Well, that escalated quickly.
Last Friday, Apollo Crews hit the ring on SmackDown to explain his attack on Big E the week before. He was decked out in some snazzy new gear, and explained the colors represented his heritage. Crews was embracing his regal Nigerian roots. The “real African-American” was going to conquer E and take the Intercontinental title.
It was a really strong promo, and gave Apollo an actual character beyond “happy to be here guy who is good at wrestling” for the first time in his WWE career.
As they are wont to do, on SmackDown last night (Mar. 5), WWE grabbed the controller and cranked the volume on Crews’ new gimmick.
The real African-American came to the ring carrying a spear, and flanked by two men in camouflage he would introduce as his “Nigerian elite guard”. Unlike the week before when Crews only spoke in an accent when impersonating his grandfather, this time Apollo’s entire promo was delivered that way.
It’s a lot to take in.
It has certainly gotten a response from what WWE likes to call its Universe. Or, I guess I should say responses. Because feedback online ranges from allegations of racism, to excitement for representation, to jokes about Vince McMahon finally seeing Black Panther, and everywhere in between.
The debate figures to be intense, too. Unlike arguing about something like whether The Fiend is a good or bad gimmick, the conversation about Crews involves issues that we’re struggling with in all areas of our society. In particular race, and who can or should be declaring something offensive.
If you find Apollo’s presentation troubling, do you get upset when Drew McIntyre wears a kilt? How is Crews’ accent different from when Lana channeled her Russian heritage the same way?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, and I think my own answers will depend on how the character is used moving forward. I will say that WWE isn’t going to get the benefit of my doubts for very long. That’s both because of their history with Black performers and with “Evil Foreigner” schtick, and because of the lack of subtlety with which they rolled out the new Apollo.
It would be great to see someone talking about their experience being other-ed by Americans who isn’t a villain (just on the current roster, Crews joins Mustafa Ali as heel characters with this motivation). But maybe someone who doesn’t act like a warlord, or “rioter”, wouldn’t have garnered this kind of response? Does that make it okay if Crews or Ali were told they had to play a bad guy looking to get revenge for being discriminated against in order to get a storyline?
Apollo Crews is on our screens, getting a chance to flex new performance muscles. He’ll continue what’s been an entertaining feud with Big E, and an intriguing side storyline with Paul Heyman (Roman Reigns’ special counsel again heaped praise on Apollo on today’s Talking Smack). Some fans are excited to see their culture depicted on WWE television for the first time.
Those are all good things. We’ll see where it goes from there. And everyone will have to decide for themselves how they feel about it.
For WWE, they set out to get people talking. At least over the last 24 hours, they’ve succeeded.