Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura, clad in her red minidress Star Fleet uniform, was a badass black mama. At least through my childhood eyes she was. For the record, the only other black female I saw on TV at the time was Julia, a single-mother nurse played by Diahann Carroll. And as far as films were concerned, the Blaixploitation era of my day never portrayed any type of black woman I’d ever personally known, or who I’d ever want to become. Black women’s cinematic and televised roles were dishearteningly stereotypical, and in many cases they still are. And that’s even in the groundbreaking sci-fi genre; though Halle Berry’s Storm in the X-Men films and Jada-Pinkett Smith’s Niobe in The Matrix Trilogy and the Enter The Matrix video game would have us believe otherwise.
“The sexual dimension of American racism is reflected in the motion picture portrayal of the black woman. Her film image has been defined by others rather than by herself. When she is not a figment of white male fantasy, she is a product of white female thinking. Few black female writers have gained employment in the film industry. The result is a tragic history of stereotyping and a steady procession of mammies, maids, and miscegenists, matriarchs, madams, and assorted ‘make-it-for-money’ types,” wrote Mary Frances Stubbs in her essay “African-American Women and the Oscars,” in Women And Media: Content/Careers/Criticism. Here she was quoting Edward Mapp’s essay, “Black Women in Films”, which appeared in The Black Scholar in 1982, to which she added, “Other equally damaging stereotypes appearing in the film medium have included whores and seducers, Amazons and tragic mulattos, exotics, and long suffering spouses.”
As a member of this cadre, Uhura became something akin to a role model for little black girls like me. Her USS Starship Enterprise world was both multiculti and alien, which offered a familiarity of what it is like to grow up black and female in America. And thus the world of science fiction became a haven. Yet little did I realize at the time that Nichelle Nichols’ role of Uhura was not all that far removed from the stereotypes that both Stubbs and Mapp discuss.
On the surface, Uhura’s character represented an empowered black woman born in the United States of Africa on Earth as a member of the Bantu tribe. Her full name, in her native tongue Swahili, meant Star of Freedom. This would seem an appropriate moniker for a woman who was credited as the first major black female role in a television series. Onboard the USS Enterprise, she could often be seen rewiring or repairing her own communications board during a crisis, thus proving her capabilities and adroitness in her trained field. Though she showed a romantic interest in Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott “Scotty”, the Scottish Chief Engineer, she never pursued a relationship with him.
Interracial relationships were taboo during this period, but Gene Roddenberry took it there, anyway. In Episode 67, best known as “Plato’s Kiss”, members of the Enterprise crew proceeded to the planet Platonius in response to a distress signal. The Platonians were a race of people who created a society loosely based on ancient Greece, and their special powers made outsiders act against their wills. They turned the Enterprise crew into playthings and made them perform for them. Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura are forced to embrace in a dramatic kiss. A network television barrier was crossed, in what could be regarded as a white male fantasy where the exotic becomes the object of desire. That the kiss was forced instead of wanted leaves an awful taste reminiscent of a slave master raping his female slave.
In retrospect, that in her biography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek & Other Memories, Nichelle Nichols tells tales of her love affair with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, comes as no surprise. In an interview with the BBC online, Nichols states that she once talked to Roddenberry after realizing that the series was getting better and better, and told him that he was writing morality plays. Roddenberry was creating an alternate world, which in fact represented an otherworldly, supposedly democratic universe, in which his fantasies could become real. In the BBC interview, Nichols also speaks on the revealing nature of her costume in the show as Roddenberry’s want for all the women in the series to be feminine. She said, “He loved women to look like women . . . You saw the little openings here, there, the cleavage there, they were dressed to the hilt with gray paint. They were still very sensuous wardrobes for women.” Through a black female cultural critic’s lens, Rodenberry’s thinking could definitely be identified as white male patriarchy at play.
At best, Uhura was as much an alien as those she encountered in outerspace. Much like typical black roles, Uhura was bestowed with the gift to entertain. She often sang for her crew, accompanied by an alien, Commander Spock, on the Vulcan harp. She also accompanied herself on the instrument. Although a heroine to many little black girls in a black cultural context wherein cultural memory becomes the analytical tool this one act alone rendered her role as stereotypical as that of a mammy or matriarch. Or better yet, it lends itself to the historical relationship of whites and blacks wherein blacks were seen as entertainment vehicles for white folks.
Of course I could be pimp-slapped for now using my adult eyes to over analyze what Uhura’s character actually represents. I could even be asked, “Why can’t you just see the black and white of it?” That in fact Nichelle Nichols role in Star Trek was a door opening for other black actresses in a genre they could rightfully call their own. With that in mind, I look to Mark Dery’s essay, “Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0”, for another perspective.
In the 1993 essay Dery asks, “Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other the stranger in a strange land would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?” Further he offers, “This is especially perplexing in light of the fact that African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees. They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them; and technology, be it branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or tasers, is too often brought to bear on black bodies.”
If I were to utilize Dery’s point of view as a blueprint, my childhood fascination with sci-fi and Uhura appears not as far-flung as it might at face value. Black-authored speculative fiction, with stories written by the likes of Ishmael Reed and Toni Morrison, among others, employ antebellum memories intertwined with metaphysical aspersions that seem otherwise futuristic. And since the black sci-fi writers are just too few, I look to the big screen for answers. In order to tell the tale of the black female body bearing witness in sci-fi, I followed Uhura’s path, most likely blinking and missing a few black actresses and characters along the way.
Angela Bassett’s Chief Medical Officer Kaela Evers in Supernova deserves mention, but the role loses redemptive points for her character getting freaky in the zero-gravity tank with James Spader’s recovering drug addict Nick Vanzant. Here again, as in Star Trek’s Episode 67, we revisit historical notions about the sexuality of black women, while white males get to live out their fantasies with the exotic. Besides getting butt nekkid although all of the characters in the film do does nothing to help Bassett’s character affirm that female black bodies hold any substantial meaning in sci-fi films other than what stereotypes allow.
Nowadays, the sci-fi genre has offered actresses like Halle Berry and Jada Pinkett-Smith an opportunity to expand their careers into otherworldly adventures, and for Dery’s observations to be fully explored. As a Marvel comic book character, Storm, also known as Ororo Monroe, was the daughter of David Monroe, an American photojournalist, and N’Dar, a Kenyan princess. If we can connect this character to Uhura in any way, we could leap to suggest that African lineage has been used to signify in these characters what Michelle Wallace touched on in her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. Historically black women were brought up to believe they had extraordinary strengths, enabling them to withstand extreme amounts of work and stress. How fitting that the myth of the black superwoman should land itself dab-smack in the midst of sci-fi.
But Storm was a mutant and not fully human, so she could actually be considered half superwoman. Her great physical and mental capabilities enabled her to control lightning, wind, air, hail, and temperature with very little help from Professor Xavier. It was uncustomary for a female of racially mixed parentage to hold a strong leading role in a sci-fi series, but her maturity, masculine-like presence, and special powers all made her a distinguished leader. Many drawings of Storm’s character focused on her beautiful face and figure. She was emotional and when angered, she could become uncompromising and aggressive. Her difficulty in controlling her anger was also one of her weaknesses, causing her to overreact. How many times have we heard these same statements made, as a stereotype, about the emotional state of black women?
Yet when it came to the 2000 and 2003 cinematic renditions of X-Men, Halle Berry’s Storm was nothing like the one we encountered in the comic books or the TV series. She is more feminine, which in turn ends up being a weaker character that displays no leadership qualities. This can best be attributed to the fact that in the films, Storm is a supporting player with limited duties and screen time. Halle Berry’s casting in this role is on point. She is biracial, and is often heralded for her beauty and good looks. Her costumes in this role, similarly to the comic book version of the character, highlight her physical attributes. Though not a tragic mulatto in the classic sense of the myth, being mixed in both the racial and genetic mutation sense of the word, Storm is representative of this idea. She is not black and most importantly, because this is sci-fi, she is not human. She and her fellow mutants, on one level, share a synonymous relationship with antebellum slaves.
Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Niobe is placed in the Wachowski brothers Zion of Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions in a war against the machines. The story, in and of itself, speaks directly to what Dery wrote about in Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0. It features all the underpinnings of, “The Rastafarian cosmology, like the Nation of Islam’s, with its genetically engineered white devils and its apocalyptic vision of Elijah Muhammad returning on a celestial mothership, is a syncretic crossweave of black nationalism, African and American religious beliefs, and plot devices worthy of a late-night rocket opera,” as quoted from Dery’s text. Matrix is loaded with so much Biblical allegory that it could have been lifted from a Nation of Islam pamphlet, a black Baptist preacher¹s sermon, or better yet the Nuwaubians, who believe their leader is an alien who has come to save them from the earth’s destruction of itself.
Greek mythology tells us that Niobe was the boasting and prideful queen of Thebes. Her children were slaughtered by Apollo, to which her husband Amphion committed suicide. She then turned to stone and from her newly-formed rock self, she formed a stream from her ceaseless tears, becoming the symbol of eternal mourning. Yet in the Wachowski brothers’ films and the Enter The Matrix video game, Niobe pilots the Logos, the fastest hovercraft in the Zion fleet and she is bold and fearless. And so we’ve encountered another badass black mama. While nothing much happens with or to black women in Reloaded, in Revolutions, another black female body is placed here to fortify the black superwoman myth. Except Nona Gaye’s character, Zee is motivated more by reuniting with her man Link, played by Harold Perrineau. Certainly the destruction of Zion, and ultimately the world, influences her, but her character’s primary focus is on that reunification. But for Niobe, her lightning-speed driving and stellar navigation is a part of her job. She’s a do-it-all woman.
Though we’re never clear if she takes that leap of faith to realize Neo as her Jesus, she does give up her ship so he can take his journey to the land of the machines. She in turn steers the remaining ship back home, in an attempt to ward off the machines. The sad thing is that in the end, with all of her level headedness and skill in driving the ship, she displays worriedness, and seeks comfort in the arms of a man that is Larry Fishburne’s Morpheus. In a heartbeat, her strength becomes reduced and she becomes a typical woman.
When the black female body bears witness in sci-fi, she forges a symbiotic relationship with what it means to live not only a black existence in the New World, but a woman’s existence in a dominantly white male world. And though she wears a double consciousness shield to ward off her oppressors, she is unwittingly subjected to black female stereotypes. Man, what I wouldn’t give to have my childhood eyes once again.