American Gods is a Black Show w/o Being a Black Show (and you need to watch it)

Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods is a modern classic. Without giving too much away, the book depicts a war between the ancient Old Gods of mythology and the modern New Gods of the 21st Century. The book was such a success that a show has been produced on Starz and aired its first episode on Sunday, April 30th of this year. Since that date, a new episode has aired every Sunday with the first season concluding on Sunday, June 18th. The show brings the surreal essence of the novel to life, and takes a few liberties, some which work and others, not so much. But I guarantee this show is worth watching. Let’s start with what’s working well.

The casting

The novel is a bit abstruse about the appearance of its protagonist, Shadow Moon. This is intentional since Shadow, as per his name, does not seem to be his own person until later in the story. For most of the novel, Shadow follows the events of the book without taking much action. In an interview, Gaiman admitted that when he visualized Shadow, he thought of a man looking somewhat like Dwayne Johnson. Though Johnson is black Samoan, he has played characters of varying ethnicities due to his light skin. The creators of the show departed from Gaiman’s vision for Shadow by casting, Ricky Whittle, a black British actor, as Shadow. Interestingly enough, Whittle is around the same complexion as Johnson, but his character’s racial identity is not anywhere near ambiguous like his book counterpart. The show makes it clear from the first episode that Shadow is a black man and continues to build upon how Shadow’s blackness affects his lived experiences. This emphasis is what makes this show black without it actually being black; it’s protagonist is a black con artist just released from prison and caught up in a war between American deities and ancient gods, including one my favorites, Anansi, the god of stories.

Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday is an excellent casting choice. McShane nails the novel characterization of Wednesday as an amiable con man. Wednesday is a sleaze but a likeable one. Given that I know how the novel plays out, I both dislike but admire the character. Despite his affable personality, Wednesday is not a good person. He sees the ends as justifying the means no matter what the means entails. He’s a liar, cheat, murderer, and all-around asshole. But it’s still fun watching him work. Wednesday hides his true identity from Shadow until the last episode of the first season, though it will be clear to any casual myth buff based on his name and many of the hints he drops who he is.

Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis is the only black woman on the show. Bilquis is also known as the Queen of Sheba, and is mentioned in both the Bible and Quran, though not as a goddess. Both the novel and show portray Bilquis as a goddess of sexual desire. Bilquis derives her power through intercourse and absorbs her worshippers/victims through her vagina. Yes, you read that right. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the character herself, but I can say that Badaki does a great job of bringing Bilquis’ sensuality and allure to life. Bilquis is shown to be an extremely powerful goddess but due to the Old Gods losing power she is then rendered destitute and loses her stature. Slowly she regains it through aligning herself with the New Gods though I suspect her cooperation will change in the second season.

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Orlando Jones as Anansi in American Gods.

The metaphors

Gaiman loves using metaphors in his novels and American Gods is no exception. The show is heavily layered with analogies and metaphors providing commentary on colonialism, the myth of American exceptionalism, racism, patriarchy, and violence. One of the most striking themes for me is how black bodies are used and visually portrayed. The first episode ends with Shadow being lynched and the camera angles of Bilquis during her sex scenes are situated from the male gaze. Additionally, the second episode opens with a slave ship carrying Africans who pray to Anansi to save them. Anansi spurs them to sacrifice themselves so that the ship never reaches America, yet a small spider is seen crawling from the burning remains of the ship and onto dry land.

Both the novel and the show blurs the lines of what worship actually is. Basically, a person is worshipping whatever they mindlessly devote themselves to whether it be the Internet, TV, guns, sex, etc. This metaphor becomes meta when you consider that every episode aired on Sunday, the day most commonly associated with attending church. Implicitly, viewers are worshipping the goddess of TV (an actual character) every time we tune in to the show.

The cinematography

In the pilot episode alone, American Gods uses a variety of storytelling methods including animation, live action, and a voice-over narration. The show is clear about it being a story, and a relevant one of the times. Anansi seems aware that he’s in a story given his dialogue and his frequent gazes to the camera. The color scheme is primarily muted and only becomes vivid when it suits whatever god or goddess is the focus of the episode. The muted colors combined with the vivid palette characterizing some of the gods combine to give the viewer the sensation of reality and fantasy blending, until it’s no longer clear where the lines are drawn. This makes the show simultaneously gritty and dreamlike.

The music

The music, like the cinematography, is a mixture of hyperrealism and surreal, hypnotic tones. It’s extremely effective at cueing the viewer to the breaking and re-ordering of reality that is at the core of the plot.

Now for what’s not working so well…

Way too much Laura

In the novel, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies and becomes a zombie or more accurately, a revenant (a reanimated dead person who haunts the living). While this is also her fate in the show, she’s a whole lot more prominent. Emily Browning does an excellent job of making Laura a detestable character, but perhaps she’s a bit too effective. Laura is completely unsympathetic and gets way too much screen time. In the novel, she’s more of a background character and while she does have an important role to the plot later in the story, the reader does not see much of her. But for some reason the showrunners seem to want her in as many episodes as possible.

Not enough Anansi

Orlando Jones’ portrayal of Anansi is without a doubt one of the highlights of the show. In the second episode, Anansi gives a monologue covering black American history from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Lives Matter. He’s acerbic in his wit and declarations, with his favorite phrase being, “Anger gets shit done.” And as I’ve mentioned earlier, he seems to have fourth wall awareness, giving him the potential to be a very dynamic character and intermediary between the show and viewers. Anansi is only in two of the episodes of the first season. I would be very happy if Anansi can get a lot more screen time while Laura is featured less.

American Gods can be enjoyed without much knowledge of mythology and only the understanding that belief in something results in the creation of something. A viewer does not need to have read the novel to enjoy the show, but it definitely helps. Whereas the novel did not feature race very prominently, the show does, in both overt and covert ways. The black protagonist and frequent allusions to the state of race relations in 21st Century America makes American Gods a show worth watching if only to see a meta fictional narration of the American mythos. You need to watch it. 

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