Don’t Blame Science Fiction for Hollywood’s Race Problem

Does sci-fi have a race problem? If you’re The Atlantic, the answer is yes — yesterday, the magazine’s website ran this piece, wherein writer Noah Berlatsky argues that there are essentially four ways in which sci-fi handles race: metaphor, tokenism, diversity, and explicit narrative. It’s ambitious to try to construct a definitive thesis about an entire genre’s handling of race, especially a genre as diverse as sci-fi, and judging by the article’s mammoth comment section, which is basically like 500-plus comments by Roman DeBeers, Berlatsky has touched a nerve. I don’t want to tear him down here, but I do want to note one fundamental flaw in his thesis: it works from the assumption that all sci-fi starts from an essentially white male point of view and then either does or doesn’t address race. The problem with this approach is that it perpetuates the marginalization of sci-fi that doesn’t come from that point of view.

And there’s a decent amount of it these days, because the post-millennial resurgence in Afrofuturism has been one of the more fascinating and welcome developments of the last decade or so. This trend been written about a fair amount in relation to music — the most prominent example is Janelle Monáe and her ArchAndroid mythos, but there’s also the hyperspace hip hop of Flying Lotus and Deltron 3030 and the more esoteric work of acts like Ras G and the Afrikan Space Program, whose most recent album, Back On the Planet, was one of the under-appreciated joys of last year.

You hear less about an Afrofuturist revival in film and literature, but if there’s not been a resurgence in other areas of pop culture, it might be because, hey, Afrofuturism never really went away. Octavia Butler was writing right up until her death in 2006, and produced as rich a body of work as any of her white male contemporaries. And once you start digging, there’s a wealth of writing that addresses the future from the perspective of people of color, from the reasonably well-known to the fascinatingly obscure.

The problem, of course, is that none of this stuff is getting made into the sort of big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas that the layman calls to mind when he thinks of sci-fi. There are certainly entirely worthy films that look at the future and/or the present through the lens of race — Berlatsky rightly cites John Sayles’ excellent The Brother From Another Planet as an example — but they’re by and large all indie/low-budget films. As far as Hollywood goes, the future is either post-racial (The Matrix, for instance, portrays a world where the impressively diverse remnants of humanity are more concerned with surviving the depredations of being used as a giant battery than they are with worrying about skin color) or suspiciously white.

The whitewashing of other worlds is clearly an ongoing problem in Hollywood. Berlatksy cites the fact that Ursula LeGuin’s racially diverse Earthsea world magically became entirely Caucasian in the dire TV adaption, a development that so infuriated the author she penned an article for Slate lamenting that “race, which had been a crucial element, [was] cut out of my stories.” Her books aren’t the only ones that have been bleached for the big (or small) screen — there’s also the fact that the original Katniss character in The Hunger Games was, if not black, then definitely not as lily-white as Jennifer Lawrence, while the original protagonist of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers was Filipino, something that the actor who played him in the film adaption most definitely wasn’t. And although it’s more fantasy than science fiction, the whitewashing of The Last Airbender was similarly depressing.

This is ultimately a problem with Hollywood, not with sci-fi. This isn’t to say that the world of sci-fi hasn’t had its own problems with diversity — clearly, it has done, and continues to do so. As with pretty much every other aspect of our entertainment industry, it’s a place where both women and people of color are underrepresented both as as characters and as creators.

But if anything, the possibilities of speculative fiction have provided rich opportunities for writers to address, obliquely or explicitly, both the history of slavery and its legacy of racism. As Mark Dery notes in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future,” in which he coined the term “Afrofuturism,” “African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movement; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies.”

It also provides space to imagine a world where such things are consigned to a brutish history, a world in which, as The Quietus’ John Calvert put it, “A black man can just be a man and not a black man.” Theorist Kodwo Eshun has written about how Afrofuturist literature can “engineer feedback between [a] preferred future and [a] becoming present,” and it’s notable, I think, that when Butler was asked in 2000, “What… is central to what you want to say about race?,” she responded, “Do I want to say something central about race? Aside from, ‘Hey we’re here!’?”

Dery’s “Black to the Future” originally set out to answer the question, “Why do so few African Americans write science fiction?” In the two decades since the essay was published, though, it feels like there’s been a distinct increase in the number of writers of color working in this genre — if you’re looking for places to start, this LA Times article from last year is an excellent primer on writers of color in the world of speculative fiction. (The Afrofuturist Affair Tumblr is also highly recommended.)

Yes, it’s true: for all that progress has been made, writers of color are still underrepresented in the world of sci-fi, and so are characters of color. But to ignore the ones that do exist, many of which are excellent and well worth investigating, only serves to marginalize them further.