Part of the purpose of Black History Month is to look beyond our automatic assumptions and realize significant contributions to society by African-Americans that we may not have noticed before. And one of the key areas in which non-diverse assumptions can take root is the pop-culture sphere - growing up, it never occurred to me that the vast, vast majority of superheroes and action figures were white males, and therefore it was easy to see myself role-playing as them. When I'd play Super Powers with my younger cousin Ming, I could be Superman, Batman, Dr. Fate, whoever...and she would be Wonder Woman. Every time. Because that's all she could be, or so we thought as kids. Granted, that's a gender issue and not a racial one, but the racial one couldn't actually be a factor in this case, because Ming, as her name suggests, is half-Chinese, and there were no toys that represented that. It was one of the most exciting Christmases ever when she found out a Chinese Barbie existed.
The creators of our fictions are more sensitive to these kinds of issues now, in part because of political correctness but also because people will demonstrably buy characters - and support heroes - with whom they can identify more. It took a while, but racial hegemony is no longer a fait accompli in the toy aisles. Along the way, several excellent action figures have steered kids and collectors towards greater acceptance, and in honor of Black History Month as it concludes, it's time to salute the very best of them.
11. Willrow Hood (Hasbro)
The fans demanded that this obscure Empire Strikes Back extra, known for running with an ice-cream machine, get made into a toy. DEMANDED. We went from toy companies worrying that black figures wouldn't sell, to fans insisting a hopelessly minor black character get mass-produced, and then buying him.
The bent weapon on that particular figure is kinda sad, but if we know anything about the character, it's that he values the ice-cream machine more.
10. Roadblock (Hasbro)
Before he morphed into The Rock, Roadblock was both the biggest dude on the G.I. Joe team and the one with the most massive machine gun. More intimidating than the prior version, who wore a helmet and had to crouch down to fire his weapon, this iteration was shaven-headed and proud, and could pick up his gun like it was nothing and still adopt great battle poses. Plus we were told he's also a gourmet chef and speaks in rhyme. Yes, years before it became an appropriate catchphrase, we could metaphorically smellalalalala what the 'Block was cooking.
9. Django (NECA)
I know I criticized these toys a bit before they came out - I'm not partial to that retro-'70s style when modern techniques can do so much better. But who would have guessed that Django the toy would have become even harder to capture than Django the movie character? In spite of his heroics and righting of pre-Civil War wrongs onscreen, protests from the likes of Al Sharpton ensured that his run in stores was very limited, and that the price on his plastic head would go through the roof. Quentin, you Inglourious Basterd.
8. Voodoo Queen (McFarlane)
Okay, hold up. It's easy to look at this figure and dismiss it as a caricature, but that isn't the context in which it was presented or received. It used to be standard for McFarlane to feature at least one scantily clad female character in his horror lines, and she'd usually become the hardest to find, thanks to raging fanboy lust. Well, when your series is inspired by classic monsters, your options are limited, since the only one in the all-time pantheon is Bride of Frankenstein, and she's essentially a chopped-up zombie. So alongside reinterpreted classic creatures like a Mummy and Werewolf, Todd McFarlane made an all-new character, Voodoo Queen, who fulfilled the cheesecake and scare factors.
Now, we can have a different conversation about whether or not the scantily clad warrior-woman figure slot in every series was appropriate to begin with, but the fact that a racial switch made no difference to consumers was a sign of the times. Because she proved that fanboy boners knew no color, and was just as hard to find on shelves as the previous caucasian angels.
6. and 7. (tie) Shaft (McFarlane) and Mace Windu (Hasbro)
Hell, forget character names. Let's just call both of these "Samuel L. Jackson." In the case of Shaft, he looks nothing like the classic Richard Roudtree character, but he does look pretty much exactly like Nick Fury, and the one guy whose name I can't remember that was pissed off about motherfucking snakes (quick, without checking imdb - can YOU name his character in that film?). As for Star Wars, Jackson publicly asked to be involved in the movies, insisted on a lightsaber color nobody else had (his toy didn't catch up to that till later!), then became the first-ever prequel figure. That's badass.
5. Baracula (Heroes in Action)
Love or hate his policies (or like most sane people, fall somewhere in between), both his supporters and opponents will acknowledge that Barack Obama captured pop culture in a way that few presidents before him did, inspiring a slew of merchandising that included Alex Ross T-shirts and a multitude of toy collectibles. Baracula, which depicts him as a seductive vampire, struck me as the most progressive of the bunch for one simple reason: merchandise honoring the first black president is obvious, but merchandise that subjects him to the same degree of satire as any other chief executive? That's equality.