yes, legalized racial segregation in the United States very specifically targeted Black people; however, it also applied to non-Black people of color. Acting like these characters would be sharing facilities with white people is plain incorrect.

Diego, Lila, and their sexual tension get into hella misadventures during the season. As my friend Kodie said, “literally Lila [is] darker than Allison, running amok [in] the early 60s, and Diego was clearly brown too.” Many people I spoke to brought up the fact that the total lack of discrimination faced by the only other brown main characters is ludicrous. Make it make sense, Netflix!

Diego and Lila freely waltzing around 60s Texas?? Hello?? They are Not White. It’s like the writers knew they’d hit backlash for not bringing up race in the show so they used Allison & said, “Hmm, Black people…I think we’re good here.”

Jenna
Image description: The Hargreeves siblings in the season 2 finale. From left to right: Klaus, Ben, Five, Vanya, Luther, Diego, and Allison. [Credit: Netflix]

I’m just scratching the surface of this show’s questionable handling of race. The people I spoke to brought up much, much more that didn’t fit in this article, but is no less relevant. The fact of the matter is this: we do not and have never lived in a postracial society; therefore, race, when addressed in popular culture, must have a clear, responsible, and contextual set of racial politics. Unfortunately, The Umbrella Academy falls quite short of this target.

As Big Bill Broonzy said more than eighty years ago, and The Umbrella Academy demonstrates in season 2, if you’s white, you’ll be alright; if you’s brown, stick around; but if you’s Black…you might as well git back.

Am I still going to watch any and all future seasons of The Umbrella Academy? Absolutely. (And not just to thirst over David Castañeda as Diego, mind you.) Maybe it’s because I love messy television, but I’m still curious to see where this show goes in season 3. And, for some reason, I’m hopeful for Allison’s character in future episodes; she deserves better treatment than she’s gotten thus far.