Where are all the people of colour in science fiction?

Written by:
Imani Bernard
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Seventeen-year-old Imani Bernard tells us why representation of BME people and women is important everywhere - including in her favourite science fiction films

I have always had an interest in science fiction. I grew up watching Doctor Who and Marvel and DC comic superhero films.

Ten years ago, when I was seven, I watched Martha Jones, a young black woman, become the new companion of the Doctor. For me, someone who had grown up watching Doctor Who, finally seeing someone who looked just like me, who was as enthusiastic about time and space as I was, excited me and made me aspire to be just like her character. She was smart, went to university and was training to be a doctor, things that I could only dream I’d be able to accomplish one day.

Seeing the increased representation of people of colour in the sci-fi and fantasy genre makes me hope that young children today can share the same experience that I had. As a child, seeing someone like you on your favourite TV show or film is inspiring.

Doctor Who is a great example, as it recently featured a young black female LGBT companion (Bill Potts), and the next doctor isa woman. It’s rare for the protagonist in science fiction to be female, and for important characters to be members of the LGBT community is even more uncommon. Other examples include the 2015 Star Wars film The Force Awakens, in which key protagonists are black and female, meanwhile much earlier, in 1999, the role of Morpheus was famously played by black actor Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix.

However, it is still rare to see main characters that are black or Asian in popular film adaptations of DC comic heroes, including the Batman and Superman franchises. The leads are usually straight, white males, a few recent examples being Man of Steel (2013), The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 - 12), and Green Lantern (2011). Although the films stick to the comics, there are many comics featuring people of colour that are never made into films. When black characters are featured, they often have an unimportant role, or one that gives them a negative image, such as Will Smith’s role as Deadshot in Suicide Squad (2016).

The articleRacial Representation: The Final Frontier in Science Fiction by Merrill Miller discusses the lack of black characters in science fiction and why more representation is needed, mainly talking about the original Star Trek. Nichelle Nichols, who had the role of Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek, recalled a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr asking her not to leave the show as he believed she had “changed the face of television forever”. Through his words, Nichols realised that her role on the show as a black female Lieutenant would motivate young black girls, and decided to remain on the show.

The book Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film by Adilifu Nama also highlights the lack of racial diversity within science fiction films.

A study using the top 100 grossing sci-fi and fantasy films up to 2014 found that just 8% had protagonists of black or minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, of which six were played by Will Smith and one was a cartoon voiced by a white actor (Aladdin 1992). 14% of the films had women protagonists. There were no BME women or LGBT people represented.

In 2013, The Hunger Games, received mixed reactions due to the young black character, Rue. Many fans of the books that the film was based on complained on social media that the character they had formed an emotional attachment to was played by a black actress. This suggests that people are so comfortable with fantasy characters being white, that when a non-white actor is cast it comes as a nasty shock.

When black or Asian characters are cast, they are often sidekicks and have the feeling of being tokenistic, or there to just to add diversity. Otherwise they are less important, or villains. In other cases, BME actors should arguably be cast as this would be appropriate for the setting/storyline/follows the book, but instead Hollywood has ‘whitewashed’ characters so that more bankable white actors can be used. For example, Scarlett Johansson was cast in the film Ghost in the Shell (2017), though the original manga animation series portrayed the main character as Japanese.

Diversity of representation should occur everywhere, in all genres of film and TV, but as a consumer I have often found it to be lacking in the science fiction and fantasy genres. It is important for young children to see ethnic diversity on screen, as it gives them all someone to identify with and perhaps boosts their self-esteem. Re-enforcing negative stereotypes can reverse this effect.

For young BME children interested in science fiction, as I was, not having a powerful main character to identify with or aspire to be isn’t fair or right. It also isn’t seen as ‘the norm’ for girls to be interested this genre and there is a lack of representation of strong female leads.

Because of seeing Martha Jones on TV ten years ago, I’ve aspired to be just like her and am studying physics and maths, hoping to continue these studies at a good university.

Every child should have the opportunity to have that role model.

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