‘The LeBrons’ and a Discourse of Blackness

January 13, 2024
6 mins read

SCRIPTING KING JAMESBy David J. LeonardSunday, April 17, 2011.Before the initial episode of LeBron James’ new web show – The LeBrons
– begins viewers get a clear glimpse of the show’s purpose:
advertizing. However, it isn’t the typical web commercial but one that
has a character from the show – Biz LeBron – using the newest HP tablet
from to coordinate his fashion style. The efforts to blur the line
between commercials and the show itself are revealing. This would of
course not be the only instance of product placement. Within this short
almost seven minute web show, NIKE, whose commercial, The LeBrons
, is the basis for the show, is visible, as are Dr. Dres’ Beat
headphones, interesting given that the show is suppose to be about
LeBron’s childhood.More
centrally, the show is selling LeBron, a “brand” that has certainly
faced criticism in recent months. By focusing on a young man growing up
in Akron, the show not only tries to reestablish his roots in Ohio, but
to humanize LeBron by highlighting his background, where he came from
and the trials and tribulations he faced growing up before stardom.
This is made clear in the show’s catchy opening theme song :You
see the lights, the fame, you see the bling, but you should meet LeBron
before he came king. Yeah, this is a story kind like then; my little
homie kid growing up in Akron, trying to be an athlete. W e can all
witness, hoping he can grow up right, handle business. Gotta show love
to his friends and fam, world on his back, like an old man. ‘cause if
you think he’s just a ball player, you got it wrong, player. For real.
Life isn’t fun and games. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, LeBron
James. It ain’t easy . . . .Promising
viewers a behind-the-scenes narrative of a less than glamorous
childhood, The LeBrons works to reconstruct LeBron – through Kid LeBron
– as a normal, average, kid working hard to live the American Dream.
While imagining LeBron as 4 distinct personalities, the primary vehicle
for moral lessons and engagement is Kid LeBron.Yet,
the show isn’t a crass infomercial for LeBron and his corporate
sponsors. It is a commercial with a narrative and a lot of moral
lessons (isn’t this true of all commercial popular culture). The
initial show – “ The Lion ” – in fact begins with James asking viewers (with a nod to Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids),
“Ever heard the saying two wrongs don’t make a right.” Providing
pedagogical context for both the episode and the show itself, we
initially meet Kid LeBron and his neighborhood friend as they ride
their bikes, only to be chased by a vicious pit bull owned by Ray
and fearful of this blood thirty dog, the kids enlist the help from Biz
LeBron. Athlete LeBron who is seen shooting baskets cannot be bothered
to protect the boys because he is too focused on perfecting his game.
Biz, describing the dog as a “gangsta,” a “punk” and a “thug,” leaving
me to wonder if this dog represents not a Cleveland Cavaliers ticket
holder as one blogger postulated,
but a criminal element threatening an otherwise tranquil community. The
use of racialized and racializing terms are revealing in this instance.
To describe a dog as “thug” and a “gansta” plays on accepted racial
language of black criminality. It reflects a process that not only
contributes to “black social death” but “is characterized by the
seemingly instantaneous social alienation of a delineated category of
racially pathologized people” (D. Rodriguez, 2007, p. 134, from “The
meaning of ‘disaster’ under the dominance of white life” in What lies beneath: Katrina, race, and the state of the nation ).To
combat the gangsta/thug threat, Biz gets a lion from the pet store to
protect Kid and the other innocence within the community. Lion
confronts the dog (we see the Lion in what appears to be an
interrogation room), protecting the kids from future harm. Yet, Kid
expresses discomfort upon learning from Wise LeBron that Lion (a
natural predator) will likely kill the dog. He and his friend wonder if
this is just as wrong as the dog inflicting violence on the kids in the
neighborhood: “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Whether a message about
gang violence, war, or a jab at Dan Gilbert
(the Cavs owner who infamously publicly denounced LeBron for “taking
his talents to South Beach”), it forms the crux of the moral message in
the show about turning the other cheek and doing what is right
irrespective of the behavior of others. Sandwiched in between
advertizing, it encompasses the purported agenda behind the show: “to show youths of all ages how to be a good person.”More subtlety, The LeBrons,
with its deployment of 4 distinct identities – Wise LeBron, Kid LeBron,
Biz LeBron, and Athlete LeBron – attempts to challenge the hegemonic
process that reduces and flattens black identity. In introducing the
show, LeBron notes
“It goes back to the four characters who I feel like I am on a
day-to-day basis.” It represents LeBron as encompassing multiple
identities in an attempt to elucidate the diversity of blackness and
challenge what constitutes an authentic black identity. Greg Tate
encapsulates the context here:Perhaps
the supreme irony of black American existence is how broadly black
people debate the question of cultural identity among themselves while
getting branded as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the
complexity and complexion of a community, let alone a nation. If
Afro-Americans have never settled for the racist reductions imposed
upon them – from chattel slaves to cinematic stereotype to sociological
myth – it’s because the black collective conscious not only knew better
but also knew more than enough ethnic diversity to subsume these
fictions” (Quoted in R.D.G. Kelley, “Looking for the ‘real’ nigga: Social scientists construct the ghetto,” 2005, p. 119).At
a certain level, the representations available stand in dialog with a
hegemonic paradigm of racial authenticity, which as argued by John L.
Jackson in Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity
functions as a “restrictive script” that “limit[s]” an “individual’s
social options” (2005, p. 13). At another level, the narrative choice
to construct LeBron as four distinct identities constitutes a certain
level of fragmentation, whereupon individual identities are
compartmentalized and treated in isolation. Imagining Athlete LeBron
apart from Biz and Wise LeBron reifies hegemonic stereotypes about
blackness by maintaining the binary between intelligence and
athleticism. More importantly, it undermines his own humanity by
erasing his complexity and assigning individual identities to
individual bodies.Like
Nike’s commercial, the 2011 web show is hyper commercial. Like its
predecessor, it gives viewers a lot to think about in terms of black
identity, commodified and otherwise. “The Nike series shows the LeBrons
in a characteristically “black” behavior from signifying stories, or
‘baldheaded lies’ as they’re called, at the dinner table, to macking in
the mirror, to dancing to Rick James’s “Superfreak,” including the
requisite performance of the robot by the older LeBron brother,” writes
Lisa Guerrero from Leonard and King’s Criminalized and Commodified
. “It represents LeBron as not only “hardwood maestro”; he’s also
funny, entertaining, and can dance well; the unstated implication
being, ‘just like all black people.’” Yet, “He remains ‘safe’ because
he exists in an immovable racialized space created by the public and
the market culture that manages racial panics by locating blackness in
confined performative geographies like athletics and entertainment, in
other words, in a world of blackness that is understandable because it
is the one that exists in the national imagination.”While
challenging hegemonic ideas, LeBron, as child, as moral, as just an
average kid, reifies dominant ideas about a pathological underclass as
well. He is imagined as the same – like many idealized white suburban
kids, he once played in the neighborhood, dreamed of a better life, and
worked hard as he in spite of moral challenges to make it. Yet, he is
also different from both a white normative ideal, as a fragmented,
hyper-black body, and the pathological black other, represented by the
pit bull.The Lebrons
thus highlights how new media technologies provide modern black
athletes (among others) tools to define their own image and message,
partially apart from those “restrictive script” yet bound by the
dominant discourse and accepted images. In the coming episodes it will
be interesting to see how the show further deals with the complexities
and dialects that exist between those restrictive stereotypes and the
freedom afforded by this space.***With thanks to New Black Man.David
J. Leonard is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative
Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman. His next book
(SUNY Press) is on the NBA after the November 2004 brawl during a
Pacers-Pistons game at the The Palace of Auburn Hills He has written on
sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both
popular and academic mediums.

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