It: An Outsider Among Outsiders
Written Review by David Carter
To be honest up front, I don’t know much about Stephen King. I don’t mean that in a nonchalant or flippant way, I just mean that my familiarity with his work is strictly from a cinematic standpoint. Even then I’ve really only mostly seen the good things based on his works or some of the movies he’s written. I know some basic trivia and I know enough context from pop cultural osmosis to get jokes about Stephen King (overwriting, phoned in premises, cocaine addiction, everything is set in Maine, abuse at the hands of less understanding generation of adults, broad characterizations of blue-collar people and minorities), but to put it simply I have never read one of his books*. So any criticisms I have about It are mainly drawing from two places: The 1990 T.V. mini-series directed by Tommy Lee Wallace and Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of the novel of the same name. This is to say that I can really only judge It on its own merits. I don’t know what has been left out or changed from the novel. What I can talk about is what I thought the film was lacking, and I don’t mean in it’s direction or writing (those certainly added to the problem) but with its characterization. Specifically, one character who’s given the shortest shrift of characters given a pretty short shrift.
In the town of Derry, Maine things are dangerously strange. In the late 80’s kids start going missing in droves and the adults in charge seem to turn a blind eye while stacking up missing children fliers on top of each other and making curfews 7:00 pm as a kind of empty gesture for care and safety. One kid, in particular, goes missing. Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott). Younger brother to the stutter afflicted Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher). Georgie goes to play with a paper boat going down the rain-swept streets of Derry when the boat plunges into a gutter. In this gutter lies a clown. Now I can wax poetic about a description of this clown, but I feel like if a clown waiting in a gutter for a child doesn’t chill you to the bone already then please come and protect me on those cold scary nights. The clown (named Pennywise and played by the littlest Skarsgård, Bill) offers Georgie his boat back if he comes to play with him down in the sewers where everyone floats. Georgie is hesitant and just wants the boat his brother made for him back and reaches out to grab it. He’s chomped and pulled into the sewer as an adult looks on in denial or complacency about what she’s seeing through the vale of rain.
Flash forward to a year later and many more kids are missing, it’s now the end of the school year. Bill still believes Georgie is just missing and pours his time into looking at blueprints of the sewer system and piecing together clues. His friends, Eddie the sick kid (relative newcomer Jack Dylan Grazer), Richie the wise-ass motormouth(Stranger Things alum Finn Wolfhard), and Stanley the Jewish kid (Wyatt Oleff, probably best known for his role as young Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy) quietly feel otherwise. They want to support Bill, but their biggest concerns are Bar Mitzvahs, escaping psycho-bully Henry Bowers, and just enjoying the summer. In the same school, just around the corner, are other kids who want to escape into the relative peace of summer as well. Beverly Marsh (standout Sophia Lillis) wants to get away from the slander and drama that comes with being a teenage girl, even though what she’s escaping to at home is a hellscape of sexual abuse. Ben Hanscom (loveable Jeremy Ray-Taylor) is the chubby new kid in school and want’s to be left to a summer of digging through books in the library.
And way out on the outskirts is Mike Hanlon. Played by Chosen Jacobs. The black kid.
Mike is homeschooled. Mike is an orphan due to losing his parents in a fire. Mike is doing the best he can with coping with that loss while helping his grandfather run his butcher’s shop. And unless I missed some extra’s strolling around in the background, Mike is the only black kid in Derry.
I point this out because as the movie progresses all these other outsiders band together against this creepy clown that seems to be behind Georgie and maybe every child abduction in Derry the past year. They’re each fleshed out or at least interesting to watch.
Except for Mike, who’s given nothing to do and is an afterthought.
This isn’t Chosen Jacobs fault either. He’s doing what he can with an underwritten part and you can tell the kid’s got physical presence. No, the problem comes from director Andy Muschietti missing something that was right in front of him: Mike is the biggest loser and outsider of them all simply by being a black kid in an all white town. Mike’s entire character and arch should be the conceit of the entire movie. He’s largely abused by Henry Bowers and his goons simply for being black. Even within the unity of the “Losers Club”, he’s an outsider. Every other character has some sort of significant relationship to each other, be it growing up together or romantic. All of them are connected to something. Mike doesn’t get the opportunity to make these relationships. As a matter of fact, it almost seems like he’s included in the group only because of his connection to the clown.
The movie does Mike dirty by not either leaning into and highlighting that exclusionary atmosphere hanging over him (maybe have an arch about the other kids getting to know Mike as a person and not a color) or going the other direction and giving him something to do while fleshing out his abuse by society as a compliment to the other kids who suffer very real abuse at the hands of adults. It makes no sense to me why Mike isn’t paired off with Ben considering they’re both unknowns to most of the kids anyway and both would have some predilection or experience with self-education (Ben being a bookworm, Mike being homeschooled), and probably seek some sort of companionship. Instead, Mike just to gets to show up in some scenes and occasionally contribute to moving the story along.
The underwriting of one character does not a bad movie make, but that character holds an unused key to deepening the subtext (which in this movie is closer to actual text) and relationships formed between the characters who fundamentally want and need kinship to survive within the dangerous world they live in. Failing to use that key just communicates to me that some perspective was lost to the creatives of this film. The perspective of the black girl or boy sitting in the theater just being told once again that even when you’re surrounded by other outcasts, you’ll still be an afterthought.
*I started reading The Stand shortly before seeing It but, I don’t think the 400 or so pages I’m into the book really qualifies me to speak to any of Stephen King’s strengths, shortcomings, or tendencies.