How Fantasy and Sci-Fi Transformed The Role of Black Women in Television

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In recent years, black women have finally been given the starring roles in television and film they deserve, with actresses such as Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Michaela Coel and Kerry Washington having recent success. These roles range from superheroes, to horrors, comedy to educational, but what they all have in common is this: these black women aren’t seen as the historical tropes of maids or servants, they are given feelings, emotions, and storylines that actually drive the plot. However, none of this would’ve been possible if it weren’t for black women’s role in fantasy/sci-fi, so read on to see this development unfold from aliens to human protagonists.

It all started with Star Trek: The Original Series, which starred Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura (continued by Zoe Saldana since its 2009 reboot), the ship’s communications and translation lieutenant. She was seen making herself vital to the ship, its crew, and the show’s storyline in many ways, even having power over her male counterparts. Citing just how impactful this meaningful role was to her and other black women at the time, Whoopi Goldberg states: “Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, “come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on the television and she ain’t no maid!” I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be”. Goldberg went on to star as Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Since Nichols’ groundbreaking role in Star Trek, many more black women have gone on to dominate with starring roles in fantasy/sci-fi television. For instance, though often overlooked due to starring between Rose and Donna in Doctor Who, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) was the companion that mobilised Doctor Who and allowed him to move on from Rose. However, as Stephanie Holland states, “anytime a character is announced with a black actress playing her or a black woman is introduced into a popular franchise, the internet is flooded with racist comments from trolls disguised as ‘real fans’”. Whilst it isn’t television, these style of complaints are particularly evident in the public’s reaction to Hermione Granger being played by Noma Dumezweni in the stage show of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, despite Rowling’s literary description of Granger never stating her race.

Thankfully, with shows such as Black Mirror frequently having black women play the protagonist in its one-off episodes, seeing black women in leading roles is becoming more and more normalised. And unlike the alien-like roles black women in sci-fi/fantasy are sometimes given (I’m talking Gomorrah (Zoe Saldana) in Guardians of the Galaxy), and though the world around them may be utterly warped, the roles black women are given in Black Mirror are human, allowing them to be celebrated. CW should also be noted for their role in giving black women in sci-fi/fantasy television huge roles. Think Iris (Candace Patton) in The Flash, and Kelly (Azie Tesfai) in Supergirl. But again, Tesfai notes: “I don’t think it’s a secret that most of the Black actresses in the DC world have faced racism,” highlighting that shows created in 2014 and 2015 still face explicit racism, even if these starring black women are important to their black viewers.

To name a few more, Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, Merlin, and even cartoons such as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power are putting black women at the forefront of their narratives. This shows how fantasy/sci-fi have been vital in giving black women a place in television and film, even if some viewers remain ignorant.

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