Afrofuturism and the Problem of Black Under-representation in Mainstream Sci-fi Films

Pick any high-grossing Hollywood sci-fi movie from the past decade(s) and you will most likely find a straight, white male protagonist fighting to save the world from some cosmic peril. Naturally, there have been some exceptions, such as Men in Black, I am Legend, The Book of Eli, etc., yet, as Eric Brightwell observes, choosing Will Smith or Denzel Washington as leads, albeit important for the representation of equality in general, was not affected by Hollywood’s wish to celebrate diversity but rather by its need to profit from the two actors’ fame. Furthermore, neither Men in Black nor Book of Eli actually explore their protagonists’ black background – both Agent J and Eli are simply blank slates, one dimensional characters that could be portrayed by any contemporary star. A curious example proving this point is that the part of Neo in The Matrix was initially intended for Will Smith who rejected it in favour of another role. Not being able to convince Smith, who was likely to attract a wide audience, the Wachowski Brothers approached the next best man, who happened to be Keanu Reeves.

Sun Ra image

Sun Ra’s talent, coupled with his eccentric and magnetic personality led to his rise to fame on the 1960s alternative jazz music scene. Ra advocated peace and awareness on and off stage throughout his life.

So why is that the case? Why are black women and men so underrepresented (or, in the best case, reduced to one-dimensional whitewashed characters) in sci-fi and fantasy movies? It goes without saying that interest in the sci-fi genre is definitely not lacking among Afrodiasporic people, on the contrary – there are numerous black writers and  musicians who started incorporating sci-fi elements in their work as far back as the early years of the 20th century, when the genre was still relatively unknown by the masses. One such visionary was social rights activist, historian and author William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois, who wrote his dystopian sci-fi short-story, The Comet, in the 1920s. Du Bois’ writings were followed by the work of musicians such as jazz composer Herman Poole Blount (better known as Sun Ra) and Lee “Scratch” Perry who described themselves (and all Afrodiasporic people by extension) as members of an alien, “Angel” race, descended to Earth in order to guide humans to a better future among the stars. Later, writers such as Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler (who is often referred to as the “grand dame of science fiction”), and many others contributed to the growth of black sci-fi’s popularity. In hindsight, they are seen as founding members of Afrofuturism – a cultural aesthetic which combines historical facts, sci-fi elements, magic realism, fantasy and Afrocentricity, in order to examine past events and problematic historical periods, while reflecting on the issues which contemporary Afrodiasporic people face.
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Janelle Monáe’s “ArchAndroid” is an excellent example of contemporary Afrofuturist music.

As suggested by its name, Afrofuturism is predominantly concerned with exploring the possibility of a more positive, optimistic future for members of the African Diaspora worldwide, while reassuring them that the world can be different and that they can be different too – they don’t need to stay within the limits which society projects on them. Although these messages seem largely ignored in mainstream cinema so far, they are becoming more and more prominent in other forms of entertainment. I have already briefly mentioned literature and music (although Janelle Monae’s album, The ArchAndroid is definitely also worth mentioning as a more contemporary Afrofuturist music example) but there are also comics, animated cartoons and superhero franchises which explore complex black protagonists in sci-fi settings. Comics such as Raising Dion, a tale about a widowed black mother and her son who possesses superpowers, shift the focus away from the one dimensional predominantly white male characters which have overpopulated mainstream entertainment since the dawn of sci-fi movies. Raising Dion comes only a year after comic fans were treated to the first young female Muslim superhero in the face of Kamala Khan – the new Mrs. Marvel. These characters are the natural response of audiences’ wish for something new and fresh, who need complex and realistic characters rather than the next cookie-cut blank slate. The next step, after being treated to these exciting ideas in music, literature and comic books is to introduce them to popular cinema. How amazing would it be having an African American actor portraying Major Cage in The Edge of Tomorrow? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to finally see a character with more layers to them? What if they had casted Lupita Nyong’o in Gravity instead of Sandra Bullock? There have been 19 African American astronauts in NASA alone, good part of which were and are women, so the idea is hardly outlandish.
Still from Pumzi

Wanuri Kahiu’s short movie “Pumzi” is a gorgeous sci-fi short which needs to be seen by a wider audience.

With the announcement of the movie Black Panther, featuring the eponymous black superhero, which is scheduled for release in 2018, Hollywood seems to be making a small step in the right direction but will it be enough to open the door for more black sci-fi characters? Perhaps the answer is that rather than waiting for Hollywood to finally embrace diversity, we should start making the films we want to see – and many independent filmmakers around the world are doing just that. In recent years there have been some interesting examples of low-budged sci-fi films from Africa, most notably Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes (2005) and Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu’s short movie Pumzi (2010). I very much hope that I will have the opportunity to discuss them in some of my future articles, and look forward to the day when black sci-fi narratives will be fully embraced in mainstream cinema, so they can reach the wide audiences they deserve.
Black Panther promo image

Chadwick Boseman will portray the superhero T’Challa / Black Panther in Marvel’s upcoming film.