The Sharknado series began as a charmingly low-brow, tongue-in-cheek sendup of the disaster and killer animal movies you can catch on SyFy every weekend. It was initially innocuous, relatively low-key camp, but over time, the series has bought into its own viral appeal and now tries way too hard to one-up itself, begging for attention with self-consciously “wacky” moments and an endless stream of pop culture non sequiturs and appearances by D-list celebrities that amount to little more than “Hey, I exist!”
Because of the sheer number of cameos in the Sharknado films, there have been quite a few black characters in the series — granted, the only major one was Vivica Fox in part 2 — and while it’s expected that most of the characters in these movies are expendable, the way in which Sharknado 4 dismisses Gabrielle (Imani Hakim, of Everybody Hates Chris fame) feels particularly callous and emblematic of the cinematic attitude towards black female characters in general.
In the film, Gabrielle is the new bride of Matt Shepard (Cody Linley), hero Fin Shepard’s (Ian Ziering) catatonic — not literally; he’s just a crap actor — son. The two get hitched at a time when technology from the company Astro-X has ceased all tornadoes, sharks or otherwise. But wouldn’t you know it; just as they are taking the plunge (literally, as in jumping out of a plane), the first sharknado in five years forms right in middle of their nuptials.
For no apparent reason, the Astro-X technology suddenly isn’t as reliable as it was, and it’s up to the Shepards to save the day, disregarding all laws of nature, physics, safety and logic along the way. Gabrielle is initially welcomed as part of the clan and fights alongside the Shepards in the war against the sharks…until she gets chomped to death a little past halfway through the movie.
Based on the emphasis on family throughout the film (a running theme being Fin and April, played by the appropriately fish-faced Tara Reid, rebuilding their relationship and reconnecting with their youngest son Gil — yes, Fin and Gil), I waited for the scene of the Shepards mourning the death of their new in-law…and waited…and waited…and waited. What the Gil?!?
Aside from Matt yelling her name ONCE as she’s squashed by raining sharks, there’s NO MENTION of Gabrielle again. It’s like the entire family breathed a sigh of relief and vowed never to speak of Matt’s brief bout with jungle fever. Meanwhile, we sit through scene after scene of the Shepards declaring how great it is to be reunited with long-lost April so they can be a whole family again (except for one person, that is). Fin even pumps Gil up at one point by telling him, “Remember, you’re a Shepard!”
The movie actually spends more time trying to construct poignancy out of Gil being upset that his mom ISN’T A SHARK (a concept that the Shepards, for some reason, have entertained all his life) than pointing out that Matt is now a widower, for Gil’s sake!!! To add insult to injury, they even bring in some random cousin named Gemini (Masiela Lusha) to serve as the resident young hottie — because black women apparently can’t handle that role.
The icing on the cake, though, come during the climactic battle when half of the family — Fin, Matt, Gemini, Grandpa (David Hasselhoff), Claudia (Ryan Newman) — gets eaten. “Oh,” I thought. “Maybe this is one of those nihilistic movies where everyone dies. That could at least partially explain Gabrielle’s treatment.” But as the surviving family members proceed to cut open the bellies of the sharks that ate their loved ones, out those damn Sheperds pop, one by one, alive and kicking…Well, except for She Who Must Not Be Named.
It’s a dismissive attitude that may be chalked up to bad writing as much as any intentionally malicious intent, but it’s not a coincidence this is the role the black actress gets. It sadly embodies how “forgotten” they are in mainstream Hollywood films — television nowadays presenting more headlining potential (thank you, Shonda Rhimes).
It should be noted that technically-black Stacey Dash, who could never claw her way up to the the level of Celebrity Apprentice contestant that seems to be the prerequisite to earning a role in a Sharknado movie, makes a cameo here as the mayor of Chicago and promptly dies — but in her case, I can understand why nobody gives a fuck.