Is Black Science Fiction Enslaved to Issues of Race?

In Film on July 9, 2013 at 2:08 am

There’s an interesting article over at Shadow and Act titled, “Freeing (Black) Science Fiction From the Chains of Race.” In it, author, Andre Seewood posits that “placing the racial frame upon the science fiction/fantasy/or futurist work of African-Americans hastily discard[s] the genuine scientific, fantasy or futurist aspects of the work, which in turn, weakens and /or perverts the author’s original intent.” Basically, he believes the racial interpretations black people apply to science fiction are a detriment to our contribution to science fiction. As I write this, I hope I’m interpreting his essay correctly because I have a lot of problems with it.

Seewood begins by talking about Octavia Butlers, Bloodchild. It’s a great example to begin his essay. He quickly makes the point that Butler never intended her novel to have anything to do with race but many people viewed it as such. He believes that using race to interpret Bloodchild perverts its original intention. Though I’m not sure if I believe him, it is a fair point. It made me want to keep reading, but as soon as he starts to apply his ideas to film it begins to read like one of those bad time travel movies. You know, the one’s that move quickly through horrible plot holes thinking the audience won’t care of won’t notice through all of the quick editing and loud music.

Fear of a Black Planet

First off, Seewood chooses some really awful examples. For example, he criticizes people for reading Planet of the Apes (1968) as a “dense racial allegory” as opposed to an examination of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. It really irks me that my man is using the original Planet of the Apes – a movie arguably out of date — as opposed to the two most recent films. By ignoring the most recent contributions to the franchise Seewood is hiding his ideas behind a movie that people either haven’t seen or can’t remember. The last two films would have been more challenging and more rewarding if he could make them applicable.

Clearly, the Tim Burton remake with Mark Wahlberg is speaking to the racial undertones of the original. The surprise ending made that completely obvious, however, it was Rise of the Planet of the Apes that finally got the story right by making the ape, Ceaser, the protagonist. After being placed in a lab with other apes and gorillas who are tortured and experimented on — which clearly recalls American slavery, the horrible Tuskegee Syphilis experiments and today’s Prison Industrial Complex — Caeser breaks them out and they stage a massive revolt. I’m sure Ed Guerrero would agree that such a revolt is reminiscent to the Watts riots of 1965, the LA riots following the Rodney King case in 1992, or the riots that will happen if George Zimmerman is found innocent for killing Trayvon Martin (you heard it here).

In regards to Seewod’s focus on the idea that humans evolved from monkeys, I can see how this idea alone would make for an interesting plot, however Charles Darwin was very explicit in his connection of black people and apes.

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla [Descent of Man].

Further, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as it pertained to black people was so influential, its effect so profound that this belief still exists.

Crude historical depictions of African Americans as ape-like may have disappeared from mainstream U.S. culture, but research presented in a new paper by psychologists at Stanford, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Berkeley reveals that many Americans subconsciously associate blacks with apes.

The paper, “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences,” is the result of a series of six previously unpublished studies conducted by Jennifer Eberhardt, Pennsylvania State University psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff (the lead author and a former student of Eberhardt’s) and Matthew C. Jackson and Melissa J. Williams, graduate students at Penn State and Berkeley, respectively [Science Blog].

I sympathize with Seewood’s desire for a movie that explores Darwin’s theory in a way that doesn’t speak to racial stereotypes. I  believe that type of movie is possible and it would be fun to watch. Planet of the Apes is not that movie. And, as we’ve seen with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the racial allegories hidden in the story make for a more interesting movie.

Gizmo Caca!

Seewood’s next example was Gremlins and Gremlins 2. Again, I believe these movies are out of date and he could have used some more recent examples to make his point. I’m not saying he would have been any more right in his assumption, but it would be interesting to explore his ideas with more movies made in the 21st century. Instead, he uses the well-known Spielberg franchise to criticize people for seeing racial commentary in the “structured absence” of black people. As he puts it:

[U]se any other non-white race, animal, or object within your film as a symbol of minority otherness and then “interpret” a racial commentary where you had not intended such a commentary to exist.

His aim to expose what he believes is a Catch 22. As Seewood puts it, if you omit black people from a movie like Gremlins, then a person can interpret the creatures in that film as metaphors for non-white people. However, if you cast a black person in a major role (he briefly mentions Adilifu Nama analysis of Will Smith in I, Robot) they are considered a token character. All of the above is bad, so focus more on the science of the science fiction and problem solved.

I’ll admit to being very disappointed in the way Seewood was trying to provide evidence to what my be a fresh way to look at the future of science fiction. He omits some very important details from his references. The Gremlins in question are not racial metaphors because it is convenient for the critic. After the bar scene in the first film – a scene that Ed Guerrero masterfully dissects in “Framing Blackness” — the filmmaker makes it impossible to see them as anything else but black caricatures. Take a look at this YouTube clip and tell me how many stereotypes you see. I can personally attest to the break-dancing Gremlin, the jazz-loving Gremlin, the stick up kid Gremlin, and the gambling Gremlins. When you view this scene and consider the attack of the gremlins are happening in a city devoid of any non-white characters, it isn’t a stretch to start making other connections.

This criticism is important because it reveals the weakness of the film and discussing these weaknesses — one can hope — make for better movies. As a kid, I was excited to see movies like Planet of the Apes and Gremlins. The idea that our world was being taken over by a foreign entity was the draw. What are we going to do to stop them? That was exciting. But, I quickly realized there were no we in these movies. We never did anything. The absence of non-white people in a story that affects so many people in a country known for its diversity? Regretfully, this speaks louder than any interesting scientific ideas you may be trying to explore.

Images Have a History

These images have a history and because they are so easy to recognize they distract from anything interesting you may be trying to say. This is what is holding us back. Most people are not obsessed with race and I would bet that people go to the movies to get away from such things. But, if you’re a storyteller there is a certain cultural awareness that you must have because that is your audience. There is nothing worse than spending money on a movie that implies a connection between black people and some ugly, evil creatures terrorizing a town of white people. If a good movie is about creating the illusion of a real world these scenes yank us from the illusion.

Evan Narcisse is a writer I really dig. He writes a lot about the images of black people in science fiction. He has a great line that I borrow all of the time: “if you’re not seeing a black guy, then you’re not seeing all of me. And if you’re seeing just a black guy, you’re not seeing all of me.” I think a person’s ability to understand how this applies to everyone is essential for good storytelling. Filmmakers have to get past that before we can begin to see the science in science fiction speak for itself.

  1. It’s crazy that you post this now. I’m actually in the middle of writing my first sci-fi short story with all black characters. I’ve struggled with whether I should even subtly hint at anything that could be interpreted racially but I decided against it. However, I don’t believe that it’s something you can avoid. To write black literature or stories, just as to draw black art, or to compose black music, or to mold black sculptures is to tell the black story. Leaving race out of a black story contradicts the fact that it is, in fact, a black story.

    In fact, contributing to science fiction through the lens of our people makes perfect sense. After all there can be no future without the past.

    • One of my favorite stories, for example, is Derrick Bells, “Space Traders.” It was a fascinating idea. What would happen if America was offered money, technology, and solutions to their environmental problems in exchange for all of its black people. That is a story I want to read. The most interesting science fiction — to me — is the kind that takes things we’re familiar with and flips it on its head. Walter Mosley’s Futureland. The short stories of Futurestates (PBS series).

  2. I appreciate your discussion of my article “Freeing (Black) Science Fiction From the Chains of Race,” but I feel that you got distracted by a few details and missed the big picture with regards to the issues I was addressing in the piece. For example you assert that I am using outdated films as examples, but I don’t consider “classic” cinema outdated and I was rebuking the assertions found in Guerrero’s FRAMING BLACKNESS and Nama’s BLACK SPACE. Of course “remakes are more progressive and at times more racially inclusive,” but to address the notion of a racial “over reading” in Science Fiction films it was necessary to look at classic films that have been read as commentaries upon race. I think you also missed the broader issue concerning the difficulties African-Americans encounter when trying to create in the genre of science-fiction and their work is exclusively seen as a commentary upon race, race relations and historical racial inequities. The two critical poles of structured absence (no Blacks) and token presence (One or two Blacks as a commentary upon all Blacks) can distract from the science, fantasy or technological elements that drew you towards the genre in the first place. I also use a few contemporary science-fiction films (such as Prometheus and Total Recall) as well as an extensive list of classic science fiction films to encourage African-American science-fiction filmmakers and writers to pursue the genre without worrying about race over-riding their efforts. Again, although I do appreciate your discussion here, I feel that it misses the point of the entire article to draw attention details that caused you to make hasty conclusions regarding the issue addressed in the piece.

    • As my cousins in Jersey say, “I overstood your essay.” I would love to have addressed the entire piece, but my readers get on me all the time for over-writing. Better as a two parter, perhaps. So, yes I like your post. I like the sandbox you’re playing in. I completely understand your argument. And, I disagree with you. You essay doesn’t demonstrate a thorough explanation and understanding of the classics (w/ exception to Apes those are not classics). You jump from literature to film and ignore the differences between the two mediums. You’re not very clear on exactly what filmmakers gain (or lose) by putting science, fantasy, et al ahead of the sometimes-obvious racial allegories. Approval? Appraisal? Appreciation? None of your examples are stories written, directed or produced (perhaps w/ the exception of Will Smith’s pictures) by black people. You never acknowledge that race may be a defining theme in Black science fiction/fantasy (obviously, you can find similar themes from Jewish filmmakers), akin to the dragons and ogres of European culture. You don’t touch Afro-Futurism. You don’t touch independent film, DIY filmmaking, web series, or alternative visual media like Vine, Instagram, etc. Your ‘development strategy’ sounds belittling to black folks. And, then there was my counter point: Cinema is an art form of images. Those images have a history. These images distract from what you appear to want to see. Por ejemplo, Avatar is a remixed Tarzan. Tarzan is a colonization fantasy. That doesn’t entertain black people. This history must be understood (as it clearly isn’t yet) before we can expect to move on to better stories. Much respect for responding to my post. For the record, I dig your writing. If you want to continue this discussion I would propose that we each write our positions, I’ll post them both on the blog and we’ll let the readers decide. Honestly, I believe there is a lot of merit in your position and this discussion.

      • I wouldn’t mind continuing a dialogue with you but we’ve got to come to some kind of understanding first: much of what you see as lacking in my work (e.g. You jump from literature to film and ignore the differences between the two mediums;You’re not very clear on exactly what filmmakers gain (or lose) by putting science, fantasy, et al ahead of the sometimes-obvious racial allegories. Approval? Appraisal? Appreciation? None of your examples are stories written, directed or produced (perhaps w/ the exception of Will Smith’s pictures) by black people. You never acknowledge that race may be a defining theme in Black science fiction/fantasy (obviously, you can find similar themes from Jewish filmmakers), akin to the dragons and ogres of European culture. You don’t touch Afro-Futurism. You don’t touch independent film, DIY filmmaking, web series, or alternative visual media like Vine, Instagram, etc. Your ‘development strategy’ sounds belittling to black folks. And, then there was my counter point: Cinema is an art form of images. Those images have a history.) I have already addressed in my books, SCREENWRITING INTO FILM: Forgotten Methods and New Possibilities – SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. My posts on Shadow and Act are continuations of the train of thought started in those two books. Secondly, I’m writing to encourage others to think about the issues discussed, I don’t have all of the answers, but someone has to get the discussion started in a way that makes us think about the issues. I don’t see how my “Development” strategy sounds belitttling to Black people in an art form controlled by Whites. In short, we would have to have a discussion on these issues, because what you see as lacking in my work- might actually be an invitation to think about these extended issues that my work brings up. It would seem that one of the prices I have to pay for encouraging people to think about these issues, is that some people think that I haven’t thought enough about these issues- when in actuality, they should be adding to the discussion rather than chastising me.

      • With all due respect, your essay should be able to present its argument without the need for a dip into your books. It should stand on it own.

        But, that isn’t the biggest problem I had with your essay. My biggest issue was your insistence on going backwards when we desperately need people to go forward.

        You are swimming against the current of Marc Reid, Donald Bogle, Ed Gerrero, Thomas Cripps, and my mentors, Ana Everett, Cedric Robinson, Jaqueline Bobo and Dr. Pigeon. These men and women are more valuable today then when they first published. They stand as lighthouses at a time of uncertainty.

        Why? Because movies (is this term even applicable anymore) are in a state of complete disruption and no one knows what the inevitable outcome will be. The technological revolution we are experiencing isn’t slowing down. Hell, the smart phone and tablet markets that helped usher in this disruption are themselves in danger of being disrupted by wearable computers (i.e., Google glass). The opportunities that have, will and can open for black people are incredible. Calling it a level playing field is an incorrect analogy. I like to think the current landscape is filled with little cutty spots. What I mean is, there are places now where we can do what we want to do. We can do things that no one has ever seen.

        But, to do this in an age of so much uncertainty we shouldn’t be wasting our time second guessing years of black film criticism. We should be standing on that work not sidestepping it. And, we should be applying it to this entirely new and ever-changing landscape of new media.

        Good ideas always rise to the top and people who “over read,” as you put it, are forgotten. I find it interesting that people still discuss Guerrero after all of these years. There is some validity to your position but I don’t think your examples (some that I even agree with) represent the chains that are holding black science fiction back.

        On another note, I get remarks from readers all the time. Some good. Some bad. I don’t think of it as chastisement. If you think your idea is good then it must be tested, I say. If it doesn’t test well you have to rethink the idea, or perhaps the communication of that idea. I’m suspicious of people who are quick to agree with me. I embrace critical remarks. I think of it as feedback. Some of it I’ll adopt if applicable and some of it I won’t. But, I always let it inform my future work. Robert Koci Hernandez has a great way of thinking about things that I respect: “fail in public”, he says. I do it all the frackin’ time. Good talk.

    • I am not able to respond appropriately as an orignal post. However, I just want to note for the writer of the article that Caesar’s name is misspelled beginning after the subtitle Fear of a Black Planet. This is my first visit to the site and there is so much that is on point here.

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