Black Space by Adilifu Nama

[17 April 2008]

By May-lee Chai

Adilifu Nama admits that when he first told his friends he was going to write a book about the representation of blacks in science fiction films, they quipped, ‘That’s going to be a short book.’ Indeed Nama admits that most science fiction films have managed to exclude black people from their depictions of the future as well as parallel versions of American life.

How one quarter of the Earth’s population suddenly disappears in the future is not an issue generally addressed in any of these films. How then, does one write a book about black people in a genre that for the most part has deliberately excluded them? The answer: by examining the erasure as well as the limited depictions of black people in science fiction.

Nama deftly tackles the absence of black people in these imagined future worlds by contrasting the era in which a film was made with the types of absences the films depict. For example the Cold War generated such classics as When Worlds Collide (1951) and The Time Machine (1960). In both films an idealized—and all-white—America is threatened by destruction, in the first by a literal collision with another planet, in the second by alien invasion. Traditionally, the films are seen as B-movie reactions to the American fear of the Soviet Communist empire. 

In Nama’s more nuanced reading, the erasure of black people from the world also reflects both the reality of segregated America as well as the white supremacist fantasy that an ideal America is an all-white America, or worse, an all-white Earth. In fact, in The Time Machine, the alien invaders are given blue skin, wider noses and African-like ‘tribal’ totems that are meant to signify blackness to the audience. Apparently the filmmakers could imagine no more frightening fate for white America than to be eaten literally by a ‘colored’ race.

Later Nama notes as the Civil Rights movement progresses, stand-ins for blacks appear and science fiction films seek to critique the racial order of America. For example, in Planet of the Apes (1968), mankind has been taken over by evolved talking primates. The white protagonist, an astronaut played by Charlton Heston, is treated as an inferior being, stripped of his clothing and his rights. Despite his obvious intelligence compared to other humans who no longer can speak, he is deemed to be inferior to the apes by their scientists and their courts. Nama writes, ‘the film aggressively works to decenter whiteness, allowing whites to symbolically trade places with blacks and vicariously experience the stifling impact of American racism.’

However, under Reagan, racial anxieties again find their way into science fiction films. Here Nama powerfully analyzes the very popular ‘80s trilogy Back to the Future. Nama describes a telling scene in which a black soda fountain worker, who is played as a dim-witted caricature, is told by Michael J. Fox’s time-traveling character that he will someday become mayor. Only then does the black character show any ambition. However, in the future world, when the black character has indeed become mayor, the same community is shown to be much decayed, crime-ridden, and economically depressed. An interesting message, indeed.

It’s impossible to cover all the themes that Nama broaches in his pioneering study. He does an excellent and compelling job of showing how these future worlds reflect the anxieties of the periods in which they were made. He brings the book up to the present with an all-too-brief summary of Will Smith’s exceptional science fiction movies, in which he is clearly the star and not seen as a racial threat but rather the personification of America’s can-do spirit and heroic triumph over evil.

If anything Black Space proves that the themes that need to be addressed in science fiction films’ depiction and/or erasure of black people could fill many, many books. While Nama concentrates on the representation of black men, he does not delve deeply into the specific implications of lost black women, or missing black children for that matter. Nor is there time and space to examine the depiction/erasure of other races, ethnicities and multiracial characters.

For example, he refers to the actor Keanu Reeves, who plays Neo in the Matrix, as white. In fact, Keanu Reeves is of mixed-racial heritage: white, Pacific Islander and Chinese. The reasons why Reeves is generally perceived as a white person, even in the Matrix films, which borrow heavily from Asian cinema and cultural traditions, could easily be the subject of another study.

Ultimately Black Space is a thought-provoking and timely exploration of white racial anxieties as projected onto black males in science fiction films. Although written for an academic audience, Nama’s prose is witty and largely jargon free, making the book accessible to science fiction fans that might not gravitate toward an academic book.

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