There's a seminal, seismic moment in Black Lightning's Episode 4 ("Black Jesus") when crime boss Lady Eve (Jill Scott) summons her underling Tobias Whale (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III) in for a meeting after a major f--up. Clearly, she intends to intimidate him, and she gets personal, fast.
"Did you know that in Africa some people believe albinos are magical?" she says to Tobias, a black man who has white skin because of his albinism. "People actually kidnap random albinos, cut them up, grind their bones and sell it as magic dust?" (In 2016, CNN reported that the U.N. warned that hacking off albinos' limbs and genitalia to create potions had become so prevalent in Malawi that people with albinism there were at risk of "total extinction.")
"Yes, I'm aware of that," he replies, humiliated for the difference he's been singled out for all his life. She implores him to fix the situation, and goes for the jugular. "I would use some of that albino magic to get it done, because if you don't, my partners are going to turn you into dust."
Lady Eve's threat is a classic tactic from the crime boss playbook: play psychological games, inflict terror without actual violence. But honing in on Tobias' albinism as the tender spot on which she'd unleash her aggression is explosive meta commentary, both within the world of Black Lightning and for the actor who plays Tobias himself. Though the mutilation and murder Lady Eve alludes to isn't as prevalent in the West, Marvin Jones III knows firsthand that people with albinism are not immune to emotional torture. Jones III, a well-regarded underground rapper, is a African-American man who grew up in the almost entirely African-American community known as South Central L.A. But for the bulk of his life, Jones III felt like an outsider in his community, within peer groups and most certainly on T.V. "Even amongst my own people, African-American people," he said, "I suffer greater ignorance from my own people."
So for Jones III, Tobias Whale is the role of a lifetime. Yes, Tobias Whale is a giant step forward in representation for people with albinism on television. But Tobias' loathing of black people for how they've treated him allows Jones III to publicly purge feelings in what is probably the most cathartic role on TV. "He has been beat down for who he is and how he looks," Jones III told TV Guide. "He's combated all that and rose to the top of the food chain. So he has this whole air of 'Remember the guy you teased and made fun of?' Look at him now."
When he started acting, Jones III knew that the odds were against him. People with albinism have been practically nonexistent on TV; one exception was a 1994 episode of Star Trek: DS9, which featured an alien criminal named The Albino, and he was played by a (white) man without albinism. In fact, ask someone to name a famous person with albinism and the answers will come slowly, if at all. Every so often, the fashion industry shoots someone to the echelons of "It" status, like in the Benetton ads of decades past or, today, the model Diandra Forrest — even if the reverence has a tinge of exoticism. Yellowman, the Jamaican reggae singer, might be the only other African-American person with albinism besides Jones III to reach worldwide acclaim for his artistic talent rather than his "look," but his niche popularity in the 80s and 90s hardly filtered down to the mainstream enough to buffer Jones III from harassment as a young man.
Jones III is lucky in the sense that Tobias was conceived from the beginning as an African-American man with albinism in Tony Isabella's Black Lightning comic books. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Isabella, who is of Italian heritage, grew up in a segregated city but made friends with fellow comic book lovers who were black. They used to hang out at the Cudell Recreation Center — the very place Tamir Rice would be gunned down by police decades later — which sparked a consciousness that stuck with him. "Diversity wasn't part of my vocabulary, but fairness and unfairness were," Isabella said. "I thought it was unfair that there weren't enough black heroes for my friends." Hence Black Lightning and other African-American comic heroes (he worked on Luke Cage, and created Misty Knight, among others). But ironically, in a comic all about race, Tobias's inception had nothing to do with race at all. "I wanted to do a really fearsome villain and killer whales — Moby Dick — popped into my head," Isabella said. "So that's where Tobias Whale came from." Isabella didn't even know any people with albinism. "Basically, he was a human whale."
A controversial character in comics canon, Tobias either inverts or reinforces a trope depending on which side of the aisle on which one sits. For decades, people have complained that the reflex to portray villains with dark skin reinforces racist notions that light-skinned people are inherently better than others; at the same time, the 'Mystical Albino' and 'Evil Albino' tropes have persisted in genre and fantasy stories, turning people with albinism into otherworldly creatures outside the human experience. While Black Lightning technically paints Tobias as both, he is, for reasons that'll become clearer over time, the way he is for specific reasons that give him motives, old wounds and enormous power. "I have to tap into the realities of Tobias Whale — the layers and complexity that make him who he is, and his reasoning behind them," said Jones III. "It's my duty to bring my humanity to him."
Jones III can easily mine his own experiences to inform Tobias' humanity. "I still suffer from ignorance and bias," Jones III said. "I get, 'Are you black? Are your parents black?" Sometimes it's the politics of sexual desire that complicate where he's supposed to fit in. American media, from film to TV to advertising and on, overwhelmingly defines male sexiness as "blond hair and blue eyes," or perhaps tall, dark and handsome. A black man with white skin, thick lips and pale hair doesn't fit either on end of the spectrum. Anyone who's ever been "othered" can relate to how people with pronounced differences can become targets for hostility or microaggressions. Case in point: the 2012 interview Jones III did with The Breakfast Club, a New York-based hip-hop radio show known for stirring the pot with its celebrity guests. During the talk, host DJ Envy asked Jones III to explain why he worked to hard to keep out of the sun. "We know that you're, what is it, albino? Explain what an albino person is." Envy's co-hosts groaned, noting how he'd turned Jones III into an attraction but the awkward moment illustrated how even a presumed safe space filled with other African-American people who should know the sting of separation can quickly turn venomous. Jones III handled it with grace. "I would love to shed light on that," he told Envy. "A lot of people are ignorant as to what albinism is."
In short, albinism is a genetic variation that can affect people of all ethnicities and greatly reduces melanin, which gives skin and hair and eyes pigment. Because of their lack of melanin, people with albinism — preferred over "albino people" — face greater sensitivity to sun exposure, with skin cancer a serious risk. Many people with albinism are legally blind and can't drive, although Jones III is an exception. The greatest handicap they face however, is simply the ignorance of other people — the kind that leads to stares or tactless questions like DJ Envy's. Is it any wonder then that Black Lightning's Tobias Whale enjoys inflicting harm on others, or that he lays his loathing for black people bare? "I love black people," Tobias tells low-level thug Lala (William Catlett) in Episode 2 before later choking him to death. "I hate incompetent, thick-lipped, scratch-where-it-don't-itch negroes like you." Considering all he's been put through, Tobias has every right to want revenge; considering all Jones III has been through, Tobias gives Jones III license to air some long-simmering grievances.
"[Tobias] obviously doesn't like black people," Isabella told TV Guide. "Salim's [co-creator and showrunner Salim Akil] take that his self-loathing is very accurate." Tobias did not originate as a way to prompt complex commentary, but for the Akils, Tobias' identity is a gift to Black Lightning — a suddenly vital series that runs towards, rather than away from, sometimes painful conversations about issues within the black community.
On the whole, Black Lightning asks black people to step up, to hold one another to a higher standard and to confront their own b.s.; part of that means giving marginalized black people, including lesbians and a man with albinism, a seat at the table. The hurt that fuels Tobias' wickedness makes viewers understand him better but doesn't make him any more likable. He's never redeemed but he's at least understood, putting a slick spin on the 'crabs in a barrel' phenomenon. For people who've been practically invisible on TV for so long, even a baby step is a giant leap forward and Jones III has hopes that Tobias, despicable as he is, ushers in some understanding. "Like when you see [a field] of flowers that are all green or red and in the middle is a yellow flower," he said, "What I hope will happen, is that through my presence, is that when people see another person with albinism they recognize the beauty of God."
That might come sooner than he thinks. Some years ago, Tony Isabella met a young fan with albinism who complained that the only character who looked like him was a villain. So in the latest iterations of the comic books, Tobias does not have albinism. And, Isabella said, "I promised this fan that somewhere along the line I would create an albino superhero to even the score."
Black Lightning airs on Tuesdays at 9/8c on The CW.