The Portrayal of Black Characters in SciFi/Fantasy

Introduction

One of the biggest problems I have with stereotypical characters is not that they don't exist, but the fact that we are always relegated to these characters. As such, it enables people who rarely interact with black people to base their view of the entire race on these stereotypical characters. One of the areas black people are practically overlooked is fantasy and science fiction (or SciFi), but a revolution seems to be happening in this area as of late, especially when it comes to superheroes. Today, I want to stick to other forms of fantasy and SciFi.

Literature

Hollywood isn't big on coming up with new ideas, so if we're going to talk about black portrayals in SciFi/Fantasy films, we'd better start with the portrayals in literature. Unfortunately, "classic" science fiction and fantasy novels don't usually have any black characters... Growing up, Everworld by KA Applegate might have been the only fantasy book I ever read that included a black character in it's storyline. From The Giver, to The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings to Ender's Game, pretty much all of the books from this genre that I've read are focused on white characters with no black characters specifically mentioned.

Make no mistake, however, we are present in the science fiction and fantasy genres. One of the most celebrated black science fiction writers is Octavia E. Butler, author of Parable of the Sower and Kindred. Parable of the Sower was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1994, and named the Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times the same year.

There's also new comer, NK Jemisin. Her debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was also nominated for the Nebula Award in 2010. In addition to being nominated for several other awards, it actually won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2011. Since her debut, she has been nominated for and won many awards.[5]

Photocredit: Bookcover for Binti
This is on my to-read list!
Dr. Nnedi Okorafor is another talented black SciFi/Fantasy writer. Her novels have won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award.[7] Another award winning author of black SciFi/Fantasy is Walter Mosley.[23] There are many other black SciFi/Fantasy writers in the world, and probably even some non-black writers who have included black character as a main character. Thus, there is plenty of source material to create movies.

Movies and Shows

Monday, I watched The Cloverfield Paradox. I love sci-fi movies, and I'm a fan of Gugu Mbatha-Raw's acting, so when my friend saw a trailer for the recently released film on Netflix, it was a no brainer that he should recommend it to me. The cast of the movie is notably diverse, not just racially, but ethnically as well. The premise of the movie actually requires the cast to be diverse, as they are an elite crew of scientists tasked with saving the world. This ensures that the characters are from various countries around the world who have come together in a time of crisis. While the white male characters do have strong personalities, neither are the main character or even the commander of the crew. The main character of the movie is actually a black woman.

Without giving away too much of the story, I was pleasantly surprised to see that:
  1. the black characters did not die first
  2. the black woman was not an angry black woman or a sassy black woman
  3. the black woman was not hypersexualized
  4. the black man was not violent or thuggish
  5. the black man was the commander of the crew
  6. both black characters are given emotional depth

I enjoyed the movie from start to finish. Apparently, other people did not. The move was just released Sunday night, and by the time I finished watching it Monday morning, critics were already slamming the movie. It seems any time movies diverge from the standard of white main characters with minorities there simply to support the main character, critics don't like it.[1][2][3][4]

As a SciFi fan, I feel competent in being objective about whether the movie sucks and not being biased to the fact that the lead is a black female. After all, I agree with critics that Will and Jaden Smith's After Earth was pretty dry (great special effects though). However, I'm not surprised that the critics felt that way. Most movies are either made exclusively for a minority audience or for the mainstream (re: white) audience. Movies and shows made for minority audiences usually cast people from that race in majority of the roles, whereas those targeting a mainstream audience generally stick with white main characters and place minorities in supporting roles. Most movies meant for a mainstream audience that don't follow this formula catch a lot of flack.

Casting a Black Lead

It turns out, white people didn't like watching movies that star a black person as the main character.[9][10] Back when IMDB had a discussion board for each movie/TV show, the boards for these types of movies were plastered with messages containing slurs and derogatory comments. We saw this when Amandla Steinberg was cast to play Rue in The Hunger Games.[11]

If the audience is unable to connect to the character, the movie will never succeed. That's a simple fact. The issue isn't that black actors are less capable, but that white audiences still view minorities, specifically black people, as "other." It is telling that during the controversy about Rue, one of the people complaining that she was cast as black child thought something as irrelevant as the color of her skin made her death "less sad."[11]

The last time a movie starring a black actor (or actress) as the main character won the Saturn Award, an an award for the best Science Fiction film, it was 1996. The movie was Independence Day starring Will Smith. In 1997, Men in Black, which also stars Will Smith, but features him playing second fiddle to Tommy Lee Jones, won as well. It's sequel, Men in Black II, was nominated in 2002, but did not win.[22] In 2000, Pitch Black starring the racially ambiguous Vin Diesel[21] was nominated but did not win. A sequel to this movie Riddick was also nominated but denied the win in 2013. In 2004, I, Robot, starring Will Smith as the lead actor, was nominated but lost. In 2009, The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington as the lead, was nominated but also lost. Cloverfield, which features Jessica Lucas as a major character (but not the main character), won in 2007. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which features John Boyega as a stormtrooper (but still not the main character), won in 2015.[22] With 6 movies nominated for each year, this means in the 10 years since a film staring a black person won the award, 10% of the nominated films have a black character (that is recognizably black) in a prominent role, but only 1.6% (5% if you include Vin Diesel) featured a black lead.

Minorities in Fantasy Worlds

When you think of SciFi and Fantasy, you think of Star Wars, you think of Lord of the Rings, you think of Avatar... These movies are defining movies of our lifetime, and yet, they all have interesting commentary when it comes to race.

Star Wars

I'm going to admit, I'm not a Star Wars fan, so unlike the other movies I've mentioned, I've only heard about Star Wars. What I do know is that in 2015, the addition of a black actor to the main cast caused an uproar among fans,[19] much like the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games. A thesis written on Star Wars identifies and discusses several racial problems within the original series.[20]

Lord of the Rings

Photocredit: Lord of the Rings Movie
Lord of the Rings is an epic trilogy. In high school, my friends and I were obsessed with the movies (back then I wasn't so critical of what I watched). In Middle Earth, not only are all of the human races (men, elves, hobbits, and dwarves) white, they all have blue eyes, too (except in scenes where the cast forgot to put in their contacts, of course). If it isn't crazy enough that a person's fantasy world (re: the place they go to escape reality) is devoid of racial diversity, the villain race of the movie are grotesque with black skin. Sure, you have Sauraman, a white man, helping the side of evil. However everything else that is "evil" is deeply entangled with the color black. The Ringwraiths or Nazgul wear black robes, they ride black horses and black dragon-like creatures. The orcs have gray and black leathery skin. Mordor has a black castle and a black gate. Once again we have a movie blatantly forcing down our throats the idea that black equals bad and white equals good. Is this not the same subconscious reaction of children during Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark's doll test experiments?[16][17][18]

Avatar

Avatar wasn't a new story by any means. It follows the same plot as Pocohantas (the fictional version, at least), Fern Gully, and Battle for Terra. These movies all have the leading white male, who is a member of the superior race/nation and is there to colonize or "fix" the savage natives. Said white male always falls in love with the beautiful "savage" princess and double crosses his own people. This is basically the other side of the coin of the white savior trope.

The issue I'm about to broach isn't just offensive to black perople—it really is primarily an offense to the people who were native to the Americas. None of the movies I mentioned show indigenous or black characters—the people are white. In Avatar, however, the voices of the Na'avi—who take on the role of "savages" and seem to follow customs similar to animism and nature worship, both of which are found in African and Native American cultures—are those of black actors and actresses.

The leading lady (aka "the beautiful savage princess") is voiced by Zoe Saldana, who is a black Latina.[12] Her mother is voiced by Guyanese American actress CCH Pounder.[13] Her father is voiced by Cherokee actor Wes Studi,[14] and the voice of her betrothed suitor is provided by Afro-Cuban actor, Laz Alonso.[15]

Generally speaking, we can tell the race and/or culture of a person based on the sound of their voice. While there are definitely exceptions, the rhythm, cadence, and accents of our speech are usually cultural. To use all minority voices for the alien characters and cast proximately white actors and actresses as the humans, the movie furthers the subconscious divide between human races based on speech.

Your Favorite SciFi/Fantasy Movies

So tell me, what's your favorite SciFi/Fantasy movie and how does it portray black people?

References

  1. David Sims. "The Cloverfield Paradox Lands With a Thud". The Atlantic. February 5, 2018
  2. Tasha Robinson. "The Cloverfield Paradox should have been a comedy — and almost is one". The Verge, February 5, 2018
  3. Own Gleiberman. "Film Review: ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’". Variety. February 6, 2018
  4. Joanna Robinson. "The Cloverfield Paradox Takes a Massive Swing, and Misses". Vanity Fair. February 5, 2018
  5. Brian Lowry. "'The Cloverfield Paradox' splashes, then crashes on Netflix". CNN. February 6, 2018
  6. N.K. Jemisin. "About NK Jemisin". NK Jemisin Official Webpage; visited February 2018
  7. Tambay A. Obenson. "30 Significant Black Characters In Science Fiction Films (Video)". Indie Wire. November 1, 2013
  8. "NNedi". Nnedi's Website; visited February 2018
  9. Jorge Rivas. "Study Finds White People Don't Watch Black Movies. Who's to Blame?". Colorlines. July 2011
  10. Andrew J. Weaver. "The Role of Actors' Race in White Audiences' Selective Exposure to Movies". Journal of Communication, Volume 61, Issue 2, pg. 369-385. April 1, 2011
  11. Anna Holmes. "White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games". The New Yorker. March 30, 2012
  12. Yesha Callahan. "Zoe Saldana on Her Blackness: 'You Have No Idea Who I Am. I Am Black. I'm Raising Black Men'". The Grapevine. June 16, 2016
  13. "C.C.H. Pounder". Wikipedia; visited February 2018
  14. "Wes Studi". Wikipedia; visited February 2018
  15. "Laz Alonso". Wikipedia; visited February 2018
  16. Darlene Powell-Hopson and Derek S. Hopson. "Implications of Doll Color Preferences among Black Preschool Children and White Preschool Children". Journal of Black Psychology, Volume 14, Issue 2. February 1, 1988
  17. Michael Beschloss. "How an Experiment With Dolls Helped Lead to School Integration". New York Times. May 6, 2014
  18. "The Doll Test for Racial Self-Hate: Did It Ever Make Sense?". The Root. May 17, 2014
  19. Adam Howard. "New ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ trailer sparks racial backlash". MSNBC. October 20, 2015
  20. John Paul Pianka. "The Power of the Force: Race, Gender, and Colonialism in the Star Wars Universe". Wesleyan University. May 2013
  21. "Vin Diesel: A Colorless Actor for a Colorblind America?". AfriCultures. April 3, 2005
  22. "Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film". Wikipedia; visited February 2018
  23. Walter Mosley. "Biography". Walter Mosley; visited February 2018

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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