In sci-fi and fantasy, the impossible becomes possible — you can be everything and nothing, exist everywhere and nowhere. These two genres imagine a future written without bounds and give us an escape from the constrictions of our real world — a world of limitations that Black people know all too well.
The sci-fi worlds created by Hollywood are dominated by predominantly white actors. How can a genre that cultivates infinite possibilities only have two people of color maximum per movie? Why is it so hard for storytellers to put Black people in the future or, better yet, write them as the leaders of new or futuristic worlds? Some white people have a hard time believing that Black lives matter here on Earth in the present, so it’s no surprise they fail to imagine Black people being in the future or on other planets. The lack of diversity in Black sci-fi films is systemic.
Interest in the sci-fi genre is not lacking among Afro Diasporic people, on the contrary, numerous black writers and musicians incorporated sci-fi in their work as far back as the early 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 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 Afro Diasporic people by extension) as members of an alien, “Angel” race, descended to Earth to guide humans to a better future among the stars. Later, Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler (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 that combines historical facts, sci-fi elements, magic realism, fantasy, and Afrocentricity to examine past events and problematic historical periods, while reflecting on the issues contemporary Afro Diasporic people face. Afrofuturism relinquishes the controlling nature of society and replaces it with imagery and messages about a world that can be different; we can be different in it, too.
In sci-fi, everything we thought of ourselves can be made real, like being royalty in a world fueled by vibranium, perhaps. In Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman’s role as Prince T’Challa birthed this reality for all ages of the Diaspora. Black Panther was the push that Hollywood needed to see that Black audiences want to see themselves not only on screen but positively represented. Theatres occupied by Black mothers and fathers with their children heard crying and cheers as the film’s audience solidified in their minds that Wakanda was worth fighting for. “Wakanda forever” was heard for months, and friends were greeted with crossed arms over chests — Black Panther‘s world didn’t stop at the edge of the screen, it was something to believe in forever. It did what most great films do: transcend reality and seep into our minds as something tangible. With the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death on August 28th — painful as it is to lose a man that fought so hard in private to give audiences something to celebrate — this writer is reminded of Lena Waithe’s comment on Black immortality from an interview she did on her film Queen and Slim, where she discusses legacy, and that “black death is more appreciated than black life.” Black death garners so much attention to peoples’ lives, and then they get forgotten because the next person comes and we have to mourn again. It’s a cycle of grief that doesn’t let Black people sit with the impact of their lives. But Boseman’s legacy as Prince T’Challa will allow him to become virtually immortal as a superhero for so many, and his presence will be felt long after his passing.
Boseman was picked out carefully by Coogler because he knew that his production called for a predominantly Black cast and that he was making something special for Black audiences. Black Panther’s story is intrinsic to the Black experience because the people of Wakanda had a connection to their land and their people. The message through Black Panther was that Black people can lead, protect, build, and advance science and technology on land maintained by them.
Eric Brightwell observes, choosing the likes of Will Smith or Denzel Washington as leads, albeit important for representation and equality in general, was not inspired by Hollywood’s wish to celebrate diversity but rather by its need to profit from the two actors’ fame and name recognition. Furthermore, neither Men in Black nor Book of Eli (starring Smith and Washington respectively) actually explore their protagonists’ black background. Agent J and Eli are both simply blank slates: one-dimensional characters that could be portrayed by any contemporary star. Another example of this kind of character is the part of Neo in The Matrix, who was initially intended for Will Smith who rejected it. Not being able to convince Smith, who was likely to attract a wide audience, the Wachowski Sisters approached the next best man, Keanu Reeves.
It has never been more important to see ourselves on screen. Images shape our understanding of ourselves and have a direct impact on how we navigate society and how the world interacts with us. If we keep seeing white people find new worlds and traverse the galaxy, the room to dream about intergalactic space travel and saving the world dwindles because Hollywood tells us that we aren’t the heroes for the job. Stories like Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, are perfect examples of representation of Black women and LGBT+ folks that get to be a part of the future.
The issue with the lack of diversity isn’t about who we get to see in space, it’s about who storytellers let make it into the future. We want to know that the future of Black lives is thought of and that there are dreams of what we could become. There’s a need for Black sci-fi directors and storytellers collaborating on the idea of Black futurity. We want Black trans actors playing scientists at the International Space station finding a cure for famine and Black nonbinary humanoids fighting against droids made by evil corporations. There are so many ideas for imagining Black people as powerful characters in the future. It would be a cathartic release from all the death the world has witnessed at the hands of police brutality every month. Black Lives Matter is not a fantasy, it is an imagining of the future.