Black Representation in Gaming- Is Lincoln Clay Problematic? (Mafia III)

With the remasters of the Mafia Series being released I want to look at a character and a game that took incredible risks in representing the black experience of an era. Mafia III takes place during the late sixties in New Borduex (think New Orleans). There was a lot happening racially in America during the late 60’s. The nation was reeling from the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights Movement was about to have one it’s most powerful losses with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Mafia III takes on this entire era head on in ways no other video game has come close to. It all begins with one of the most interesting characters in gaming history Lincoln Clay.

Lincoln Clay is a black man (mixed race but identifies as black in the game), and a war veteran who was left for dead after getting shot in head. Of course he didn’t get shot in the war. Clay was helping at his family’s bar and found out that his family had some debt with the local mafia. One night the Marcano family ransacked the bar killing everybody inside and shooting Lincoln in the head, leaving him for dead. Lincoln survives and wants revenge. That’s the plot.

This game brings up some really interesting depictions of the black experience. The setting of New Bordeaux is probably the most interesting and nuanced character. Each neighborhood provides a different experience for Lincoln much like real life. One of the most interesting experience of my day is the juxtaposition of how I am treated and how people talk to me when I am at work, a black college versus when I am back home in a rural white community. The way people talk to me, the way people approach me it’s vastly different. At my predominately black workplace, I am respected and always feel safe. I don’t think about how I am dressed or who I am talking to. In my neighborhood at home, I am constantly aware of how I look, how I present to the community and I get treated with caution. People aren’t mean but they certainly aren’t treating me like they treat their other neighbors.

In New Bordeaux you get dap in one neighborhood and called a “nigger” in the next. You can drive reckless in the black neighborhood and the police won’t be around, but you can’t even go over the speed limit a little bit in the white neighborhood without immediately being pulled over. New Bordeaux is more subtle than that. The white Non-Playable Characters (NPCs)clutch their purses and remind you that you are in the wrong neighborhood. You might walk by a cop and hear him say, “Stay out of trouble, boy.” Even the people Lincoln Clay works with in his missions make sure you know they are aware they are working with a “colored man” and how wild that is.

Navigating the world of Mafia 3 makes me feel the best and worst parts of navigating my own spaces in life. The biggest difference is Lincoln Clay can respond in ways that I absolutely can not. Clay is very violent. He also harbors a lot of prejudice that he voices about Irish people and women. Lincoln Clay is a power fantasy. This is a game where somebody can call you boy or tell you to “to go back to Africa” and you can feed them to an alligator or shot them in the head. That’s a stark difference to when a few high school kids yelled the n-word at me and I didn’t say a word because the thought of them calling the police or instigating things further is too risky. This leads to the question, Is Lincoln Clay Problematic?

If people fear black men for being violent and aggressive and then that man, Lincoln Clay, responds accordingly with brutal violence and ruthless aggression that is problematic. Reaffirming stereotypes in media can be an issue, especially when representation is limited. When Lincoln goes on his murdering spree, he is doing exactly what the racist in New Bordeaux told you he would do. That behavior may be acceptable on the battlefield in ‘Nam but not in a suburb of New Bordeaux. That aspect of Lincoln Clay is problematic but I think a cogent argument could be made debating whether non-violent protest has not been effective and maybe different means are worth trying. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers all had some valid arguments to that point, and maybe that’s something the game was hinting at given it takes place the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Lincoln was not completely problematic. He was fighting for his community. He was rising up against racism and gave black women positions of power in his crime organization. Clay had a code of who he was killing and why he was killing them. He wasn’t Trevor from GTA V, Lincoln was calculated. Unbeknownst to him he was also helping the CIA track down John F. Kennedy’s assassin. Lincoln loves the country even in light of all the racism and violence. He was trying to build some sustainable businesses in the black community and protect them from other more problematic forces. Clay was also respectful of his pastor, James Ballard who helped him recover after he was shot in the head.

Stereotype: The Angry Black Man- Lincoln is mad as hell and for good reason. Finding a black man in gaming who isn’t angry is very difficult. Even though Clay is suffering from PTSD and grief over the loss of his family, he is emotionally very stagnant. He is angry or at peace without any other range of emotions.

Stereotype: The Violent Black Man- Clay was forged in the fires of war and he brings that skill set with him in the game. While Lincoln Clay is violent, the game gives you the chance to spare people for more perks and to have them help your organization. It shows Clay can have mercy. This issue of violence feels more palpable in Mafia III because you have racist people yelling about how blacks are ruining the community and being too violent and Lincoln Clay reaffirms that.

Stereotype: Black men as criminals- The most common career of the black character in games is criminal. It would have been great to see a black veteran given a more nuanced life and career but it wouldn’t service the story as easily. That said the white protagonist, John Donovan, is able to hold down a career in the CIA being just as violent and problematic as Lincoln so I guess only certain characters get to have careers.

Stereotype: Black man as brawn and not brains- Lincoln is the muscle of a plan but John Donovan is always the magic making things happen behind the scenes. It works in the story but it reaffirms the idea that black people aren’t capable without being propped up by white systems and welfare. This is a narrative you see in sports a lot where the black athlete’s accomplishments are belittled to make sure you focus on the amazing white coach.

Stereotype: VooDoo Magic- Disney did the same thing in The Princess Frog but once again VooDoo is depicted in some pretty problematic ways that under minds the entire culture by watering it down to dolls with pins in them and people running away in fear. One of the weapons in the game is the Screaming Zemi which is a voodoo doll you can throw and it makes everybody run away in fear. There are some characters that practice Voodoo in the game and an entire DLC devoted to this but I didn’t play it. The main game doesn’t do anything worthwhile in depicting voodoo in a more nuanced light.

Depictions of PTSD- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can manifest in many different ways. By showing Lincoln having flashbacks and getting angry for seemingly no reason, they imply heavily that he is suffering from PTSD. Many veterans do, especially from their experience in Vietnam. I wish the game showed more variety of emotions and symptoms with Clay. It would have been really interesting to see Lincoln just unable to be a super hero and jump out of the burning casino boat because he is reliving a moment from the war. Give Clay a moment where he has to turn down a mission because he doesn’t have the energy. Let us see the tears of a man who lost his family and his brothers in war. All we get is anger. It’s a myopic view of PTSD that is harmful.

Depictions of Racism in Gaming- If white people make a video game where white people call black people, “nigger” is that Ok? I genuinely don’t know. It’s the Freaky Friday question of, “is it acceptable for Lil’ Dicky to say the n-word if he is in Chris Brown’s body…and he wrote the song?” I honestly don’t know. I felt like the Mafia III developers did a great job creating a realistic universe where the racism wasn’t used for fun, it was all meaningful. I hope other games used this as an example of how this can be done tastefully.

Cops in New Bordeaux- If the citizens in a black Neighborhood in New Bordeaux call the police, you can just relax. They never show up. This is a real issue in the black community and it’s a double edged sword because most black people don’t want the police to get involved due to fear of unfair treatment but there are times when we need the help of an officer and they don’t show up. In the white neighborhoods, the cops are there in literal seconds.

Church in the Black Community- James Ballard nurses Clay back to health and is the backbone of Clay’s connection morality and his community. Mafia III does a good job of showing the complex relationship of the church and the black community. James Ballard can actually kill you depending on some choices you make at the end of the game, and he does it in the best interest of his community. The church is more than just a place to worship on Sundays and the mentor relationship James has with Lincoln is very emblematic of how the church can be a huge part of our community. It also shows how the church can harbor some bad actors too. James Ballard allows some pretty problematic elements into the neighborhood but does it to spur the economy for a lot of the church’s constituents. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

White Ally-ship- Lincoln’s CIA contact and friend John Donovan can also be framed as an ally. He supports Clay through everything and trusts him with some very confidential information. Donovan also makes sure that all of the people that work with Lincoln treat him with respect and as an equal. At times I feel like Donovan may undermine Clay’s leadership but that’s only in the one on one meetings they have where I wish Lincoln had more input. Any time Donovan is presenting Lincoln to the pubic he presents him as the best around and the only man who can get the job done.

If you own Mafia III already, you can get it upgraded to the definitive edition for free. Mafia III was a landmark game for me. It did more than depict a black character, it represented an entire black experience. Mafia III did a commendable job and hopefully this isn’t the last time we see a big publisher take a risk making a game like this.

My education is in Counseling (M. Ed). I love the Browns, Knicks, Retro Gaming, and Pro Wrestling. I've been a student affairs professional for a decade.

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