A week ago, during the Giants vs Eagles game on Monday night football, the final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiered. It was met with a thunderous applause the world over well at least except for the racists who felt the film was promoting white genocide. The notion that the film was too diverse with ONE non-CGI modified actor, John Boyega playing the leading male hero of Finn, and one actor who we have yet to see in her CGI form, Lupita Nyong’o, is so ludicrous considering the voice of Darth Vader, the modern villain, came from James Earl Jones. Trevor Noah even poked fun at the stupidity. I for one was very excited, the moment when he ignited his lightsaber let you know we were moving forward without the racists in diversifying science fiction (I wasn’t the only one happy to see a black jedi either).
All jokes aside the “fear of white genocide” that these racists employed reflects the longstanding racial climate of our society. The idea that black people will bring ruin to the great civilization white people built is nothing new but the need to exclude black people from being included in the future raises several questions that afro-futurists have sought to address. I am not the most update to on all the theories concerning afro-futurism but I do understand at its most basic level it seeks to situate black people in the future. That sounds great until you see the backlash that a noted franchise received just because a black actor serves as the male lead. But the Star Wars debacle is only one part of a larger issue. In the post-Olivia Pope era, there still remains a dearth of science fiction oriented shows that have featured black people as prominent leads (this critique could be extended to movies where we still have to wait for the release of the Black Panther movie). The shows that managed to make it past the pilot stage with black leads did not fare well and were subsequently cancelled. Why is that? Is sci-fi TV not as progressive as it likes to let on? Is the rejection of black people in the future a manifestation of implicit biases about what a hero looks like?
Now I know that there are probably more TV shows that had black leads but I’ll be focusing on three that came out within the last two years. These three came at a time when interest in complex black lead characters was growing yet all three ended in cancellation (one hasn’t been officially cancelled but its season order reduced from 13 to 10 episodes so its pretty much cancelled). Almost Human takes place in 2048 and stars Michael Ealy as Dorian a robot that has been programmed to have feelings and better understand the human experience than later models which are your standard tin cans. Recently cancelled after two seasons, Extant stars Halle Berry as Molly
Woods an astronaut who while on a 13 month mission in space gets impregnated by an alien spore (I like to refer to Molly Woods as the Black Alien Eve or BAE for short).
And last but certainly not least Minority Report staring Meagan Good as Lara Vega a DC Metro police officer in the year 2065 who works with Dash, a Pre-cognitive who can see murders before they happen. All three shows have great premises and I like them all but there is something to be said about why black sci-fi leads haven’t caught on to the wave to the Post-Olivia Pope world or the more recent Empire Effect that increased the number of pilots that were presented with people of color as leads this past year. Sure you can make the argument that the writing, acting, directing isn’t good (I disagree but okay) but what explains the lower viewing numbers in the first place?
Though there is no official research, I think it is fair to say that mainstream America *read white America* have an implicit bias towards sci-fi characters of color. Before you say “stop playing the race card those shows just sucked look at all the white people that watch Empire, Power, How To Get Away With Murder, and Scandal,” I’d like to point out that it an be argued that those shows are easier to believe and though the black characters have an authenticity to them, they still exist in a semi-believable boundary not afforded to futuristic black characters. For instance, for shows like HTGAWM or Scandal it can be argued that powerful black woman at the helm are a departure from a narrative that requires white men or even white woman as the leads. Also, it is easier to envision an Olivia Pope or an Annaleise Keating who represent the small percentage of black professionals that “made it.” On the other side Empire and Power are also believable because viewers can picture a hip hop family being all black or a black drug kingpin (even though Ghost isn’t your stereotypical gangster that is typically seen on TV). These shows can be found in our realities in one way or another meanwhile a black future is not believable to many.
The three shows tell different stories. All three had their pluses but also their minuses. For instance, Almost Human was a great concept as it speaks to the fears regarding artificial intelligence being that they would not be able to empathize and would base their judgments based on what is the most productive (so if granny can’t stand to walk out of a burning building the AI might just leave her to die and not think twice). There is also the concern that AIs would become like Ultron or Master Mold and seek to either enslave or destroy humans. Dorian presented an
alternative, a robot that was deeply concerned with humans and who often took human risks for his partner. Yet the episodes were shown out of order and the secondary plot wasn’t really explored till the end of the season making the story difficult to follow even for someone committed to the show. In Extant, although there is also an element of AIs’ roles in the future with Ethan, Molly’s humanic (robot) son who behaves like a human, this show took a more adventurous approach to sci-fi looking at questions of not only alien life but also extinction. Exant means to come into existence and the show charts the emergence not only of human like androids but also the human-alien hyrbids that Molly introduces to the world. There are several storylines that don’t get tied up but Molly’s transformation via Chimera DNA sequencing (a gift of her alien baby who in turn rapidly grows up and impregnates many women to create a massive human-alien hyrbid colony) forces her to confront the realities of being human and also see the fear that other
humans had when faced with possible extinction. Lastly, Minority Report is very interesting and though I was hoping to get at least a full season I do appreciate how it envisions the future. With conversations about GMOs and the healthy food revolution (which makes foods like french fries good to eat without unhealthy consequences), disease and vaccinations, global warming, etc. the show deals with
questions about what will our planet look like in the future. Moreover, the technology in this show is mind blowing and I give credit to the minds behind it but there is an unsaid argument that people will only become more machine like with cybernetic implants and such. The most interesting aspect of this show is the increased presence of people in color. It has long been stated that by 2050 there will be more people of color than white people and this show plays with that with Lara Vega’s police unit being completely comprised of POC with a Hispanic Lieutenant with Willmer Valderama’s Will Blake and an Asian woman Li Jun Li as Akeela the tech specialist.
This piece was really only for me to raise this concern and ask a few questions. What will blackness in the future look like? If our current society is any indication racism and white supremacy aren’t going anywhere, in what ways will black futures depict these issues? Also, how do we get more black leads on sci-fi shows? Is it just a matter of better writing and acting or are we facing such stiff push back because there is an implicit bias about black people. I saw an HBO short film entiled Progress where the last black man on Earth lives a secluded hidden from the world. My immediate question was what happened to all the black people? Was it something sinister like this fabled race war white supremacists are so eager to start? Maybe it was a genetic disease? Or maybe something slower but equally as horrible as the first two? Again I’m not an expert on Afro-futurism so I encourage you to browse the internet for those that are but why are black futures so hard for society to envision? I guess I’ll save judgment and hope that in the future black characters will be able to serve as leads of their own successful futuristic/general sci-fi shows. Maybe the Empire effect is delayed and there is currently a show in the works that will address these issues. After all I just watch episode 6 of season 2 of The Flash and we now have a black Firestorm on TV (Of course there was John Diggle on Arrow and Curtis Holt who will become Mister Terrific which I’m also excited to see) so I still have a little hope.
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