Black leadership in the U.S. has sometimes seemed to be a notion stranger than fiction. That Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois could arise in the midst of intense subjugation is truly incredible. And the legacy has continued on through the civil rights movement and today. In fact, today is the birthday of Malcolm X, one of the most influential Black leaders in history. Yet though there are many real-world examples of Black leaders to choose from, science fiction, one of the most imaginative and visionary genres of art continues to struggle to imagine Black characters into lead roles. On Malcolm X’s birthday and in this golden moment of immense geekery with a huge line-up of sci-fi and superhero movies and tv shows, what better time to take a look at the state of Black leadership in science fiction?
Of the more than 25 major superhero and sci-fi movies coming out this year, only one, After Earth, starring Will and Jaden Smith, features a Black character in a leading role. A handful of others, including Star Trek:Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, and the forthcoming Ender’s Game, feature major Black characters in their casts.
Black characters in science fiction and comics tend to be relegated to side-kicks or token roles (that is, if they’re not immediately killed off first… (*spoilers ahead) RIP random Black guy in last week’s episode of Defiance, Black guy in the first 10 minutes of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Luke Cage and Black Panther in Age of Ultron). It remains a rarity to see a Black character in a leading role in science fiction or superhero stories.
There are, of course, exceptions spread out over the decades: Abar, The First Black Superman (1977), Steel (1997), Spawn (1997), Blade (1998-2004), and Hancock (2008) are all examples of films with a leading Black hero. Granted, several of them were pretty bad…
In comics Batwing and Miles Morales in Ultimate Comics Spider-man are pretty lonely as two of very few Black characters leading their own major comics. Black Panther and Nick Fury however are at least in leadership roles in the Avengers story lines.
The small screen today, however, has a lot more to offer. In sci-fi television right now Revolution’s Captain Tom Neville is one of the only Black sci-fi characters in a leadership role. The show also features the mysterious Grace Beaumont in a recurring role. And Merlin was so bold as to cast Black actress Angel Coulby as leading lady Gwynevere (to much of the usual internet rage and backlash).
Defiance’s Tommy Lasalle, Falling Skies’s Anthony, Teen Wolf’s Boyd, and The Walking Dead’s Michonne are regularly recurring Black characters in science fiction tv; however, each of them plays a sort of “hired hand” or “body gaurd” role. Game of Thrones recently introduced Grey Worm, the elected commander of the emancipated Unsullied army, who has had few lines and little screen time thus far, and he is quite literally a hired hand. Missandei, a translator for Danaerys, was also recently introduced. Though far from being a leader, she does get a bit of screen time. The now deceased Xaro Xhoan Daxos, a leader of Qarth was the only other Black character to be given substantial screen time in the show.
Characters like True Blood’s Tara Thornton, Vampire Diaries‘s Bonnie Bennett, and Grimm’s Hank Griffin are all cast in the role of best friend to the main protagonists. Hank Griffin more specifically is the protagonist Nick Burkhardt’s partner in the Portland police force
And there are some exciting new shows with Black leads to look forward to…
Sleepy Hollow, premiering this fall on Fox, is truly unique among sci-fi shows, casting Black actress Nicole Beharie in the leading role of Abbie Archer, a police officer and lead investigator on the supernatural case rocking her town. The show also features Black actor Orlando Jones as Lieutenant Frank Williams. The trailer seems to indicate that Jones and Beharie’s characters are the main characters along with Ichabod Crane himself.
While the idea of a modernized time-travelling headless horseman is a tad ridiculous, it’s such a rare sight to see a Black woman leading a sci-fi series that we’re crossing our fingers pretty hard that it will be good. . J.J. Abrams’ Almost Human, however, looks pretty dope. And the leading character’s robot partner, Dorian is played by Black actor Michael Ealy.
Science fiction is often a genre that looks ahead, that beats society to the punch, projecting fantastical futures, predicting technologies that will define our future, or showing us the possible outcomes of our current destructive behaviors. While there have been small victories in the inclusion of recurring characters of color in many tv shows, comics, and novels, it is hardly beyond the imagination of such a visionary genre as science fiction to create worlds where characters of color (because this conversation obviously extends beyond Black and white) are the main protagonists of a story, or perhaps *gasp* multiple characters of color are the leads! Of course, we have sci-fi writers who are placing characters of color at the center of their stories, like Samuel Delany, Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson and more. But unfortunately such stories are often considered “for Black people” rather than for general enjoyment, and so they remain outside the mainstream, never making it to movie adaptations or major network TV series… or even simply into the hands of a wide and diverse readership.
But how do we go about fixing that? Is this gradual route – slowly introducing more and more characters of color in increasingly leading roles – the right way to go? Is it working? What else might work?*This is hardly an exhaustive account of all of the Black characters in comics and sci-fi, though we did attempt to capture the major players. Please feel free to add more in the comments! We look at a few current comics with major characters of color here.