Turning Children's Disabilities Into Superpowers - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because he's empowering a new generation.

By Joshua Eferighe

  • Joshua Leonard’s Team Supreme animated series, currently in development, is about a crime-fighting group of special-needs kids whose disabilities double as superpowers.
  • One of few Black animators in the business, Leonard took the long road from his Mississippi upbringing to get here.

Zeek is an autistic young African American male with elite memory, intellect and a mind that can see everything. Li is a witty Asian American girl who, while born blind, has super smell and other enhanced senses thanks to her cross-modal neuroplasticity disorder. Sweet Pea, Zeek’s little sister, has sickle cell disease, but also a “melting hearts” superpower that allows her to manipulate minds to make any adult or child more loving, understanding and humble. They are part of Team Supreme — an animated series about a crime-fighting group of special-needs kids whose disabilities double as superpowers, currently in development with producers Lena Waithe and Jason Weaver.

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“I want to see different-looking characters, man,” Joshua Leonard, the show’s creator, tells me passionately over the phone. “And because the animation industry didn’t have Black creators or Black animators like they should, that was me slapping them back.” 

Obviously I’m not the best artist, but I always felt like I could compete.

Joshua Leonard

Leonard, 37, is an animator and character designer for Netflix, whose journey has been all but easy. Born in Miami to a military family as the youngest of three boys, Joshua lived everywhere from Alaska to D.C. before finally settling in Mississippi. He and his brothers were all athletic too, playing football and baseball. Leonard had big-time college potential as a running back, but a knee injury turned him off the sport. His love has always been drawing — ever since kindergarten, when his eldest brother taught him. “Once I learned how to draw Garfield, I never put that pencil down,” he says. 

After spending his first two years in community college, he decided to hone his craft, taking up graphic design at William Carey University in Mississippi. It was during this time that he developed an interest in special-needs kids, hearing about a coworker’s friend whose autistic son could recite the entire cast and crew of Disney movies — down to the boom mic operator — from memory after watching the credits. “That’s kinda where I got infatuated with disabilities and superpowers,” he says. But Hurricane Katrina destroyed the school, delaying Leonard’s dreams. 

Joshua Leonard with his daughter, Saniyah.

Starting in college, Leonard worked at Home Depot for more than a decade before taking his young daughter and never-say-die attitude and transferring to an Atlanta location, so he could enroll at the Art Institute campus nearby. The oldest one in his classes, he had to hustle. His routine: class in the morning, work at Home Depot from 3 p.m. to midnight, schoolwork until 4 a.m. He still managed to graduate summa cum laude in 2018 and was one of the commencement speakers, along with congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis.

“When I went up there, I was going up there to kill everything,” Leonard says. “Any competition that was up there, I was going to body. And that’s what I did.” But once he graduated, he found it hard to find a job when rowing against institutional racism. “Obviously, I’m not the best artist, but I always felt like I could compete,” he says. “I would see people on LinkedIn and say: ‘Their stuff is not better than mine.’”

In recent months, the animation industry had made headlines amid America’s racial justice protests, as high-profile white actors voicing nonwhite characters, including Kristen Bell, announced they would step aside so a person of color could take their place. But the problem goes far beyond voicing. In the U.S., just 1 percent of animated film directors are women of color.

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Leonard meets Rep. John Lewis at the commencement ceremony for the Art Institute of Atlanta.

It makes Leonard’s achievement all the more impressive, says Cinzia Angelini, a veteran animation director based in Montreal who hired Leonard as an illustrator on her short film Mila, due out next year.  “I wish I could say it’s normal, but in this world, and especially in the animation world, it is a big deal for a Black man to get such an important role” at Netflix, Angelini says. 

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It took connections from the Art Institute and his pieces going viral online for Leonard to eventually land the Netflix deal in August — but it was a bittersweet moment. Just 24 hours later, his eldest brother, the one who taught him how to draw, died of pneumonia.

But Leonard is pressing on, opening the door not just for Black animators, but for a different kind of onscreen hero. “Superheroes, like people with disabilities, often have to hide their identity,” says Nathan Todd, a life coach who tackles loneliness and disability and was born with cerebral palsy. “A project like this has the power to empower generations of kids.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Team Supreme is in development at Netflix. The show is in development but has not yet been picked up.

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