As a part of my major at Western Michigan University, journalism, I am enrolled in a community outreach program which helps lower income communities, predominantly communities of color. There are eight families registered with us, and with all the time we have, we try to help bring not only food / permanent housing, but some type of joy into their lives – donating old books, toys, buying them movie tickets, etc. It’s just a way to try to make their quality of life as wonderful as possible. Everyone wants to have a good time every once in a while, and seeing smiles on the faces of those little children has made my day more than once.
The last time I was at our HQ, I wanted to see if with some extra money I had, I could volunteer my time to help out one of the families. I was asked to help out the Morris family. For confidentiality purposes, the Morrises have asked me not to share their photograph or any information about them besides their names and generic descriptions. To paint as vivid a picture as I can: they’re an African-American family, originally from Lansing, but having migrated to Kalamazoo after an accident tragically killed the family’s patriarch Dwayne, leaving the youngest of three children, Kyle (10), with total paralysis in his lower body, as well as a severe musculoskeletal disease known as arthritis–causing stiffness in his joints, particularly his arms and shoulders. There are two boys, including Kyle and his older brother Ben (13), as well as a girl, Destani, who is the eldest (16). The remaining parental unit is the children’s’ mother, Chantal, who is 42 years old.
As Dwayne Morris was the family’s breadwinner, his death left the family unemployed. Though Chantal attempted to find a job, she could not find anywhere that would employ her due to her past criminal record. She had spent seven years in jail in her twenties for a minor infraction involving selling of marijuana, and was recovering from a severe nicotine addition, from which she eventually relapsed due to the stress of her husband’s passing. Eventually, Chantal was hired at a local Popeyes Chicken, not far from where the family had originally lived in Lansing, but her earnings were not enough to not only pay the rent, Internet, gas and electric bill, but to consistently pay for her son’s medication and the costs of the funeral that the family had been forced to scrape together. Shortly after getting her job, Chantal was evicted from her home, leaving her and her children homeless.
The family tried to stay with some of Dwayne’s relatives in Kalamazoo, but they quickly discovered that Dwayne’s family had never liked Chantal, putting her and the children in a mentally toxic and abusive situation with Dwayne’s aunt and sister. In desperate need of a new, positive home for their children and a productive school community, Chantal searched for somewhere new to live until she could find another job–and disvovered our outreach program. Our community director, Sharon, was able to not only find a school district that would take all three children, but was able to move out of the abusive household and into the community shelter, where Chantal quickly became one of the most highly regarded cooks in the kitchen, all for free–her collard greens and pot roast are a favorite among all the folks there.
I had never met the Morrises personally on the day of meeting, but I had heard their story and was glad to get the chance to meet them in person. Kyle was so energetic, spinning around in his wheelchair and talking a mile a minute to me about superheroes (I was wearing my ComicBookDebate shirt!), while Destani was your typical teenage girl–I was able to give her my extra copy of Angie Thomas’s THE HATE U GIVE, and she tore through it in days–and Ben was quiet, but very polite. I loaned the boys some old toys and clothes from when I was younger, and gave Destani a charger for her phone–when she didn’t have her nose in the book, it was staring at that screen. Chantal kept complimenting my smile and telling me how nice I was to spend time helping poor families, but I felt incomplete. I wanted to do something more for the kids. So I decided to take them up the street to the movies.
It was uncertain what we were going to see, but Kyle emphatically told me that he had seen the previews for Alita: Battle Angel and that he was “dying” to see it. The other kids were cool with it, and so was Chantal, so I bought them all tickets and used some of my rewards points to get them a large popcorn and two large drinks. We settled in to watch the movie and it was a magical experience. You could SEE Kyle’s eyes lighting up as he watched Alita kick ass and take names, unapologetically navigating the world. At one point, I even saw him wiping his eyes, like he was fighting back tears.
Once the movie was finished, Chantal was talking to the kids about it–everyone had loved it, even her–and Ben and Destani were gushing about their favorite moments. But Kyle was unusually quiet. I bent over and asked him what was wrong, and he looked up at me, smiling, and said, “It was just really good. It was so good. I didn’t know it was gonna be that good.”
Chantal and I asked Kyle what he had enjoyed about the movie so much on our way back to the shelter, and he began to get emotional recounting the moment that had made him have an epiphany about himself: a moment where [SPOILER ALERT] in the third act, Alita gets an upgraded body to go and compete in the games of motorball–a body much more suited to her natural fighting ability. Kyle told us that he “really liked that part because she didn’t have a body, no arms, no legs, no nothing, and she was still beating them up like it wasn’t nothing”. I saw the emphatic glow in his eyes when he said that he wished he had a robot body too, and I realized what was happening.
Disabled characters in fiction are extremely rare, especially disabled superheroes. Apart from Cyborg in Justice League–a movie Kyle thought was okay, but was ultimately disappointed by (tell me about it, kid!), Kyle had never seen any characters in film, black or white, male or female, that had been dramatically damaged, their bodies disabled seemingly beyond repair, and been able to find new life using cybernetic parts. And, watching a movie about a cyborg girl who is able to find willpower and strength to survive, despite her body dysmorphia, was extremely powerful to Kyle. He couldn’t stop smiling the entire rest of the time I was there, and he brought up the movie so much that Chantal jokingly told him to “stop talking about that movie, damn!” When she asked if he wanted to see it again, he said yes without hesitation, and I promised I would try my hardest to get him back to the theater.
There is no better case than Kyle’s, that I’ve seen, of why representation is so important. Underrepresented communities deserve to see themselves on the big screen. At the end of the day, no matter how you spin it, media and pop culture shape our society, the discussions we have with one another, and the way that we treat each other–our interactions, our trains of thought, and even, sometimes, our politics. Thanks to films like Alita, or Black Panther or books like The Hate U Give, people who have never been the hero of their own story have finally been given the chance to shine. And with Kyle, whether he’s kicking ass with a cybernetic body or kicking ass in the real world from the comfort of his chair, Alita has taught him that loving himself, and his disability, is the best way he can live.
So in the most eloquent words of Kyle’s the entire night: “Robots are dope!”
They are, Kyle. They truly are.