Content Warning: Discussion of police brutality, anti-Black stereotypes
Spoilers for all of Carole & Tuesday
Black men are often stereotyped as overly aggressive and dangerous, and therefore inclined towards criminality; this has serious consequences, since they are used to justify undue police violence against Black men. These stereotypes erase the fact that many Black men are compassionate, vulnerable, and caring to their families and friends. In his newest show Carole & Tuesday, about two girls who become famous musicians on Mars, esteemed creator Watanabe Shinichiro uses his signature grounded portrayal of the future to explore a number of current real-world issues, including racism, through a cast that includes a number of recurring Black characters. Despite its social justice-minded storytelling, Carole & Tuesday can be a frustrating watch as it swings back and forth between exploring these characters as nuanced individuals and perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Black masculinity.
The first major Black male character that Carole and Tuesday meet is a musician named Skip. The initial impression given of Skip and his band conforms overwhelmingly to stereotypical representations of Black men as dangerous and scary: the girls cower in his dimly-lit trailer as the soundtrack turns foreboding. The band bars them from leaving, barely talks to them, and intimidates them before Skip even arrives. When he does appear, he looms over them, clad in a yellow jumpsuit with gold jewelry and his hair in locs. However, it turns out that he does not mean the girls harm, as the setup of the scene is made to imply. He just wanted to tell them not to lose sight of their own music style, much to their visible relief.
Towards the end of the episode, Skip shifts from a stereotypical caricature to a more nuanced image of Black masculinity. His appearance remains unchanged — demonstrating that his physical traits are not inherently negative — but his softer side comes through in his music as he performs the song “Unrequited Love,” a tender ballad written for him by his girlfriend, the pop diva Crystal. While this is a positive portrayal, it’s juxtaposed against the audience assumption that he must be a threat to Carole and Tuesday because he’s a big, Black man. This is the same presumption that results in so much police brutality and profiling against Black men–something that will come up later in the series.
By contrast, Carole’s father, Dann is an average, quiet man. He teaches his daughter Aikido and other non-violent forms of self-defense, explaining that they should never be used to instigate violence, defying the stereotype of Black men as violent aggressors.
His gentle, melancholic side comes through further as he walks Carole home one night and tells her about how he ended up “spending time behind bars” after he was arrested for defending himself. After seventeen years, he was released on parole and could finally reunite with her. Dann’s story reflects the injustice that many Black men face, and while he never outright states that he was targeted specifically because he’s Black, his backstory resembles the numerous wrongful convictions faced disproportionately by non-violent Black men in the U.S. and other countries. These unjust convictions separate these men from their families as Dann was, further adding to the myth of the absent Black father.
In the latter half of the series, Carole and Tuesday meet a rapper named Ezekial at the second Cydonia Festival. The moment they see him talking with other Black men wearing chains and “rapper” or “thug” clothing, Tuesday hides behind Carole in fear.
The girls’ manager, Gus, explains that Ezekiel is a rapper and says,“That whole group is bad news. I think it’s better if you two stay clear of people like that.” Carole, however, recognizes Ezekiel as her old childhood friend, Amer, from the refugee camp she grew up in, which pushes the conversation beyond the limited and othering view of referring to him as one of “those kinds of people.” When she reunites with him, the two talk about old times and how they used to confide in each other at the refugee camp where they grew up, giving a softer and more nuanced picture of who he is. Ezekiel tells Carole about how after he left the camp, he faced numerous hardships as an undocumented refugee and was forced to do illegal activities he isn’t proud of in order to survive. As a result, he says, “Amer’s been dead a long time,” but this isn’t completely true. Glimpses of his old self resurface when he records a song addressed to Carole from prison after he is arrested. In the song, he says “When you’re not around, there’s no one that’s allowed to see my tears,” referring to the emotions and vulnerability he often hides in order to deal with his life’s struggles.
The way Ezekiel seems to have changed surprises Carole, as she remarks, “I never expected you to turn out to be a thug,” since this new image seems to clash with the personality she once knew. “Thug” is a loaded term when used in reference to Black men, but the series doesn’t actively interrogate the word. It also does not suggest that Carole has any more awareness of its racist connotations than the other white characters, despite the fact that she is also Black and more empathetic towards his struggles. However, through Ezekiel’s character, Carole & Tuesday critiques this concept by portraying the conditions that cause so-called “thuggish” behavior, and how it is only one part of an individual’s identity that cannot be generalized.
The second half of the series focuses on right-wing politicians wanting to pass a law that would limit musicians’ freedom of speech, which leads to primarily Black men being targeted by the authorities. After releasing a protest song, “Crash the Server,” Ezekiel is targeted by Mars Immigration and Customs Enforcement (MICE), who say that he must be deported as an undocumented immigrant.
The police single out Skip as well, stopping him and his male friends while they are simply walking down the street, an unfortunate reality for too many Black men in the real world. As the confrontation escalates, Skip says that he knows they are targeting him because his newest song speaks out against the censorship politicians want to place on musicians who criticize the status quo, and he is ultimately arrested. In response to these events, Carole and Tuesday hold a meeting with several other musicians because they feel they must do something to support their silenced compatriots.
The group performs a song called “Mother” at the historic Mars Immigration Memorial Hall, calling for unity and the end of censorship against musicians. However, despite the obvious patterns in who was targeted, there isn’t any conversation about race as a factor. In the end, the Black male characters are the most harmed by authorities for being vocal about losing their freedom of speech. While the lyrics of “Mother” are based on the idea that everyone is equal, the omission of any direct references to racial injustice in the show’s final moments is jarring.
“Mother” ends the series on a hopeful note, as the song’s message appears to reach those in power. Skip watches the performance from his jail cell and the scene cuts to a close-up of his fingers playing air guitar along to the song in a moment of resistance. Gus’ final narration states that there was a “miracle” in “the hearts and minds of those who heard” the song. These moments suggest that things will improve for the characters who have been deported and imprisoned, but that’s never portrayed. Instead, we are left with the onscreen text stating that the story “will be continued…in your mind.”
While the series does portray the injustices Black men face, it doesn’t offer any solutions for how to deal with an unfair justice system that continues to target them. At the end of the series, all the significant Black male characters have been deported or imprisoned. Despite their sympathetic portrayals, stories about imprisoned Black men are a worn-out stereotype. It feels inadequate to challenge the viewer to imagine a better future when even the show’s hopeful conclusion can’t find a place for its Black men beyond police persecution.
Carole & Tuesday portrays Black men beyond the shallow “thug” stereotype, but these characters still face negative consequences because of broad assumptions about Black masculinity. The ending raises the question of why this must be the ending for all of them and why the change we wish to see must be in our imagination rather than seeing meaningful direct action on screen. As a result, it’s apparent the series’ writers lacked the imagination to envision a variety of stories about Black men without having to rely on stereotypes and narrow understandings of Black life. If we are to imagine an ending that continues in our minds, then it must be one that challenges preconceived notions of Black men and celebrates diverse understandings of Black masculinity.