A Galaxy of Our Own
In the ’90s, the black man suddenly invaded the blockbuster science-fiction and fantasy film. African-American males found expanded roles for themselves in a genre that had previously been blindingly white. We finally have a celluloid landscape in which Will Smith and Wesley Snipes get to represent heroic manhood for the masses, but hip and powerful black women have been overlooked by the Hollywood machine so far. Admittedly, the situation is far from perfect even for black men, who are still often secondary in importance in the futuristic and fantasy worlds of popular film. Keanu Reeves, not Laurence Fishburne, gets to play messiah in The Matrix (1999), that slick flick about a world where humanity must fight against machines that control our minds, bodies, and the entire fabric of reality. And in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), in whose faraway world evidence of any people of color on any planet is sorely lacking, Samuel L. Jackson has fewer lines than you can count on one hand. But at least black men no longer have to sacrifice themselves to save the white planet, a phenomenon epitomized in Terminator 2 (1991)—if anyone even remembers that there was a black man in the movie—and satirized in Mars Attacks! (1996). Nor must they always play sidekick to Bruce Willis or some other white guy.
After the economic success of 1996’s Independence Day, for instance, Will Smith became Hollywood’s golden boy of the turn-of-the-millennium science-fiction and fantasy film genre, boasting multiple heroic leading roles in succession. So if Hollywood can now groove on black male youth culture in its depictions of the future or of superheroes—however trivialized blackness may be by Will Smith in Independence Day, by Will Smith in Men in Black (1997), and by Will Smith in Wild, Wild West (1999)—why do black women usually get stuck being the mystic mammy or the mocha chocolata ya-ya? If we review the types of roles black women rate in contemporary science-fiction and fantasy film, we find that writers rely almost exclusively on limiting and demeaning stereotypes. Regardless of the fact that sf and fantasy have the potential to enable escape from the trappings of the past and present, racist stereotypes of black women hold strong in the Hollywood—and hence the American—imagination. We feminist and antiracist viewers might expect that the legacy of Gone with the Wind and Amos ’n’ Andy would finally have given way to depictions of capable, intelligent, and brave black women in the filmic future; but, for the most part, we would be wrong. Forthwith, a guide to the hypersexualized victims, second-fiddle girlfriends, tough babes, old wise women, and rare uncategorizable exceptions.
The (over)sexualized victim is the young, thin, light-skinned black woman who is inevitably onscreen to display her sexual appeal. She finds herself exploited and even brutalized by male characters, black and white. Her roles may range from passive girlfriend to superheroine, but her primary purpose is to titillate viewers with images of black women’s victimization.
Consider, for example, Dr. Karen Jenson (N’Bushe Wright) in 1998’s Blade. Karen is the girlfriend of the title character, played by Wesley Snipes, and, superficially, she seems to break with stereotypes; she is an educated, articulate scientist. Yet the film values her more for her own blood than for her knowledge of hematology. Blade, a half-vampire/half-human antihero, must save the world from vampires; at the film’s climax, he finds himself weakened and in need of blood to continue his battle. Karen sacrifices herself to Blade’s vampiric/heroic need in a scene that makes this reduction of an intelligent, capable black woman into a passive, sexualized victim painfully plain. He crouches over her, his body pulsing as she allows him to drain her blood. As he drinks, however, the hunger overpowers him; a weak, limp Karen can only whimper at him to stop before he kills her. Stop he does, but it’s difficult not to read the scene as a metaphoric rape perpetrated by the filmmaker to satiate viewers’ racist and sexist appetites for images of dangerous black masculinity and exploited black femininity. It seems we should cheer Blade on for his willpower in stopping just short of his beloved’s murder.
A similarly preyed-upon victim appears in the earlier, and more lighthearted, comedy/horror film Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). Here the vampire is no antihero, just a villain. And the character in question, Rita (Angela Bassett), is not entirely passive; by making her a police officer, the film gives Rita some power and identity beyond vampiric victim. Nonetheless, we learn early on from her superior, a white female detective, that Rita’s three months as a cop have not been highly successful and her job is at risk. Furthermore, despite some signs of competence, Rita is most memorable for her displays of visible fear and typical shrill horror-movie screams. In particular, the scene in which the vampire Maximillian (Eddie Murphy) enthralls Rita is rich with imagery of typical sexist victimization. In her tight, revealing dress, high heels, makeup, and upswept ’do (one of a variety of wigs Bassett wears throughout the film), Rita gives in to her hunger and lust and lets Max take her.
Downright misogynistic by comparison with this clichéd seduction, however, is the way the film dispatches Rita’s roommate, Nikki (Simbi Khali). Nikki is a minor character without an identity apart from a desperate need to have sex with any man handy. In her few minutes of screen time, the young, light-skinned, and curvaceous Nikki first throws herself at Bassett’s partner and prospective boyfriend; then, when he rejects her, she invites the first man she meets in the street up to her apartment for coffee or “some other refreshment.” The man is Maximillian, and he has not even attempted to ensnare her before she offers herself to him. Thus, she gets what she “deserves”: We listen at the keyhole as he has sex with and then murders her.
Another variety of hypersexualized victim appears in X-Men (2000). Storm (Halle Berry)—the only woman of color in the film (and one of two in the long-running Marvel comic)—is a superheroine who can summon wind, rain, and lightning at will. However, she boasts far greater power in theory than she actually displays onscreen. She is rendered the most highly sexualized of the X-Men, sporting overly tight and revealing white t-shirts that expose ample cleavage. With her sexy garb and flowing white hair, she is far more sexually objectified than the other heroic women (both white), the highly professional Dr. Jean Gray and the shy teen Rogue. Even more fully sexualized is the villain Mystique, whose costume is limited to small decorative blue patches on her blue skin. However, only Storm is rendered a victim within the narrative.
Early on, Storm is confronted by Sabretooth, an enormous, leonine brute portrayed by a white male professional wrestler. He hoists her in the air by her throat, puts his face menacingly close to hers, then softly growls his desire to hear her scream. Storm holds her own and does not scream (should we be thankful for small favors?), but no other heroic character in the film faces this kind of sexualized disempowerment. Later, Sabretooth again captures Storm and reminds her that she “owes” him a scream. Though the other X-Men are trapped and bound, only Storm is the object of a villain’s violent desire.
What if a black woman escapes this kind of victimization? The odds are she will not similarly escape hypersexualization, as exemplified by Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox), the girlfriend of Steven Hiller (Will Smith) in the apocalypse-aversion blockbuster Independence Day. Jasmine proves herself capable and brave when she defends the (white) president’s wife and child and brings them and herself to safety (a scene that brings this character into the realm of the mammy stereotype, discussed below). Yet once Jasmine achieves this remarkable feat, she fades into the background to let other (male) characters save the world. Moreover, in keeping with the tradition of sexual exploitation of Hollywood’s young black women, Jasmine appears most often as the passive object of Steven’s desire; and, perhaps more tellingly, she works as a stripper.
If she sacrifices her sex appeal, today’s black woman in sf and fantasy film may also have to relinquish any claims to empowerment—or a central role. Though Pam Grier may remain best known to contemporary viewers for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) or as the aggressive heroine of blaxploitation flick Foxy Brown (1974), she also portrayed Louise Williams, wife of failure-turned-hero Byron in Mars Attacks! Louise is capable and independent—at least, she stands her ground and raises her children without a man until he fulfills her expectations of a true partner. However, Louise has only a minor role, and she most definitely does not get to be a hero. Instead, she gets to wait for one to come home.
There are a few black female characters who have managed to escape both sexual victimization and minor girlfriend or wife marginalization. They are still young, thin, light-skinned, and conventionally beautiful, but they also get to take on some heroic toughness. The best example is probably Angela Bassett as Lornette “Mace” Mason of Strange Days (1995), the cyberpunk tale of Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a loser who deals in illegal mind recordings, tapes of firsthand experiences—from sex to robbery to murder—that buyers jack into for a vicarious thrill. Mace, a limo driver, is Lenny’s friend; she is tough, intelligent, and brave. She repeatedly displays heroic behavior, risking her life to protect others and to champion justice (her goal is to expose the police killing of a black rapper/leader and take down two murdering racist cops by bringing a recording of the crime to the police commissioner). She is the only character in the film with a conscience and actively political goals. And she is pointedly not oversexualized; the film leaves prostitution to its white female characters.
Unfortunately, Strange Days devotes ample time to Mace’s pining after Lenny, an entirely undeserving, inept, and whiny white man. Lenny loves an equally unworthy and whiny young white former prostitute/current rock star, preferring to watch his recordings of their past sexual encounters than to see the love of the “good woman,” Mace, right in front of him. It’s painful to watch Mace save his life over and over for no reason other than a vague suggestion that, long ago when he was a cop, he was kind to her and her son when her (black) husband was arrested. When the two kiss as the film closes, there’s no question that this white man does not deserve her—but that she needs him just the same. Nothing in the film supports its conclusion apart from forced conventions of action and romance. We never see Lenny give anything back to Mace: He doesn’t risk his life for her as she does for him, he has no goals apart from greed, and he does not even display appropriate gratitude—let alone affection—until the final scene.
With Lenny as the weak victim and Mace the strong protector, there is a clear gender reversal going on. However, the relationship between the hard-working black limo driver and her weak, needy passenger/“friend” also has a Driving Miss Daisy feel to it. Her caretaking and selflessness, plus her ability to know what is best for others even when they do not, harks back to another role black women have historically played in American cinema: the mammy.
In sf and fantasy film, the mammy, a.k.a. the old wise woman, offers exception to the inverse Hollywood relationship between sexuality and empowerment. However, she is far from truly powerful. This troubling figure returns from Hollywood’s racist past with a vengeance in the character of The Matrix’s Oracle (Gloria Foster). In a small inner-city apartment, Foster’s unnamed character sits in the kitchen, smoking cigarettes and dispensing wisdom, while a younger black “daughter” cares for (psychically gifted) children in the living room. It is the Oracle who spurs Neo (Keanu Reeves) on to discover his true fate. Even more than Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind, the Oracle lives for others. She caretakes and advises from within a world she knows to be unreal, enacting the fantasy of the stern but loving black grandmother. Her stereotypical and one-dimensional role as mystical source emerges plainly as she serves Neo a feel-good cookie after offering an ambiguous prediction for his future.
Despite these bleak examples, there is some hope. Escaping from her sexual-victim role in Vampire in Brooklyn and her relatively more empowered yet problematic role in Strange Days, Angela Bassett comes to the rescue of black women in sf and fantasy film in the otherwise forgettable Supernova (2000). In this futuristic adventure tale of a medical team that encounters an alien doomsday device in deep space, Bassett’s Dr. Kaela Evers is skilled and highly competent as a doctor and scientist. It is she who solves the mystery of the alien device through careful and speedy research. She is neither hypersexualized nor desexualized, as evidenced by her relationship with the ship’s reticent captain, Nick Vansant (James Spader), which develops on her terms and somewhat slowly for mainstream film. Moreover, she is entirely respected by her diverse crewmates (as well as Vansant) and touted as one of the crew’s toughest members. We see her use her mind and weaponry with equal skill. It is a pleasure to say this character cannot be easily pigeonholed.
Science-fiction and fantasy film as a genre is likely to continue limiting black women’s roles to familiar racist and sexist figures. (It is a Hollywood system still dominated by patriarchal white supremacy, after all.) Yet as black men have done—and white women before them—black women will surely gain power at the sf/fantasy box office if politically aware audiences watch carefully and demand more and better representations. For now, those of us still willing to watch what the machine puts out will have to keep our eyes peeled for the exceptions while we continue our feminist and antiracist critique.
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