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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 23, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsPopped Culture

In Afrofuturism, Black characters have a space in the future

The “Star Trek” franchise was one of the first entries in mainstream science fiction to include Black people in the narrative. Characters like Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) should have set a precedent for inclusion in sci-fi, but we have still yet to see any major industrywide improvements to inclusion within the genre. 

Even when Black people are included in sci-fi, they are often tokenized — created to be little more than performative tools to gain diversity points. The Star Wars franchise, in particular, has often been accused of tokenizing its Black characters, and I argue that one of the worst offenders in the movies is the portrayal of Finn (John Boyega). Boyega brings a certain charm to Finn, but it is clear, judging by the way the character is written throughout the story, that he is little more than a backdrop for the other “more important” white characters on screen. 

Finn ends up being slowly phased out of the narrative. Particularly at the end of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” he gets knocked out in the final battle and then stays comatose through the end of the movie. A major contributing factor to Finn’s unfortunate portrayal is that the character was written almost entirely by white screenwriters. While it is possible for white screenwriters to create a decent Black character, it is crucial to have Black voices in the writing room. Diversifying voices at the writing stage allows showrunners to create fully realized, well-rounded characters of color.

Uhura, on the other hand, a character who was also written by white screenwriters, was unapologetically one of the most important members of her crew. Her presence in “Star Trek” actually worked to make a difference in the way Black people were perceived in sci-fi. 

Uhura was respected, and she carried herself with power. The presence of a strong Black character — one who was more than simply an amalgamation of harmful stereotypes — was a form of defiance. 

So what is a Black person to do when most sci-fi either ignores us, portrays us badly or does the bare minimum to include us? That is where Afrofuturism comes in.

Imagine if, instead of being centered around white culture and the ideals of white Hollywood, sci-fi creators shifted their focus to highlight Black people. That is Afrofuturism.

People who are less familiar with this Afrofuturistic subgroup of sci-fi might recognize its conventions in movies like “Black Panther,” “The Wiz” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Other less widely popular entries into the Afrofuturist canon include the 2019 film “See You Yesterday” and the animes “Cannon Busters” and “MFKZ.” Some of the most identifiable aspects of Afrofuturism include the use of Black-made music and urban settings. All of these examples make a point of celebrating Black culture in one way or another. 

It is important to point out that Afrofuturism is much more than simply adding Black characters to a futuristic setting. While Uhura is a fantastic example of integrating Black voices into sci-fi, she still exists in a world that has been modeled after the white ideal of a futuristic society. Much of what we recognize as sci-fi is an extension of the white American dream. Simply throwing a Black person into a white-dominated setting can be just as, if not more, harmful than just leaving them out altogether. 

Although the term “afrofuturism” was coined by cultural critic Mark Derry in 1993, Black female author Octavia Butler is often considered to be the mother of Afrofuturism. Butler’s books, including “Kindred,” published in 1979, and her short story “Bloodchild,” published in 1984, are considered cornerstones of African American sci-fi and define the genre to this day, even as it expands into other forms of modern media.

The way Butler wove truth about the position of Black people throughout history with her fantastical concepts is the beating heart of Afrofuturism. It is all too easy to idealize the future and to erase Black diaspora from the narrative to create a pleasant future, but Afrofuturism is all about accounting for struggles of the past. 

It is hard to tell whether or not Afrofuturism will continue to grow or if it will become a more well-known genre. But after seeing the popularity of movies like “Black Panther,” it would not be surprising if Afrofuturism became the new norm in Hollywood. Although “Black Panther” was a mainstream film that appealed to white audiences as well as Black audiences, it is a fairly decent portrayal of Afrofuturism. It does not contain all of the conventions that make Afrofuturism such an intriguing genre, but the spirit at the core of the project was there. The showrunners did not seem to concern themselves with what would be palatable for white audiences, and that is a major factor in the beauty of Afrofuturism. Showrunners need to continue to be daring and bold if they truly want to dismantle the constraints of the modern film industry.

Too often, the exclusion of Black voices in sci-fi carries the message that Black people don’t have a place in the future. The implications that come with this message, a message that can be either conscious or unconscious, are grim, to say the least. Afrofuturism provides a space where Black people can define their own place in the future without erasing Black diaspora in the process.