Rogue One is about to give us the most diverse cast of lead characters to date in a piece of official Star Wars film media, so diverse it’s ruffled the feathers of white supremacists (who we’re supposed to call the “alt-right” now, no thank you), but I noticed something funny. Our central character sticks out like the singular white woman in a team of ethnically interesting heroes. You only get the “Our Luke’s a Lady Now” diversity award once Disney, now why is your lead rebel the white rebel?
Let me share with you a little anecdote. Science fiction author Anthony Vicino went on a hunt through an Oakland, CA book shop and found 594 sci fi book covers with an ethnically recognizable person. To quote him: “Of those 594, 248 were white males (42%) and 294 were white females (49%). 18 were a male POC (3%) and 34 were a female POC (5%). Meaning that people of color only represented 8% of the results.” He goes on to point that Oakland is just 25% white. This line of thinking has been taken so far that on occasion, even for books where the lead is written as non-white, the cover art substitutes a white person into the role. In working under the age-old mantra that “covers with a person of colour on them don’t sell well”, American publishing houses are actually pandering to the smaller market in many areas.
Vicino points out that it’s a chicken and egg problem. Black leads in Sci-Fi are only strange because we don’t see many black leads in Sci-Fi, and thus we don’t see more. It’s a fundamental, persistent, and pervasive issue in mass entertainment: major publishers and major film studios are still convinced that a white audience is incapable of empathising with a lead that isn’t white. Unless those leads are Will Smith or Denzel Washington (and I’m envisaging a similar future for John Boyega).
The problem is bigger than Sci-Fi of course. I’ll wait patiently as I ask if you can name me some famous black or non-white characters in Fantasy films or books that have had real impact on our cultural Zeitgeist? Allow me to do it for you: Shadow from American Gods, Kingsley Shacklebolt in Harry Potter, and Wesley Snipes’ vamp slaying Blade. Not much else. Now, let’s do the same for Sci-Fi – are most of them Will Smith? Yeah, they’re mostly Will Smith. Then there’s Laurence Fishbourne as Morpheus, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Sammy Jackson’s Mace Windu; there’s the Star Trek trifecta of Nichelle Nichols/Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, LeVar Burton’s Geordi La Forge, and Avery Brooks’ Benjamin Sisko. Star Trek has actually had a pretty great track record with portrayals of black characters, though like most popular media it falls into the trap of slapping a person of colour into a lead role, only to be accompanied by a conspicuous lack of diversity in supporting roles.
If we’re to test ourselves a bit more, Mikasa Ackerman in Attack on Titan and Motoko from Ghost in the Shell, and l
et’s not forget Danai Gurira’s ceaselessly badass Michonne, or…
Actually, can we take a quick break to look at how the post-apoc Sci-Fi The Walking Dead has been great with its POC characters? Michonne stomps ass, Glenn (spoilers) kicked ass, Tyreese (spoilers) caved in heads with a hammer like no one’s business, Sasha kicks ass, Rosita kicks ass, and even Father Gabriel has become progressively less shit (though I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that the pastor walks through the revolving door The Walking Dead has erected for black male characters these last seven seasons). The excellent feature of these characters is that they’re written like people. They’re more than diversity straw men. I don’t want my cinema screen flooded with “Strong Black People” with as little substance as Kristen Stewart’s acting (by god, I’d sit through Michael Bay’s filmography as a furious gibbon clawed at the underside of my tongue just to never see her again); the change needs to be substantive, sensitive, and purposeful.
Sci-Fi is doing better than Fantasy in the diversity stakes, that’s for sure; I audibly gasped at Asian elves in the recent Warcraft movie, and was heartily pleased to see Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong in Doctor Strange. However, the troubling absence of lead and supporting POC characters in Science Fiction means that the futures we’re being shown are somewhat whiter than the society we have now, which frankly makes no sense when held against the minority-to-majority demographics shifts in the US and UK. If 60% of the world lives in Asia, shouldn’t most imagined futures should be heavily influenced and populated by Asian cultures, à la Firefly? Even an Afrocentric future would make just as much sense as the Eurocentric visions we’re being fed, and the Afrofuturism movement serves as a beautiful eye opener to just how well black culture could synthesise with Sci-Fi. Yet Hollywood determines that anything but a white space Christmas will spook audiences. Since the moment that Science Fiction cinema began to be taken seriously with Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey, the futures presented before our eyes, and those behind the scenes endeavouring to create the future on the big screen, have been mostly fifty shades of white. In the 21st century, it should strike us, all of us, as somewhat sinister that even though the “White” population of the whole world is somewhere between 1.3 billion and 1.5 billion – less than a quarter of the total population – our future is still being envisioned as a predominantly white one.
When I was little, I wanted to be a Jedi, but it was my understanding that there simply weren’t any more than five black guys in the whole Star Wars universe and we were only allowed a few at a time. I felt apprehensive to belong in such a world for fear of kicking out a more crucial black guy with greater heroic potential. The Force Awakens and Rogue One have added more diversity to the canon, but while to some Jyn Erso is a triumphant blow to misogynists everywhere (all hail Imperator Furiosa and Rey for the last round of impotent male rage), she’s not going to make any black girl, like my little sister, think she can take down an evil empire anytime soon. To her, she’s just one more white Sci-Fi protagonist. The world will truly be a new and exciting one when the White Saviour – whether male or female – gives way to a few of those elusive creatures: the Intelligently Written, Genuinely Strong Black/Asian/Latino/other POC Science Fiction Hero.