Star Trek's Lt. Uhura was a science-fiction pioneer in the 1970s -- a black woman answering the phone, I mean computer, in space. Uhura, played by actress Nichelle Nichols, was the communications officer, a role that would go on to be a popular one for futuristic minorities. While she was groundbreaking in that she was a black woman who survived quite well in space, her story lines were few, her adventures were stunted, and her romances were nonexistent. The philandering Capt. Kirk had to be forced to kiss the comely Uhura -- apparently in the future, interracial lip-lock is just as controversial as it was in the 1970s.
Nichols paved the way for Kandyse McClure's character Petty Officer Dualla, a black woman who also starts out answering the phone, on the critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica series remake that wrapped this year. Dualla fares better than Uhura in that she gets her own story line, experiences a real romance, and has some adventures. But she commits suicide in the final season of the series.
And these are the two primary options for blacks in space: Either you're marginalized or killed off. (Or, in the worst-case scenario, you're marginalized and still die.)
So when word got out that director J.J. Abrams was set to re-envision the original Star Trek, with a big-budget film released last month, I was looking out for Lt. Uhura. And she is certainly there, played by actress Zoë Saldana. She's right where we left her in the 1970s, still answering the phone.
Science-fiction story lines might take place in the future, but they are written in the now. They reflect the mind-set of the creators and the times they live in. If most science-fiction films are to be believed, in the future English is the main language. Not only do human beings still exist, they are almost all white and they have mastered quantum physics. I'm sure none of this has anything to do with the genre being dominated by the American film industry and predominantly white, male writers. They've merely looked into their crystal ball and seen the future. And the future is white!
Actor Joe Morton, who appeared in both writer/director John Sayles' 1984 cult classic The Brother From Another Planet and 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day, recalls an old Richard Pryor joke. "Hollywood didn't think we'd be around in the future," Morton says, "so why put us in the sci-fi movies?"
He continues, "If you are a 50- to 60-year-old white producer in Hollywood, for the ‘heroic image' you're not going to think of a black man or woman. Consequently, black roles in sci-fi are tokens. He was the communications expert. The communications expert would also then be the first one to be killed. First one to die." When George Lucas offered Samuel L. Jackson a role in the final Star Wars prequel as the Jedi Mace Windu, Jackson agreed on the condition his character not die "like some punk."
This is understandable coming from an actor who dies in many films, including a few sci-fi flicks (Jurassic Park and Deep Blue Sea), often a few minutes after his opening scene. And Jackson is not alone. Actress Bianca Lawson only lasted for three episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer before her character, a Jamaican vampire-slayer named Kendra, is killed off. Charles S. Dutton is heavily featured in the third film of the Alien franchise, but his character dies a horrid, painful death. In the bug-killing, utopian/ fascism parody Starship Troopers, all the minority characters are purposeless and peripheral. The lone black female washes out of boot camp after accidentally killing a fellow recruit.
The controversial death of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's character Mr. Eko on ABC's Lost at the hands (does it have hands?) of the "smoke monster" led many minority fans to believe there was a conspiracy to cleanse the show of all its black and Latino characters. Before Eko was gobbled up by the dark, bilious puff, minority actors Harold Perrineau and Michelle Rodriguez had also been written off the show.
This isn't to say that minorities are always relegated to minor guest characters who are doomed to die a purposeless death. In Terminator 2, Morton's character dies trying to save the world. Morpheus, the rebel leader played by Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix, guides the hero to his true path, and Capt. Benjamin Sisko of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the first African American actor to lead a starship on the long-running franchise. While his character was thin the first few seasons, eventually the writers gave Sisko well-rounded stories and a passionate personality that separated him from the more stoic but popular Capt. Jean Luc-Picard from the previous series. Sisko was an improvement over the castrated black characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which included Giordi LaForge, a blind desk-jockey played by LeVar Burton, and Guinan, an advice-giving bartender played by Whoopi Goldberg.
And then there's Lando. Darius James, a pop-culture writer and author, says it wasn't until Star Wars that all big questions about blacks, space, and "the future" were finally answered in the form of a wavy-haired playboy. "Lando Calrissian," James says, referring to Billy Dee Williams' character in the Star Wars movies. "The big question had always been -- would black people survive into the future? He was there." Lando was not the communications officer. He did not suddenly die offscreen. He was not disabled and had free license to flirt with the princess, even if she didn't reciprocate.
There is also what might be called the Will Smith exception. This phenomenon, in which Smith and Smith alone is able to fully transcend the stereotypes that most often befall black characters in sci-fi movies, is most clearly illustrated in Independence Day, the 1996 mega-hit. The movie features a classic moment: two fighter pilots, one black and one white, off to save the world from aliens. They are a jovial, ebony-ivory duo, a classic casting combination that pops up in American movies from Blazing Saddles to Lethal Weapon. In any other film, it would have been Harry Connick Jr., who played Smith's best friend and fellow fighter pilot, celebrating the "fireworks" at the end, and Will Smith would have entered the cannon of black actors who died valiantly so their white co-stars would have someone to fight for in memory. But in this movie, it was Smith who was launched to fame after punching out an alien and announcing, "Welcome to Earth." He's since gone on to star in two Men in Black films, I, Robot, I Am Legend, and other blockbusters.
"Will Smith has been very smart about all that stuff," Morton says. "As his star began to rise he began to research what movies did best. A lot of the time those movies were sci-fi. The more CGI [computer generated images] in a movie, then that movie did even better."
Most Hollywood sci-fi presents a "post-racial" world in which we've moved from fighting each other over cultural differences to fighting some bigger intergalactic evil. On its face, this type of film should allow for more color-blind casting and minority roles. Yet even in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, where the humanoids are "beyond race," black and other minority actors are rare. Morton calls such tokenized roles the "new Mammy" -- only instead of the slave taking care of the white protagonist, blacks are now in roles of authority, the captain or head of the FBI, but still exist to prop up the white character, who is usually more central to the plot. Films like Deep Impact and the Star Wars franchise, as well as TV shows like Star Trek, Dollhouse, and Firefly, feature substantial black characters who are in a position of power but largely function as a helpmate to their white counterparts.
This is why Sayles' The Brother From Another Planet, in which Morton plays a dark-skinned alien who crash-lands in Harlem, was so groundbreaking. "What John had in mind was to realize there were all these black people in New York, in the world, who had these tremendous amounts of talents and no place to exploit them," Morton says. "Here we have a guy who can cure things by touch but has no place in the world to go."
The key to how minority characters are presented is in the hands of the writers. And all the most celebrated filmmakers, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Joss Whedon and the new Star Trek film director J.J. Abrams to oldsters like George Lucas and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, are white men. Most of the second- and third-tier screenwriters are, too.
James, the author and film critic, says these writers are delusional about our inevitable, multiracial future. "There's a state of denial about their own extinction," he jokes. "They're gone. Past history!" The reality is if humans are still around in another 3,000 years, there are only going to be more brown people. Shouldn't there be a Jamaican fleet captain? A Samoan first officer? A Chinese-Aborigine scientist? These writers have chosen to portray a nearly all-white world. What do they think happened to the billions upon billions of Earth's brown people?
Perhaps they are all there in this future but, just as in the past, you can't see them. Like the black elevator operator of yesteryear or your Ecuadorian maid, they are there but not in the foreground. Still answering the phone in space. If you went to the bowels of the Battlestar, would you find a kitchen filled with young black and Latino men? If you searched for those bathrooms on the Enterprise would you find a black woman scrubbing the floor?
In 1992, author Derrick Bell wrote the terrifying book Faces at the Bottom of the Well, in which he argues that "racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society" -- even in the future. In his short story, "The Space Traders," filmed by brothers Warrington and Reginald Hudlin for their short-lived HBO series Cosmic Slop in 1994, Bell tells of an alien race that offers riches to a cash-strapped, polluted America if it will just fork over all its black people. For what purpose, no one knows. But it's only a matter of time before all black people are rounded up to be shipped off to space. Blacks plead their case, but whites, blinded by wealth and power, conclude that offering up an entire race is simply the most logical thing to do.
Cosmic Slop, which was meant to be a minority-filled, Twilight Zone–style show, only aired one episode and was pronounced a failure. The show did not usher in a belle époque of black sci-fi. Black characters were soon back to answering the phone and playing caretaker roles.
"If science fiction is supposed to be a metaphor for something much greater than the world we live in, what we have now is what it will be unless we tell the story," Morton says. "On some level, we've kind of done it to ourselves. If we want to change what those images are, we have to do something to make those changes come to fruition."