American Gods has only aired two episodes, but one of the show’s most crucial scenes has already taken place.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the second episode of American Gods.]
Like the pilot, the most recent episode of American Gods begins with a prologue of sorts. Gone are the vikings who viciously slaughtered one another in the name of appeasing the gods. In their place stands Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), a mischievous god who can take on the shape of specific animals. The shapeshifter, dressed in an ostentatious plaid suit and bowler hat, feels out place on his current grim backdrop: a ship full of kidnapped African men on their way to be sold as slaves in America.
As they plead for their lives, asking the god to remove the chains around their wrists and save them from death, Mr. Nancy tells them the trials and tribulations that face their families. He forewarns them of the rape and murder their families will endure under white men. Mr. Nancy paints a detailed picture of the horrors facing black men, women and children, leading the abductees to choose suicide and the death of their captors over making the journey to America. It can be seen in part below.
It’s a scene that ends in destruction, but there’s an empowerment to Mr. Nancy’s speech. There’s an optimism found within the darkest of despairs that they ultimately control their own destinies. More importantly — and much more relevant to the day and age we live in — there’s a desire to fight and have their voices be heard.
The scene is one of the show’s best and is a perfect example of how American Gods showrunner Bryan Fuller will stick to the overall theme of the book without making a shot-for-shot remake. Mr. Nancy’s introductory scene in the show is much different from the character readers are presented with. Unlike the grand, captivating performance viewers of the show receive, Mr. Nancy is simply a man that Shadow happens upon in a pizzeria. His character is described as a“kind of little old man who looked as if the passing of the years had shrunk him, eating an enormous, many-scooped ice-cream sundae, drinking a supersized mug of coffee.” His character became memorable, but his introduction wasn’t.
Fuller and co-showrunner Michael Green wanted to ensure that Mr. Nancy was remembered from the moment he stepped on screen. Orlando Jones told Vanity Fair that when he was preparing for the scene, it was in the middle of unrest in the United States and around the world. The black community was facing several instances of police brutality and in Toronto, where the show was being filmed, Black Lives Matter was in the middle of an intense stand-off with local police.
Jones said the scene, which was already powerful in its own right, took on a new life for the actor who was watching members of Toronto’s black community fight against injustices they were facing in their own city.
In that speech, Mr. Nancy says the only choice you can make if you don't want [the future of the black American] to happen is to let anger allow you to get things done. I really thought what a tricky way to do it. I mean, he really appeals to their emotional points of view very much like a cult leader does and then he gets them to burn themselves alive on that ship.
It still has to be done in a way that’s charismatic enough to get your “followers” to do the bidding. That to me felt very much in keeping with what we were seeing at rallies where these things were being said to people: “We’re gonna build a wall. Muslim Americans are the enemies. This woman is a liar. She can’t possibly be your president.” It seemed like people were being led down a path to where they’re burning themselves alive. That was on my mind when we were shooting that scene.
It’s an issue close to Green and Fuller’s hearts, Jones told the Los Angeles Times. The actor said that the producers wanted to ensure they used their time to ensure they were able to get their message across to audiences for an hour every week — and weren’t afraid of going to uncomfortable places to make that happen.
“[Executive producers] Michael Green and Bryan Fuller and Neil Gaiman are very deeply affected by the conditions one is often forced to live in and how blind people are to the stripping away of rights,” Jones said. “There's something beautiful about storytellers that have something that they want to say and aren't afraid to say it.”
Jones added that having scenes like the Mr. Nancy introduction can be difficult for people on either side of the coin to understand. White people, the actor added, are never going to understand the racism black Americans encounter.
Black people don't know what white privilege is. We've never experienced it before and white people don't know what racism is. They've never experienced it before. It always feels like two sides are yelling at each other. What's most daunting to me is that I love racists because I don't know anybody that doesn't have somebody in their family that's homophobic or racist or falls into some sort of -ism or some negative.
I don't know anybody who wants that person to be killed, murdered or hurt, because we know that person from a different point of view. I know people who loved me and raised me and took care of me and nurtured me and the fact that they may not like these [white people] is based on their experience and the oppression they've felt with them. I mean, you can call it racism, discriminatory, prejudice. I choose to call it discriminatory or prejudice because racism, you truly have to be in power to be a racist. A person who has no power really can't be racist.
As the series goes on, it will deal with other types of racism and prejudice affecting other minority groups. Jones’ remains the most poignant and powerful, but each scene Fuller and Green use to talk about race and the issues facing different communities is just as important as the last.
American Gods airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.