ByDavid Opie, writer at
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David Opie

When it was first announced that Andrés Muschietti's adaptation of IT would be rated R, fans of Stephen King's book were left floating higher than Betty Ripsom in the sewers of Derry, Maine. After all, IT ranks among the very best of King's work and much of that is down to the novel's adult themes. To filter the R-rated content would water down the essence of Pennywise and the chaos he brings — something which arguably happened once before in the TV adaptation of IT from the '90s.

Aside perhaps from the book's controversial sex scene, it's vital that Muschietti and his team embrace every aspect of the darkness explored in IT, shining their deadlights on the material in the most authentic way possible. The MPAA awarded IT an R-rating for "Violence/horror, bloody images, and for language," so it seems like fans won't be disappointed in this regard. After all, the trailers alone have already shown us Beverley's sink explode with blood and we've heard some potty-mouthed banter from the likes of Richie Tozier too.

However, what we don't know yet is how the movie will handle the racist element that's so key to the language used in Stephen King's book. The N-word alone appears a shocking 102 times — and that doesn't count all of the other colorful, yet vile racial slurs that are hurled at Mike Hanlon in and under the streets of Derry.

How Is Racism Portrayed In Stephen King's Book?

IT [Credit: New Line Cinema]
IT [Credit: New Line Cinema]

The individual traumas that each member of the Losers' Club faces will undoubtedly be depicted through their confrontations with Pennywise, although the extent to which they will be explored remains unclear. In particular, director Andrés Muschietti hasn't spoken out about the racial abuse that the African-American character Mike Hanlon endures — at least, as far as we're aware. Anyone who's read Stephen King's magnum opus knows that this deplorable form of discrimination is rife throughout the book, due to both the '50s setting seen in the flashbacks and the overall evil that's infected the town of Derry.

Evil is the foundation that Derry stands upon, worming its way into even the most innocuous of townsfolk, but there's something particularly disarming about the way that racism floats through many of the book's passages. It's unsurprising that Pennywise uses the N-word as a weapon against Mike as he attempts to wear down his resolve, but the Dancing Clown isn't the only character who hurls such vitriol toward Hanlon.

The Bowers gang are cruel by their very nature, yet the bulk of their actions are ultimately driven by racist lessons passed down to Henry Bowers from his father, continuing their family's feud with the Hanlon clan. Sure, these bullies also like to pick on other members of the Losers' Club too, but it's the moment where Henry poisons Mike's dog and watches it die when things really take off.

The events of this chapter escalate after Henry chases Mike into the Barrens, culminating in the apocalyptic rock fight that bonds the Losers in a way that not even the fight against Pennywise has managed to up to that point. When Henry reaches adulthood, the Dancing Clown encourages him to seek revenge by settling his score with Mike, manipulating him through his prejudiced beliefs. The most tragic thing of all though is that these existed in the boy long before Pennywise rose from its slumber.

It would be easy to dismiss the racist tendencies of Derry's townsfolk as something caused by Pennywise, but King implies throughout that such evil was present all along. In fact, one could argue that the racial violence exhibited by the the town's residents is cyclical in nature; Pennywise feeds off rage and bigotry, which strengthens him enough to perpetuate such evil actions further. After all, Pennywise may have been present during the racially motivated burning at the Black Spot, but one could argue he was there to simply observe the KKK and their actions, rather than directly cause them to act.

Even "nice," everyday characters appear to be intrinsically racist toward the likes of Hanlon and his family, including Eddie Kaspbrak's mother:

"You never told me that one of your 'friends' was a n****r."

Despite using this derogatory language with such ease, Sonia Kaspbrak is quick to deny the true nature of her racist thoughts, claiming that she has nothing against "n****rs" eating at white lunch counters or riding in the same parts of the bus. Where her true colors shine through though is in her Bird Theory, which sums up the character's ignorance in one abhorrent paragraph:

"Blackbirds flew with other blackbirds, not with the robins. Crackles roosted with grackles; they did not mix in with the bluebirds or the nightingales. To each his own was her motto."

While racist acts of violence run rampant in IT, the internalized prejudice that characters like Mrs. Kaspbrak hides within her are arguably even more scary, silently contributing to the claustrophobic cloud of oppression that hangs low above the town of Derry. It's one thing to hear a male nurse hurl racist abuse at Mike down the phone, but it's another to know that it's even present in those who wish to keep their discriminatory attitudes secret.

Unfortunately, even characters who are intrinsically "good" still contribute to this atmosphere without even realizing it. Fellow Loser Richie Tozier is particularly guilty of this, freely using what he refers to as his "N****r Jim Voice," even when he's speaking to Mike:

"Lawks-a-mussy, it's be Haystack Calhoun!' Richie screamed. 'Don't fall on me, Mistuh Haystack, suh!"

Sure, such dialogue is undoubtedly a product of the era to a degree. After all, the childhood sections of IT are set in the '50s, long before the Civil Rights Movement began to create real changes in the way that white Americans viewed their black kinsmen. However, the book itself was published some time later in 1986, which raises some uncomfortable questions regarding the prolific use of racist language in IT.

Why Is Racism So Prevalent In Stephen King's Work?

IT [Credit: New Line Cinema]
IT [Credit: New Line Cinema]

It's impossible to deny that racism plays a key role in Stephen King's vast bibliography, extending far beyond the treatment of Mike Hanlon in IT. Naturally, this has led to some heated discussion concerning the author's own personal views on the topic.

Aside from Rich Tozier, a boy who may not know better due to growing up in the '50s, the majority of characters who use racist slurs are often portrayed as ignorant or even disgusting, suffering the consequences of their narrow-minded beliefs. In this sense, it can be argued that King uses this kind of language as a tool to make unlikeable characters even more detestable. Such an approach leaves the reader feeling remarkably uncomfortable; much like the murder and rape that pervades his work, racist language is also embedded in books like IT to create unease.

In comparison, King regularly strives to portray people of color as strong and heroic characters. Susannah Dean from The Dark Tower saga is integral to Stephen King's signature series and Jerome from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy is arguably far more capable than the lead, Bill Hodges. More than anyone else, Mike Hanlon is also vital to the story of IT. Without him, the Losers' Club would have never reunited and Pennywise would never have been killed once and for all. However, such portrayals aren't always as ideal as they sound.

Writer Nnedi Okorafor argued in an issue of Strange Horizons that many of Stephen King's novels rely on a racial stereotype known as the Magical Negro. Here, she described how these characters exist solely to help rescue the protagonists from trouble, rather than possess any agency of their own. The Green Mile, The Stand, The Shining... each of these iconic Stephen King stories features one of these "Magical Negroes" dispensing advice to the white protagonists, changing their lives for the better somehow.

Whether you agree or not, there's certainly an argument to be had that such characterization limits the portrayal of black characters unfavorably in King's work. There are also those who still object to the author's use of racial conflict as a tool to engender hatred for particular characters, even when people of color don't feature prominently in the story. Whatever the intent though, it's not always easy to read words like n****r so frequently in books such as IT, particularly if these are words that have been used against you personally in real life too.

Will Andrés Muschietti's Movie Explore The Racial Tension Found In The Book?

Given that the rock fight already features heavily in the promotional material for the IT movie, we imagine that Henry's racist motivation for hunting Mike down will be depicted to a point, but it's difficult to say whether this will be explored to the same extent as the novel.

The upcoming movie adaptation shifts forward from the '50s to the '80s, which suggests that racism could be less prevalent in the film. Of course, racial tension was still rife in the '80s and even now, but fewer bigots admitted their prejudice so openly in this later time frame — or one would hope, anyhow.

There's also the matter of the film's length to consider. While it's been confirmed that the first of two IT movies will run for over two hours, that's still a relatively short amount of time to explore all of the intricacies of the novel. It's far more likely that racism will be touched upon without becoming the focus and that the offensive language graded by the MPAA will revolve more around the curse words shared amongst the teenage Losers' Club. Hollywood movies rarely explore racial tension in any hard-hitting way, afraid that they may deter wider audiences.

Saying that though, director Andrés Muschietti did tell Variety that the R-rating allows him to adapt King's novel more freely, explaining that:

"I don’t feel that we held back in any aspect."

If that's true, then let's just hope that the racial elements of 's book are handled sensitively in the film's final cut. Instead of pretending that this doesn't exist, acknowledgement of these themes could elevate to something even greater, inducing an uneasy sense of self-recognition in audiences who sit on the less tolerant end of the scale. Racism is more prevalent than ever in the news today, representing a larger evil than could ever hope to be.

The Losers' Club were brave enough to face the Ancient Eater of Worlds, so we hope that the film itself will be brave enough to tackle this real-life evil too.

Do you think that the IT movie should tackle issues of race head on? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

(Source: Collider, Strange Horizons Variety)


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