Netflix’s ‘Supacell’ turns stereotypes on their head

<div>Netflix’s ‘Supacell’ turns stereotypes on their head</div>
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Tazer (Josh Tedeku), Andre (Eric Kofi Abrefa), Sabrina (Nadine Mills), Michael (Tosin Cole) and Rodney (Calvin Demba) in

Rapman, also known as Andrew Onwubolu, is no stranger to producing quality films that depict areas of the Black British experience, as evidenced by his hit films Blue Story and Shiro’s List. He’s now ventured into television with Netflix series Supacell. Using sickle cell disease as the origin of superpowers, the show is an innovative approach to the science fiction and superhero genre. Through this unique concept, Supacell also challenges long-standing stereotypes associated with the Black community.

Across six episodes, we see the story of five seemingly ordinary Black people from South London, all linked by a genetic history of sickle cell disease and the sudden emergence of superpowers. But things get tricky when courier and new time-traveller Michael (Tosin Cole) teleports into the future and discovers his fiancée Dionne’s (Adelayo Adedayo) life is in danger. To save her, he must find four others with newfound superpowers: Sabrina (Nadine Mills), Rodney (Calvin Demba), Andre (Eric Kofi Abrefa), and Tazer (Josh Tedeku). 

Despite the instantly opportunistic nature of getting superpowers, Supacell’s characters are not trying to use their newfound talents to conquer the world. As Rodney, newly equipped with super speed, says, “This ain’t a fucking comic book, this is real life.” They grapple with personal dilemmas, be it Andre paying child support, Tazer dealing with gang rivalry, or Sabrina protecting her sister from harm. They don’t have time to focus on helping someone save their fiancée or dealing with mysterious figures trying to capture them. They’re already just trying to survive the day.

Supacell fosters a broader social dialogue

One of the most remarkable aspects of Supacell is its exploration of a story that has traditionally only existed in white spaces. While characters like Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Storm in X-Men, Luke Cage, and Black Panther‘s T’Challa, Captain Marvel‘s Monica Rambeau, and Blade are some exceptions, Rapman’s show seizes the opportunity to highlight how science fiction and superhero stories have rightly faced criticism for their long-standing lack of racial representation.

Mainstream media seldom portrays the intricacies of Black life, instead perpetuating stereotypes without challenging or exploring them. But this issue isn’t new; the #OscarsSoWhite movement rose in 2015 and, more recently, in 2022, a report revealed a 16.7 percent decrease in the number of films with Black stories at the forefront. The challenge with science fiction is that when a genre that thrives on endless possibility, and struggles to recognise the value of including people of colour, those communities’ critical issues go unheard. Never hearing from underrepresented communities can’t lead to the kind of awareness that results in 46 percent more people registering as new blood donors because a show like Call the Midwife educated people on sickle cell disease.

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This is where Supacell shines through, as its exploration of the sci-fi world from the viewpoint of marginalised communities fosters a broader societal dialogue. The title, Supacell, is a clever play on words, linking the word ‘sickle cell’ and its negative associations with a genetic blood disease that affects 17,000 people living in the UK to create characters with superpowers resulting from mutated genes linked to the sickle cell gene. 

In Supacell‘s first episodes, we witness the characters unlocking their powers. Michael learns he can time travel when he is stabbed during a delivery job. Sabrina finds out about her telekinetic abilities after learning that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Tazer realises he has the gift of invisibility when lured into a trap by a rival gang. Rodney discovers that he can run like the Flash when he accidentally runs all the way to Scotland while trying to make it to a drug deal on time. Andre’s super strength is revealed when he breaks an ATM in frustration over his financial struggles that make him unable to provide for his son. These powers are not just part of the plot but a reflection of the character’s core essence, strengths, and struggles.

Michael (Tosin Cole) in "Supacell."

Michael (Tosin Cole).
Credit: Netflix

The series delves into various themes such as job insecurity for ex-convicts, poverty, the exploitation of Black bodies, being Black in predominantly white spaces, violence against women, and the pervasive inequality that impacts Black lives in every aspect. These themes add a layer of realism to the genre. If the characters can’t afford to eat or, like Michael, can’t save their loved ones, what’s the point of having superpowers? This portrayal serves as a metaphor for the resilience of these communities in the face of adversity due to societal and institutional failings.

Supacell challenges stereotypes used to define Black lives

Andre (Eric Kofi Abrefa) in "Supacell."

Andre (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and his son AJ (Ky-Mani Carty).
Credit: Ana Blumenkron / Netflix

Supacell boldly confronts how societal failings have led to the stereotypes often used to define Black lives. It challenges the labels society may expect us to associate with certain characters, such as gang leaders, drug dealers, ex-convicts, angry Black women, and damsels in distress. Instead, it aims to shatter narrow portrayals of Black life shaped by these stereotypes by revealing the true depth of what lies underneath.

At first glance, Andre might seem like the typical absent father. However, as we learn more about his story, we understand that his absence wasn’t a choice but a consequence of society failing him. This continues as he struggles to find employment due to his criminal record. The final episode reveals his vulnerability despite his super strength, highlighting that superpowers haven’t solved his problems.

Rodney (Calvin Demba) in "Supacell"

Rodney (Calvin Demba).
Credit: Netflix

Supacell also presents a striking contrast between Rodney and Tazer, both involved in selling drugs to make ends meet, both having turbulent home lives. Initially seen as comic relief as he tries to get by with his best friend, Spud (Giacomo Mancini), we learn that Rodney’s involvement in dealing is a result of the racism he experiences at home. Despite his mother leading a comfortable life in a nice house with her partner, Rodney’s mixed race background is a point of contention with his stepfather, leading him to leave home and find a means of income. 

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Contrastingly, the show tempts us to see Tazer as a hardened gang leader seeking to incite more bloodshed with rival gangs. However, when we witness his interactions at home with his grandmother and friends, our perception shifts, and we begin to empathise with him as a tragic figure haunted by abandonment issues related to his mother. The show strategically reveals details about the characters, and we later learn that Tazer’s mother was the woman brutally killed in the show’s opening scene, echoing the tragic real-life killing of Black women. Despite Tazer being initially unaware of this, his sense of abandonment and unknowing link to violence lets us understand how he was drawn into a life of crime under the influence of Krazy (Ghetts). Supacell presents this as a cycle resulting from societal structure, as illustrated when Andre’s son, AJ (Ky-Mani Carty), becomes enticed by the same world simply by growing up in the area. The series refrains from romanticising gang leadership or violence and instead emphasises their devastating impact as a result of life circumstances.

Tazer (Josh Tedeku) in "Supacell."

Tazer (Josh Tedeku).
Credit: Netflix

Additionally, Tazer’s circle of friends further imbue his character with suppressed vulnerability. His friends are loyal, supportive, and unafraid to admit when they’re scared, as Tiny (Akai Coleman) does when Tazer goes to visit him in the hospital after he’s shot by Krazy. It’s a moving scene. Tazer wants revenge, as is common in street culture, but his friend says, “You don’t have to. Just keep coming to see me.” Their aim isn’t to be gang members but to succeed in a challenging environment where feeling safe is hard. Tazer’s worst moments are led by emotion, driven by the fact that he loves deeply. It’s why he is upset by his mum’s absence and why he changes his mind about stabbing Michael a second time. It’s with this Supacell allows us to understand the complexity behind the gang stereotypes. 

Sabrina (Nadine Mills) in "Supacell."

Sabrina (Nadine Mills).
Credit: Netflix

While the female characters do need more dimension in the show, they still play a significant role in Supacell’s messaging. Despite appearances, Sabrina defies the angry Black woman stereotype by revealing herself rather as a woman disheartened by life. She’s a Black woman with a tumultuous love life and she’ll do anything to protect her supportive older sister Sharleen (Rayxia Ojo) who lacks support herself. Sabrina struggles to find success at her job not because she’s not qualified but because it’s harder to progress professionally as a Black woman. Black women are 6.1 percentage points less likely than white women to be in the top 10 percent of income. In this way, Sabrina begins to challenge this cliche as a woman who is, at her core, dealing with being underpaid, overworked, and seeking to protect those closest to her. Sabrina’s story sheds light on individuals’ underlying difficult circumstances that drive them to their limits.

Dionne (Adelayo Adedayo) in "Supacell."

Dionne (Adelayo Adedayo) and Michael (Tosin Cole).
Credit: Ana Blumenkron / Netflix

Michael often treats Dionne as a damsel in distress, attempting to shield his fiancé from the knowledge that she dies in the near future. However, Dionne subverts this role by using her position as a social worker to actively investigate the disappearances of Black people that have been overlooked. Dionne’s refusal to remain passive and her unwavering dedication to uncovering the reasons behind the disproportionate number of missing Black individuals is powerful. It reflects the alarming real-life situation in the UK, where Black people often do not receive the same treatment and media coverage as their white counterparts. It’s a reminder that despite her impending peril, Dionne was never a damsel. Every choice she made with purpose. 

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Supacell challenges the notion that Black British shows primarily dwell on the negative aspects of Black British life. Despite its flaws, the show’s commitment to portraying the complexities of Black life in a leading role within a genre where Black individuals are frequently overlooked is a powerful message that urges us to move beyond initial judgments and stereotypes. Hopefully, other creators will take note of what Rapman has accomplished with Supacell and strive to achieve the same.

How to watch: Supacell is now streaming on Netflix.

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