“I don’t think you can tell a story about the ‘60s in the south without dealing with issues about race.”
That's exactly what The Umbrella Academy does, using the backdrop of Dallas, Texas in 1963 to recreate a non-violent protest met with violent response that feels like it was written for our exact political moment. But over a crackly phone connection, showrunner Steve Blackman explains why the Netflix series' second season was always destined to collide with the civil rights movement of the sixties and Black Live Matter movement of today — even though it was written over a year ago.
“We knew we were doing something special about this time period,” Blackman tells Inverse. “It resonates because we all wish things had changed more since then. But we're realizing now that things haven't changed as much as they should have.”
Warning: There are spoilers for The Umbrella Academy up to Season 2 Episode 3 in this article. If you plan to watch the show, watch it first and save this article for later.
Based on a comic book series by Gerard Way (yes, that Gerard Way), the second volume of stories about a misfit family of adopted superheroes takes its characters back in time to Dallas, Texas in 1963 to make sure President Kennedy is assassinated. The comic doesn’t delve into the civil rights movement of that era, but Blackman and his writers decided to make it a core part of The Umbrella Academy Season 2.
However, the show set itself up to tackle civil rights before Season 1 when it cast Hamilton star Emmy Raver-Lampman as Allison Hargreeves, a member of the Umbrella Academy superhero team with supernatural powers of persuasion and the nickname The Rumor. In the comics, Allison is white, but as a Black woman, Raver-Lampman is thrust into the center of the movement when her character travels back in time at the start of Season 2.
“It was nerve-wracking to take that on,” Raver-Lampman tells Inverse, “but I was truly honored and wanted to do it correctly and be respectful. I took it as an opportunity to depict this moment in time and this struggle for millions and millions of people all over the world.”
“It’s a misconception that all Americans know a lot, if anything, about the civil rights movement.”
After suffering a gruesome neck injury in the Season 1 finale, Allison is dropped into 1960s Dallas without the ability to speak (neutralizing her power to control people’s actions with her words). The first door she walks through is a whites-only diner, and after she’s chased across town she winds up in a Black-owned barbershop where she’s taken in by a group of civil rights activists and eventually marries one of their leaders, Ray (Yusuf Gatewood).
More than a year later, Allison returns to that same diner, this time with a dozen other Black men and women to stage a sit-in, hoping to gain national media attention when President Kennedy arrives in town in a few days. Instead, they’re met with a violent response from the local cops and the diner’s white employees and patrons. The sit-in ends in mass arrests and police brutality against peaceful protesters, and the scene culminates in Allison using her powers for the first time in years to stop a police officer from beating her husband to death.
(When asked why Allison doesn't use her powers to simply wipe out racism in the '60s, Raver-Lampman replies that her character is worried about "the butterfly effect" and what such a drastic change in the past might inadvertently mean for her daughter back in 2019.)
It’s a powerful bit of television and one that may be triggering for some viewers. For Raver-Lampman, it’s also an opportunity to teach fans of The Umbrella Academy about a chapter of American history they may not be familiar with.
“It’s a misconception that all Americans know a lot, if anything, about the civil rights movement,” she says. “We are told very selective truths about the African American journey and the Black experience and its role in history in America. I think it’s unfortunate and such a disservice the lack of information that young people have in relation to their own history.”
The scene isn’t based on one particular sit-in, but Blackman calls it an “amalgamation” of a “tremendous amount of research into that time period.” Sit-in protests date back in 1939, but the movement took form in 1960 when four Black college students sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and refused to leave until they were served — and until the F. W. Woolworth Company retail chain desegregated completely.
“The struggle isn’t a struggle of decades and generations ago. It is a struggle of people who are still alive. Of our grandparents.”
In the following days, weeks, and months, the protest grew from four people to over a thousand before spreading to other southern cities across the United States. Counterprotesters, including the Ku Klux Klan, showed up too. The organizers said they were inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent protests, and the movement epitomized the concept of "good trouble" made famous by John Lewis, the civil rights leader and 17-term congressman who died on July 17, 2020.
Even though the Umbrella Academy scene was filmed many months before Lewis’ death and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was never any doubt that they were making something powerful.
“It was a very moving two days on set for everyone, the actors and the crew,” Blackman says. “It felt very real."
Raver-Lampman agrees that the scene always felt important, but has become even more crucial in the past few weeks. When I spoke to her it was just three days after John Lewis’ death, an event she called “unbelievable” and a powerful reminder that the civil rights movement isn’t ancient history. It’s barely history at all.
“The struggle isn't a struggle of decades and generations ago,” Raver-Lampman says. “It is a struggle of people who are still alive. Of our grandparents. Our parents were young adults, and this was going on. Ruby Bridges was the first Black child to integrate in school and she just turned 65.”
Alongside Allison’s story, Umbrella Academy Season 2 also explores what it meant to be queer in the south in 1963. Ellen Page’s character, Vanya, loses her memory and falls in love with the married mother of an autistic boy she’s hired to nanny.
“The other story that really resonates to me is the gay love story between Vanya and Sissy,” Blackman says. “I think that is another beautiful story. It was very difficult to be queer in ‘63 where you could be jailed and lose your children.”
Of course, Umbrella Academy isn’t the only show to mix superheroes and social justice issues. Watchmen earned critical praise — and a truckload of Emmy nominations — for its vivid portrayal of the Tulsa race massacre and the way racism infests police departments and the U.S. government to this day. And the X-Men have been doing it for years, sneaking civil rights stories into Saturday morning cartoons.
But for Raver-Lampman, the popularity of shows like The Umbrella Academy is just another chance to reach a new audience with an age-old message that’s as relevant as ever.
“The opportunity for representation under the umbrella — and sure, pun intended — of entertainment is you’re getting the fantastical and the superhero and the laughs and the jokes and the wild and the crazy. But you're also getting a window into very real struggles.”
The Umbrella Academy Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.