Earlier this year, Ava DuVernay and Jill Blakenship’s television series based on DC Comics’ Black teen superhero premiered on the CW. Naomi stars Kaci Walfall as the titular high school student whose superpowers will eventually make her known as Powerhouse. The show serves as her origin story, following Naomi as she discovers who she is and her capabilities.
Walfall does an amazing job playing Naomi McDuffie, a queer, skateboarding, glasses-wearing teenager from Port Oswego, Oregon. Adopted into a biracial family and a self-proclaimed military brat, Naomi is nerdy, confident, bubbly, and cool all at once; effortlessly socializing with people of all backgrounds while also running a successful Superman fansite.
All in all, Naomi is a great character that was made possible by the strides made by Black superheroes before her. But what I like the most about Naomi is that it isn’t centered on race. Yes, Naomi is a Black teenager, who, much to my enjoyment, is not racially ambiguous and always has her braids laid –but that’s not what her story is about.
It’s impossible to discuss Black superheroes without mentioning Marvel’s Black Panther, the first superhero of African descent. While the character first appeared in comic form in 1966, the 2018 Ryan Coogler film adaptation brought the superhero back into the spotlight.
The clear Afro-futurist influence along with the social themes of the film reflects not just Blackness but Blackness with a political agenda. This makes sense, as the character was birthed at a time when the phrase Black Panther was synonymous with a militant group of radical thinkers that preached Black power. Wakanda, the fictional African nation where T’Challa is from, is literally a reimagining of the potentials of Blackness without the irrevocable damage done by white imperialism.
As Tochi Onyebuchi wrote, “Afrofuturism allows the imagination not only to cure the injury but to imagine a world where the knife blade of colonialism escapes the black body altogether. Wakanda grows — in the absence of plunder, in the absence of white avarice, in the absence of unadulterated capitalistic impulses married to race hatred — into a wonderland.”
Now, fifty-six years after T’Challa’s inception and four years after his big-screen debut, Naomi is airing on The CW. Unlike Black Panther which featured lines like, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage” (thanks Killmonger!) Naomi’s story doesn’t fervently lean into racial and social themes. We get to enter a world where Black teens are allowed to be happy, thoughtful, loved, and affirmed outside of their racial identity.
This isn’t to say that Naomi doesn’t mention race at all. In the second episode of the series, as Naomi continues to discover her true identity, she confides in her friend Annabelle (Mary-Charles Jones), expressing her insecurities.
“I’m adopted. I was always moving around because of my dad’s job,” she said. “Most of the time I was the only Black girl in my town or in my school. My whole life has been about being different and now I’m supposed to accept the fact that I’m literally an alien from outer space. I just want to be normal.”
The mention of feeling isolated and not fully a part of a community is not only important to Powerhouse’s origin story, but it’s a reflection of what it feels like to be a modern Black teen in America. There’s a desire to exist outside of racial lines, a desire to navigate the world without the cliche metaphorical “target” on our backs, a desire to be “normal.”
Too often, Black storylines are built around trauma or politics. At one point in 2020, based on mainstream representation, you would have thought that Black people only magically appeared when it’s time to talk about Blackness.
Or we’re shown in “against the odds” scenarios, where we have to claw our way to the top and prove ourselves against racist obstacles. This does nothing to make my community feel “normal” or truly “represented” because we are so much more than an extension of the evilness we have been subjected to.
This is one of the downsides of the recent wave of “diversity” and “representation.” Beyond that, no amount of Black storylines or characters has resulted in actual policy change or an improvement in the day to day life of Black Americans.
Naomi creator and overall Hollywood powerhouse Ava DuVernay is very aware of the way “diversity” has been pigeonholed and flattened in the entertainment industry. She went as far as telling The New York Times that she hates the word diversity, saying that “it’s a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and [it] is a really emotional issue. It’s emotional for artists who are women and people of color to have less value placed on our worldview.”
DuVernay’s thoughts on diversity and representation are apparent through the sentiment in which the CW series was created. During a panel for Naomi during the TCA Winter Press Tour, the sixteen-time Emmy-nominated director said:
“We’re doing really muscular things that relates to race and gender and class but we’re doing it by playing it normal like it’s just a part of the everyday. I say it kiddingly but it’s real. The more you can portray images without underling or highlighting them and putting a star next to them — by showing a different type of hero that centers a girl, a Black girl, that centers different kinds of folks — we start to make that normal and that’s a radical and revolutionary thing.”
As someone on the cusp of two generations, a little Millennial a little Gen Z, I can say that I have enjoyed witnessing how far film and television have come in terms of allowing Black stories to have a place on the screen. Specifically, in the past few years, I have seen more and more projects that create space for Blackness to exist without emphasis on trauma.
Seeing this type of change extend throughout all genres, from superheroes to anime to rom-coms, over the span of my short twenty-seven years of life is an honor. Sometimes, it feels crazy that in a few decades things could be so different.
But, as Naomi’s bestie Annabelle said, “yes it seems crazy, maybe even impossible, but people used to think the Earth was flat. Doctors used to not wash their hands before surgery. Which is very gross. And we didn’t even know gravity was a thing.”
A different world is possible.
Naomi enters the Black superhero canon as a show that allows our imaginations to travel to a reality where race isn’t the only thing that can define a person.
In an interview, Kaci Walfall beautifully articulated the importance of a series like Naomi, and her own aspirations for the role.
“I also hope to remind people, and especially young Black girls, that we are much more worthy than sometimes people tell us that we are and maybe than we think we are,” Walfall said. “We are crucial, and we are truly, truly important. That is something that Naomi begins to understand as she goes throughout the story when she figures out her hidden destiny.”