What Black Superhero Drama Supacell Gets Right About Sickle Cell Disease

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Minor spoilers ahead. Over the past few years, Black British TV has become renowned for its bold storytelling and nuanced portrayal of Black British lives, as seen in shows like I May Destroy You, Boarders, and more recently Queenie.  Released June 27, Netflix’s Supacell, created by British rapper, film director and screenwriter Rapman, stands out for its innovative use of the superhero fiction genre to tell a compelling and propulsive story centred around sickle cell disease, a condition that disproportionately affects Black people. Starring Tosin Cole as Michael, a London-based delivery driver, Supacell sees his life unravel as he discovers he has a life changing superpower. And he’s not alone; across South London five other Black people confront their newfound abilities from telekinesis to invisibility while navigating the daily stresses of their everyday lives. As it is quickly understood that the powers that connect the fledgling superheroes are born from a connection to sickle cell disease, Supacell serves as a reminder that while entertainment serves as an escape, it also has the power to prompt meaningful reflection on society and address important issues, including those prevalent in the Black community.
While it shares similarities with modern superhero series like NBC’s Heroes or Channel 4’s Misfits, what separates Supacell from its predecessors is that the show depicts real Black people with real Black problems. The series sees a South London in crisis, and the heroes find their powers amidst gang wars, stabbings and missing Black children bringing new meaning to Marvel’s time-old phrase “with great power comes great responsibility.”
The series opens with a Black woman’s body being dragged down a hallway after she is shot while trying to escape from a secure facility. It’s later revealed that the individuals in the facility are being used for experiments, drawing a haunting parallel to the historical exploitation of Black bodies for scientific purposes. It brings to mind the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who in 1951 had her cervical cells taken without her knowledge or consent while undergoing cancer treatment, leading to the creation of the HeLa cell line — the only human cell line able to reproduce indefinitely. By blending science fiction with aspects of Black history, Supacell allows space to acknowledge real-life tragedies like these, meanwhile creating a whole new world where we find power even in hardship.
Rapman's decision to tell this story within the science fiction genre is a significant creative choice. Historically, Black stories have been ostracised from science fiction despite the genre being a space for writers to critique society, particularly issues around ‘othering’. Science fiction’s reluctance to directly address race or gender has led to the emergence of Afrofuturism, the intersection of science fiction, Black history, technology and culture. There have been more mainstream explorations of Black science fiction in recent decades, including the TV adaptation of trailblazing sci-fi author Octavia E. Butler’s 1970s novel Kindred and films like They Cloned Tyrone and Jordan Peele’s Nope, but the genre is still overwhelmingly white. Rapman's choice to tell the story of Supacell within this genre is a deliberate and powerful statement, further demonstrating that in science fiction, Black people have to write their own stories to have them heard.
Aside from the characters’ extraordinary abilities, one of the most powerful aspects of Supacell's storytelling is its use of sickle cell to give Black people powers while managing not to trivialise the challenges of living with sickle cell. Early on in the series, the viewer is introduced to Michael’s mum who is living with sickle cell disease and we are confronted with the painful reality that many sufferers face when she goes through a crisis. It's a poignant scene and feels like a watershed moment for sickle cell awareness.
Sickle cell disease is a lifelong blood disorder inherited genetically due to unusually shaped red blood cells (the show’s title is a reference to these cells). The misshapen blood cells struggle to carry oxygen around the body, leading to a shortened lifespan of healthy blood cells and potentially the blockage of blood vessels. This condition commonly affects individuals of African or Caribbean descent. Approximately 17,000 people live in England with sickle cell disease, with 250 new cases reported annually. As of 2021, reports indicate that there are 7.74 million people worldwide living with the disease.
Despite being a prevalent condition worldwide, sickle cell is rarely mentioned in mainstream media, let alone entertainment. Outside of documentaries, it’s tough to name examples of sickle cell being explored. There have been a few portrayals, such as Rose’s gene therapy journey in season four of The Resident and Dr Stephanie Edwards’ storyline on Grey's Anatomy, which explored the trauma accompanying her experience of being on a sickle cell clinical trial when she was five. Call the Midwife also portrayed the disease in season 8, leading to a 46% increase in new donor registrations at during the same hour the previous day, highlighting the positive impact of featuring sickle cell in shows even if they are few and far between. 
In an interview with Complex, Rapman said, “When I started writing this, hardly any people in Supacell knew what it was. Bare people didn’t know what sickle cell was—some of the people at Netflix, the cast—and I was like: “This is mad!”
It is mad. As Supacell drives awareness for the disease, it has brought necessary attention to the people and lives it can drastically and, sadly, fatally impact. For Netflix, social media influencer Sayo Talabi spoke to Rapman about how her life has been impacted by sickle cell, telling the director that she has “lost two sisters” to the disease and how her little sister currently “lives with sickle cell.” Sayo also shared that she does not have the disease or the trait. “In our world, you would have the supacell,” Rapman explains. “I never understood why there was a disease that predominantly affected us,” he added. “So, I wanted to do something that empowers Black people and something that sheds light on sickle cell."

Supacell turns the pain, frustration and isolation of living with sickle cell disease into something in which extraordinary strength and power can manifest.

Supacell parallels how Amazon Prime’s Gen V reimagined medical and social conditions as superpowers to give a different perspective. Supacell depicts individuals' powers being activated through their eyes, similar to how the eyes of a sickle cell person can turn yellow, a common symptom when they are ill or about to have a crisis. Given sickle cell is an inherited disease, the series cleverly uses this to explain how individuals get their powers. As Ray (Eddie Marsan), one of the mysterious villains seemingly operating the underground testing facility explains in the series:  “At least one of your parents had sickle cell, or they both had the trait. And supacell is a mutation of sickle cell. It’s very rare, and even if you have it, it can lay dormant in your body forever. But it can also awaken, given the right conditions. Close proximity with another activated supacell is most common.” 
With its stellar cast, Supacell expertly demonstrates that possessing superpowers does not automatically translate to being a hero. From Tazer’s (Josh Tedeku) rapid and terrifying descent into a life of crime to Andre’s (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) struggles to provide for his son in a system that fails to rehabilitate ex-offenders, each hero is flawed and well, very, human — and having powers doesn’t absolve the characters from the hardships of modern life.
The series carries strong political messaging throughout the show, notably how white people in positions of power and systemic racism were suppressing Black people from their healing powers. This echoes the situation in the UK, where treatment for sickle cell disease can be inaccessible to many Black people, often contributing to their pain. Early in the series, Michael’s mum is informed about a new treatment centre that can reduce the blood transfusion process by half. It's pointed out that the centre's “priority is for patients not to be in pain for a second longer than they need to be.” When Michael's mum visits the centre, her main concern isn't if the centre will help her but the fact “it’s way too expensive”, highlighting the financial burden on sickle cell patients who are essentially forced to pay for treatment that profits from their pain, instead of being able to rely on national healthcare.
Supacell turns the pain, frustration and isolation of living with sickle cell disease into something in which extraordinary strength and power can manifest. While Supacell may not represent an everyday experience of sickle cell disease, its delicate portrayal of sickle cell in the Black community demonstrates the show's wider purpose beyond entertainment. Its purpose is to shine a spotlight on a community that is traditionally ignored. 
Supacell is available to stream now on Netflix

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