Being a black Power Ranger
New actor RJ Cyler joins the elite and small club of black superheroes
RJ Cyler is the new Blue Power Ranger. Not the Black one.
Well, he is the black one. But his costume is blue.
He was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. “Duval County,” Cyler said emphatically of the big port city. He spent most of his adolescence dancing, skating and playing a lot of video games. A DJ since he was 16, Cyler also played drums for and sang in his church choir. Though he admitted he can’t sing all that well. “I think,” he said, “they were only doing it because they felt like that was the Christian thing to do.” He also grew up watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, favoring the Red and the Blue Rangers because those were his favorite colors. “I’m not,” said Cyler, “a confused gang member or nothing like that.”
What is he? A part of a growing list of young black male actors breaking out in Hollywood — John Boyega (Star Wars), Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), Corey Hawkins (24: Legacy) and Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta). He also joins the ranks of Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as blacks starring in big-budget superhero franchises that gross billions of dollars.
For Cyler, that’s Power Rangers (Lionsgate), a 21st-century reimagining of the original series that debuted on Fox Children’s Network in 1993 and aired each weekday afternoon and on Saturday mornings. The show’s initial characters, Zack, the Black Ranger; Billy, the Blue Ranger; Trini, the Yellow Ranger; Kimberly, the Pink Ranger; and Jason, the Red Ranger, will all be returning.
During the height of the show’s popularity, if any of those original five cast members even went out in public for dinner, dozens of fans would line up for an autograph, sometimes ignoring other arguably more famous stars at the same restaurant. The Power Rangers would regularly outdraw Santa Claus at shopping malls. The Los Angeles Times once referred to Rangers mania as “the pre-adolescents’ equivalent of the Beatles.”
That impact lives on: Lil Wayne named a track from his 2012 mixtape Dedication 4, “Green Ranger,” referring to the show’s most popular character. Professional wrestler Austin Watson, who performs in WWE as Xavier Woods, has long incorporated Power Rangers into his character, even starring as the Black Ranger in a fan fiction YouTube series.
Last Halloween, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving dressed up as a milly-rocking Red Ranger. And in 2015, famed film director Joseph Kahn released a critically acclaimed fan film that envisioned the Power Rangers as dark, brooding mercenaries, a la Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. There’s also the someone’s-drunk-uncle-on-the-highway Blue Ranger who took over the internet last year.
When they’ve met the Power Rangers, even grown men have cried.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was created in 1993 by former music producer Haim Saban. The Godzilla-like, low-budget series about five teenagers being given intergalactic and prehistoric superpowers quickly became one of the most successful children’s television shows of the 1990s. Saban, who also produced the highly successful animated X-Men series, had his Power Rangers idea rejected by almost every major network before Fox greenlit the show in the summer of 1993.
Then-Fox Children’s Network president Margaret Loesch, who was responsible for putting the show on the network, was told by the head of Fox Broadcasting to shelve the project before it even aired because it would be a “disaster.” But within months of the show’s September 1993 premiere, it was the highest-rated children’s show in America.
The most recent season of Power Rangers averages a respectable 1.5 million viewers a week, but during its first and second seasons, the show averaged 4.8 million and 6.9 million viewers a day, respectively. During its peak, five martial-arts-practicing teenagers were regularly battling the likes of Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake and Maury Povich. And at one point, Power Rangers was drawing more TV households than Oprah Winfrey. With a mixture of cartoonlike explosions and monsters, plus teenage superheroes whom the targeted audience could relate to and aspire to be, Power Rangers unearthed the secret formula to capturing the attention of candy-riddled children.
While the show’s strongest viewership was among boys age 8-11 racing home from school to watch each episode, it was No. 1 among 2- to 11-year-olds, scoring a whopping 40 share within a month of its premiere episode. Alongside Bobby’s World, Tiny Toon Adventures, X-Men, Batman: The Animated Series and Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?, Power Rangers made the now-defunct Fox Kids the most-watched channel for children’s programming in the early 1990s. A children’s research executive estimated at the time that 26 million kids were watching Fox programming in 1994, not including the millions of children watching across 40-plus other countries.
The show spawned two movies — 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie and 1997’s Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie. They grossed more than $70 million combined. And according to the Los Angeles Times, 1 million videocassettes of the series were sold over a two-week span in December 1993. Power Rangers was the No. 1 boys brand in the world from 1993-97, responsible for more than $5 billion in product sales for Saban and his production company. Saban Entertainment made an estimated $1 billion in U.S. sales based off Rangers paraphernalia within its first 15 months alone, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Fox executives estimated that the total rose to $2 billion when including worldwide sales.
Tall, wiry and as baby-faced as a high school freshman, Cyler, 22, has played a teenager on numerous occasions, including in the new Power Rangers. An admitted “weirdo” who will rock a bucket hat and taco-adorned dress shirt one day and a gold grill and tie-dye T-shirt the next, he’s also a fan of Star Wars, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, and considers the Isley Brothers his favorite musical act of all time.
Growing up, he was the water boy for his middle school’s basketball team. “It was because,” he said, “I wasn’t good enough to be on the basketball team.” At Jacksonville’s Englewood High School (which boasts such distinguished alumni as the Washington Nationals’ Daniel Murphy and Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst), he was named sophomore class president. “I was definitely Theater-Band Geek/Straight-Up Boss Subgroup C [in high school],” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2015.
Cyler knew he wanted to be an actor at 16. “I used to watch the Disney Channel,” he said, “like it was a drug.” He needed to be in a career that allowed him to express his creativity, and when he heard a commercial about an acting camp in Los Angeles, he went, excelled, and the next thing he knew he had a one-way ticket out of Jacksonville, which he compared to a war battlefield. “If I wouldn’t have moved out of Jacksonville when I did, nine times out of 10 I would be in jail or dead, and that’s not just being a stereotypical thing, it’s just in my city, it’s not a place where you can just be like, ‘Oh, yeah, do this, do that.’ No, people die in my city every single day.”
In 2013, the family totally committed to his dream when his parents cashed in their retirement savings so the then-17-year-old and his mom could move to Los Angeles. After about a year of just him and his mother Katina living on the West Coast, Cyler’s “papa,” Ronald, sold the family’s home in Jacksonville and drove to California to join them. But shortly after Ronald arrived, life, said Cyler, “kicked me in my nuts.” For three months, the family was homeless. They lived out of their Toyota Highlander and at a Motel 6. The family’s faith kept them whole. “If God brought us to this place, [there was] a reason for it, so we can’t question that,” said Cyler. “We just got to remember that we gon’ make it through.”
The family got back on its feet after Cyler nabbed a role in the award-winning indie teen drama, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. “I lost my mind,” said Cyler said about booking the movie. “I just screamed … at the end of the day, God is too damn good.”
Which makes Cyler a busy man these days. HBO’s raunchy comedy Vice Principals premiered last summer, and the second and final season is set to air this year. In it, he plays the foul-mouthed teenage son of no-nonsense character Dr. Belinda Brown. The series premiere of the Jim Carrey-produced Showtime sitcom I’m Dying Up Here debuts in June — Cyler co-stars. And he will star alongside Brad Pitt in Netflix’s Afghanistan war satire War Machine in May. In December 2016, it was reported that Cyler will star in a “modern retelling” of Cyrano de Bergerac called Sierra Burgess Is A Loser.
That busy schedule leaves no time even for a girlfriend. “Oh, hell, no. My last — oh, Jesus Christ! My last relationship showed me why I just need to chill.” Although, now that he is more visible than ever, he has a twinkle in his eye for singer and former Disney star Zendaya. “Ever since she’s been on TV, she’s always had a really cool, cute vibe. And now that she’s growing up, she’s just bossy lady-ing it up. That vibe is like 10 times worse, and I’m like, ‘Yassssss, queen, yasssss.’ ” Zendaya, though, can’t hold a candle to actress and country music star Reba McEntire. “Reba is one fine country woman to me.”
Cyler, like many, was excited to hear about Power Rangers coming back to theaters, and about a year after the studio’s announcement, he was asked to audition. In the middle of filming War Machine, Cyler sent in his audition tape. He was soon offered the part by director Dean Israelite. “I lost my mind,” said Cyler. “I was like, ‘Hell, yeah! I’m in.’ ”
In the nearly 25-year history of Power Rangers, there have been more than 100 actors and actresses who’ve donned the show’s patented multicolored spandex suits and helmets. Of that total, 16 are black, though there was no shortage of representation on-screen. David Yost, who starred on the series from 1993-96, came out as gay in 2010. And one of the biggest headlines to emerge in the run-up to the new film is that there’s a gay character in Power Rangers: “the first big-budget superhero movie to feature an LGBT protagonist.” From the show’s inception there was a concerted effort “to avoid racial and sexual stereotyping,” Loesch, the former Fox executive, told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. (An African-American playing the Black Ranger and a Vietnamese-American playing the Yellow Ranger on the original show, though, was a coincidence.) “For a change, female characters are as vital as the males. They’re superheroes, and little girls don’t have that too often,” Loesch added.
The women performed their own stunts and went toe-to-toe with their male counterparts, leading to young girls to make up more than 40 percent of the show’s audience after its first season. The TV show appealed to a diverse audience, and dodging stereotypes in the new film, Ludi Lin, who is Asian, is a shirtless male hunk who also raps. “The fact that it was a diverse cast,” said Walter Jones, the original Black Ranger, Zack Taylor, “it gave everybody a possibility of being that hero.”
Per Adilifu Nama’s 2011 Super Black American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, other than Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the Batman television series (1967), Avery Brooks in A Man Called Hawk (1989) and Carl Lumbly in M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-95), there was little to no representation of African-Americans as superheroic. While the 1990s was a golden age of black television — The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin and Living Single, and more — it did lack black characters, such as a Superman or Batman, saving the world. Black comic book heroes such as Luke Cage, Falcon and Green Lantern premiered in the 1960s and 1970s, but the Black Ranger, as a part of the culture-defining television series, became the default hero for black kids growing up in the 1990s.
Blacks have donned every costume color on the show. In 2015, then-21-year-old Camille Hyde became the first black actress to play the Pink Ranger. Every season has a character who plays the leader role — normally the Red Ranger — and black characters have held that position three times — Jessica Jones and Empire actor Eka Darville starred as the Red Ranger in 2009. Though none has been a black woman.
Walter Emanuel Jones heard about an audition for a new kids superhero show between auditions for Star Search. Jones was trying to break into show business as an actor, singer and dancer, and Saban Entertainment was looking for a suave, hip individual who could do two of the three for its upcoming children’s show. For the Detroit native, this was an opportunity to showcase his various talents, overcome a rough childhood in the Motor City, and play a black crime fighter. Jones, a former college roommate of Jamie Foxx, beat out thousands of others to play Zack Taylor on the first season of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
With his signature hairstyles — the hi-top fade, and later on, twists — as well as smooth dance moves and unmitigated swagger (he once dapped up the show’s robotic sidekick, Alpha 5), Jones embodied early-’90s hip-hop music, style and fashion. He even created his own form of martial arts called Hip Hop Kido — the only character in the history of the show to do so — which mixed b-boy breakdancing and Jackie Chan-inspired tae kwon do.
Jones, when he went home to Detroit, saw firsthand the effect his casting had on little boys and girls across the country. “Listen, I grew up here,” he would tell students at his former schools. “I grew up in a single-family household with a mom who couldn’t always pay the bills … I didn’t know what my direction was going to be right away, but I found an opportunity and I took advantage of it, and I’m able to succeed. If I can do it, you can do it.”
He remembers one incident during the show’s pilot episode in which he was told to constantly say, in a stereotypical fashion,“What’s up?” when entering a scene. “They wanted me to say [it] like 25 times: What’s up, what’s up … whazzup, whazzup, what’s up, what’s up. This whole crazy thing, and I was like, ‘Can I not say what’s up that many times? It’s a bit excessive.’ ”
Jones left the show at the height of its popularity in November 1994 over contractual issues, but unlike most former Power Rangers actors, he has carved out a nearly 30-year career, working as both a film and voice actor. “I’m proof that kids from underprivileged areas have what it takes to achieve whatever they want,” Jones told PR Newswire in 1994. “If they put their minds to it.”
The 16 actors who’ve taken on these roles — not including two who had recurring roles during seasons two and three — have unfairly been tasked with representing the millions of young black kids who’ve watched Power Rangers over the past two decades. Some readily accept that duty, recognizing the importance of black faces on television, while others are more colorblind, focusing on the broader impact the show has had on all young children.
John Mark Loudermilk, who was a part of the 2013-14 “Megaforce” seasons, and identifies as “Hispanic plus white slash half black,” was the franchise’s most recent black male character. As a child he gravitated to the Black Ranger, and once on the show, referred to himself as the “brown Billy,” in reference to the original white character. The 25-year-old, who was adopted by white parents when he was 2 weeks old, has never paid much to attention race. “Being the token brown guy, if you will, I never really thought about that,” said Loudermilk. “I don’t really look at people as a color. I see people for who they are in their heart.”
Keith Robinson, who appeared on the show in 2000 as part of “Lightspeed Rescue,” didn’t watch the show as a teenager, but once he moved to Los Angeles, he took an acting class and the first role he read for was one on Power Rangers. He played comic relief Joel Rawlings, who also happened to be a cowboy. “It was unique that they did make him a black cowboy,” he said. “Which was [something] you … see hardly ever on TV.”
Robinson, who’s since appeared in 2006’s Dreamgirls and 2007’s This Christmas, filled a void simply by existing. Representation, he realized, matters, even on a campy show about fighting poorly contrived monsters like the Pineoctopus. “You see a lot of young black boys who say, ‘Hey, there’s somebody who looks like me. I can be a superhero. and be positive.’ ”
Karan Ashley was the first black woman to play a Power Ranger, appearing in seasons 2 and 3 as Yellow Ranger Aisha Campbell. She also starred in the franchise’s first feature-length film, 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. Ashley was once in the all-girl singing group Krush, who appeared on the soundtrack for 1992’s Mo’ Money. She’s also had guest roles on Kenan and Kel, The Steve Harvey Show and One on One.
“I loved my character, obviously. I was the Black girl,” Ashley told the Los Angeles Sentinel in 2015. “They let me get braids — they let me be the Black girl. For me, it was such an important thing to be a positive role model for young Black girls because I felt like we had never had that on TV, especially that young.”
Nakia Burrise replaced Ashley in 1996 to become the show’s second black female character, spending two seasons playing Tanya Sloan, the Yellow Ranger. Like Ashley, Burrise also starred in a movie — 1997’s Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.
The California native studied theater at UCLA, alongside former Grey’s Anatomy actor Cress Williams, and was cast in the fourth season of Power Rangers during her junior year. After leaving the show in 1997, Burrise has since appeared on Smart Guy, Moesha and various television commercials.
And she, too, directly saw the impact of her face being transmitted to millions of little black kids every day. “Power Rangers gave children and adults alike the feeling that you can do anything. ‘Oh, my gosh, I see someone on television that looks just like me and is saving the world.’ It gave them the opportunity to look up to someone.” Aside from representation for African-Americans, Burrise said, the show was also meaningful for the millions of impressionable youths tuning in as well. “There were a lot of elements to the show that really helped with bullying, self-image, making right choices in life,” she said.
“People come up to [me] all the time,” said Burrisse, “and tell me how Power Rangers or my character saved their life.”
The character Billy Cranston was the nerdy, awkward outcast of show who was always picked on by bullies, and was normally the butt of everyone’s jokes. Unlike the other well-trained members of the Power Rangers group, Billy didn’t originally know any martial arts, and was less undaunted when it came to facing raspy-voiced antagonist Rita Repulsa and her gang of Putty Patrollers. Despite those limitations, Billy was the most intelligent citizen of fictitious Angel Grove, California, most notably creating the group’s wrist communicators — the precursor to wearable technology like the Apple Watch.
Yost was nowhere near as intelligent as his character. “The writers would write these ridiculous lines with all these big words, and I had no idea what my character was saying, so I’d have to go into my dressing room and break out the dictionary.” And, as is the case for many bespectacled youths navigating adolescence, no child wanted to be the Blue Ranger. “Sorry, but our 8-year-old a—s really weren’t down with the one mega geek on the squad,” Black Nerd Problems’ Ja-Quan Greene wrote last year. But that all may change with a black man taking over.
Like Jones before him, Cyler brings a coolness to his character that was perhaps absent with Yost. The new Billy has traits of the old — dresses like a high school science teacher, gets picked on a lot — but he also brings in bits of Cyler. From his deadpan humor (“That’s a strong a– hologram”) to his facial reactions, all the way to his fresh shape-up, Cyler could make kids want to be the black Power Ranger, even while wearing blue. “I think he’s going to be a little bit more humorous than my Billy was, maybe,” Yost joked. The character is also on the spectrum in the new movie.
But for Cyler, color — whether referring to race or the hue of his costume — never crossed his mind when considering the movie. Heading into the audition process, he knew would be reading for the part of the Blue Ranger, believing that Billy’s persona — quirky and geeky — matched up perfectly with his. “This just sounds like me when I was 13.”
During casting, there were no ethnicities designated for any of the starring roles, so he wasn’t limited to just going out for the Black Ranger because of who played the part almost 25 years ago. “Power Rangers had no business being something that was looked at as, ‘Oh, they’re doing this for racial reasons.’ It’s literally a kids movie, it’s a show. Shut up. God, Everything isn’t about race,” he said. “It’s just annoying when people read into stuff too much. It’s just like, ‘Oh, crap, there’s no way in hell that the black dude could be the smart dude?’ You guys are serious right now? It’s the dumbest s— I’ve ever heard of.”
Ever since nabbing the part, Cyler has been asked by just about everyone why he isn’t playing the Black Ranger. For those who grew up on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, nostalgia won’t allow them to accept a Zack who isn’t black, a Kimberly who isn’t a Valley Girl in distress or a Billy without blond hair and glasses. As much as the world evolves and demographics change and societal norms are broken, humans are still creatures of the past, comfortable only when things stay the same. But for Cyler, the young man who broke into Hollywood just two years ago, and whose future is as bright as the metallic armor he wears, the answer is rather simple for him.
“Bro … I’m a Power Ranger, period.”