#SciFiSunday: A History of Race in Science Fiction Films

Take out your notepads.

Adilifu Nama concocted a thorough read that blends a critical look at science fiction cinema's milestone works in conjunction with American sociopolitical history, specifically with some of the most profound shifts in American race relations and policy.

Black Space: Imagining Race In Science Fiction Film does a great job of breaking down the historical context of race and racial discourse in American science fiction films. Nama argues that non-white representation and implied blackness has abounded in sci-fi cinema, past and present in two very important ways. First, a "structured absence" speaks to the creation of a science fiction story that overtly excludes people of color and imagines an alternative, all-white world. Second, that absence is commonly replaced with the alien Other, some non-human like being that relies on relevance with their relationship to white characters. The alien Other is at times coded as non-white and consumed by attributes that imply blackness or the ideas, behaviors of non-white people.

Chapter 1's "Structured Absence And Token Presence" is the focus here, providing film examples alongside the sociopolitical events from which they emerged. I found it wildly fascinating and a fantastic introduction for text on sci-fi films and race. I'm not even denting the cosmic coaster of this detailed script, but I couldn't pass up an overview to demonstrate the appreciated efforts of Nama's work.

1950's: Post-WWII America & The Nuclear Age

Historical Context: Confronting "the threat of cold war annihilation" imposed upon by those in power in Soviet Russia.

Film: When Worlds Collide (1951) "An impending collision between Earth and another planet" and "an elite cadre of American scientists constructs a spaceship that will ferry and small number of humans to another inhabitable planet."

Sparks ideas of "a powerful anxiety over the erosion of white imperialistic hegemony" as (racial) segregation sanctions were beginning to show signs of crumbling as well as xenophobic preservation in the popular perceptions of "developing" nations outside of the US and western Europe.

1960's: The Civil Rights Movements Sci-Fi Influence

Historical Context: The full-fledged fight for social, political, and economic equality for Black US citizens throughout the entire country.

Film: The Time Machine (1960) A scientist "creates a time machine that will transport him from 1899 to the year 802701, where he discovers a world of two races" symbolic for all white (the above ground Eloi) and non-whites (the underground, cannibal Morlocks). The Morlocks superiority in this world reflects "the fear that whites will become victims of an unequal social system that previously privileged them."

"In The Time Machine the symbolic resolution to the protest marches--acts of civil disobedience and and increasing violence associated with the civil rights movement--is signaled by the elimination of all the people of color in the future." The film is a response to white anxiety over racial integration.

1970's: Baby Boomer Cynicism & Mainstream Fare

Historical Context: "Political turmoil and racial unrest" turned the residual stains from the 60s hopeful exuberance into a bitter rage channeled in many sci-fi films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as well as Planet Of The Apes (1968) targeted to the boomer generation. In this space, two conflicting trends began. 

First, "the late 1960s Black Power movement was having an impact on the genre" as "black characters were beginning to creep into the previously all-white worlds of the future." Second, "America in the waning years of the 1970s would witness the reestablishment of racial segregation vis-a-vis white flight to the suburbs, along with a return of the structured absence of blackness in SF cinema" coinciding and due to what Nama suggests was a reevaluation of racial justice allegiances from white counterculture activists (22).

Films: Logan's Run (1976) is about this futuristic society where people are ceremoniously terminated when they turn 30. The rebellious ones are called "Runners" and Logan 5 (Michael York), a police officer, goes undercover to find out who's helping these Runners reach a place called Sanctuary. But Sanctuary is a trap lorded by a half-man/half-machine named Box (voiced by black actor Roscoe Lee Browne) who preserves Runners by freezing them.

Box suggests white disillusionment with Black civil rights ideologies as "a captivating "black" robot with a gift for grandiose oration," its name alone implying being trapped by "the symbolic confines of race and racial rhetoric". Only when Logan and his adventure companion Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter) are able to evade Box's purpose do they emerge to see Washington D.C., the treasure of America's great past as the film implies.

The film "reflects a cultural longing to return to an America prior to the civil rights movement by imagining a future world devoid of black people and advocating a host of ideological concessions related to the 1960s revolution, race relations, and America's political future."

Star Wars (1977) is mapped out as a groundbreaking, universally beloved franchise due to its grand use of themes such as good vs. evil, frontierism, and American folklore (28).

Episode 4: A New Hope - Nama argues, with the demonstration of Obi-Wan's description of the cantina and the scene that follows, "the blatant omission of black people in Star Wars heightens the symbolic value of the various aliens and space creatures found in the film."

The audience experiences "blackness aurally, as the intergalatic voice of doom" belonging to villain Darth Vader (voiced by black actor James Earl Jones).

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - Nama goes into what he describes as "Affirmative Action Sci-Fi" with Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian character. He is less of the "sidekick or token" but much more "complex and intriguing" because of the trajectory of the character leading into Return Of The Jedi.

Broader social implications: Lando's status as Baron Administrator of Cloud City and internal predicament after his deal with Vader to trap his long time friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) for capture "mirrored the shifting and uncertain status of African Americans in the early 1980s" with a significant percentage (enough to persuade some of complete racial progress) of socioeconomic successful blacks, affirmative action policies for equal opportunity, and added anxiety over 'selling out'.

Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi (1982) - Lando successfully attempts to correct the error in his judgment in aligning with Vader. However, Nama concludes that "the broader racial message remained: whites must be guarded toward blacks, and blacks must be evaluated according to their degree of allegiance to white interests," a narrative that was widely spun into orbit well into the 1990's.

1980's: Conservative Reform & Privileged Nostalgia

Historical Context: With Ronald Reagan's presidential election in 1980, he along with his politics became a symbol of "an image of 1950s Americana" along with a return to America's "former historical greatness," each code for ideologically acceptable lauding of the white, heteronormative, gender conformist, bootstrapping citizens at the systemic expensive of racial and class outlanders. 

Film: Back To The Future (1985) a popular 80's film, Nama focuses on the white mayor of Hill Valley in 1955, Red Thomas as the landscape of the town is clean and prosperous versus the black mayor of Hill Valley in 1985, Goldie Wilson (I'm face-palming that first name) who's responsible for the town's "urban decay and economic blight".

1955 shows Goldie in his "proper place" as a soda shop custodian, but as thirty years have passed, Civil Rights, Black Power, and the buppie, created "the figure of Goldie Wilson in Back To The Future [as] a vulgar signifier of the contemporary consequence of black demands for equal opportunity that are rooted in past racial protest and petition."

The film is a clear demonstration of a desire to literally go into the past to re-live "the good 'ole days" and even ensure it stays that way to disrupt opportunities for a bleaker future (38).

1990's/2000's: Crossover Appeal

Historical Context: Some of America's biggest movie stars became the prime export to our growing global village thanks to the internet and sparked the larger, much misguided message that the US is a country of post-racialism and integrative harmony. Nama alluding to post- 9/11 messages, science fiction film heroes push aside racial grievances and call for "patriotic solidarity" on the dawn of the Iraq War.

Who better to usher these ideals in than Will Smith, most notably in Independence Day (1996).

Smith, described here as exuding a "charismatic bravado", "cool-guy persona" with a "racially nonthreatening posture...reinvigorated the status of blackness in SF cinema."

To bring all this in, the chapter ends with a gust of enthusiasm for where science fiction films are going in regards to Black representation and depictions of future, alternative worlds that do not exclude and maybe even centralize black players. However, in both clear and abstract ways, Nama continues to stress that this terrain still grapples with race in highly contested ways.

I could suggest that and more, that as matters of race remain so egregiously relevant, sci-fi's essence of 'imagining beyond' is the perfect tool for centralizing the Black experience to paint the landscape with not only strife but promise.

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