There are a handful of updates in Lionsgate's new Power Rangers reboot that speak to Haim Saban's original mission of telling a story about the power and strength that comes from diverse groups of people working together.
In this telling of the Rangers' origins, Trini, the Yellow Ranger, is a queer woman and it's heavily implied that Tommy Oliver, the Green Ranger who eventually becomes the leader of the team, is likely to be reimagined as a woman in the upcoming sequel. While there's much to be said about Power Rangers managing to be the sort of progressive, ethnically inclusive superhero movie that Marvel and Warner Bros. seem incapable of making, it's worth noting the film's important, subtle message about people of color living with autism.
Early on in the film, when the kids are still getting to know one another, Billy, the Blue Ranger (portrayed by RJ Cyler) explains to Jason, the Red Ranger (Dacre Montgomery), that many of his personality quirks are a result of his being on the autism spectrum. Billy's being autistic gels fairly well with other elements of his character that are holdovers from the original Power Rangers TV show—he's the team's resident nerd who makes up for what he lacks in social grace by being insightful and clever. But the fact that this Billy is black and autistic is significant for a number of reasons.
Pop culture plays a vital role in helping to spread awareness about autism, but when you look at how people on the spectrum are portrayed in most film and television, it's difficult not to notice how infrequently non-white people are depicted with the disorder.
Oftentimes when we talk about the difficulties that people with autism face, we fail to acknowledge the unique challenges it can pose for black and brown people. In an interview with NPR last February, Jackie Pilgrim, a North Carolina-based Asperger's advocate, made the very important point that, in certain situations, some behaviors related to being on the spectrum, like difficulty communicating, can lead to problems for minorities—particularly when dealing with law enforcement.
"[I]f an officer stops a young man who is on the spectrum and he asks the man—asks the young man a question and the young man doesn't answer right away—and so of course, the police officer asks again, maybe two or three times. He's getting agitated," Pilgrim said. "The young man gets a little agitated, and then he yells an answer. Immediately, that could, you know, prove to be something detrimental."
Pilgrim's concerns most immediately bring to mind the 2016 shooting of Charles Kinsey, the black therapist who was wounded by Miami police while trying to bring an autistic patient back to his group home. While Kinsey himself is not autistic, the officers who shot him admitted that they intended to shoot his patient, who is Latino, after wrongfully assuming that the man was armed with a weapon.
Pilgrim, who is black and on the spectrum herself, was also careful to note that in some cases, people go years without proper treatment or even being diagnosed with autism because people think of autism as a "white person's disease."
"I think there's not enough representation," Pilgrim said. "You know, most of the time when you see something on autism, you see mostly white people."
Much in the same way that depictions of LGBTQ people have historically been overwhelmingly white, there aren't nearly enough autistic people of color in mainstream pop culture. In a small, meaningful way, Power Rangers tackles that issue head-on not just by having Billy identify as autistic, but by also showing that his friends and family understand and accept him as he is.