Coming to America is the very definition of Afrofuturism. It remained unmatched until the release of those first-look Black Panther trailers, despite the ultimately superficial perception of the changing scope of inclusion in major studio productions of ‘black film’.

The landmark, award-winning contemporary horror fantasy Get Out (2017) dared to satirise racism from a black perspective which took white society by surprise. However, considering Black Panther‘s genre, we can only compare it to science fiction and fantasy television series’ available in the UK on streaming platforms since late 2016. The high production values and cinematic scope of four of the biggest and best still offer only a limited vision of character not remediable by expensive CGI or lightning-fast editing, if you look closer.

American Gods

The critically acclaimed American Gods from Starz/Amazon Prime in 2017, boasts a significant black cast, and an underlying commentary on modern consumerism and the spiritual well-being of the descendants of explorers, immigrants and slaves in the Americas. Our series review [1] gave praise where it was due. Orlando Jones’s Mr. Nancy/Anansi the spider from West African and Caribbean cultures, is given a momentous entrance opening episode two. It is a powerhouse performance delivering, in an unflinching monologue, a clever summary of 400 years of criminal oppression. But, just because the sequence is delivered brilliantly, doesn’t mean that it examines or changes anything about our past, present or future.

Look closer at two particular characters, and a reflection of stereotype can still be detected. Shadow Moon himself is presented as an ‘anti-hero’ of ambiguous ethnicity, played by mixed-race Brit Ricky Whittle, who does a pretty great job with the material. But, he is someone we have seen repeatedly. He is an ex-con with no prospects, not averse to violence, in love to the point of worship with his white wife, oddly passive and unquestioning. He survives an attempted lynching, and has a purpose not clearly defined, but which manipulates him into service for the white Mr. Wednesday/Odin (Ian McShane). In keeping with the show’s themes, he may have to make some personal sacrifice either for or against this cause.

This is nothing new. Neither is the fact that he is about to be sidelined in his ‘own’ story! The shift from him towards his now zombie wife Laura (Emily Brown) is contrary to the book, but can be felt quite distinctly through the episode progression, and is heavily hinted at for season 2. So far, Shadow Moon bears more of a resemblance to Spike Lee’s Super Duper Magical Negro (2001, SDMN), as TBB discussed a few years back [2].

Nigerian-born Yetide Badaka as the beautiful Bilquis, a goddess of love, is a hyper-sexualised succubus, fleshed out for the series from a variety of sources, including Oshun, a goddess of love, fertility and sensuality, from Badaka’s own culture. By the season one finale, she is still diminished to a version of Chesya Burke’s Super Duper Sexual Spiritual Black Woman (2012, SDSSBW) [3], rather than a divine being. Granted, the decline of the gods is partly the point of the story. But, we have yet to discover the point of Bilquis, other than to show a black woman who is a slave to sexual gratification.

Star Trek: Discovery

Sonequa Martin Green as Michael Burnham.
Image sourced – TV Guide

The fantastic Star Trek: Discovery, is another firm fan favourite, and was supposed to be a real game changer. But, the USP that promised to redress the dire franchise history of black female characters looks mighty thin under the microscope. The legacy of  creator Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking vision, which pushed the envelope in casting the First Lady of Afrofuturism Nichelle Nichols [4] as the accomplished bridge officer Lt. Uhura in 70/80 episodes of The Original Series, (1966-69), has been steadily eroded with each new series, and has moved from ‘critical’ to ‘stable on life-support’. The deficiencies in the franchise’s black characterisation, particularly in women, has been highlighted by TBB before.

Praise where it is due, but Star Trek: Discovery [5] was to give us our first non-white female lead after a 50+ year history. When the exquisite Sonequa Martin-Green was announced as central character Michael Burnham, red flags threatened because she was not to be a Captain. Never fear, they said, she will be a First Officer and be called Number One, paying homage to Roddenberry’s original vision of the female First Officer (Majel Barrett, later Barrett-Roddenberry) in the unaired pilot “The Cage” and later in “The Menagerie”. But, Burnham’s commissioned rank did not survive the pilot episode.

As it stands Burnham is an ex-con, not averse to violence, with no prospects as an uncommissioned specialist, oddly passive and unquestioning. She abandons the emotion-free logic (and by extension, truth), loyalty and pacifism she was trained in as the first human child raised as a Vulcan by Vulcans on Vulcan, in which she must have been proficient to be considered for a place at the Vulcan cience Academy. Forgotten is the xenoanthropology expertise in alien societies, cultures and their development in which she specialised at Star Fleet Academy. Discarded is her Star Fleet training which advanced her to the rank of First Officer and second-in-command on the Walker-class starship, USS Shenzhou. Instead, she acts illogically, rashly resorting to violence when frustrated by an understandable obstacle which she must have been trained to deal with.

Burnham has specialised knowledge of the known alien races, and how the Vulcans (including her foster father, Sarek) dealt with the last Klingon aggression. Yet, her advice on tackling the Klingon threat, which should have been a dazzling display of logic and xenoanthropological knowledge (and as we have seen Spock (The Original Series), T’Pol (Enterprise) and even Tuvok (Voyager) do), is dismissed out of hand by Captain Georgiou, her mentor and friend. This, in itself, is not usually seen in the Star Trek universe. A First Officer’s advice is always considered, often followed. In fact, leading up to Burnham’s baffling actions, Georgiou not only takes her advice on several occasions and indicates that she values her judgment, but she is also about to recommend Burnham for Captain just hours before the Klingon attack.

Burnham accepts the court-martial at which she pleads guilty to all charges, accepts the erroneous conclusion that she started the war, and the punishment of life imprisonment. There’s a definite whiff of Jim Crow here, when African Americans had to unquestioningly accept whatever judgments were levelled by white accusers. Her treatment is not in keeping with other white central characters facing general court-martial for murder (Kirk, Scott), or high-jacking, assault and mutiny (Spock, Kirk, and crew). They are always quickly vindicated before the end of one maybe two episodes, and usually by the end of the movie, and allowed to keep their unblemished service record. Someone always speaks for them. Not so with Burnham. Not even her fellow bridge officers who witnessed their Captain finally acknowledge that Burnham was probably right.

It feels like the majority-white-male writing team on Discovery chose to see only her skin tone, ignore the backstory they created for her, and slip her comfortably into a version of the unsophisticated, angry/aggressive black woman trope we have seen time and again. What’s worse, no-one seems to have noticed.

(l-r) Deep Space 9’s Sisko (Avery Brooks); The New Generation’s Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) & Worf (Michael Dorn)

Deep Space 9’s Sisko (Avery Brooks) [6] was given as much leeway as we have ever seen a Federation Captain given. By contrast, The New Generation’s Geordi La Forge (#7.03 “Interface“, 1993) [7] and Worf (TNG #4.07 “Reunion“, 1990, and DS9 #6.16 “Change Of Heart“, 1998) both have permanent disciplinary strikes, In fact, Worf was assured by Captain Sisko that he may never make Captain, ultimately forcing him into his Star Fleet Ambassador role to the Klingon Empire.

None of this is new. An Institute of Race Relations: Criminal Justice System report [8] explains that “People from BAME communities are over-represented at almost all stages of the criminal justice process, disproportionately targeted by the police, more likely to be imprisoned and more likely to be imprisoned for longer than white British people.” Ava DuVernay’s 2016 film 13th [9] confirms the same for African Americans.

Further, Discovery’s blonde, blue-eyed Kelpien, Saru initially the Shenzhou’s science officer and Burnham’s subordinate, implies that she didn’t deserve her rank and that she was an ‘obstacle’ to his advancement. He’s also frightened of her, and called her dangerous, despite her entirely selfless motivation and actions. Even though he causes a dead colleague to be left behind in enemy territory, and follows up with a string of poor decisions, he is officially praised for his actions, promoted to First Officer aboard the Discovery, making possible his eventual advancement to scting Captain. Another white character, Burnham’s roommate Sylvia Tilly, is allowed to make scientific breakthroughs way above her cadet status.

A report by the Institute For Employment Studies [10] confirms that Burnham’s predicament is a reflection of the current status quo. Similar statistics apply to African Americans, where a 2015 study [11] showed that black students who graduate from highly-selective institutions like Harvard are about as likely to get a well-paid job as a white graduate from a less-selective state university. The fear of black people is all too real. In 2015, an online forum started by US police officers revealed their daily frustrations of dealing with calls from white residents panicking at the mere sight of someone with different racial lineage existing nearby [12]. In the UK, the Sus Law (Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, 1924) is still enforceable.

There is no doubt that Burnham is a hit with fans, and Martin-Green has turned an obvious stereotype into a complex, measured, accomplished woman who doesn’t panic and acts selflessly, played with extraordinary nuance and contrary juxtapositions. We can only hope that her story improves and she is ultimately vindicated. If so, it will be after extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness and probably some significant personal cost, unequalled by Star Fleet officers of similar rank. It is reminiscent of more junior court-martialled characters Ensign Ro Laren (9/176 episodes TNG, Michelle Forbes) and Lt. Tom Paris (all 170 episodes VOY, Robert Duncan McNeill), both of whom caused the death of colleagues by disobeying direct orders and pilot error/cover up,respectively. Until then, we can celebrate that she is joined by a couple of recurring black female characters or characters with speaking parts, like bridge Operations Ensign Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), an unnamed Federation officer of undetermined rank, and our first black female medic, Dr. Pollard (Raven Dauda), in two episodes, marking further improvement in the franchise.

References:

[1] – http://thebritishblacklist.co.uk/92-outof100-ricky-whittle-earns-a-second-season-in-the-must-see-american-gods/

[2] – http://www.thebritishblacklist.com/british-blacklist-feature-focus-optical-illusions-black-characters-film-part-1/

[3] – http://www.thebritishblacklist.com/british-blacklist-feature-focus-optical-illusions-black-characters-film-part-1/

[4] – http://thebritishblacklist.co.uk/star-trek-discovery-series-first-look-trailer-unveiled/

[5] – http://www.startrek.com/database_article/avery-brooks

[6] – http://www.startrek.com/database_article/la-forge-Geordi

[7] – http://www.startrek.com/database_article/worf

[8] – http://www.irr.org.uk/research/statistics/criminal-justice/

[9] – http://www.employment-studies.co.uk/

[10] – http://www.employment-studies.co.uk/

[11] – https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/03/06/elite-college-degrees-give-black-graduates-little-advantage-job-market

[12] – http://afropunk.com/2017/05/cops-complain-about-white-people-wasting-police-time-calling-911-with-irrational-fears-of-black-people/