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Fear of a black galaxy -- Black people in science-fiction

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 11, 2013 04:52pm | Post a Comment

Photo by JD Hancock

The other day I was listening to the podcast The Auteur Cast. In discussing The Empire strikes back, one of the hosts used the character of Lando Calrissian to question why there are so few black people in science-fiction. It’s not a new question. In 1976, on the album Bicentennial Nigger, Richard Pryor observed “I don’t like movies what don’t have no niggers in them. I went to see a movie of the future called Logan’s Run. Ain’t no niggers in it. Well, white folks ain’t planning for us to be here.”


Guion Bluford  Mae Jemison  Bernard Anthony Harris, Jr  Joan Higginbotham
left to right: Guinon Bluford, Mae Jemison, Bernard Anthony Harris Jr, and Joan Higginbotham

It would be nice to say that times sure have changed in the 37 years since then. There’ve been nineteen black astronauts in NASA, there’s a black president, a black attorney general and countless other black people have attained positions of power or advanced science. But that's science-fact and in 
Hollywood science-fiction the future remains so white you’ve gotta wear shades.

Most space operas depict a universe populated by aliens with prosthetic alterations to their eyes and ears and in all shades of skin tone… almost invariably played by white people. If one tries to think of an alien played by a Latino, I can think of Edward James Olmos (in blue contacts) in Battlestar Galactica as Caprican (of Tauron descent) Commander Bill Adama and that’s it (OK, and Tahnee Welch in the Cocoon movies). Ricardo Montalban as Khan doesn’t count. Firstly, Khan Noonien Singh was apparently supposed to be South Asian, given his title “Singh,” and a native of earth -- not an extraterrestrial. Speaking of Asian aliens – are there any besides Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, emperor of the planet Mongo (obviously meant to be the face of yellow peril and who was also always played by white actors)?

Sun Ra  P Funk Mothership  Octavia E. Butler                Sun Ra                                      The P Funk Mothership                                         Octavia E. Butler

It's not as if no black Americans have no interest in science-fiction. In black music there are several prominent examples of musicians with sci-fi concerns. Sun Ra claimed to be of an angel race… and from Saturn. Dr. Funkenstein (George Clinton) and his agents of Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication traveled the cosmos in The P Funk Mothership. Afrika Bambaataa and his electro followers all incorporated sci-fi elements into their appearance and music as did their afro-futurist techno offspring in Detroit.

In black literature, the sci-fi tradition goes back at least as far as WEB Dubois, who published “The Comet” in 1920. Since then prominent black sci-fi authors have included Andrea Hairston, Minister Faust, N. K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Tananarive Due.




It’s troubling that most imagined Utopias in Hollywood are so racially homogeneous. Hollywood’s perfect future is a world without war, hunger, or non-white people. So here is my look at black people in sci-fi (primarily space operas and not alternate realities/alternate histories or techno-thrillers -- because my concern in this entry is with how filmmakers of various times imagine the future). Nevertheless, I have to first mention The world, the flesh and the devil (1958) because it starred (and was co-produced) by Harry Belafonte, making it the first sci-fi film starring a black character.  To this day post-apocalyptic alternate realities are one of the preferred method for film and TV-makers to make (usually ham-fisted) observations about race (e.g. The walking dead).

Son of Ingagi poster


One reader has pointed out since I originally published this piece that by some definitions, Son of Ingagi (1940 -- dir. Richard Kahn) can be considered the first black science-fiction film. Written by
Spencer Williams and starring an all-black cast, it's certainly one of the first black "genre" films. Though available for viewing, I've not seen it but plot descriptions suggest that it's about a rampaging monster from Africa suggesting that it's more of a monters/horror film than science-fiction film. Not that all science-fiction takes place in space and/or the future, but that's the sort that I'm most concerned with for the purposes of this piece. 

 

DEFA & THEIR COLORFUL COMMUNIST COSMOS




It’s no surprise to me that Communists’ utopian fantasies would be more colorful than capitalists’ – or that they wouldn’t have the best production values and highest sophistication. East Germany’s Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) made four enjoyable (if kitschy) science-fiction films: Der schweigende stern (1960), Signale – Ein weltraumabenteuer (1970), Eolomea (1972), and Im staub der sterne (1976). Der schweigende stern (truncated and released in America as First spaceship on Venus) presented a group of cosmonauts that included an American, a Chinese, a German, an Indian, a Japanese, a Pole, a Soviet and an Julius Ongewe as an African TV technician. All the DEFA sci-fi films portray an idealized future where all countries are co-operative, socialist, and (to the detriment of drama), almost completely devoid of engaging internal conflict. The same can’t be said for other planets though, especially the decadent, hedonistic TEM 4 in Im staub der sterne.

 

STAR TREK -- RACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER

Star Trek original series cast

The West not only lagged behind communist powers in the actual space race, but in some ways, science-fiction too. Forbidden planet (1956) is one of my favorite films and  has numerous groundbreaking and trendsetting distinctions including it’s amazing and entirely electronic score, a robot with an developed personality, and it was the first science fiction film set entirely on a deep space alien planet. Despite all that, in its entire universe there are only white people. Altair IV may have the first racist interstellar homeowners' association.

Forbidden Planet crew
Forbidden planets all-white crew of United Planets Cruiser C57-D

Forbidden planet's premise of people exploring deep space and many other features were admitted influences on Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who began developing his show in 1964. One of his significant improvements on USS Enterprise NCC-1701 over Forbidden planet’s United Planets Cruiser C57-D was the injection of women and ethnic diversity into its crew. Critics have pointed out that his future still required women to wear distinct uniforms designed to heighten their sex appeal and that apparently homosexuality was left behind some time before the 23rd century but it was certainly a significant step in the right direction.

Lt. Uhura

In fact, some of Star Trek’s gender conservatism was a compromise with NBC. The first pilot, “The Cage,” was rejected by NBC for being “too cerebral” and also because they didn’t like the fact that Captain Christopher Pike’s second-in-command, Number One, was female. Nichelle Nichols, as communications officer Lieutenant (later Commander) Uhura, was acceptable (and the actress who'd played Number One was recast as Nurse Chapel). As Uhura, Nichols was one of the first remotely-empowered black characters on TV (Bill Cosby in I, spy appeared the previous year). Nichols’s passion was in theater and she actually handed in her resignation before none other than Martin Luther King, Jr implored to continue on Star Trek, driving home what an inspiration she was. And although her position was sometimes compared to that of a telephone operator, she more than once capably controlled ship operations after taking the helm!

Captain Terrell Geordi La Forge  Ben Sisko Travis Mayweather

The Star Trek franchise has consistently depicted black characters in key roles suck as Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) in Star Trek: The wrath of Khan (1982), Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton) in Star Trek: The next generation (1987), Fleet Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters) in Star Trek VI: The undiscovered country (1991), Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Lafayette Sisko (Avery Brooks) in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993), Ensign Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) on Enterprise (2001). 

Worf  Guinan  Tuvok

Additionally, Star Trek has to this day been one of the only instances in science-fiction TV where black actors have played aliens not only heavily made-up (such as Michael Dorn as Klingon Lieutenant Worf), but also relatively unaltered (e.g. Vulcan officer Tuvok (Tim Russ) and El-Aurian bartender, Guinan (
Whoopi Goldberg)). One glaringly offensive misstep was the Next generation episode “Code of Honor” which is one of the worst episodes in the franchise’s history. Other than that, after Star Trek, any futuristic space crews from earth would at least make token attempts at depicting diversity.

 

THE HESTON FACTOR



Though Charlton Heston is remembered by many today as NRA spokesman and vocal defender of straight, white, Christian men in what he called “the Culture War,” he (or at least his past) was more complicated than that. He campaigned for liberals like Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. He also picketed segregated businesses in Oklahoma. He initially opposed the Vietnam War and accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s Heston also starred several sci-fi films that included overtly allegorical messages about racism.


In Planet of the apes (1968), his small NASA crew included black actor Jeff Burton. Omega Man (1971), depicted film's first black-white interracial kiss between Heston and his on-screen love interest Lisa (played by Rosalind Cash) as well as casting black and white actors in harmony as the vampire-like antagonists. In 1973, Charlton Heston starred in Soylent Green, a dystopian sci-fi police procedural with several prominent black characters, such as Brock Peters as Chief Hatcher and Paula Kelly as Martha.

Battlestar Galactica Cast (1978)
The cast of Battlestar Galactica

In the following years following the strides of the Civil Rights Era, black characters once again appeared only intermittently in Hollywood sci-fi. In Jason of Star Command (1978), Princess Allegra (Roseanne Katon) and Samantha (Tamara “Cleopatra Jones” Dobson) appeared amongst the mostly white cast. In Battlestar Galactica (also 1978), Boomer (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) and Colonel Tigh (Terry Carter) did the same. (In the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica – though superior in nearly every way to the original – both Boomer and Tigh were recast as non-black characters although an Uhura-like, black, female communications NCO character named Anastasia "Dee" Dualla was created, portrayed by Kandyse McClure). In Alien (1979), Yaphet Kotto appeared as Parker, the Chief Engineer. He was quote “chosen partly to add diversity to the cast and give the Nostromo crew an international flavor” (although Kotto is a native of New York City). 


SPACE IS THE PLACE



One notable exception to the era was the film,
Space is the place. It stars Sun Ra (who co-wrote the screenplay) as himself. With his crew, the Arkestra, he decides to transport black people of Earth to a new planet, using his music. After traveling back in time to the 1940s, he confronts a pimp overlord and they duel for the fate of all black people.

 

STAR WARS

Lando Calrissian and the multicultural cloud city, Bespin
Lando Calrissian and the multicultural cloud city

As brought up on the aforementioned podcast, Lando Calrissian (played by Billy Dee Williams) showed up in Star WarsThe Empire strikes back (1980) as the administrator of Bespin’s Cloud City (which is shown to be populated by characters portrayed by actors of white, black, Asian, and Ugnaught descent). Before Calrissian's arrival, the “galaxy far, far away” had been populated by an amazing diversity of imaginatively designed (but never black) aliens. Of course Darth Vader was voiced by a black man (James Earl Jones), the costume was worn by white actor David Prowse and when Anakin Skywalker is unmasked, he was portrayed by white actor Sebastian Shaw. In the later films, Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Jedi Mace Windu but arguably racial sensitivity in the Star Wars franchise took many more steps back with characters like Nien Nunb, Jar Jar Binks and the Neimoidians – all of which seemed overtly based on racist (and extremely tired) stereotypes of various Earth cultures.

 

BLACK SCI-FI CHARACTERS IN CARTOONS


A sad reality of Hollywood is that sometimes the cartoons seem less "cartoonish" than their live-action counterparts (see early seasons of The Simpsons for example. Bill Cosby excoriated networks for reinforcing negative stereotypes with "drive by images" of blacks as buffoons. Cosby himself created the cartoon Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids in 1972, depicting an all black (animated) cast of characters. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Junkyard Gang began watching The Brown Hornet, a show-within-a-show about a black, sci-fi superhero earlier developed by Cosby as a radio character. His sidekick, Stinger, was also black. And although their robot Tweeterbell was mostly white in color, he did wear an apple hat like many young black men of the day.


Another Filmation attempted to depict a black sci-fi star, Blackstar, which debuted in 1981. Astronaut John Blackstar was conceived in development as a black man. The name of the show seems to have been a nod to Marcus Garvey's shipping line. However, even in the ‘80s the “Tiffany Network” (CBS) was unwilling to air the show unless Blackstar was redesigned merely as a racially vague, swarthy type. After Blackstar was cancelled, the shows formula was tinkered with slightly and reborn as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which, like Star Wars depicted a world populated by an astounding array of humanoids... but no black people.

 

I’M A CULT HERO


Given Hollywood’s continuing racial conservatism, most Black Cinema in the 1980s went underground and independent. It’s no surprise that two of the more well-known black sci-fi characters also came from beyond Hollywood. The brother from another planet (1984) was an independent film starring Joe Morton as the titular “Brother,” a black alien who has crashed his spaceship in the Upper New York Harbor.


The
UK’s Red Dwarf starred mixed Irish and black Guyanese-English actor Craig Joseph Charles as Scouse spaceman Dave Lister and debuted on BBC 2 in 1988. Lister plays the last man alive on board Jupiter Mining Corporation’s mining ship, Red Dwarf. The descendants of Lister's cat, over the course of the three million years that Lister was in stasis, has evolved into a human-like species, including The Cat, portrayed by black British actor Danny John-Jules.


CAPTAIN EO



Between
The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married,  esteemed director Francis Ford Coppola made his only foray into science-fiction with Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson. The plot concerns EO and his ragtag crew's journey to a Borg-like civilization in order to reveal the beauty within the planet's Supreme Leader (played by Angelica Houston). They succeed and everyone has a dance party.

THE WILL SMITH EXCEPTION

Will Smith in I, Robot

Many people have theorized that it’s Hollywood’s love of green more than it’s love of white that keeps most films so overwhelmingly Caucasian. Will Smith is one of the few black actors to be embraced by the global mainstream. He’s appeared in numerous science-fiction films including Independence Day (1996), Men In black (1997), I, Robot (2004), I am Legend (2007), and now, After Earth (2013). Additionally, he was considered for Neo in The Matrix (he chose instead to appear in The wild, wild west) and his real-life wife, Jada Pinkett Smith was considered for the role of Trinity. Denzel Washington starred in the Book of Eli (2010), directed by the black Hughes Brothers. The success of both actors in sci-fi suggests somewhat that Hollywood has progressed since 1958. However, it’s also worth noting that both actors have consistently played characters in these films in which their race is never directly addressed as an issue.




It's often been said that Hollywood believes that non-white films don’t do well in the all-important international market, which can save a domestic flop. It’s true that Tyler Perry films don’t do terribly well abroad (neither do they apparently try to or need to since they invariably recoup their meager budgets during their opening weekends) but what about the Rush Hour or Harold & Kumar franchises, both of whose leads are either black or Asian and both of which do well overseas? Both franchises also get many of their laughs by addressing rather than ignoring the issue of their stars' non-whiteness and simultaneously avoid making obvious, grand attempts at being something more than they are.







Of course, the all-important international market isn't itself mostly white and produces its own films (even though they usually, unless they're European, Chinese or Japanese, have little likelihood of being seen in the USA. One of the best science-fiction films of recent years was made by Africans, District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2009). The same year, the Kenyan/South African co-production Pumzi (dir. Wanuri Kahiu, 2009) was released as well.




TO BODLY GO

M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth (2013) is somewhat interesting for being a Hollywood sci-fi film starring black actors (Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, naturally) and directed by an Asian-American. It’s more interesting to me that, ever since the words “An M. Night Shyamalan film” in a trailer have begun invariably inducing a collective groan from the audience, his involvement in After Earth is being so downplayed. So in the meantime Ice Cube and Pam Grier may appear in films like Ghosts of Mars, Dwayne Johnson may star in Doom,  and while Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Dollhouse may include a couple of prominent black cast members, for the most part Planet Hollywood remains a Forbidden Planet to non-whites.

*****

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Sci-fi (44), Science-fiction (8), Black History Month (122), Black Cinema (8)