Magazine article The American Prospect

Blacks in Space: In Most Sci-Fi Movies, Why Does the Future Look So White?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Blacks in Space: In Most Sci-Fi Movies, Why Does the Future Look So White?

Article excerpt

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STAR TREK'S LT. UHURA WAS A science-fiction pioneer in the 1970s--a black woman answering the phone, I mean computer, in space. Uhura, played by actress Nichelle Nichols, was the communications officer, a role that would go on to be a popular one for futuristic minorities. While she was groundbreaking in that she was a black woman who survived quite well in space, her story lines were few, her adventures were stunted, and her romances were nonexistent. The philandering Capt. Kirk had to be forced to kiss the comely Uhura--apparently in the future, interracial lip-lock is just as controversial as it was in the 1970s.

Nichols paved the way for Kandyse McClure's character Petty Officer Dualla, a black woman who also starts out answering the phone, on the critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica series remake that wrapped this year. Dualla fares better than Uhura in that she gets her own story line, experiences a real romance, and has some adventures. But she commits suicide in the final season of the series.

And these are the two primary options for blacks in space: Either you're marginalized or killed off. (Or, in the worst-case scenario, you're marginalized and still die.)

So when word got out that director J.J. Abrams was set to re-envision the original Star Trek, with a big-budget film released last month, I was looking out for Lt. Uhura. And she is certainly there, played by actress Zoe Saldana. She's right where we left her in the 1970s, still answering the phone.

Science-fiction story lines might take place in the future, but they are written in the now. They reflect the mind-set of the creators and the times they live in. If most science-fiction films are to be believed, in the future English is the main language. Not only do human beings still exist, they are almost all white and they have mastered quantum physics. I'm sure none of this has anything to do with the genre being dominated by the American film industry and predominantly white, male writers. They've merely looked into their crystal ball and seen the future. And the future is white!

Actor Joe Morton, who appeared in both writer/director John Sayles' 1984 cult classic The Brother From Another Planet and 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day, recalls an old Richard Pryor joke. "Hollywood didn't think we'd be around in the future," Morton says, "so why put us in the sci-fi movies?"

He continues, "If you are a 50- to 60-year-old white producer in Hollywood, for the 'heroic image' you're not going to think of a black man or woman. Consequently, black roles in sci-fi are tokens. He was the communications expert. The communications expert would also then be the first one to be killed. First one to die." When George Lucas offered Samuel L. Jackson a role in the final Star Wars prequel as the Jedi Mace Windu, Jackson agreed on the condition his character not die "like some punk."

This is understandable coming from an actor who dies in many films, including a few sci-fi flicks (Jurassic Park and Deep Blue Sea), often a few minutes after his opening scene. And Jackson is not alone. Actress Bianca Lawson only lasted for three episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer before her character, a Jamaican vampire-slayer named Kendra, is killed off. Charles S. Dutton is heavily featured in the third film of the Alien franchise, but his character dies a horrid, painful death. In the bug-killing, utopian/ fascism parody Starship Troopers, all the minority characters are purposeless and peripheral. The lone black female washes out of boot camp after accidentally killing a fellow recruit.

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The controversial death of Adewale Akinnuoye--Agbaje's character Mr. Eko on ABC's Lost at the hands (does it have hands?) of the "smoke monster" led many minority fans to believe there was a conspiracy to cleanse the show of all its black and Latino characters. …

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