To be completely honest, when I first watched the trailer of The Main Event, I thought that Tichina Arnold was playing mom to eleven-year-old Leo Thompson (played by Seth Carr).
It took a bit of the trailer for me to realize, “Oh, she’s his grandma.” She is the epitome of “Black Don’t Crack”; she’s incredible. I promise, that should not be the only reason to love and admire her character as the grandma in this film.
The Main Event is about Leo, who struggles with being bullied, but finds joy and solace in watching wrestling. The movie is his journey to becoming a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar with the help of a magical wrestling mask that grants him the worthy powers of agility, speed, and strength — enough to beat grown male wrestlers in back-to-back matches. With the support of his friends and especially his grandmother, he meets meet his goal and continues to grow in his personal confidence.
Arnold’s unwavering grandmotherly support is immediately apparent. In most children’s films, and most films in general really, the leading caregiver of the protagonist isn’t willing to support their dreams so quickly, mostly out of concern for their physical and/or emotional safety. But this film doesn’t take the approach of “I lost my daughter, I can’t lose you, too” that I expected (more about her daughter, Leo’s mother, later). When Arnold finds out about the mask and Leo’s goals, she supports him and even helps him by accompanying him to his matches and cheering him on. While there are moments when she is concerned for Leo’s safety, she doesn’t force him to quit.
She is aware of the need to step in only when it matters, like when Leo is feeling emotionally distanced from his father (played by Adam Pally) because of the internalized struggle they’re facing since Leo’s mother left them both. The fact that Grandmother steps in to care for both Leo and Leo’s father when it was her daughter who caused their harm is endearing to witness.
Moreover, I am so in love with how flirtatious she is when watching good-looking male wrestlers on her TV screen, when she talks about her attraction to men with her family members, and when she talks about wanting to look good on Instagram. It’s not often we get to see grandmothers of color be flirty and overtly sexual. The first instance that made me appreciate that starting to come out more in television and film was grandma matriarch Lydia Riera (played by Rita Moreno) in One Day at a Time. In an interview, Moreno stated that she would only play the part if she got to be sexual. The fact that Tichina Arnold achieves that in her character in a movie geared toward children is remarkable. Children deserve to see that as much as adults, and it’s done playfully and tastefully.
Finally, she reminds me of my own grandmother. Arnold’s vivaciousness, her beauty, her humor, her supportiveness by being Leo’s professional hype-woman — she’s everything you love in your Black grandma. In fact, she reminds me of a lot of Black grandmas I have had the opportunity to meet and share space within my life. I grew up watching Tichina Arnold as Rochelle, the mother of Chris (played by Tyler James Williams) on Everybody Hates Chris. I loved her level of caution, strictness, and love she exemplified as a mother. To grow up seeing her take on the role of a grandmother I can love for different reasons (with the exception of her ability to love Leo so well in The Main Event) is what touches me the most.
Don’t get me wrong, there are other aspects of the film I appreciate outside of Arnold’s character. This includes the theme of camaraderie in friendship and how true strength matters internally rather than externally. It’s exciting that more and more films such as this one will continue to be racially diverse without taking the route of tokenizing characters of color. Seth Carr is a delightful actor as the lead with his humor and playfulness, whether he wears the magical wrestling mask and alters his voice while wearing it or not. But Tichina Arnold is the one who ultimately shines for me. If you loved her as the fierce yet occasionally tender mom when Everybody Hates Chris was still on, you’ll love her as the colorful and charming grandma we need and love on film and television in The Main Event.
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Maya Williams (she/her & they/them) is a writer based in Portland, ME. Maya has contributed to spaces such as The Tempest, Black Youth Project, RaceBaitr, The Gay Gaze, and more.