This article originally appeared on Africana.com on May 15, 2003. It was posted to ebogjonson.com on July, 28, 2006.
They Came Before the Matrix: Black People and Science Fiction
By Gary Dauphin
Among the many mysteries of The Matrix is the unexpected yen writer-director siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski have for putting color into science fiction's usually all-white, big-screen frame. The original Matrix was a tantalizingly multicultural affair, from Laurence Fishburne's laconic Morpheus, to Gloria Foster's wryly luminous Oracle, to the eternal question of Keanu's non-descript racial cipher, while the overarching themes at the core of the franchise -- maroonage and slave rebellion -- can't help but speak suggestively to black sci-fi heads. (It'll be a thousand years or more before an American artist can make work about "slaves" without automatically evoking some portion of black life and history.)
That afrofuturistic parade continues in The Matrix Reloaded with the addition to the cast of Jada Pinkett-Smith, Harold Perrineau, Jr, and, of all people, academic (and occasional MC) Cornel West. The Matrix, though, is hardly the first big screen franchise to go black to the future. In no particular order, here are ten key moments and storylines from the big screen history of black people and science fiction:
1 - Black Magic in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
It's no coincidence that some of the earliest mixings of blackness and science fiction took place on movie visits to fictionalized versions of the first black republic, Haiti. Long an object of white fascination and vilification, Haiti's folk religion voudoun was alternately represented as a primitive superstition and as an arcane, crypto-Masonic secret society in dozens of B, C and D-movies from the pre-straight-to-video golden ages of Hollywood exploitation. Flicks like Drums O' Voodoo (1934) titillated and terrorized white audiences with visions of white women under the mind control of black "witch doctors," some of the spells apparently so powerful they required breaking by none other than the extraterrestrial Superman, who made visits to the island in both big screen serials and on TV episodes like Superman #18: "Drums of Death" (1957). In the movie fictionalization of Harvard ethno-botanist Wade Davis' book The Serpent and The Rainbow, horror director Wes Craven squared the circle of science and mysticism by imagining a pharmacological nightmareland where both the "divine horsemen" (as the gods of Haiti are known) and the Duvalier regime were the products of scary native drugs and freaky native bio-chemistry, thereby giving Haitian religion the "magic mushroom" treatment that the Amazon's indigenous people get in the fantasies of the National Geographic set.
2 - Fear of a Black Planet
The entire Planet of the Apes cycle took racist anxieties about African nationalism, civil rights and Black Power and did what science fiction does best -- recast the unconscious fears of audiences in forms that were similar enough to the real deal to get a rise, while different enough to pass without a ripple into the popular culture. The Apes series benefited from the placement of the then-liberal Charlton Heston in the opening installment and from there ran roughshod through the political anxieties of white Americans until Conquest of the Planet of the Apes made it plain by depicting a political revolution of ape slaves aided and abetted by, you guessed it, a black man.
3 - Fear of the Black Hat
All too often, the only African American face in a science fiction will belong to the villain. George Lucas' black armor-clad Darth Vader was evil incarnate while voiced by African American actor James Earl Jones, his transition away from the Dark Side of the Force (right) signaled by his transformation into a kindly white Brit. In flicks like Total Recall betrayal wore a black mutant face, while in Terminator 2 the end of the world was caused by an over-eager black scientist mucking about with mysterious technology. (Let that be a lesson to every black engineer!)
4 - Back in The Day
While comedy franchises like Martin Lawrence's Black Knight used time-travel to produce easy fish-out-the-ghetto yucks, Haile Gerima's indie masterpiece Sankofa imagined a time travel scenario with a little more bite, when an African American woman finds herself back in days of slavery. The lyrical, quasi-non-linear feature had an art house feel, but re-enacted a basic science fictional question just about every modern-day black person has asked at some point or another: What would I do if I found myself living "back then?" In Brother from Another Planet an escaped alien slave made the trip not across time but space, bringing him into a black neighborhood where the locals band together to protect him.
5 - The White Negro -- Literally
Black essayist and conservative George Schulyer imagined a scientific process whereby black men could be made white and vice versa in 1931's groundbreaking black sci-fi novel Black No More, a conceit that has made it into the movies dozens of times. From spoofs like the Denzel Washington vehicle Heart Condition, to political satires like Watermelon Man and Black Like Me, the transformation of black bodies into white ones and white bodies into black has created endless one-liners about black male endowment and countless opportunities to draw easy conclusions about the similarities and differences between the races. Flicks that focused on actually changing the physical structure of the body, like Black Like Me tended to be both the most lurid and the most interesting, as modifying the racial hardware always raises bigger questions about the software: What's it look like? Who wrote it? Who owns the copyright? And: When is the next version coming out?
6 - Angela Bassett's Superpower
Immediately after Kirk and Uhura were forced into TV's first interracial kiss in the classic Star Trek episode "Plato's Step-Children," the verb of interracial love gained a new tense -- call it the "future-perfect-freaky" -- and no one uses it better on screen than Angela Bassett. In Supernova and, more notably, Strange Days, Bassett played black-women-of-the-future responding to what must be (by then) a heinously advanced black-man-shortage by bedding down their white male co-stars. While Bassett savaged Halle Berry in the press for her black-on-white love scene in Monster's Ball, in a temporal inversion of "statute of limitations" she was completely comfortable taking roles that not only featured miscegenation, but treated it as a kind of evolutionary advance. Her romance with Ralph Fiennes not only ends Strange Days, but marks the entire world's official entrance into the future, their kiss setting off the fireworks that announce the arrival of the new millennium.
7 - What is B.O.G.? Racial Purity and the Coming Beige Apocalypse
In the sci-fi worlds of the "future-perfect-freaky," mixed race, bi-racial people stride the earth, a scarily perfect super-race purportedly mixing the best of black and white. While writers like Octavia Butler regularly re-imagine the encounter between Europe and Africa in the Americas as a regenerative genetic apocalypse where both roots are transformed by their offspring, the theme had no big screen analog until Wesley Snipes brought the brooding Daywalker named Blade to the multiplexes. The big-screen version of the comic book Blade brought the image of the tragic mulatto into the bio-molecular age, the half-vampire, half-human played by Snipes not just trapped between two warring tribes but forced to live in a battleground-body. The product of pregnant (black) human mother raped by a (white) vampire father, Blade faced an identity crisis that also gave the "one drop rule" a creepy age-of-AIDS spin, turning vampire creation into a question of post-coital viral infection. Unlike Butler's vision of a transcendent middle race, which in books like the Xenogenesis trilogy and Clay's Ark takes giddy satisfaction in the survival of the fitter, new-fangled hybrids, the less radical Blade only wants to maintain the status quo, defending the humans in the first picture, and then discovering the nobility of his pure-blooded vampire antagonists in the second, as embodied by fangy-hottie Leonor Varela.
8 - Esoterics in the Land of Cotton
Although not always understood as visions of science fiction, there are always strange doings afoot whenever the moist lands south of the Mason-Dixon line are depicted on screen. From Eve's Bayou to Beloved, the American South has always been a big screen haunted house where the sins of the white racist fathers swap spit with Hollywood fantasies of black spiritual resistance, aka rootwork and hoodoo. Black spiritual technologies -- charms, dream books, candles, mojos -- have been so severed from their original contexts by LaLaLand that they could seamlessly provide a tagline for a franchise like Austin Powers, while in the work of Stephen King, most notably The Shining and the The Stand, wise southern black folk warm King's chilly New England nightmares by acting as walking repositories for strange, unexplained energies. Although much, much richer, even the late Gloria Foster's Oracle in the Matrix movies is a play on the image of the aged Negro as spiritual antenna, a trope as old as Harriet Beecher Stowe's god-fearing Uncle Tom beatifically soaking up the good Lord's shine.
9 - Substance D: Imaginary Drugs for Imaginary Ghettoes
In 1977, Philip K. Dick imagined a "Substance D" in A Scanner Darkly a drug so powerful it split the novel's undercover narc protagonist into two personalities, one belonging to the cop, the other to his prey. Dick and his readers didn't have to wait long for the lab-cooked super-drugs of the future; a scant half decade after A Scanner Darkly was published, America was in the grip of a crack epidemic. Ghetto real thrillers like Deep Cover, Ricochet and Belly might not seem like science fiction, but their storylines all revolve around black folks hard at work on the high tech creation of heretofore unknown new narcotics, next generation cracks and methamphetamines. Deep Cover imagines a black and white team looking to create an ecstasy-like pill with no side effects, while in Belly DMX learns (from MTV News of course) of a perfected heroin. In Ricochet Ice-T isn't just Denzel's bad seed pal from back in the day, he's a high tech entrepreneur whose inner-city lab is a futuristic playground straight out of Tom Clancy, the street obviously finding new uses for technology long before the newest-latest reaches the suburbs.
10 - Michael Jackson
What's there to say about MJ that hasn't been said? The "Thriller" video and the "Black or White" video (not to mention their associated games) are epic parts of the black science fictional canon, Michael's racial anxieties turning to the power of special effects to allow him to transform his black body in ways far more radical than the puny tools of plastic surgery allow. Few remember, though, that Michael also created a full-length feature called Moonwalker where the King of Pop enacted a slew of Afro-futuristic fantasies, culminating with his climactic transformation not into a white man, but a 400-foot-tall Transformer.
About the Author: Gary Dauphin is Editor in Chief of Africana.com.