Is sci-fi one of the few genres to accept non-white characters as heroes?

Dorian Almost Human Michael Ealy

Dorian, Almost Human

Sci-fi is one of the few areas in which non-white characters can be main characters in a narrative not focused on slavery, the civil rights movement, tropes like Ethnic Menial Labour, Apron Matron, Mammy and Whoopi Epiphany Speech, or some other form of racist commentary. Exceptions include those films and TV shows with entirely non-white casts.

Independence Day Will Smith Jeff Goldblum Captain Steven Hiller David Levinson
Independence Day

Scrolling through a list of black actors led to a realisation that the majority of roles they play are in sci-fi, action and comedy. Will Smith combines all three on a regular basis. In fact, you could say he was the first to tread this road with his role in Independence Day in 1996. Independence Day is about a Jewish man teaming up with a black man to save the world, with the help of a mentally ill, drunk fuck-up (who happens to be white).

Examples of non-white SF heroes


Characters:

Blade Wesley Snipes
Blade, Blade

MOVIES → Blade (Marvel franchise), Storm (X-Men), Zoe & The Operative (Firefly & Serenity), Morpheus & The Oracle (The Matrix franchise), Cinna & Rue (The Hunger Games), Sam Wilson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Khal Drogo Game of Thrones Jason Momoa
Any excuse for a Khal Drogo photo

TV → Star Trek franchise: Uhura, Worf, LaForge, Guinan, Sisko, Tuvok, Mayweather. Khal Drogo, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Missandei (Game of Thrones). Kendra and Nikki (Buffy), Gunn (Angel), Dorian (Almost Human), several in Sleepy Hollow, Bonnie (The Vampire Diaries), Marcel (The Originals). Lots more here.

Actors:

  • Will Smith (I, Robot, Independence Day, Men in Black, and many more)
  • Vin Diesel (The Riddick movies, Babylon A.D., Guardian of the Galaxy franchise)
  • Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury in the Avengers franchise, Star Wars franchise, Unbreakable, and many others)
  • Dwayne Johnson (The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and many others)
  • Morgan Freeman (Bruce Almighty, Batman franchise, Lucy, and many more)
  • Laurence Fishbourne (The Matrix franchise, Contagion, Man of Steel, and many others)
  • Eddie Murphy (The Nutty Professor, Vampire in Brooklyn, and more)
  • Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Thor movies, Prometheus, 28 Weeks Later, and more)
  • Michael Clarke Duncan (The Planet of the Apes, The Green Mile, Armageddon)
  • Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar and Star Trek franchises)

Other than Sulu (Star Trek), most Asian characters in Western sci-fi are stereotypically martial artists – Jet Li in The One, for example. Cloud Atlas (Sonmi-451) is a notable exception. Eastern made books and movies like Battle Royale and Studio Ghibli movies show more variety.

Where’s the oestrogen?

Mako Mori Pacific Rim Rinko Kikuchi
Mako Mori, Pacific Rim

What’s lacking in those lists is female characters and actors, in film especially. Are men of colour more alien than women? Apparently they’re more threatening (eyeroll). But there’s a general lack of roles for women in SF on the screen, especially strong, independent ladies who suffer no fools, whereas there’s an abundance of such women in subgenres urban fantasy and paranormal romance which are rarely adapted for the screen. These subgenres also tend to include more non-white characters, too, although these characters are often written by non-white or non-anglophone authors.

‘Anything but black’

Gamora Zoe Saldana Guardians of the Galaxy

Gamora, Guardians of the Galaxy

Of course, certain stereotypes still exist within non-white SF roles such as the Magical Negro, Black Best Friend, Token Minority and Sassy Black Woman, but the one that really annoys is ‘black as other’.

Why is Zoe Saldana the green alien in Guardians of the Galaxy? Why is Jamie Foxx the blue Electro bad guy in The Amazing Spiderman 2? Aliens, androids and other non-humans are often actors of colour. Why do black people need to be anything but black? Star Trek in its various guises is often guilty of this. If representation of humans and non-humans were multiracial in terms of characters and actors in more equal measures, I wouldn’t have a problem. I also wonder why there isn’t more racial diversity within these non-human races. Vulcans of Star Trek fame is the only alien race to come to mind to include black and white characters –Voyager‘s Tuvok being the proof. Androids in Almost Human are made in the image of all races, though the Dorians – who were African American – possessed the most human qualities.

I understand that the human/non-human dynamic often symbolizes racism and the difficulties of establishing relationships between two races when culture, economy and technological advancement may differ, sometimes resulting in war and subjugation. District 9 bares this out in echoing the history of its setting – South Africa’s apartheid. But I think we can do better than default racism in non-human SF as a foreground issue. There’s plenty to explore beyond the superficiality of visual appearance.

So, while SF may be more welcoming to non-white male actors, it still has a way to go with regard to stereotypes, representation and gender.

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3 thoughts on “Is sci-fi one of the few genres to accept non-white characters as heroes?

  1. Although I’d argue that in DD, Duncan is most definitely not a hero. In fact, they took a white villain and made him black. I’m pretty sure having him be a gangtser – even top gangster – isn’t a new role for a black man -_-

    While I like Duncan as an actor, I find that choice pretty disappointing. I would have rather seen him as an ally, to be honest.

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    1. Oops, my bad. I’ll change that. Thanks for pointing it out.

      I didn’t know his character was originally white. So he was shoehorned in as the token minority and then made him the bad guy? That’s just shameful.

      Like

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