I’ve never cared for the original adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. The four-part miniseries was too long to be scary. Despite my disdain for clowns, Pennywise didn’t terrify me as much as he terrified others my age. Pennywise just seemed like a demonic jokester with sharp teeth and a grating laugh.
The actual novel is nearly 1,200 pages of peak Stephen King absurdity. When I found out what Pennywise’s literary origin story is—he’s some cosmic entity who apparently has a beef with the talking turtle who created the universe??—any remaining traces of “fear” I felt as a result of the clown vanished.
In 2017, Andy Muschietti released a really enjoyable adaptation of the first part of IT. The way Muschietti tweaked Pennywise’s origins was particularly impressive; Muschietti’s Pennywise is the personification of fear—the type of fear that fuels hatred and discrimination.
But, for as much as I appreciated Muschietti’s grounded recreation of Pennywise and attempts to address topics such as childhood sexual abuse, body-shaming and post-traumatic stress, the movie dropped the ball when it came to discussing race.
In IT, there’s only one Black main character, a boy named Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). Like the rest of the main characters, Mike grew up in the town of Derry, Maine, which is where the story takes place. All we learn about Mike is that he comes from a family of sheep farmers and that his apparently drug-addicted parents died in an apartment fire when he was a toddler. IT somewhat implies that there’s an issue with racism in Derry by having the town bully, Henry Bowers, tell Mike that he and his family shouldn’t be in Derry, but Henry never says explicitly why, and that’s never explored any further.
That’s really all we get as far as character development for Mike. Then, Mike disappears for long stretches of the movie, only to reappear when he needs to be rescued from Henry Bowers by Beverly and the rest of the main characters. Mike becomes friends with them, and they start referring to their group as “The Losers.” Mike then sticks around to help his new friends defeat Pennywise. Against type, Mike lives to see the end of the movie.
IT: Chapter Two, released summer 2019, was an opportunity to finally get more character development for Mike (now Isaiah Mustafa) and as well as an interrogation of race and racism in Derry. The sequel also had an opportunity to use Pennywise—as the personification of fear—to examine other forms of marginalization like sexuality, which was absent in 2017’s IT.
IT: Chapter Two does none of those things.
The lack of character development for Mike is even more noticeable and bothersome this time around. Once again, Mike’s race—and how his race affects his life in Derry—is completely ignored. His experiences as the only Black person in his friend group, or as one of the few Black people in Derry are never addressed, and neither is the fact that the only Black character is the one who stayed in the town with the demon clown for nearly three decades while all of his white friends got to (physically) escape that hellscape. There are racial implications for all of these creative decisions that the filmmaker made and he seems completely disinterested in dealing with that.
Or perhaps, his way of dealing with the racial gaps in the story was just to limit Mike’s screen time and usefulness to the plot. Mike can’t discuss his experiences with racism if he’s not on screen. And, most of the time, once again, he’s not on the screen. Mike—who probably should be the center of the movie, considering he’s the only one who stayed in Derry—vanishes from the movie part of the way through. Once again, there's a long stretch of time where we don't see Mike at all. He returns only when it’s time for him to be rescued by one of the Losers (Richie, this time) and when it’s time to fight Pennywise. Mike might as well be known as The Invisible Man, at this point.
Better yet, call him the Magical Negro, the Black character who only exists to help their white counterparts complete their journeys, sometimes through supernatural means, and has no journey of their own. Magical Negro characters may make reference to ancient legends or myths, or spout some spiritual mumbo jumbo. And they have little-to-no character development outside of their specific role as a mystical informant. Think characters like Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries, a powerful Black witch who spent most of her screen time saving her white friends from supernatural foolishness while hardly ever getting a storyline of her own.
In IT: Chapter Two, Mike is the one who calls all the Losers back to Derry to fight Pennywise. He’s the one who explains why they’ve forgotten the evil they faced as children. He’s the one who explains the supernatural ritual they have to perform to vanquish Pennywise once and for all. And Mike’s often the one trying to convince the Losers that they have to face their pasts in order to heal mentally and emotionally. Mike is an exposition machine whose only function appears to be advising his white friends about the mystical nature of Pennywise and overcoming their horrific childhoods. Mike Hanlon is the Magical Negro of Derry, and an example of a stunning failure when it comes to addressing race.
And if Mike’s character is IT’s big failure when it comes to race, then Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, and later, Bill Hader) is the big failure when it comes to sexuality.
IT: Chapter Two asks us to believe that Richie is a closeted gay man who is secretly in love with his best friend/fellow Loser Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer, and later, James Ransone). In an interview with Variety, Hader, who plays Richie, says that Stephen King never intended for Richie to be a gay man, but was apparently happy with Muschietti’s decision to interpret him as one in IT: Chapter Two. I have no problem with including a gay character in the movie; I actually wish I could be happy about it. My problem is that the gay “subplot” is so weak that you can’t blame people for missing it entirely.
The movie alludes to Richie’s sexuality a couple of times. There’s a flashback scene were Henry Bowers shouts a bunch of homophobic slurs at Richie after Richie tries to play an arcade game with Henry’s cousin. That scene is followed by a present-day scene where Pennywise taunts Richie, repeatedly shouting “I know your secret!” After that, the only other clue we have about Richie’s sexuality is the end of the movie, when we see that Richie’s carved “R + E” (for “Richie + Eddie”) into the wood of a bridge.
Richie never explicitly says he’s gay. Aside from the flashback and Pennywise’s taunts, there’s really nothing in the text or subtext of the movie that suggests that Richie’s struggled with expressing his sexuality openly or that Richie is in love with Eddie. Grown-up Richie and Eddie behave in the same way as the kid versions of Richie and Eddie. They make fun of each other, tell a few crude jokes, and watch each other’s backs as necessary. They act like the best friends they’ve always been. There’s no dialogue between them that would suggest that Richie views Eddie as anything other than his platonic friend.
There are also none of the usual film signals of romantic possibility, either. While the movie’s actual romance—Ben (James McAvoy) and Beverly (Jessica Chastain)’s boring thing—has dialogue, flourishes in the film score, flashback scenes and even special effects to try to convince the audience that there’s some kind of chemistry there, Richie and Eddie have nothing.
It’s only when Eddie dies that it seems something else is going on with them. Richie has a more severe reaction to Eddie's death than the other Losers, to the point where they have to physically restrain him from going back for Eddie’s body. Richie breaks down into tears and wails at one point, and all the other Losers try to comfort him.
This subplot ends up feeling disingenuous, as if it were only inserted to achieve representation points from critics and audiences without any real depth or thought put into developing it.
And that’s extremely unfortunate, especially when you consider that the film opens with the brutal assault of a gay couple and the eventual murder of one of the men. The opening is jarring and traumatizing, but it barely serves a purpose to the rest of the film. If Richie was a character who explicitly spoke about being gay and his decision to stay closeted to protect himself from that type of violent homophobia, that opening scene could’ve played a vital part in his character development. But that’s not what happened.
IT: Chapter Two has other problems. The pacing was off, and the middle section of the movie—where the characters have to split up and find items that would help jog their memories—dragged because of that. A wonderfully-talented cast ended up being wasted because hardly any of the characters are developed well. But worst of all, the IT franchise had two perfectly good opportunities to examine racial and sexual marginalization and chose not to do it. How horrifying.
Photo: Warner Bros.
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