Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

2013 S&A Highlights: Page to Screen - SciFi and Fantasy Films

Features
by Stephanie
December 31, 2013 5:28 PM
22 Comments
  • |
Page to Screen: Sci-Fi and Fantasy Films

Editor's note: As 2013 comes to an end, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published during the year. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's the 8th of many to come, originally posted in mid-February 2013. Happy New Year to you all! 

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.

Features
  • |

More: Science Fiction

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

22 Comments

  • Janine Bowen | February 2, 2014 6:13 PMReply

    Just finished watching "Attack the Block" and loved it, loved it, loved it!

  • ssptimus | January 1, 2014 12:59 AMReply

    Does _Pitch Black_ count? Vin Diesel is supposedly half-African American, no?

    _Pitch Black_ is one of my huge guilty pleasures, although perhaps I shouldn't
    feel guilty about it at all. The science may be garbage (and tge film may be
    more of a horror/undefinable genre-mix), but the screenplay is really quite
    brilliant and constantly subverts our expectations about gender roles, religion,
    etc. The redemptive ending is impressive, unless you happen to be ideologically
    against such things, and I don't think Radha Mitchell has ever surpassed her
    strong work in this film.

  • Ahmed Khawaja | January 1, 2014 12:31 AMReply

    I recently completed a sci-fi comedy feature length screenplay (77 pages!). It's about a lottery that happens every two years that sends three married couples out to a distant planet to initiate colonization. But the people from that distant planet send a spy to sabotage the current mission. It's my first script actually. I was determined to have a work that I could produce professionally, something that could stand the test of time and be regarded as a notable sci-fi film (up there with the greats like John Carpenter's Starman). So far I've only made movies that a) require no script and b) are autobiographical "diary movies." I reside in Abu Dhabi, but have a good, reliable network of filmmaker friends back in Boston & New York. I have no idea who to approach to get my film made. It does contain scenes of a single alien spaceship hovering over a city at night... and other sci-fi elements that I'd definitely need a good special effects team for. But I wrote the movie as a low budget sci-fi. So I'm hoping to make it for... less than a 100 thousand? My first feature cost 12,000 only because we shot it on 16mm.

  • James N. Smith | March 2, 2013 5:31 AMReply

    Nowadays, I don't even hold my breath expecting to see a Black "protagonist" in a Hollywood Sf or Fantasy genre film. The second especially as long as fantasy remains Eurocentric. Jack the Giant Killer comes out today, and I already know it's going to be as white as The Hobbit. How about a film based on Glen Cook's 'The Black Company' (No pun intended) which takes place with a group of culturally mixed merc's that travel to places that one gets the feeling are completely non-European based lands? It's even more exciting than Game of Thrones.

    They are moving along nicely in getting Orson Scott Card's 'Ender's Game' to the screen. A Black character named Bean is very prominent in that story and actually becomes the protagonist of the next two books in the series. Bet we don't see that anytime soon.

    There was a recent article going around by a woman comic artist who said why there wasn't more women superhero books, and the reason she gave could be cut and pasted onto the reason you don't see more Blacks and other minorities in Sf and fantasy, and the primary reason is that they don't sell. Either you need to gain new viewers who don't typically go to these type films, or you need to figure a way to get the fanboys to come out to films that dare to "star" a Black character, and not look on it as a "Black film". And no, the one exception of Will Smith's past success is too much of an outlier to say it already happening.

    The other thing we need to do, is take more advantage of the affordability of the technology. I see some incredibly stuff on You Tube and Vimeo by people who are nowhere near the Hollywood scene, but are using CGI programs, AfterEffects , DSLR and HD video cameras and putting some stuff out there that is putting Hollywood to shame and getting lots of attention. Look at Freddiew's channel and the stuff he's doing for gaming fans, or the guys at Corridor Digital. Sadly I'm not seeing similar efforts from Blacks in great numbers.

  • Janet | February 26, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    Hey Stephanie, If you want to see a new original science fiction film (2012) with a black leading actor and black supporting actors in it, watch Cybornetics.

  • Amber J | February 26, 2013 1:39 PMReply

    Thank you for this post! I dabble in fantasy here and there but my heart belongs to Sci-Fi. Watching Star Trek with my pops when I was child pretty much set it off from there. I've always been curious about "Lathe of Heaven" now I can't wait to watch it! Don't forget about Alfre Woodward in Star Trek: First Contact, and Strange Days has always been a fave of mine. Someone else mentioned Sanaa Lathan in Alien vs. Predator, I'm glad i'm not the only one who understands how amazing that was to see. After watching "The Abandoned" I was inspired by the DIY ethic and now am working on a Sci-Fi graphic novel dealing with race/class/gender focusing on a group of black women. I'm not waiting around anymore.

    Though with that said I am looking to forward to Will/Jaden Smith's "After Earth" this summer.

  • TheEbonyCinematheque | February 26, 2013 1:07 PMReply

    ... the only way these films will be made, is independently. Now there's a lot of African American filmmakers who think this genre is reserved for big budgets and Michael Bay style special effects which is also what studio executives think, which is why they don't make them but that is utter BS because some of the best work in this genre has been made on virtually no money just this year alone look at: Cosmopolis, Antiviral, Vanishing Waves, Beyond the Black Rainbow(which was made on One Million Candian dollars!). If the right people come together to pull their resources to make the stories of W.Mosely or O.Butler, it could change the face of African American filmmaking.

  • TheEbonyCinematheque | February 26, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    I am a huge scifi/fantasy fan to the point I would say I'm a Fan Girl, my favorite genre would be vampires and fairytales like Grimm but the reason that they're aren't that many African American influenced fantasy films is look at the directors in that genre, Hollywood still has this bias that African American directors can handle drama, gritty realism but when it comes to imagination, fantasy, scifi that is strictly reserved for nerdy young white male directors from superheroes, vampires, werewolves and everything else inbetween. I would love to see Steve Mcqueen or Kasi Lemmons update some of those old b/w vampire movies based on the classic victorian stories that vampires came from Africa, where vampire cities were in African & Caribbean islands like the Vampire's Ghost. I wished I had the time to write a really good scifi/fantasy film - two ideas I've been pushing around are a live action adaptation of Toni Morrison's Song of Solmon and a TV series adaptation of V.Hamilton's Justice and Her Brothers because with films like Hunger Games and Twilight, there's not alot of black characters for black teens or young adults that are leading protagnoist in these genres their always supporting - the only clear lead and my favorite franchise is BLADE....

  • eshowoman | February 26, 2013 3:10 AMReply

    Sadly the outlook for more POC in sci fi and fantasy looks bleak. The whitewashing done in films like The Last Airbender, Dragon Ball Z, the now (thankfully) defunct Akira, the upcoming Enders Game and live action American version Ghost in the Shell, indicates that white Sci Fi producers and fans only want to see white people on screen.
    I am still still appalled by the whitewashed version of Ursula K. Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea on Sci Fi a few years ago.
    Neil Gaiman's Brit TV aaptation of Neverwhere has two main black characters and Coraline's partner in crime is an African-American kid named Wyborn. We may never see film versions of his books American Gods or Anansi Boys because every producer he has ever met about the projects has wanted to change the lead characters to white men.
    I have no confidence that Hollywood would do justice to Butler, Delaney, or Mosley.

    There are two black characters in the recently ended programs Fringe and Eureka

  • Sci-fi/Fantasy fanatic | February 22, 2013 8:23 PMReply

    I'm with everyone here, Octavia Butler needs her time on the screen. I'd also love to see L.A. Banks have her works appropriately done and even N.K. Jemisin. I myself am a emerging author with my fantasy book Sin Eaters (Kai Leakes) so I'd love to see more African American women like myself and men, get their respect and due with their sci-fi/fantasy works, if not on screen, then have it be marketed and supported across the boards. I am obsessed with Fantasy/romance and love looking for books that feature us as leads and as supporting leads. BTW #teamStorm/BlackPanther

  • Vee | February 25, 2013 11:00 PM

    I've read all of Octavia Butler's books and most would make a fantastic film adaptation. L.A. Banks' Vampire Huntress series would do as well or better than the anemic Twilight series. Walter Mosley's Sci Fi novels would also be a great choice because he'd could write the screenplays.

  • PhredG | February 22, 2013 7:55 PMReply

    Lest we forget fantastic performances by Jamil Walker Smith in Stargate SGU. Also would like to see an attempt at one (or ALL) of Kevin J. Anderson's The Saga Of The Seven Suns series.
    I liked Sophie Okonedo in AEon Flux also.

  • Audrea | February 22, 2013 4:58 PMReply

    Don't forget "Brother From Another Planet" with Joe Morton - He gave a sensitive heartfelt performance.
    Lathe of Heaven. Loved it. Watched it when it first aired on PBS. They have made a remake with Lisa Bonet, but the original is still my favorite. "Strange Days" also awesome. Excellent choice. It had some great performances in there. Some times I wish Kate Bigelow would go back to her sci fi roots. Can't forget the X-Men Franchise from Halle Berry's Storm to Zoe Kravitz playing Angel. And ofcourse who can forget Martha Jones played by Freema Agyeman on Doctor Who Reboot Season 3. Her travels back to earth history where honest and filled with social commentary. Still my favorite season because of her.

  • PhredG | February 22, 2013 7:48 PM

    Love Freema Agyeman!!! I got into Dr. Who because I was browsing through the lib's dvd sections and hadn't seen DW since 1989. When I saw a BLACK WOMAN on the cover I was hooked. Been following Freema ever since. She's great in Law And Order UK also. She's also the emcee in Dr. Who At The Prom on their specials dvd and does a great job. Haven't seen her Torchwood stuff yet though.

  • Troy | February 22, 2013 4:38 PMReply

    Dont two of the richest black women in the world have media/production companies? Why do you think these successful and powerful black women aren't bringing these stories to the big screen. I happen to think the personal investments will pay off tremendously if taking the independent route.

  • Octavia Lives! | February 22, 2013 4:15 PMReply

    I'm w/ Heather -- talk about material for some AMAZING film adaptations! Octavia! Octavia! Octavia!

  • Tamara | February 22, 2013 4:14 PMReply

    Gina Torres in Joss Whedon's "Serenity" (borne of the television series "Firefly") and yes, I love sci-fi more than fantasy but kinda like it when there's a mix of the two. I'm one of the few people in the world who haven't read Octavia Butler, but would chime in to say all of her works, if not some, are deserving of adaptations. Also, Walter Mosley his sci-fi endeavors. Also, Minister Faust's work The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad would be a cool flick to see. Also, Spider Robinson's Night of Power could be another good film (in which the producers/writers could actually finish telling the story), I could also see it as a mini-series or television series. And finally, last but not least, the horse I have beaten since every topic on sci-fi books-to-film adaptation posts have been posted, somebody, anybody, everybody bring forth the Hyperion saga by Dan Simmons. You want to talk about something that could rival Star Wars? HYPERION. Not only could black "characters" have a go, but black characters of all colors could star. think about it.

  • Tamara | February 25, 2013 10:03 AM

    YES! Samuel Delaney's works! YES!

  • urbanauteur | February 22, 2013 4:46 PM

    BABEL- 17/ The Tides of Lust/Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand: Samuel Delaney

  • Heather | February 22, 2013 3:14 PMReply

    I have so much respect/love/enthusiasm for this article! Sci-fi and fantasy films are my passion, first because I just love them, but also because I think the genre is so open to new ideas. I did my undergrad thesis paper on black female characters represented in science fiction films and in grad school I've just tried to bring those ideas into everything I'm working on (including my thesis film, which is more fantasy at the moment). I really believe that more than other genres, sci-fi and fantasy offer so much opportunity for showing diverse characters, because there are no limits to what you can do. NO LIMITS. That being said, I'm often surprised to see the same stereotypes in many of the sci-fi/fantasy films that are out there. For some reason, people just settled for the same old, same old. Thanks for pointing out some examples that break the mold! My favorites include: Sanaa Lathan in Alien vs. Predator, Uhura in Star Trek, Lando Calrissian in Star Wars, Samuel L. Jackson in Star Wars, Steela Gerrera in Star Wars: Clone Wars, Rue in the Hunger Games, and recently, Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hopefully, in the future, I can add to that list, as a producer. For now, I'm just a fan.

    Semi-related: Where are all the Octavia Butler film adaptations????

  • Tim | February 22, 2013 5:51 PM

    hey Heather, I'd be curious to see your thesis film! I'm currently writing a fantasy film with a black protagonist, and it's made me realize just how few of those there are ("Beasts" was an interesting recent exception, even if I had some problems with it); so now I'm always looking to see more. it sounds like your film isn't finished yet, but if you ever wanted to email me more details: timnicholas [at] gmail [dot] com

  • Troy | February 22, 2013 4:33 PM

    Ask the black women filmmakers, millionaires, media executives, and actresses. Why don't black women come together and produce these great stories? Between Oprah and the Nigerian woman they have the funds and power to definitely get a Bestseller green lit for the international market. What's the deal?

Follow Shadow and Act

Email Updates

Most "Liked"

  • Caribbean Film VOD Platform STUDIO ANANSI ...
  • Muted, Black & White First Trailer for ...
  • Exclusive - Watch 1st Trailer for Nefertite ...
  • Review: Amma Asante's Brave 'Belle' ...
  • Omar Sy Takes a Dramatic-Romantic Turn ...
  • Is a Pulse-Pounding, International Espionage ...
  • 'Life After Death' (Conflicting Portrait ...
  • The 1st Movie That Made You Laugh? Steve ...
  • Boris Lojkine’s Critically-Acclaimed ...
  • 'Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black ...