"Piccolo is Black, Cry About It" - Extended Interview
As you browse anime fandoms and notice the types of people you see participating in discussion, cosplays, and fanart, you may have spared yourself an honest thought and wondered, “Wow, black people sure do like anime.”
This surprise at anime fandom’s diverse demographics is expected, given the decades of exclusion people of color have faced, the “nerdy white guy” archetype being the only image projected into pop culture. This preconceived model puzzles individuals asking where all these audiences of color “came from” - but according to FSU filmmaker Ryan Joiner; they were always there.
Joiner and co-director Landon Watford investigated this unique phenomenon in their documentary Piccolo is Black. This short film examines the cultural intersection between anime fandom and the black community, bringing awareness to an overlooked demographic while codifying a previously undefined subculture.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the talented Joiner, a black female anime fan, on her inspiration behind the film, the history of the black community’s interest in anime, and what she and co-director Landon wished to achieve by spotlighting this intersection.
Read her thoughtful words below:
PM: What was the idea behind this film? The process of making it - finding interviews, sources, etc.- and what you and Landon hoped to achieve?
RJ: This, for me, was a very personal film. Besides us having to do a documentary project for film school, I’m also a black fan of anime. It came from Landon and I, having known each other for a while, and one time out of the blue, he tells me, “There seems to be this connection between black people and anime. Every black person I meet, all my friends - all y’all like anime”. And I was like, “Landon…you don’t even understand what you just opened”. So we decided to do a project on it.
I wanted to capture this idea of cross-cultural diffusion, something that seemingly would not be connected and yet makes such an impact on a generation. I’m sorry; what was the second part of the question?
PM: The process of making it, finding your interview sources…
RJ: Our idea was so broad that we kind of had a hard time, in the beginning, figuring out what exactly we wanted to say. We decided to go through this lens of a half-history, half-cultural anthology analysis. We realized we needed a vehicle to take us from beginning to end. We thought of Toonami, a channel that was big when we were younger that aired animation in the evening. It was one of the first distributors of Dragon Ball Z.
PM: Yes! That’s how I know it! That’s where I watched Dragon Ball.
RJ: We found this article about one of Toonami’s creators, Jason DeMarco, speaking about how Toonami’s reach had large indexes with black and brown communities. From there, we started crafting our story. Then we got into the music of Toonami, there was such an eclectic type of music that bled into a lot of kids who grew up to make hip hop. It built on itself.
We wanted three different types of sources: academic sources, personal sources, and a professional “working” idea of an anime fan. People who’ve written essays and whatnot - it all sort of collected itself into a story.
PM: Taking that history into mind, in a sort of thesis statement, what would you say draws the black community to anime?
RJ: At the beginning of the film, we looked back to the 70s when Blaxploitation films came out of Asian martial arts movies and how that’s a direct correlation to anime. There’s this idea in anime in terms of a thematic storyline of the underdog, who no one really gives a shit about, but then learns or does something amazing, and then preservers and “wins.” And then there’s another challenge he has to overcome, which he does.
The idea of the underdog is something we really invested in this film because, obviously, black people are the underdogs of the United States. I think it’s empowering for children to see something they can identify with that feels like them and that they can use to feel some kind of connection to, especially if you think about the stereotypes and images that were being given. It’s like, “if I could choose to watch this anime character who feels like me be successful rather than watching this other character who looks like me but doesn’t feel like I lose or be the butt of the joke, I’m gonna choose the one who feels like me, and wins.” There’s escapism in not wanting to be what someone tells me I’m supposed to be.
Another thing about black people, we have swagger; we have style and an aesthetic just in how we walk around the world. The way we influence pop culture and have everyone else try to emulate it, but it’s ours. Anime goes so well with these black cultural artifacts like hip-hop, “drip,” and fashion. This is not a sweeping statement, obviously, not every black person, but it’s become part of black culture and something to identify with outside of what we’re told to be.
I want to identify with Piccolo (from Dragon Ball Z), he’s super cool, and the way he walks into a room is the same way that my uncles, my dad, or my brothers walk into a room. Or the way he’ll refuse to do something dangerous or stupid, it’s like when we go, “Nah, that’s some white people's shit.” There’s just a swagger about him that I can relate to, even if his skin is green.
PM: My understanding from the film is that you selected Piccolo from Dragon Ball to be the film’s namesake because he is considered to be a “black-coded” character. Could you elaborate on what this term means and these characters’ relationship with the black community?
RJ: Yes, the idea of a “black-coded” character who is not physically black, does not have brown skin - may not even be a human - but there’s something about the way that they carry themselves, how they speak, what they experience, or how they’re treated that feels like what black people “are” in essence. In a non-monolithic sense, of course, because we are not a monolith - but there’s a cultural tie or cue that makes the audience go “oh, that’s a black person.” Like Darwin from [The Amazing World of] Gumball, that’s a little black kid.
PM: Or Grim from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, that’s a Jamaican man.
RJ: Yes! It’s like, “You don’t have to tell me because I’m telling you.”
PM: Sometimes, you can tell that these racial characterizations were part of the creative intent.
RJ: Yeah. As for what these characters mean to the black community, while we shouldn’t need “codes” to be represented, there just aren’t a lot of options for us. It’s once again that choice to feel connected to someone who makes us feel complex and empowered.
PM: Yeah, it’s a similar kind of claiming that LGBTQ+ people do with characters that they feel are queer-coded.
RJ: For sure.
PM: Tell me, since anime’s black following is undeniable, what are your thoughts on how black people are depicted in anime? On the rare occasion that they are…
RJ: It’s a coin toss - it’s gotten better, but it’s not great. It must be acknowledged that in Japan, everyone is Japanese, which alters their perceptions of other races. Sometimes there’s a character, like Canary from Hunter x Hunter, who is cool, but you still sense the stereotypes that go into them. There’s an episode of Cowboy Bebop with Foxy Brown - a Blaxploitation-type character - called “Watermelon Smash” with a shot of her smashing one, and it’s like, “Did it have to be a watermelon?”
So yeah…it’s not great. That’s why I think coded characters are important, it gives people flexibility. White people have such varied representation, who they relate to, and what they want to feel. We don’t, so the opportunity of black-coded characters gives us a choice of “Oh, that’s racist. That’s not me. This other character is me.”
PM: We discussed the history of establishing a connection between Asian media and black audiences - would you say that black people have always been part of anime’s fanbase in North America?
RJ: Absolutely. One of the first, aside from Asian Americans. Black and brown kids had access to cable and watched Toonami.
PM: I think it’s important to distinguish that because for decades if someone said they liked anime, the archetype in their head was a nerdy white guy, which led to racist gatekeeping within fandom when other kinds of people wanted to join. It’s not until recently that people are starting to embrace the reality that women love this, black and brown people love this, queer people love this, etc.
RJ: That’s exactly why we have communities like Black Girls Anime [a social media organization interviewed in the film] that make an effort to create a safe space for black people. To tell you that you will not be shamed, silenced, or left behind. Everything that we as people seek is a community, so we make our own.
PM: Would you say liking anime is completely normalized in the black community? Have you ever faced stigma yourself?
RJ: No, I haven’t, but I wouldn’t say it’s completely normalized either. Those who aren’t into anime aren’t aggressive about it, it’s more like ambivalence or “Oh, my friend loves that show!”. So yeah, it’s not universally loved, but there’s still a sweeping relationship with anime that cannot be ignored.
PM: So we’re at the last question I have written down! Is there anything else you wish you could’ve explored with your film? Any concepts you wish you could’ve dived into?
RJ: I don’t think there are any concepts I didn’t touch on at all. The story is conceptualized in a beginning, middle, and end - and I wish each segment got to be more fleshed out. [Per the film school’s guidelines, the documentary is only 12 minutes long.] I think music was the main thing that was cut out that I wished we could’ve done a deep dive on. So many young artists - mostly rappers - have music that is culturally inspired by anime. There are some other people I would’ve liked to have interviewed as well, so we could’ve dived into more of these personal stories.
PM: Do you think you’ll revisit this topic later in your film career?
RJ: Yeah, I’d like to.
PM: I’ll definitely watch it! Lastly, are there any additional things you want people to know about the film or its topic? Any closing thoughts?
RJ: The main idea behind the making of this film is that it’s so important for black people to have access to media that’s inspiring and personable - that doesn’t feel like an obsession with historical oppression. Something that feels relevant to people walking around today. That is the largest thing that’s impacted my life and on making this film. This is the kind of media I want to make, something that highlights the beauty of the black community. Oppression is part of our history, but I want to provide an opportunity for an uplifting narrative.
Landon, bless his curiosity, was so supportive of that ideal throughout the entire process. Aside from being a great filmmaking partner, he is a wonderful example of a white person using their privilege to help, include, and uplift other types of people in media.
I’m so proud of how the film turned out. Even as the filmmaker, it made me feel seen, and I hope that any other black anime fan who’s been able to watch it feels the same way.
While Piccolo is Black is hidden from public viewing due to FSU Film’s strict ownership protocol, Joiner and Watford wish to project their message far beyond the film's audience. In a closing message to the “Black geeks,” they lovingly write:
“To the Black kid, the geek, or the budding anthropologist, we present to you a story born out of curiosity and love. We’re using this film to celebrate both culture and storytelling, universal languages that connect people oceans away. We hope that Black geeks know that we see you and you’re valid. We hope this inspires people to be proud of who they are, no matter how niche or unusual. Above all else, we hope that this film empowers you to choose your own heroes and, one day, create them.
Piccolo is Black, and in the words of Eunice Ibama, “if you don't agree, cry about it.”
With Love, Ryan Joiner and Landon Watford”
Writer: Phaedra Mladenovic
Artist: Solymar Estrella
Tags: Anime, Interview, Filmmaker