Cosplay is an enigma to me. The act of dressing up as one’s favorite character to an almost identical degree shows a mastery of craft-making, make-up, and acting that is rarely discussed in other mediums. Being a fan of a show or a character is no longer a passive experience when you cosplay, it becomes an active response to the work that inspires you.
So it isn’t a surprise to see people who feel ostracized in general society because of their interests to find the confidence to shine as their favorite character. So what are black cosplayers to do when a part of that very community doesn’t like their cosplay because of the color of their skin? Shades of Cosplay aims to answer that question in its most genuine way, compassion.
It can feel a bit hard to pin down what the documentary is trying to weave together at first. Cheyenne Ewulu, the director, steadies the foundation of the film by highlighting four very talented and different black cosplayers. Each with their own view of what cosplay means to them but also their own work ethic on how they create their work. JK Cosplay describes his take making a character from Soul Caliber named Nightmare’s sword. As he discusses his path to making the sword look old through the combination of material he used, you get a very strong sense of the dedication and time it takes to make these works of art. It is when each of the cosplayers Ewulu interviews in the film describe their experiences of racism when they have shared their work online that you find its through line.
Shades of Cosplay is first and foremost about the Black experience in cosplay. There is a joy I feel as I watch Firage Fox show off her Aqua, a character from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, describe her outfit and then see it on stage. Or the sheer surprise I felt watching Prince Mentality Cosplay explain her reasoning to creating #28daysofBlackCosplay that helped celebrate and elevate so many black cosplayers who were often ignored in the greater public. These accomplishments are well and good but they do not erase the amount of racism and bigotry that these four cosplayers faced when just dressing up like their favorite character. This constant questioning of their cosplay isn’t something that is just happening to them but is often the norm for any one who is not white or Asian in cosplay. The moments of discussion each interview has when it comes their issues they have dealt with for just being black in the space echo much of the experience black people deal with in society. That I also deal with.
So when the film takes time to show moments of the Shades of Color Panel at AnimeMatsuri 2015, it marked a highlight for me in the hope of change for more acceptance in the cosplay community. People were talking about their experiences. The film, its panel and cosplay itself is a conversation of sharing one’s view. Whether its their favorite character through costume and performance or speaking against the injustice one is dealing with in a community. These acts provide a space for others who relate to feel more comfortable in expressing themselves, me being one of them.
It was then when I realized the reason why cosplay is an enigma to me is because I’ve wanted to cosplay when I was younger, but I saw how black people were treated in the space and was never sure if I could handle that kind of response. Being in the space that is so heavily been home to me since I was a child and growing up to realize how ostracizing it can be made the barrier of entry even higher. Even now as I am in my thirties, I have learned to have more pride for the things I enjoy through my writing and thinkpieces but the world of cosplay has been something I still wouldn’t allow myself to be a part of. So when Shades of Color asks the question of why can’t we also be allowed to be here it made me question the very reason why I thought I couldn’t.
Maybe that’s the reason why this film is so impactful even today. This question of if we are allowed to be here is something no own should be asking themselves if they enjoy something. That cosplay comes in different colors just like all of your favorite characters do. Nerd culture is still in need of changes that is always a uphill battle, but the fact that this conversation is beginning to have more traction shows how much things have changed and just how many cosplayers of color there are. Will I be cosplaying as Captain America or Atem from Yu-Gi-Oh anytime soon? No, there’s still a pandemic and I still need to learn how to sew, but do I feel the confidence I could pull it off now? I really do.