Black to the Future: African American Sci-Fi Heroes in ’90s TV and Film

As Ytasha Womack points out in her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, “it was an age-old joke that blacks in sci-fi movies from the ‘50s through the ’90s typically had a dour fate” (7). They were killed off: black hero, Ben (Duane Jones) in George A. Romero’s original The Night of the Living Dead (1968), is shot by the police at the end of the film. And white heroes trumped them: in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) Lando Carlrissian (Billy Dee Williams) looses the Millennium Falcon in a bet and, as an unfortunate result, Hans Solo (Harrison Ford) gets more screen time. Even in Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69) — whose which creator, Gene Roddenberry, had openly articulated his investment in multiculturalism — Captain Kirk (William Shatner) repeatedly overshadows and even marginalizes Communications Officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the only black character on the show (Kanzler). The prevalence of these tropes in other mainstream sci-fi series and films suggests that, in the words of Womack, “in the artistic renderings of the future by pop culture standards, people of color weren’t factors at all” (7).  However, mainstream ‘90s sci-fi seemed to take Roddenberry’s vision much more seriously. In particular, black men were given more representation and occupied more positions of power in futuristic settings.

uhura                 lando

 

 

By 1999 Star Trek had been revived into three overlapping series that increasingly diversified. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) still centered on a white hero, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), but it gave significant airtime to Lieutenant Commander La Forge (LeVar Burton of Roots and Reading Rainbow acclaim) and also introduced Worf (Michael Dorn), la forgethe only Klingon in Starfleet (though, I admit, the racial implications of Klingons might be problematic). Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) showcased the series’ first black captain, Captain Benjamin Sisko tuvok(Avery Brooks) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), arguably the most diverse Starship crew, had a black Vulcan chief of security and tactical officer, Lieutenant Tuvok (Tim Russ who, they say, bears some resemblance to President Barack Obama).

men in black

The mid 1990s transformed Will Smith from fun loving teen flirt in the family comedy series Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996) into sci-fi action hero in the summer blockbuster Independence Day (1996) (making him one of highest grossing black celebrities in Hollywood). Smith followed Independence Day with two other sci-fi hits, Men in Black (1997) and Enemy of the State (1998). Around the same time, Wesley Snipes took to the big screen to play vampire superhero Blade (1998), and Lawrence Fishburne played the role of wise Morpheus in The Matrix (1999).[1] Wesley-Snipes-Blade-Leather-Coat-4-1200x1200

Hyper masculinized black men were finally saving the world on sci-fi screens, instead of being killed-off or sidestepped.  Yet there are important exceptions and integral supporting roles. Alfre Woodard played 21st century science and WWIII survivor, Lily Sloane, in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and Gloria Foster played The Oracle in The Matrix. Vivica A. Fox played single mother, exotic dancer, and Will Smith’s love interest in Independence Day. Angela Basset won Best Actress at the Saturn Awards in 1995 for her role of Lornette “Mace” Mason in the film Strange Days (1995); Basset also played opposite Eddie Murphy in Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). Carol Christine Hilaria Pounder “CCH” played a freedom fighter Bertha Washington in Robocop 3 (1993) and FBI scientist, Dr. Hollis Miller, in Face/Off (1997).

 

mace   bertha washington

 

 

 

 

 

There were also gender-bending black sci-fi characters. The most famous, perhaps, is Ruby Rod (Chris Tucker) in The Fifth Element (1997). Yet, Dwight Ewell’s performance of “Hooper X”, a black queer comic book artist who pretends to be both masculine and militant, in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997) remains seminal.

ruby rod

 

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Strangely, the 2000s has brought rather conservative reboots of the original Star Trek series. Uhura, now played by Zoe Salada, is still a supporting character and plays a marginal role on the Enterprise. However, with the reemergence of Octavia Butler and the advent of recent Afrofuturism, developed by women like Ytasha Womack and Janelle Monae, the future looks black, and even feminist.  Rebecca Kumar

 

Footnotes and Works Cited

[1] originally written by black sci-fi screenwriter Sophia Stewart, who won a lawsuit against The Wachowski Brothers

Kanzler, Katja. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: The Multicultural Evolution of Star Trek. Universitatätsverlag Winter, 2004.

Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi And Fantasy Culture. Chicago Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.

 

Octavia Butler: Redefining and Rebuilding Black Identity

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler created new realities. Some of Butler’s realities are populated with aliens, such as the short story “Bloodchild” and the Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago). In other cases, there are telepaths, immortals, and a variety characters some may expect to see in science fiction. However, what is most important is that her visions and examinations of the future (and past) portray realities with African-American men and women at the center. She offers nihilistic realities where black people are redefining and rebuilding humanity.

Octavia Butler

Butler published work from 1977 to shortly before her sudden death in 2006. However, she had several major milestones during the 1990s; she published the award-winning Parable Series–Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)—and the story and essay collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. In 1995, she was also awarded a $295,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant”; Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive this prestigious fellowship.

Parable Series

The Parable series follows young black female Lauren Olamina. She is 15 at the beginning of the first novel, which follows her journey during the years 2024 through 2027; the sequel takes place in the time period 2032 to 2090. Extreme poverty, violence, and (especially in the sequel) tolerated persecution of many non-Christians is often seen and too often encouraged. Lauren creates a new religion Earthseed, but she repeatedly faces sacrifice, violence, and loss on a long and difficult rode to her faith finding a following. Olamina is a complex character who arguably sacrifices her family and personal happiness (as well as the happiness of her child) led by a greater sense of duty to help build a social, spiritual, physically decaying version of the United States. Olamina is not perfect, she provides black people with a readable complex character making difficult decisions and in a dark and scary society; she is an actor and not acted upon. A young black woman is an agent of power and change.

In an interview following the main text in Parable of the Talents (Grand Central Publishing edition), Butler offers insight into her choice for the title of the novel. She explains, “the parable of talents is one of the harsher parables of the Bible, but then life can be harsh…We will use our talents or we will lose them. We will use our talents to save ourselves or we’ll do what other animal species do sooner or later.”[i] Many of Butler’s realties are dark, violent, and just plain scary; they are warnings of Western society’s and general human failings. She forces the reader to consider and examine different possibilities for saving humanity and (even more deeply) the individual soul. Butler does not ignore or minimize the complexity of the future. She offers a reality that puts black people in the center of negotiating it. —Ebony Gibson

[i] Butler, page 409.

The Black Imagination and Possibility: Afrofuturist Aesthetics in the 90s and Beyond

What better cultural and theoretical aesthetic to interrogate the interplay of black cultural life in the 90s, the present, and beyond than Afrofuturism? The term refers to a broad aesthetic form that employs technology and various artistic forms (it combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, history, magical realism, and Afrocentrism) to link a historical African past with an imagined black diasporic future.

Attempts by black artists to explore diasporic identity, to reconcile the past with the present, and subsequently envision a future where black is situated as subject, are not new. However, this phenomenon was dubbed “Afrofuturism” in 1994 when Mark Dery, a cultural critic and early writer on techno culture, examined recurring features and themes in African American science fiction, music, and art. In his essay “Black to the Future,” as part of an anthology called Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Dery interviews writers, such as Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose, in an attempt to explore concerns raised by African Americans writers in the science fiction genre. In the essay, he writes:

Speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of the twentieth-century counterculture–and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future–might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afrofuturism.’

His coinage and definition of Afrofuturism directly relates to science fiction tropes. However, scholars, like Alondra Nelson, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose (among many others), note that the term encompasses varied art forms and genres, as they relate to black culture and its African retentions.

Important to note is that Dery merely assigned a name to this aesthetic; the form itself has been practiced in black diasporic art for years. There is general sense that the features that comprise an Afrofuturist aesthetic are embedded in black cultural DNA; for they hark in every way to a diasporic identity. In an interview, Alondra Nelson, a social scientist who writes on intersectionality of science, technology, medicine, and inequality, says of the term that it “captured what we’d always known about black culture, but it gave us something to call it, to name it…It gives us a tradition and a legacy, where all the pieces sort of fit together.”

Meteor_Man

Dery’s article is comprised of commentary from Delany, Tate, and Rose, and these three construct the framework of what we know to be Afrofuturism today. Earlier than that, however, Mark Sinker and Greg Tate were generating conversations about black science fiction and its connection to techno culture and music, among others. In 1992, Sinker published an essay, “Loving the Alien” in The New Inquiry, in which he equates historical slavery with alien abduction as represented in literature. Tate wrote a review of David Toop’s Rap Attack called “Yo! Hermeneutics!”, which highlights a science fiction sensibility in black music. According to Nelson, Afrofuturist art, no matter the medium, is imbued with futuristic themes and capitalizes off technological innovation. In the fall of 1998, then a graduate student at NYU, Alondra Nelson and artist Paul D. Miller established an on-line Afrofuturism listserv, and launched Afrofuturism.net in 2000. Both sites were dedicated to science fictions and discussed how the genre addresses a “past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation” and inspires “technical and creative innovations.” Also, in September of 1999, Nelson organized an Afrofuturism forum at NYU, which dedicated conversation to the “future of black production.”

There is no singular definition of Afrofuturism; the aesthetic is as varied and fluid as the cultural identities it explores. To this day, the aesthetic comprises an array of media forms, including, but not limited to, textual, visual, and aural arts. However, at the heart of this aesthetic form lie some artistic and cultural product that 1. examines the past, 2. critiques the present, and 3. “imagines possible futures.” Many works by Afrofuturist artists, in some way, blend elements of the past with the future to assert opinions on sociopolitical and cultural issues concerning black people. With regards to literature, these opinions usually manifest in the dystopian genre. For example, Octavia Butler’s “The Parable Series” (1993-1998), interrogates notions of racial and gender identity in the 2020s. Her depiction of a futuristic society, depraved and plagued by an exacting, ever-widening gap between the rich and poor easily resembles a not-so-far-distant past, and perhaps even the present. Butler, among other black sci-fi writers, also often re articulated traditional African religion and customs in the futuristic contexts of her novels.

Undoubtedly, an Afrofuturistic aesthetic pervades black culture in the 90s. Primarily the music is informed by futuristic sensibilities. Scholars, like Tricia Rose, pointed out how this manifested in the form of technology and sound reproduction. In an interview with Mark Dery, she says, “Digital music technology—samplers, sequencers, drum machines— are themselves cultural objects, and as such the carry cultural ideas.” Musicians, while utilizing aural mechanisms to revamp sound, also incorporated Afrofuturist themes in a visual and lyrical context. Outkast, for example, definitely falls within this extensive lineage of Afrofuturist artists with the albums ATLiens (1996) and Aquemini (1998). Both albums pushed the bounds of production with extraterrestrial sounds and existential, imaginative lyrics.

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Afrofuturist elements can even be found in Erykah Badu’s video for “Didn’t Cha Know” as it alludes to a liminal space where the subject wanders, simultaneously reaching into the past (allusions to Africa, Kimetics, and Egyptology) and looking towards an uncertain, yet hopeful future. This musical lineage extends even further back, however, to artists, such as George Clinton and Sun Ra, and groups like PFunk, who melded their historically informed visions of the future with jazz and funk sounds. More discussion on the emergence of Afrofuturist aesthetics in science fiction and popular music pre-1990s and 21st-century can be found in John Akomfrah’s 1996 documentary “Last Angel of History.”

Undoubtedly, Afrofuturist themes pervade most areas of black culture today, perhaps more so than it ever has. Its prevalence is evident from the music of Janelle Monae and Flying Lotus, to the novels of Nnedi Okorafo and Tananarive Due, to the visual and performing arts of Adejoke Tugbiyele and OluShola A. Cole. That its popularity is growing makes sense, since we are still ironing out methods of reclaiming culture, reinventing tradition, and redefining notions of blackness. The questions posed and pondered, even before the advent of Afrofuturism as a theoretical perspective, still remain: How do black people imagine a better future for black people? What does that future look like? And, how do we get there? —Keith Freeman

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Works Cited

Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, And Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. 179-222. Print.

Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text. 20.2 (2002): 1-15. Web. 10 November 2015.

Soho Rep. “Afrofuturism.” Online video clip. YouTube. Youtube, 22 Apr. 2006. Web. 05 November 2015.