It's not unusual in 2018 for comic book adaptations to be politically aware. But Freeform's Cloak & Dagger is tackling a pervasive issue from a different perspective. Tyrone's (Aubrey Joseph) ability to teleport and tap into a person’s mind to see their fears is otherworldly, but the effects of police violence, racism, and trauma that he deals with reflect real-life human experiences. These themes have been otherwise recently explored by Black hero characters like Luke Cage and the Black Lightning family, but Tyrone’s experience with police violence as a teen hero gives viewers a chance to see them through younger eyes.
His storyline balances the coming-of-age complexities for Black youth, as they deal with typical teenage issues like dating and sex along with the emotional ramifications of a world that frequently discriminates, harasses, and kills them simply because they exist. A 2016 research study by The Counter (as reported by The Guardian) found that Black boys and men aged 15-34 are nine times more likely to be killed by police officers than any other American demographic. Tyrone fits this category and has had multiple terrifying encounters with the police. His is an important viewpoint, because traumatic childhood experiences shape a person perception's of the world and provide a foundation for adulthood. Tyrone's decisions as a hero will be heavily impacted by his tragic past.
Tyrone recalls the memory of young men like, Antwon Rose Jr., an unarmed 17-year-old who was shot three times and killed by Officer Michael Rosfeld in Pittsburgh. According to USA Today, he was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped by the police because it matched the description of a car associated with a nearby shooting. Antwon fled the scene and was killed shortly after. His death was his worst nightmare, and he wrote a poem about hoping his mother would never have to bury him. The poem was featured AJ+ official's Twitter page along with photos of Rose.
CBS News reports that Rosfeld has been charged with criminal homicide, but time will tell if he is convicted of a crime. Tyrone's first encounter with the police mirrors Antwon's story, particularly with an unarmed kid dying after running from cops out of fear.
His distrust and fear of police was established in Cloak & Dagger’s premiere episode when Tyrone's big brother Billy (Marqus Clae) is murdered by a cop. At this time, they live in a disenfranchised New Orleans neighborhood and Tyrone idolizes his brother, even though Billy gets into petty trouble with his friends.
One night, Billy and his friends are seething over a man who didn't pay for a car radio install. Some of the crew want to take the radio but Billy insists on filing a police report. His friends scoff at this idea, indicating their negative, distrustful feelings about law enforcement.
Tyrone tries to insert himself into the conversation, but Billy tells him to go home. Ultimately, the teen boys don't think their story will prevail over the word of a white man who drove a Lexus. Their beliefs are likely based on negative relations between law enforcement and citizens in their working-class neighborhood.
This general distrust of law enforcement is generational and stems back to slavery times when police upheld laws that kept Black people enslaved for hundreds of years. An essay written by Victor E. Kappler, Ph.D, explores the history of policing against Black people.
The Eastern Kentucky University Associate Dean of the School of Social Justice argued that after slavery was abolished, the laws then hinged on segregation and racial bias that allowed lynch mobs to hang minorities (and their advocates) for virtually any supposed infraction with little to no legal repercussions. Anyone who stood against these atrocities and fought for black people's basic human rights could die.
Systemic racism has continued to allow injustices to occur with little to no consequences, even when the perpetrator is an authority figure who is supposed to neutrally protect all citizens. Because of this, generations of Black people have been raised to distrust law enforcement. And, there are current recent examples of Black people calling 911 for help and being mistreated or even killed by the cops.
ABC News reported the shooting of Quintonio LeGrier, who was killed in 2015 after calling 911 to request an officer, saying someone was ruining his life. The teen, who suffered from mental health issues, allegedly charged police with a baseball bat and was shot six times.
The report revealed that Quintonio's father also called 911 because his son was acting erratically, and that police also shot and killed Bettie Jones, his neighbor who opened the door for officers. Per USA Today, a jury determined that the officer who fired had acted "reasonably."
It's reasonable to assume that a similar tragedy could have occurred in Billy's neighborhood on Cloak & Dagger, which is why the young men are wary of calling law enforcement to retrieve their money.
Tyrone takes the radio and ends up running from the cops with Billy. The encounter leads to an unarmed Billy being shot by Officer Connors (J.D. Evermore) in front of Tyrone. The department lies about the incident to Tyrone's parents and shows them a surveillance video of Tyrone stealing to further discredit, victim-blame, and criminalize a child.
This tragic event marks a major turning point for Tyrone. It makes him feel powerless against authoritative figures. His brother’s reputation is also tarnished, and his parents come to believe that he was a thief and a liar. And, while this family mourns, Connors is free to continue his career.
Tyrone internalizes feelings of betrayal, anger, and frustration over the lack of justice for Billy’s death. He's a quiet person with no close relationships despite being a well-known student-athlete. He tells the school’s counselor and priest Father Delgado (Jamie Zevallos) that he suffers from insomnia and survivor's guilt. Tyrone says the person who caused his anger deserves punishment. Delgado tells him to get past this “cop story” and follow God's commands. No one acknowledges Tyrone's valid pain, which makes him feel alone.
The psychological effects of Tyrone’s police encounter are a result of “racial trauma” which, according to an article by psychology professor Eralnger A. Turner, Ph.D, is race-based traumatic stress. Tyrone witnessing a white cop killing his brother heightens the side effects of his racial trauma, including anxiety, low self-esteem, and irritability. Tyrone doesn’t use drugs or alcohol to manage his pain, but it is manifesting in his social interactions with others.
Dr. Waldo E. Johnson, Jr. also spoke about the effects of trauma and the social and racial bias against young Black men in America during a Chicago symposium, per the Pittsburgh Courier. Dr. Johnson claimed that the lack of safe spaces and their hyper-vigilance toward police is leading to depression. “Black boys are more depressed because they believe their physical safety is always being threatened,” said Johnson.
Tyrone experiences harassment and violence as one of few Black students at his school. At one point, he's beaten and locked in an equipment cage (a dehumanizing abuse tactic) by his white teammates because his late arrival to practice led to additional workouts. Tyrone's continued distrust of authority and need to avoid the “angry black person” stereotype cause him to stay silent.
His parents react to Billy's death by working hard to climb the socioeconomic ladder. They move into an upper-middle class neighborhood and enroll Tyrone in a religious private school. They also became fiercely protective over Tyrone to the point of smothering him in an attempt to over-correct their perceived "failure" with Billy.
When Tyrone's mom (Gloria Reuben) discovers that he skipped school one day, she questions him about his recent actions and “friends” from a party. He says everything is fine and admits to feeling a lot of pressure.
“I get it,” says Tyrone. “I miss him too. I’d do anything to get him back. What I feel is already enough weight. I don’t need yours too … You and Dad, it’s like you’re afraid if I don’t do everything just right, perfectly, that you’re gonna lose me.” His mom tears up and says she is afraid that even if he does everything right, she will lose him. It's a blatant rejection of respectability politics, aka behaving according to white social standards to "lessen" the chances of violence. She knows their lifestyle cannot protect her Black son from racism but she's trying to help.
She later tells him that she “keeps it together” through internalizing all of her anxiety and fear. It’s a vicious and dehumanizing approach tied to the pressure for Black women to stay strong in the midst of pain. Tyrone shares this exhausting coping mechanism with her and they often suffer through their smiles.
Her reaction reflects many Black parents who want to protect their kids from harm but also give them the space to grow. As a teenager, Tyrone will make typical teenage mistakes and push his limits, but his Blackness could get him into a disproportionate amount of trouble.
A recent research study by the American Psychological Association confirmed that Black boys are perceived to be older and less innocent than their white counterparts, from as early as age 10. In this study, their ages were overestimated by an average of about 4.5 years. This means Tyrone would be perceived as a man in his 20s even though he is still a teen whose maturing physically and mentally.
Tyrone’s underlying anger and emotional trauma manifest after the activation of his dark powers. He keeps subconsciously teleporting to Detective Connors' location, which sparks his rage and makes him vengeful. Tyrone can't decide if he should kill Connors or make him legally pay for Billy's death. In one scene, he tells his "divine partner" Tandy (Olivia Holt) that the legal route isn't an easy option because of his history with cops.
“I can’t walk into a police station," Tyrone says. "I watched one of them shoot my brother. On top of that I’m a young Black man in the South. They see me, they see a thug.” He comes up with a scheme to look for Connors inside the police headquarters but his anxiety causes him to flee.
Tyrone calls Tandy out about her white privilege, especially as a conventionally attractive young woman, saying she will never be questioned because of her looks. That sentiment can be understood by many young men who have seen countless peers become social media hashtags.
Unfortunately, children like Antwon Rose, Jr. and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by a cop while playing with a pellet gun in his neighborhood, per CNN, didn’t have superpowers to prevent their deaths. Trayvon Martin couldn't teleport away from what would be a fatal altercation. There is a long list of real-life cases featuring deceased Black boys who were only human.
Tyrone Johnson’s tears, anxiety, rage, and pure fear are a reflection of the difficult space that Black teenagers have been occupying for decades. It’s a grim reminder that no matter what he accomplishes as a superhero, he will always bear the weight and dangers of being Black in America.