February is Black History Month, and to celebrate GamerTell is looking back at gaming’s most memorable Black characters. These heroes are a part of our pop culture fabric, and there is growing ethnic diversity among them. Next up Carl “CJ” Johnson, the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. He’s trying to get out of the gangster life, and when we first meet him those plans aren’t going well.
We’re talking about a GTA game, so obviously the main character isn’t a hero in the traditional sense. Even if the player goes out of their way not to be violent, they’ll still have helped Carl “CJ” Johnson commit countless felonies by the end of the game. This tale set in San Andreas, the GTA world’s version of Los Angeles, has Black characters in numerous major roles. None are what we could call positive role models. But their story deals with some real issues in the Black community.
When I see interviews with inner city gang members, they all have the same answer about why they joined. It was like a family they didn’t have at home. That’s true in this game. The gang even calls itself the “Grove Street Families.” CJ is a brother and father rolled into one, as he’s often the only person speaking rationally. He suggests getting out of the gang life, and his motion always dies for a lack of a second.
CJ returned home to bury his mother, and never really knew his father. He’s not even sure he’ll stay, until he has a run-in with Frank Tenpenny, a crooked cop played by Samuel L. Jackson. If he doesn’t work for Tenpenny, the officer will frame him for a crime he didn’t commit. Tenpenny has had every opportunity the young men of Grove Street never did. This officer is somebody that could help these young men turn their lives around. Instead, he uses them to further his own criminal enterprises. He’s the worst kind of villain, one who has “the law” on his side at every turn.
The main character in this story learns the lesson gangsters eventually do in real life. In spite of all the sacrifices CJ makes for them, his supposed “family members” betray him the second it benefits them to do so. People in this game are constantly taking advantage of Carl Johnson’s perceived naivete. Somehow though, he manages to survive every attempt to kill or swindle him. He’s obviously not as thick headed as they believe.
Though gang violence isn’t the stuff of sitcoms, the GTA games have always balanced the subject matter with humor. You may spend as much time flying a government prototype jetpack as you do engaging in drive-bys. CJ has a career path that could only happen in a Rockstar game. He goes from low-level hood to working alongside a federal agent, and ends the game a multimillionaire. In his ending he accomplishes something few characters in GTA ever do, becoming a legit businessman. The series’ fifth installment will return to San Andreas. Might we see CJ or some of the other characters from this PS2 era game somewhere? Knowing Rockstar’s love of the Easter egg, it wouldn’t be a surprise.