In addition to my love for romantic comedies, and basically anything that falls under the label of “chick flick” (which I talked about here), I rarely miss the opportunity to see a good science fiction or fantasy film, and I’m an avid science fiction reader. Among the science fiction movies I have on my DVD shelf, only two of them have black characters with a significant role in the film. All of the other films of this genre in my collection have overwhelmingly white casts. So just to satisfy my curiosity, I recently began thinking about all the sci-fi films that actually have prominently featured black characters and I discovered that there are quite a few.
First, I’d like to talk about the aforementioned films from my collection. Based on the Ursula K. LeGuin book of the same title, The Lathe of Heaven is definitely in my top five favorite sci-fi films. The 1980 version, which originally aired on PBS, looks dated but it has a certain charm with costume, makeup and production design that is still impressive today. The Lathe of Heaven is about a man named George Orr (played by Bruce Davison) who has effective dreams—the ability to change reality just by dreaming up a new one. Tormented by the burden of changing the reality of the world, and being the only one who knows what the world was like before such changes occurred, George takes various drugs to stay awake. When his drug abuse lands him in trouble with the law, George must seek out professional help from a psychiatrist named Dr. William Haber. Skeptical of George’s abilities at first, Dr. Haber starts experimenting on George, feeding him images and suggestions. When George is proved right, Dr. Haber begins manipulating George into dreaming up realities which ultimately benefit Dr. Haber more than anyone else.
At one point, in his only gesture of selflessness, Dr. Haber suggests to George a dream which does away with racism. This backfires when, in the new reality, everyone is the same gray color. George suspects Dr. Haber’s ulterior motives and hires a lawyer named Heather LeLache to represent him (played Margaret Avery, probably best known as 'Shug' in The Color Purple) . Together, George and Heather fight against Dr. Haber’s sociopathic whims and try to figure out a way to reverse the domino effect of Haber’s backfiring suggestions. Along the way, perhaps united by their predicament and their need for a consistent variable, Heather and George fall in love. How does it end? You’ll just have to rent or buy the film to find out. It’s worth it ;-)
In Strange Days, Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny, a dealer of SQUID. SQUID is a visual recording of personal experiences taken from cerebral sensors attached to a person’s head. The viewer of SQUID can hear and see everything that the recorder did. The recordings are like a drug (even deadly- neurologically speaking), and therefore illegal. One of Lenny’s cerebral prostitutes (for lack of a better term) is murdered after recording a politically scandalous video. Lenny also receives the gruesome recording of her final moments, anonymously. With the help of his loyal friend Mace, (played by Angela Bassett), Lenny attempts to expose the scandal, but also solve the murder of his friend. You’ll also have to rent or buy this one to find out how it ends. It’s one of my favorites, and you won’t be disappointed in Angela Bassett’s captivating performance which blends intelligence and gentleness with plenty of ass kicking.
In both of these films, the black characters were written as such. From The Lathe of Heaven:
She stuck out her brown hand, he met it with a white one, just like that damn button her mother always kept in the bottom of her bead box, SCNN or SNCC or something she'd belonged to way back in the middle of the last century, the Black hand and the White hand joined together. Christ!
The Taoist, ying and yang themes of this story are palpable, right down to the interracial relationship.
Strange Days , directed by Kathryn Bigelow from the script penned by James Cameron and Jay Cocks describes Mace as a black woman:
INT. CAR - NIGHT
A hand pulls a ringing cellular out of a black jacket.Follow the hand and phone to the face of a black woman. LORNETTE "MACE" MASON.Late twenties. Striking features.Hair pulled back tight to her skull.She is driving,but we don't see the car, or anything but her face.
Popular Science Fiction Films with Prominent Black Characters:
In Predator (1987), “Mac”, played by Bill Duke, and “Dillon”, played by Carl Weathers were described as black men in the script.
Predator 2 (1990) starred Danny Glover and the late Kevin Peter Hall reprising his role as the Predator.
The role of Childs (played by Keith David) in The Thing (1982, directed by John Carpenter), was written as a black man. Carpenter supposedly wrote Keith David’s part for They Live (1988) especially for the actor after working with him on The Thing. A 2011 remake of They Live is listed as ‘in development’ on IMDb.com- I’m interested to see who they’ll cast in the part previously played by David.
The Matrix (1999, 2003) starred Laurence Fishburne in a prominent role throughout the trilogy. The trilogy also featured Marcus Chong, Nona Gaye, Harold Perrineau, Jada Pinkett Smith, and the late, great Gloria Foster. With all of the aforementioned actors (except Marcus) starring in Matrix Reloaded, I can’t think of another sci-fi film with five principle roles given to black actors. Can you?
Before Will Smith played the last man on earth in I am Legend (2007), the role was played by Vincent Price and Charlton Heston. The role of ‘Jay’ in Men in Black was offered to Chris O’Donnell and David Schwimmer before finally going to Will Smith.
With the above examples, and many more, science fiction seems to be a somewhat reliable outlet for black characters. We could still make some strides-especially where black writers and directors are concerned-but black actors have done pretty well in this genre. Perhaps it’s because in most sci-fi films there’s always a conflict that seems larger than humanity, and so human differences (such as gender or skin color) necessarily dissolve in order for humankind to prevail.
Sadly there aren’t many fantasy films with black actors. Off the top of my head, the most recent examples of blacks in fantasy films are: What Dreams May Come with Cuba Gooding Jr, and Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In popular fantasy fiction, print and film—which runs the gamut from goblins and hobbits to doors that lead to the inside of John Malkovich’s mind— black people are much less likely to be seen in front of, or behind the camera. I’ll let you speculate why.
So chime in. Are you a sci-fi/fantasy fan? Are you a sci-fi/fantasy writer? I’m in the process of writing a script with fantasy/magical realism elements, somewhat in the school of Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic. And, yes, there are black main characters in it :)
Also, share your favorite sci-fi/fantasy stories with black characters that you’d like to see on the big (or small) screen.