Hero? Villain? Or asking the wrong question?

It took me about 6 months, but I finally finished the epic biography of Jim Henson that was published last year. It was quite a touching read, actually. I have long admired him as the creative force behind many of my most believed projects. I was going to say my most beloved childhood projects, but that would be a lie. I still adore The Dark Crystal, The Muppet Christmas Carol is the holy Christmas movie I watch without fail, and if you’ve ever met me you have probably gleaned something of my potentially unhealthy obsession with the cult sci-fi series Farscape (alright, so that one owes credit to Jim Henson’s son Brian, but still—it’s in the family). If you ever want a good cry, just watch this video of the Muppet performers at Jim Henson’s funeral after his tragic and unexpected death in 1990—this is a man who touched many people through his love, optimism and creativity.

Yet, I had never known the struggles Jim Henson had faced in his career. The failures as well as the successes. Though he was known as a loving father to his five children … turns out he was a bit of a serial philanderer. While the Muppet performers were something of a non-biological family, they could be torn by dysfunction and jealousy just like any other group.

The point is—the story of Jim Henson’s life, while inspiring, is also full of its own complexities. He was a creative genius who gave of himself to others, never satisfied with his most recent success. But he was also a flawed human being. His flaws did not make him a villain, nor did his virtues make him a saint. He was, like all of us, a mixed bag of a human being,

We don’t do well with complexity in this day of click-bait headlines and 144-character commentaries on current events. The human players in our contemporary narratives have to fall into very black and white categories. Sometimes such tendency toward over-simplification is relatively harmless. We have seen no end of love poured out on Robin Williams over the last ten days, not without reason. By all accounts, he seemed like a genuinely warm, loving man who tragically fell victim to the insidious lies depression can tell an unwell mind. I grew up as a huge fan of Mork & Mindy, moderately obsessed with Robin Williams (I was a really weird kid, and I think Williams’ Mork spoke to me). Certainly it is preferable to remember people as the best version of themselves. But we do something of a disservice to ourselves and to the member of individuals like Robin Williams when we fail to remember them, not as heroes, but as people with struggles and sins, vices and virtues just like the rest of us. Ultimately, it is a far richer and more meaningful tribute.

That said, our aversion to complexity can have a much more insidious outcome when we consider the events that transpired in the killing of Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Others have covered at length the epidemic of young, unarmed black men being gunned down by police officers in the US (as well as the troubling militarization of local police forces in the wake of the shooting–if you haven’t seen John Oliver’s latest, you need to).

I do, however, want to comment on the controversy surrounding the footage Ferguson police released of Mike Brown allegedly robbing a convenience store some moments before the accident (even though the officer in question had no knowledge Brown was a suspect). For many, the video puts in question the narrative from the left that Mike Brown was an innocent adolescent, about to head off to college with a promising future. Maybe he was just a thug who bears his own responsibility for his premature death? After all, we can’t say he was completely innocent, can we?

To certain people, the prevailing narrative seems to be … either Mike Brown was an innocent kid brutally gunned down, or he was a thug who got what was coming to him. What a crock!

Like all of us, Mike Brown was a human being. One known among his friends and family, I’m sure, for both his admirable and less attractive qualities. The more we get caught up in arguments—even well-meaning arguments—about whether he robbed a store moments before his death, whether he was a “good teen” or a “bad teen”, we allow ourselves to get distracted from the main point of the tragic events in Ferguson.

Mike Brown was a human being guilty of no crime that merited being gunned down in broad daylight in the middle of the street. That is one absolute we would do well to remember.

It may seem trite to link Mike Brown’s death–and our collective treatment of the deaths of so many young, unarmed, black men at the hands of those who should be there to “serve and protect” them–to the comparatively uncomplicated attitude towards the deaths of beloved entertainers. But they are all part of the same larger narrative. Our tendency not to see people as, people, but as archetypes. Indeed, Mike Brown and others like him had the right to be complicated, flawed human beings, just like the Jim Hensons and the Robin Williams of this world.


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