It begins on a slave ship, in the cramped, fire-lit hull where stolen men sit chained by the hundreds. One man, face beaded with sweat and desperation, cries out to African spider god Anansi, the trickster: “These strange men have tied my hands,” he quivers. “…Help me from this place and I will sing to you all my life.”
The god appears, anachronistically dapper in a fresh-pressed purple suit and fedora. He laughs. Anansi, or Mr. Nancy as he’s called in America—one of the old-world mythological gods competing for worship in the fantastical universe of Starz’s American Gods—agrees to help. But first, he tells a story.
“Once upon a time, a man got fucked,” he begins. “Now how is that for a story? ‘Cause that the story of black people in America.”
He grins impishly at the men’s blank expressions, then remembers: “Shit!” he says. “You all don’t know you black yet. You think you just people. Let me be the first to tell you that you are all black. The moment these Dutch motherfuckers set foot here and decided that they white and you all get to be black—and that’s the nice name they call you? Let me paint a picture of what’s waiting for you on the shore…”
He stalks the room cavalierly, describing the life that awaits his believers in America. “You all get to be slaves,” he says. “Split up, sold off and worked to death. The lucky ones get Sunday off to sleep, fuck and make more slaves, and all for what? For cotton. Indigo. For a fucking purple shirt.”
There is a silver lining, he says: “The tobacco your grandkids are gonna farm for free is gonna give a shitload of these white motherfuckers cancer.”
Abject terror starts to fill the room. Mr. Nancy sneers. “And I ain’t even started yet,” he says. “A hundred years later, you’re fucked. A hundred years after that? Fucked. A hundred years after you get free, you still getting fucked on the job and shot at by police.” He points his finger like a gun and pulls an invisible trigger. “You are staring down the barrel of 300 years of subjugation, racist bullshit, and heart disease.”
The man who prayed to Anansi begins heaving, furious. “Angry is good,” Mr. Nancy says, pleased. “Angry gets shit done.” He unveils a daring proposal for the men: exact revenge on their captors by burning the ship down, taking their own lives along with it.
Frantically, the men break free of their chains and set fire to the ship, trading their lives to watch their captors burn. A small, purple-hued spider, meanwhile, floats safely out to shore on a piece of driftwood.
And this, we learn, is the story of how the trickster Mr. Nancy came to America.
American Gods, Starz’s brutal, brilliant adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 fantasy novel, opens each episode with a vignette like Mr. Nancy’s, telling stories of the bloodshed and sacrifices made by immigrants from around the world when coming to America.
Of course, Mr. Nancy (played mesmerizingly by Sleepy Hollow star Orlando Jones) and the hundreds of thousands of Africans sold and transported to America over the course of 300 years were not immigrants. They were stolen; they did not come by choice. That’s an important distinction—one that swaths of America including public figures (ahem, Ben Carson) would still rather forget.
Mr. Nancy’s thundering speech, then, is an essential reminder: it paints a current-day portrait of slavery’s legacy for black America, explicitly linking it to everyday forms of oppression like poverty, racial profiling, and police brutality. It’s a call to remember the shameful parts of America’s past, and to understand their living impact today.
“We talk about and ultimately are exploring what the history of African Americans in this country has been,” says Jones, bedecked in a stylish, purple-hued suit to rival Mr. Nancy’s, on a rainy March morning in Austin, Texas.
He points to how oppression in America has continued to evolve, even in the last two years, with hate crimes on the rise, racist rhetoric interwoven in everyday politics, and the election of Donald Trump, a man whose attacks on the legitimacy of America’s first black president enabled his catastrophic rise to power.
“When we look at the elements of last year and this year,” Jones says, “and we look at the elements of human rights, we still are not at a place, even today, when modern slavery isn’t more popular than it ever was before.”
“It’s weird to hear people talk about oppression like it’s dead,” he adds, “when we find ourselves living in this context where it’s more alive than ever.”
Filming Mr. Nancy’s fiery speech as America neared its 2016 presidential primaries took on heightened significance for Jones, an Alabama native who’s been open about his own experiences with racial profiling.
“The Black Lives Matter movement was the front page story in Toronto the day we were shooting the scene,” he remembers. “It was all about Black Lives Matter—Black Lives Matter Toronto in particular, along with the police force in Toronto.”
Protests had broken out in cities across the U.S. over the killings of two unarmed black men by white police officers: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Toronto, where American Gods is filmed, had also taken to the streets to demand justice and accountability for a rash of police shootings.
“Suddenly the conversation of human rights as it relates to police violence and African Americans had not only moved from the U.S. to Canada,” says Jones, “but we were also standing on stage shooting Anansi entering through the Middle Passage on a slave ship. So Ferguson [where the Black Lives Matter movement was born] was in the conversation of everyone in the room.”
The national conversation around race in America has evolved further still in the time since the show wrapped last year and its premiere this past April, with Trump’s election, inauguration, and a rash of constitutionally-questionable executive orders rolled out in between. As Jones sums it up, “Resistance was not a hashtag at the time.”
“These themes have grown, they’ve taken different shapes,” he says. “As you watch it shift, you’re amazed but also excited as an artist to be a part of something that speaks so poignantly to those elements in a way that is about bringing us together, not tearing us apart.”
The show draws commonalities between all Americans, that is, by insisting that everyone— even white Americans—once came from somewhere else. That’s no longer an uncontroversial position for a TV show to take, with the rise of white nationalism in politics and champions of xenophobia now sitting in the White House.
“When we first started talking about doing this [show] two and a half years ago, the immigrant stories were always the emotional foundation because everyone could get on board with immigrant stories,” says executive producer and co-showrunner Michael Green. “Now, representing immigrant stories has become a political act. And that’s fascinating in a very dark way.”
“We are living in a political climate where hate has been pushed out of many Americans and it’s what we see first before we see the color of their eyes,” laments co-creator Bryan Fuller. “And that is a great travesty that this administration has inflicted on the country.”
The ideas American Gods upholds—that almost every American is an immigrant; that racism and oppression live on today and must be confronted; that non-Christian faiths are essential to the fabric of America—resonate now more strongly than ever, both creators and Jones agree.
“People are entitled to their beliefs and faiths, whether you agree or disagree with them,” Jones says. “It’s that tricky human rights thing—we all get them.” In an America that often seems to lose sight of that, he says, “the fight is more vital than ever.”