The 5 Ways Sci-Fi Universes Treat Black Characters
A few months ago, I decided to compare and contrast how Jewish characters were treated by various sci-fi universes. What? Doesn't everyone get paid to wonder about such things? In any event, I examined Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, V and Independence Day, and even though the article wasn't optioned by Michael Bay to be developed into a summer blockbuster, it did fairly well.
"Sorry, Gladstone, but I just optioned Cracked's '7 Easter Eggs in History Books About Tesla' as a miniseries."
But when I heard that both Billy Dee Williams and Nichelle Nichols would be appearing at the Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo, I got the idea to revisit those same universes, now with an emphasis on black characters. Know what I discovered? That I am a lazy, repeating hack of a writer.
But I also learned that these universes presented black characters in a far more unified and appealing manner than Jewish ones (it must be because there are no Jews in Hollywood). In fact, it was nearly impossible to rank these presentations -- I'd be honored to have any of these characters as my house guest. I did try my best, however, ranking the universes' presentations of black characters from least to most favorable -- even if the ranking is more favorable to super duper favorable.
Even though I've ranked Star Wars at the bottom of this list, I'm not going to pretend that it presents black characters in a generally unfavorable way. It's all relative, and someone's got to be at the bottom. (I said "at the bottom." An article comparing sci-fi "bottoms" would be totally different and feature a lot more C-3PO.) Also, there's another problem. The whole "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" stuff. I mean, some of these characters might be portrayed by black actors, but are the characters themselves black? It's probably a mistake to think like that. Indeed, at his recent Edmonton Expo appearance, Billy Dee Williams specifically said that he never limited his characterization of Lando based on race. Still, if I referenced Jawas and Watto as "Jews" in the last column, I think we can concede that Lando is black. Moving on.
She may not have looked her best, but a playa like Lando knew that Leia was only three years away from reaching her full Jabba Slave Girl potential.
Lando Calrissian is an unquestionable badass. Although we're told in Episode IV that Han Solo has a ship and smuggles cargo, he never really feels like a pirate. Instead, in Harrison Ford's hands, that character is far more of a cowboy. But with Lando Calrissian in Episode V, Billy Dee Williams delivers the pirate we've been waiting for; and not just any pirate, but a Pirate King of Cloud City. Indeed, at the expo, some of the influences Williams cited for the character were Steve Wynn, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Lando is a brave warrior and, ultimately, a wildly important part of the resistance in Return of the Jedi. Nevertheless, he loses some points for selling out Han to Darth Vader, even if it was to save his city. And while Lando fully redeems himself in Episode VI, as you'll see, the characters in the next entries barely have any flaws.
"What about Mace Windu?" you ask. "He's like a totally perfect Jedi warrior." That's true, but I see your Mace Windu and raise you one Jar Jar Binks. Much like Watto embraces Jewish stereotypes of the crooked merchant, Jar Jar is a CGI explosion of outdated, foolish, broken English minstrel shows. Let's call that a draw, and leave Star Wars in fifth place as a universe where black characters are portrayed favorably overall.
I tried to make a Jar Jar joke, but Cracked's new timeliness sensor kept deleting it.
In other news, all of Adam Tod Brown's columns have been deleted.
Hey, remember Elias Taylor from episodes 1 to 11 of the V series? No? Oh. Me either. It was a long time ago, and V doesn't have anywhere near the cultural relevance of these other sci-fi universes, but, y'know, I had it in the last column and I'm trying to be consistent here. Actually, I do have one clear memory of the character as a semi-retired resistance member who runs the Club Creole restaurant. Club Creole becomes the informal headquarters of the resistance, providing employment and safe refuge to Willie and Elizabeth. Taylor is killed trying to rescue Robin Maxwell. I can remember it like it was yesterday. Probably because that's when I read that on a wiki page. Truly cinematic magic.
Hi, I'm Michael Wright. You might not remember me from the role of Elias Taylor on V.
Ron Glass portrayed Derrial Book in Joss Whedon's Firefly. Book is a devout Christian and a "shepherd" or pastor who decides to travel on Serenity simply as an opportunity to perform some good works. He appears, at first, to be a strictly passive, nonviolent man preaching a message of forgiveness and faith. He is the moral compass of the show. And by the episode where Serenity's crew protects River Tam from the inquisitor government seeking her, we as an audience learn that the Firefly's renegade mission statement is not just a way to earn a living smuggling goods, but to use its independence to do good free of governmental interference.
Also he has awesome hair in that one episode.
But Book is no passive sheep existing only to provide juxtaposition to the show's alpha males. Slowly, we learn that Book has knowledge of corruption and criminal activities, and in the episode "Safe," we see that his unstated connections with the Alliance get him preference in medical treatment. Late in the series, he takes up arms, mentioning that while the Bible forbids killing, it is "somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps."
And then there's the Firefly's second-in-command, Zoe, a woman who basically kicks ass 24/7 while being married to the nerdily awesome Wash. You could say she's Joss Whedon's wet dream, but she only has two feet and usually keeps her boots on during the show.
Independence Day features Will Smith at his most likable in the role of Captain Steven Hiller. He's a brave, badass Marine Corps pilot who helps save the world from a hostile alien invasion. He punches out aliens, he successfully flies alien spaceships into the belly of the beast and, perhaps bravest of all, he marries a stripper. Hell, he's even a super good dad to her son. Also, he cleans up nice, and he's done more to cement black/Jewish relations than Sammy Davis Jr. Just look at the lovely team he and Jeff Goldblum made. And in a film directed by a German, no less. Just think, only 60 years earlier, Germans were writing stories about the Jews bringing blacks out of Africa for the sole purposes of bastardizing the master race, and now they're working hand in hand to save the world.
How was this not adapted into a TV show starring Ron Silver and Bill Bellamy?
So why is Independence Day second on the list of how black characters are portrayed? It's only because I can argue that our number one universe is just that much more awesome.
First place goes to Star Trek, for a one, two, three punch of incredibly admirable black characters. Unless Spike Lee produces a series entitled MLK and the Freedom Fighters in Outer Space before this goes to print, I defy you to find another sci-fi universe where black characters are portrayed more favorably. (Quick note: Although later series generally cast black actors in the roles of Klingons, they don't count because, y'know, they're Klingons.)
It all started with the lovely and talented Nichelle Nichols, who was the epitome of cocksure military professionalism as Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek. Playing a black woman in a short skirt and knee boots in the mid-'60s was ripe with challenges, but no one could question her professionalism -- she was always more serious and efficient on the bridge than anyone besides Spock. But then off-duty, she could kick back and sing songs in the cafeteria (or do a naked feather dance on another planet, as in Star Trek V).
At the Edmonton Expo, I asked Nichols to do the feather dance. According to the security guards who beat me unconscious,
she thought it was a pretty good joke.
Then came The Next Generation and Geordi La Forge. I can't talk about him too long, because Internet law requires one Reading Rainbow joke for every 50 words about LeVar Burton, and I think we'd all like to avoid that. But it's fair to say that Geordi had all of Uhura's grace, morality and professionalism, and he did it all while wearing a banana clip over his eyes.
And finally, securing Star Trek as the universe that most favorably portrayed black characters, there's Deep Space Nine's Benjamin Sisko. About the worst thing you can say about Sisko was that he was really stiff and dull, but that was before the shaved head and goatee. Then he was a badass captain with edge. Sure, he hated Picard for leading an attack that killed Sisko's wife (when Picard was part Borg), but that's understandable, right? It's hard to find any fault with Sisko: a sexy, Creole-loving outer space badass from New Orleans.
"I will physically murder you with my mere stare while cooking the tastiest jambalaya ever."
Uhura plus La Forge plus Sisko make a tower of black awesomeness even more impressive than the 2001 monolith. Unbeatable.
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