What does Mr. Rogers have to do with the new “Terminator” reboot?

A graphic featuring Officer Clemmons, Gabriel Luna as Ghost Rider, and Mr. Rogers.

Photo credits: Fred Rogers Company/PBS, ABC. Illustration: Monique Jones

It’s been a while since I’ve been interested in The Terminator franchise. In fact, the last time I was remotely interested in it was when I was six years old, around the time Terminator 2 came out. I suppose at some point that year, it’d come to television after its round in the theater, and I remember my dad watching it. At the time, I thought anything my dad watched was cool. But now, after nearly 24 years, I’m eager to see what the newest Terminator reboot is going to do, all thanks to Gabriel Luna, who has been cast as our new Terminator.

Luna’s casting is exciting for two reasons. First, he made a big splash as Ghost Rider on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., quickly becoming a fan favorite and, I’d argue, giving the show it’s most engaging season yet, if fan reaction is anything to go by. Second, this is a role that is heavily progressive. I’m lauding the role for the same reasons racist haters will despise it–it’s a role that’s been handed to an actor of color instead of to another white lead.

I want to be clear: I don’t hate white leads. I don’t hate white people in general. I feel like that point always gets conveniently lost when people want to assume folks want “affirmative action” roles. Nothing about my or other’s hopes for POC actors entails us wanting handouts or special treatment. This is all about fairness. Is it fair that speaking roles for Latinx characters only equal 5.8 percent of the entertainment landscape, when Latinx actually represent 17.1 percent of the population? Nope. Is it fair that most of the roles for Latina actors are sexualized or otherwise objectifying? Not at all.

The opportunity Luna as the Terminator offers all of us is an increased ability to see people from different backgrounds not as “other,” but as someone we can identify with, learn from, and judge on their merits, not on their skintone, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Diverse casting allows us opportunities to increase our ability to empathize and sympathize with others who are different than us. Casting Luna might seem like it doesn’t matter or can’t make a difference. But, Grammy-winning singer and performer Francois Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhoodthought Fred Rogers’ idea of wading his feet alongside Officer Clemmons in a little plastic swimming pool wouldn’t make any difference. The iconic episode aired in 1968, during a time when black kids were getting bleach thrown on them for swimming in “white folks'” swimming pools. But that episode helped people more than Clemmons knew at the time.

“…I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood and in the real-world neighborhood, but I think I was proven wrong,” Clemmons said to NPR.

Luna’s role isn’t the only one that’s historic for the Terminator franchise (at least in my view): Natalia Reyes, who has become a Cannes darling this year (and also got her start in children’s television), was cast after a long search to find a Latina actress to play the “Sarah Connor”-esque role of Dani, a working class woman living in Mexico City with her brother, played by Diego Boneta. The fact that the story is being moved to Mexico City can give viewers yet another opportunity to grow beyond their unconscious or conscious biases.

Of course, at the end of the day, this new film must entertain, and I’m sure it will. But I just think it’s important to understand how our entertainment shapes us and how we can use entertainment to teach us more about our surroundings and our world. We can also use entertainment to reshape our minds about how we think about those who are underrepresented. Even a film like The Terminator can unassumingly teach us something we might need to know.

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