by Adilifu Nama
2008 • 200 pages • University of Texas Press
As happy as I am that Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems to be committed to a diverse universe (there’s nary a white dude in the main trio!), I am still infuriated that the production cast Lupita Nyong’o, widely considered an astonishing force of style and beauty (as well as the baby Dazzler of my heart), and covered her up with CGI. And not to play a truly inhuman character who could only be executed with CGI (you can literally do anything; I was campaigning for a sentient black hole), but to play… a humanoid character whose most alien features are a lack of a nose and a long neck.
Covering up actors of color with prosthetics and CGI is, sadly, a trend in speculative fiction films, despite the fact that speculative fiction is an inherently progressive genre. Even my beloved The Lord of the Rings features nearly all of its Maori actors as orcs and Witch Kings. Thor: The Dark World cast Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Algrim the Strong, a dark elf who then goes on to be transformed into Kurse. Even Zoe Saldana, the inheritor of Uhura, one of the most groundbreaking roles in sf television, gets painted green in Guardians of the Galaxy. There is progress—we will soon see Luke Cage and Black Panther join Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—but the conflation of aliens and people of color remains a troubling trend in sf cinema.
Individually, of course, there are always reasons for these choices. I imagine Nyong’o accepted the role because doing motion capture is an exciting and very different way of acting, on top of getting to be in Star Wars. As a white woman who benefits from racial privilege,it’s not my place to speak to that. But I can highlight the larger pattern of seeing, time after time, actors of color asked to play outrageous and othered creatures and ask: why?
It’s the same question that Adilifu Nama asks in his 2008 meditation on black representation in sf media. Why is black representation in sf media so overdetermined by the largely white and male creative forces that make it? Casually representing our diverse world seems so rare (especially in a landscape lacking the last seven years of sf films) and including people of color only when “necessary” seems so common. While it’s only sf-adjacent, Joss Whedon’s rendition of Much Ado About Nothing is infamous for only including a shot of a person of color when a white actor recites a line about how he would love his beloved even if she was an “Ethiope”. It clearly illustrates Nama’s point: when black characters only included when (a reductive vision of) their blackness is deemed necessary to the plot, then we are perpetuating a vision of the future as absurdly (and illogically, really) lily white.
As Nama never outright states but emphasizes over and over again, the absence of people of color—and women and queer folk and disabled folk and other marginalized groups—is always a choice. It may not appear to be a conscious choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless. A choice to see people of color as inherently political is a choice to see them as their issues and not as people. When people fly into a uproar about the idea of Donald Glover playing Spider-Man or the next rendition of Ghostbusters or any attempt to “insert” diversity into speculative fiction (again, an inherently progressive and diverse genre, despite its mainstream representatives), they are saying that they prefer a fictional vision of the world that does not look like the world around it. They are saying that they choose only to see white (straight, cisgendered, able-bodied) men as people, they are threatened by the idea of people being able to choose otherwise, and they are somehow proud of that.
I say again: ughck.
Nama runs into a predictable problem in Black Space: as we’ve established, black representation in sf media is quite limited. Nama, however, simply expands the field, by highlighting how sf cinema often racializes fantastical races. When your cast is lily white, then your fantastical aliens end up standing in for othered races—which neatly ties into the trend we started this post with. As Nama brilliantly points out, “Race is the ultimate science fiction, and America has a lengthy history of promulgating how biological features such as skin pigmentation, hair texture, eye color, and facial features are used not just to classify people into different racial groups but also, unfortunately, to justify preconceived notions of each race’s behavioral characteristics and mental abilities” (43). I would really love to read more about race and fantasy, because what Nama describes is also deeply tied into Tolkienesque fantasy worldbuilding—dwarves are this way, elves are another, etc.
HIs readings of films that appear on the surface not to deal with race are absolutely wonderful. I do find his reading of Predator a little on the nose, phallically speaking, but it’s fundamentally sound. For instance, Nama’s reading of Star Wars as a rebuttal to Vietnam is amazing. I’m always surprised to realize that I haven’t read a lot about Star Wars in its political context. Its cinematic context tends to eclipse that, but it’s quite important to point out. I mean, the prequels were infamous for mapping hideous racial stereotypes onto alien species, it’s not like it takes a deeper reading to get to this stuff.
I rented this book from the public library.