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Final Fantasy VII: In defense of Barret Wallace

barret wallace final fantasy 7 remake
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In 1997 the character Barret Wallace made his playable debut in Final Fantasy VII as the brass, fouled-mouth and highly emotional, yet passionate leader of Avalanche. A Eco-terrorist group who wanted to save the planet by any means necessary. He was also the first Black character to appear in the franchise.

Barret's portrayal in the English version of the game naturally earned him the reputation of being nothing more than a comical, jive talking and bulky Mr T knock-off with little redeeming qualities outside of this role, yet he was so much more than that.

Now that's not to deny Barret's somewhat caricature nature, nor are the complaints about him completely invalid, but if you've played a good portion of the game, then you'll know that the good outweighs the bad, and there's more to his character than meets the eye.

It's a double edged sword, because on one hand here we have this big angry black man who talks in "Ebonics" and has a gun for an arm, but at the same time these questionable attributes, alongside his more redeeming qualities end up making him one of the best characters in the game. 

Interestingly enough as pointed out by Kotaku's Tim Rogers in his analysis of the game’s localization, the original Japanese version of Barret acts more like Metal Gear Solid’s Snake as opposed to a Mr.T impersonator, which emerged from the English localization. 

Did the English localization's bastardization of Barret's original depiction come across as questionable and eyebrow raising? Oh without a doubt, though at the same time it added a layer of Blackness never seen before in a Japanese video game, for better or worse.

Of course it seems strange when the only dark skin character in a majority white cast is speaking in AAVE slang and at the same time enforcing the big scary Black man tropes, but there's a certain charm and finesse to Barret's portrayal which makes him extremely likeable and memorable to a generation of gamers.

Although Barret's re-translation into Mr. T feels a lot like watching a crossover episode between A-Team and Yo! MTV Raps. In the same breath, he has resonated with a lot of people who played Final Fantasy VII.

Barret has no filter in the original game, he's a raw and unfiltered individual who doesn't hold his tongue for anyone, beside his stepdaughter, and although sometimes he may come across as amusing in his delivery, due to his exaggerated use of Ebonics, if you actually listen to what Barret's saying you'll see why he's one of the most human characters in FF7.

Here's this huge Black dude just being himself, he doesn't have to code-switch to make people feel comfortable or less threatened in his presence. He isn't afraid to be himself, no matter where he ends up and that is poetry in motion, even if this wasn't the localization's original intent. 

Yes he's a big burly black man who can be angry, but when you see Barret's backstory, you soon realise the anger he does have is completely justified with the way how the Shinra Corporation are portrayed, but even so, there are moments in the game where he is calm, thoughtful and caring. Point being, his explosive rage doesn't solely stem from him being Black.

He's a fierce charismatic leader and has earned the respect, admiration and loyalty of his comrades. His tough guy act is merely a mask and coping mechanism he uses to hide his depression and deep psychological trauma. He is also a caring father figure who is supremely gentle when the time calls for it, with a heart the size of Midgar.

Although over the top at times, his "anger" comes across more as passion than some raging lunatic. He struggles with grace and the wisdom to accept things beyond his control, but that's a very universal part of the human condition. To sum up Barret, he's less an Angry Black Man Trope and more a complicated character who has a lot of pent up rage.

He was always one of the more entertaining and charismatic characters onscreen, and his character's multifaceted nature is part of what makes him more than just some lame derivative. Every Black male character does not have to be a big guy with a gruff voice, but if they are, that does not automatically make them a bad or offensive character.

To summarize, Barret is portrayed as more than an "angry black man". He comes across as gruff but in reality he’s a strong charismatic leader who cares about his friends and is passionate about saving the planet.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

In the 2020 remake, Barret's depiction is toned down and way more more nuanced compared to his original portrayal. Although he still shouts loads, this time round he is given much more layers and emotions to express himself, which is made possible due to having a voice actor.

The American actor who bought Barret to life is John Eric Bentley, a person who is also familiar with the history, gameplay and storyline of the original FF7 game. In his comic book interview, Bentley stated "I played the original back in 1997 and that’s when I started enjoying RPG’s. I mean c’mon, a Black character in an RPG video game that’s a leader and doesn’t die!!! Yay to Square back then and hooray to Square Enix now!!"

Bentley continued "I was very much aware of the concerns many had about the character. As a Black man living in America I wanted to represent my people, race, culture, family and self with all the dignity, strength, compassion, leadership and pride that I could. I wanted to make sure that Barret wasn’t portrayed as a caricature or a stereotype.[2]"

His performance of Barret was met with mixed views, some fans felt his portrayal was spot on, while others weren't as amused or impressed. Which is fine, as people are entitled to their preference and opinion. Yet it does ring bells when players would rather switch to the Japanese dub because Barret happens to sound more "natural" than an actual black voice actor. 

In Defense of John Eric Bentley, he did an exceptional job in portraying Barret and sounds exactly just as many would've envisioned his 1997 counterpart to sound like. With that said, the actor can be a bit over the top at times, but Barret is suppose to be a tough, strong, and charismatic leader, so making his voice sound ordinary would've definitely been a mistake. 

While it's not surprising that people still see him as his 1997 incarnation, Square Enix actually did a much better job of improving on and fleshing out Barret's character.

Thanks to the leap in graphics and implemented voice acting, there's many scenes in the remake which better showcase his vulnerability, caring nature and the conflicted choices he has to make, unlike the original. 

He has an admirable radical, revolutionary drive, which makes him one, if not the best character in the game and he is actually not only quite philosophical, but also really well read up on history. 

Sometimes Barret does fall right back into his over the top "Mr T" phrase, but again he is a lot more fleshed out then the original game, and despite the occasional regression, he actually feels more like a real person at times, who is also a lot more strategic and logical in how he presents himself.

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