The future. Whether 20 years or 200 years from now, the sci-fi genre is all about new possibilities and new ideas. Change. Often, sci-fi TV shows, movies and books give us the perfect opportunity to envision a time when skin color has stopped being a factor in human-to-human relationships. You know, the novel concept of “content of a person’s character.” I can imagine a date in the future, when we refer to each other as Terran (as opposed to Martian or Titanese) or even just human.
Over my lifetime, a few movies and TV shows have got it right by casting a black actor in a particular role, not to get a stereotype on the screen, but because the actor or actress was the right fit for the part; they were the embodiment of the character.
The character was not a slang-talking, gangsta-riding jokester with a background in the ‘hood. Not a sex kitten or ultra-pro-black (or as David Alan Grier says, “Mike Tyson black”), holding the gun sideways. Not a drug-dealing, pimping, dancing and jiving stereotype. They were just another excellent player in said show or movie. They made us forget about race as a divisive issue.
So, in recognition of the first day of Black History Month, here is a list of my top 10 favorite African American sci-fi movie & TV characters of all time.
1. Ben Hanser, Night of the Living Dead, played by Duane Jones: One of the first black hero characters in a mostly-white movie? Maybe, but I am not a movie expert. Duane Jones showed us all how to take out a zombie or two.
2. Lornette “Mace” Mason, Strange Days, played by Angela Bassett: Kicking ass and taking names, Mace broke the mold by being the black lady that would come to the rescue of the white man. I believe it was one of Angela Bassett’s best roles.
3. Benjamin Sisko, DS9, played by Avery Brooks: Running for six years in the ’90s, Star Trek: DS9 was a great entry into the canon. And Avery Brooks owned the role of the space station commander. While most geek folk remember Avery for DS9, I still like the Hawk character better.
4. Geordi La Forge, Star Trek: The Next Generation, played by Levar Burton: My hero back in the day. I wanted to be Geordi. Out of all the Star Trek characters, I would propose that Geordi was the most geeky. He “loved” starship engineering. Even fell in love with a holographic colleague.
5. Lando Calrissian, Star Wars, played by Billy Dee Williams: Suave, cool, collected and prepared, Lando held it down in Bespin and proved he could fly a bucket of bolts just as well as Solo. I’d have Lando at my back any day.
6. Sgt. Apone, Aliens, played by Al Matthews: While the tough-as-nails black sergeant is a running stereotype in Hollywood, Al Matthews was great in Aliens. Just wish he would have cracked a few more alien heads before being taken out in that tunnel.
7. Morpheus, The Matrix, played by Lawrence Fishburne: Fishburne killed this role. The elusive Morpheus. Man of mystery. Thinking back on who else may have played this role any better, I’m coming up blank.
8. Lt. Uhura, Star Trek, played by Nichelle Nichols: The queen. While her role was limited in most episodes, Nichelle Nichols was a fixture on the Star Trek bridge. Because of her casting, many more opportunities opened up for black actors. And that kiss was controversial for its time.
9. Lt. Vanessa Damphousse, Space: Above & Beyond, played by Lanei Chapman: Before the Battlestar Galactica reboot, came Space: Above & Beyond. I was truly saddened when this show was kicked from the air. Glen Morgan and James Wong did a great job of casting this near-future space drama. And who could not love a fighter pilot as fine as Lanei Chapman.
10. Mace Windu, Star Wars, played by Samuel Jackson: I remember when Sam Jackson was announced as a feature character in the Star Wars prequels. One could only guess as to how he would portray one of the leaders of Jedi Council. While I think the dialogue for his character should have been tossed, I still feel that Mace Windu was one of the best Jedi masters from the movies.
Many more actors and actresses could have gone on this list. As time slowly rolls by, we are seeing more and more diversity on TV and in the movies. And as cheaper technology allows for Hollywood-caliber effects (Panic Attack) to spread across the world (Pumzi), let’s hope we see a more realistic portrayal of humanity’s peoples on the sci-fi tubes.