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Jolene: The Black Supporting Character in The Queen’s Gambit

“You’re like...my guardian angel.” 

“I’m not your guardian angel, I’m not here to save you. Hell, I can barely save me!” 

These two lines were powerful. Perhaps not within the context of ​The Queen’s Gambit​ story, but this scene was a pertinent summary of how characters of colour, especially Black characters, are portrayed on screen. 

Jolene is introduced to us as one of the children at the orphanage Beth is taken to. She, and most of the children there, were what she called “lifers”. Jolene had been there a long time by the time Beth arrived, and remained there long after Beth left; until she aged out. As Jolene herself tersely summarized, ​“Nobody’s gon’ come for us now. We’re too old...or too Black.” 

We see Jolene again years later, when she showed up on Beth’s doorstep. The two of them reconnect and return to the orphanage where they first met, in honour of Beth’s original mentor, Mr. Shaibel’s, passing. 

Following the funeral, Jolene and Beth continued to rekindle their friendship and reminisce. They catch each other up on the minute details of their lives; Jolene told her about college, and how she wanted to become a lawyer. Beth, in turn, confided in Jolene about not having enough money to fund her trip to Russia so she could play against Borgov, the Russian chess player. Jolene offers to give her the money, even though she needs it for herself to go to law school. 

Beth, surprised at this gesture of generosity, likens Jolene to a guardian angel. Jolene responds with perhaps the most memorable dialogue of the series, not because of its importance to the story itself but because of its importance to the larger conversation surrounding how Black characters are portrayed in the media. Relegated to the side, “guardian angel” is exactly the role black characters play in the presence of the white ego, that society presents as the default. 

The very first roles that Black people were allowed to play on the big screen was that of a servant. Think Mammy from ​Gone with the Wind, or Aunt Jemima in advertising. And while some progress has been made, there is so much to be done. Over 80 years later, black characters are still shown serving the white character’s story arcs. Black characters have been pigeonholed into the specific role of propping up their white counterparts. If ever there were something that needed fixing, be it the main characters’ life or some pesky plot point, the black sidekick inevitably comes to the rescue, fixing things up for them like a good little angel. Even in The Queen’s Gambit​, Jolene seems to appear just as Beth takes a turn for the worse. 

But the story framed Jolene’s return into Beth’s life as less of a “guardian angel”, and more of a reconnection between old friends. Jolene didn’t come to fix all of Beth’s problems. She comes to accompany Beth to Mr. Shaibel’s funeral, and perhaps become friends once more. Jolene is her own person. She has her own dreams for her future, her own life and the story never shies away from showing that. 

A common thread in most stories with the black sidekick character archetype is the story’s lack of will to show them as an individual who has purpose or life beyond the main character. Jolene wasn’t just someone Beth knew who came back to fix Beth up and set her on her way. Jolene had her own ambitions and purpose. Jolene wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer to right some of the wrongs in the world. Her life didn’t revolve around Beth. 

Jolene comes back into Beth’s life not as a guardian angel, but as family. “I’m here because you need me to be here. That’s what family does. That’s what we are.” 

Siona Deb

McMaster '23

Siona is a second year student at McMaster in the Actuarial and Financial Math program. She loves reading sci-fi and fantasy novels and drawing.
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