Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk, Jake Sully, Alan Grant, and Katniss Everdeen. These protagonists from famous sci-fi movies all have one thing in common, other than their corn-fed look: they’re all white.
Out of the 100 top-grossing sci-fi movies of all time, only eight of them feature a protagonist of color. Even more damning, out of these eight protagonists, four of them are portrayed by Will Smith.
The lack of minority figures has no grounding in prediction, either. The Pew Research Center predicts that by 2050, way before many futuristic sci-fi movies are set, whites will be something of a minority group in America, making up 47 percent of the population. This change sets America apart from many of its populous peers, which won’t see such diversity of people. In no way are people of color going to disappear from America as the lack of diversity in sci-fi movies suggests.
This trend in film reflects a similar trend in many aspects of the entertainment industry. In 2011, people of color made up only 10 percent of lead characters in all genres of movies. The census of 2010 indicated 36.6 percent of Americans identified as not-white, either as Black, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, or two or more races. In addition, only 12 percent of directors during that year were minorities. And let’s not even get into the Oscar nominees this year.
This is not just the case for movie industry, either. Last year’s VMAs reeked of racist undertones, from Rebel Wilson’s joke about the “injustice” black people face from the police just before presenting the Best Hip-Hop Video award, to Miley Cyrus touting dreads and using the word “mammy,” an old term that denotes black women as “the help.”
Sci-fi does not have the luxury of falling back on the defense many use in historical films, which claim people of color just didn’t exist in prominent roles in that area before a certain time. If a director can imagine space ships exploring the galaxy, or robots overtaking the planet, then surely he or she can imagine a person of color being integral to the story. But in the casting of popular movies, adding diversity rarely crosses the minds of those in charge.
Some of this whitewashing is even intentional. In the case of the Hunger Games series, the casting call for Katniss was specifically for Caucasians. The books never specified Katniss’s ethnicity, although they describe her in an ambiguous way such that she could be Native American or otherwise non-white. Suzanne Collins, the author of the series, said the book was set so far into the future that ethnic intermixing occurred, and the characters could no longer be considered biracial.
But of course, the actors picked were white. The director limited himself, right from the start, to characters of that skin tone. What does this say about the sci-fi genre?
Afrofuturism is the antidote to such thinking — the kind that believes the only stories people will watch are those with a white face attached.
Long before these cultural atrocities, critic Mark Dery recognized the lack of black stories and black perspective in popular culture, specifically in the realm of sci-fi. Along with this, he began to notice a rebellion forming amid the black population in the US. In his work “Black to the Future,” Dery coined the term “Afrofuturism” to refer to the intertwinement of futuristic themes and black historical references in pop culture forms. Through this entangling of future with past, Afrofuturists seek to elucidate the issues people of color have faced and continue to face today, while simultaneously offering a brighter future.
An early example of Afrofuturism comes from musician George Clinton. In 1975, his band Parliament produced the song “Mothership Connection,” which connects the struggles of people of color during the civil rights with an affirmation that their struggle will not be in vain. The lyrics (which reference the underground railroad) tell of a spaceship that has come to Earth to pick up the woe-struck and “let them ride” to a brighter future in space.
Although it may seem like an odd blending of themes on the surface, it perfectly encapsulates the Black experience: from struggle, to hope, to far-off success.
A more recent example of Afrofuturism comes from Cristina de Middel’s 2014 film, “Afronauts,” which recreates the 1960s space race where instead of the Soviet Union racing against America to get to the moon, it’s Zambia. “Afronauts” embodies Afrofuturism in its portrayal of an alternate reality, where people of color are thriving. It highlights the powerlessness of colored people, in general, during the 1960s while simultaneously giving them a technologically enriched future.
Traces of Afrofuturism can even be found in Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, wherein King expresses his lament for the problems him, his family, and the black community at large have faced in America, while offering a hope for a better future for his community. Although it doesn’t blend science-fiction themes within it, the ultimate goal of Afrofuturism — of elucidating colored peoples’ struggles and offering an unmaterialized solution to those struggles — is present.
Science fiction, in presenting the future, has the opportunity to redefine the direction we take. The original Star Trek series realized this power, often dealing with themes of sexism and racism. David Gerrold, one of the scriptwriters for the series, realized this, saying, “the ship had to be interracial because it represented all of mankind. How can the human race ever hope to achieve friendship with alien races if it can’t even make friends with itself?”
By continuing to represent the future as a white homogeneity, sanitized of any and all diversity, sci-fi is doing the audience a disservice. It perpetuates the notion that only white stories deserve to be told. This notion harms the self-esteem of children who aren’t white. A study done by a pair at the University of Michigan suggested that not being represented in the media that children consume, or being only represented in a negative light, can harm self-esteem.
Showing no people of color in the future insinuates either that people of color don’t matter story-wise or that they don’t exist in the future. Neither option is appealing. The way some movies are cast, it is possible that some sort of large-scale ethnic cleansing has taken place. Otherwise, different skin tones statistically have to appear at some point.
Afrofuturism adds a breath of fresh air to the sci-fi genre. It returns power to the black community, as it gives them a license to explore and reinvent themselves. We need more stories about diverse groups of people, because our future is going to be diverse. The genre of afrofuturism allows little black children to see themselves as little white children have for decades now: powerful, and in control.
Afrofuturism is a reminder that their struggle has been, and will continue to be, a long one. So it’s more than acceptable for them to sit back sometimes and imagine a better world, where space really is the final frontier of peace and equality.