Black Space

[ Film and Media Studies ]

Black Space

Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film

By Adilifu Nama

Analyzing many of the most popular and influential science fiction films of the past five decades, this book presents the most comprehensive work to date on how race and “blackness” are imagined in science fiction film.

2008

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 212 pp. | 55 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-71745-9

Science fiction film offers its viewers many pleasures, not least of which is the possibility of imagining other worlds in which very different forms of society exist. Not surprisingly, however, these alternative worlds often become spaces in which filmmakers and film audiences can explore issues of concern in our own society. Through an analysis of over thirty canonic science fiction (SF) films, including Logan's Run, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Back to the Future, Gattaca, and Minority Report, Black Space offers a thorough-going investigation of how SF film since the 1950s has dealt with the issue of race and specifically with the representation of blackness.

Setting his study against the backdrop of America's ongoing racial struggles and complex socioeconomic histories, Adilifu Nama pursues a number of themes in Black Space. They include the structured absence/token presence of blacks in SF film; racial contamination and racial paranoia; the traumatized black body as the ultimate signifier of difference, alienness, and "otherness"; the use of class and economic issues to subsume race as an issue; the racially subversive pleasures and allegories encoded in some mainstream SF films; and the ways in which independent and extra-filmic productions are subverting the SF genre of Hollywood filmmaking.

The first book-length study of African American representation in science fiction film, Black Space demonstrates that SF cinema has become an important field of racial analysis, a site where definitions of race can be contested and post-civil rights race relations (re)imagined.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Structured Absence and Token Presence
  • Chapter 2. Bad Blood: Fear of Racial Contamination
  • Chapter 3. The Black Body: Figures of Distortion
  • Chapter 4. Humans Unite! Race, Class, and Postindustrial Aliens
  • Chapter 5. White Narratives, Black Allegories
  • Chapter 6. Subverting the Genre: The Mothership Connection
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission . . ." The first time I remember hearing this eerie command was as a child, sitting home one weekday afternoon while nursing a sore throat and a light case of the sniffles. Usually, when I was too sick to go to school for more than one day, I always looked forward to thumbing through a variety of comic books my mother would buy me to quell my complaints of being bored while she was gone. As a rule, I would read and reread them in bed. But this time I schlepped my blanket and pillow out to the living room to look at television and settled down to view an afternoon barrage of corny game shows and melodramatic soap operas. To my joyful surprise, I stumbled upon The Outer Limits, a science fiction series in which each show began with a disembodied voice commanding viewers to stay still and keep watching the TV screen. Admittedly, reruns of the black-and-white series, with its tacky special effects and overdone monster makeup, seldom lived up to the compelling introduction. Nonetheless, for me the series did serve as a significant bridge from a leisurely enjoyment of superhero comic books to a keen interest in science fiction television and films.

I moved on from reruns of The Outer Limits to the short-lived series Space: 1999 and eventually found my sci-fi glee in reruns of the original Star Trek television series of the late 1960s. My immediate interest in the show, however, was driven not exclusively by my preference for all things science fiction but also by a fondness for Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the African American female communication specialist of the Star Trek crew and my first television crush. Her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise made the absence of black people in other science fiction television shows and films all the more conspicuous. I wanted to see more black people, not only on Star Trek (if I'd had my wish, Uhura would have had her own science fiction show) but across the genre. To the contrary, I found that in the vast majority of science fiction television shows and films, black people were, until quite recently, absent or extremely marginal to the narratives. This observation followed me well into adulthood and, to a great extent, came to define how black representation in American science fiction cinema is commonly perceived despite a growing presence of black representation in the genre. For example, when friends or family members would ask what I was working on and I would tell them I was writing a book examining the intersection of black representation and science fiction (SF) cinema, the most common response was that it was going to be a short book. They would promptly inform me that black folk are not present in the genre or are certain to die prematurely in the second act. Admittedly, in a multitude of SF films, black people are just plain absent, which understandably leaves the impression there is very little to write about when it comes to black representation in the genre.

Yet, in spite of the overt omission of black representation and racial issues in SF cinema, I have found that both are present in numerous SF films. Albeit implicit—as structured absence, repressed or symbolic—blackness and race are often present in SF films as narrative subtext or implicit allegorical subject. Most important, for this book, is the cultural politics of race that such representations suggest not only in SF cinema but alongside the sociohistorical place that blackness has occupied in American society. As a result, the SF film genre is not merely an imaginative medium primarily focused on the future. SF film is also a powerful lens by which to observe the collective racial desires, constructs, fantasies, and fears circulating throughout American society.

Approach

The fantastical plots, far-off worlds, special effects, and striking portrayals of the future in SF cinema have achieved a great deal of box office success and popularity as a film genre, as well as receiving extensive critical analysis. In addition, SF cinema is recognized and, for some enthusiasts, even revered as the most imaginative genre because within its confines there are no confines. Arguably, SF films have a creative mandate to present any kind of character or imagine any type of social system within their narratives. In spite of this creative latitude, SF films have repeatedly engaged contemporary social issues. By doing so, however, the genre offers the audience the opportunity to vicariously experience a world without many of the challenges a society presently faces and, in doing so, to contemplate ramifications of and potential responses to an urgent social problem and present a hypothesized outcome or solution. In fact, numerous SF films have, quite convincingly, engaged America's cultural urges, political yearnings, and ideological dispositions around communism and postwar anxiety, along with gender and class issues.1 Despite the numerous scholarly articles and critical cultural essays that squarely recognize that the genre is an ideological kaleidoscope, producing hegemonic and counterhegemonic social parables, ethical paradoxes, and trenchant allegories, there have been only a minute number of attempts at placing race at the center of SF film analysis.

For the most part, race as a salient topic of examination in SF film has either been discussed piecemeal within a larger edited body of work like Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema (2002) or placed in a single chapter of a book, as in Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom (2000). Certainly, seminal works such as Sierra S. Adare's "Indian" Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction: First Nations Voices Speak Out (2005), Daniel Bernardi's Star Trek and History: Race-ing toward a White Future (1998), and Micheal Pounds's Race in Space: The Representation of Ethnicity in "Star Trek" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1999) stand out as more comprehensive examinations of the intersection of race and SF representation. Yet these works explore race almost exclusively within the realm of television and are heavily focused on the Star Trek television franchise. Other than Charles Ramirez Berg's Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversions, and Resistance (2002), which contains an insightful chapter that examines how aliens in American SF films symbolize real Latin American immigrants and a host of immigration anxieties, and Eric Greene's "Planet of the Apes" as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture (1996), the scope and depth of analysis of race in SF cinema have remained severely limited. Ed Guerrero's Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (1993), however, comes closest to fleshing out the cultural meaning and broader racial implications of race in SF cinema. Guerrero incisively notes:

[T]he social construction and representation of race, otherness, and nonwhiteness is an ongoing process, working itself out in many symbolic, cinematic forms of expression, but particularly in the abundant racialized metaphors and allegories of the fantasy, sci-fi, and horror genres. This practice can be explained by several mutually reinforcing factors including these genres' dependence on difference or otherness in the form of the monster in order to drive or energize their narratives; the now vast technological possibilities of imagining and rendering of all kinds of simulacra for aliens, monsters, mutant outcasts, and the like; and the infinite, fantastic narrative horizons and story worlds possible in these productions. (56, 57)

Because Guerrero's work spans several film genres and decades of film history, his analysis of SF film and race, through the prism of black representation, is unavoidably cursory. As a result, the full depth and range of the cultural politics of black racial formation at work in SF film, as a genre, have remained fundamentally untouched. Although, on a whole, the scholarship on SF film and race is scant, bordering on obscure, the work in the field is nevertheless, at the least, methodologically significant. The cumulative impact of the work analyzing race and SF television and, to a lesser extent, SF film has demonstrated that the most fruitful examination of racial representation in SF cinema is not simple content analysis, image analysis, or highly interpretive reasoning. Rather, the examination of SF film and black racial representation is best served by sociohistorical grounding and contextualization. Consequently, I have taken my methodological cues from these previous works, and they have informed the approach of this book.

I have purposefully avoided making connections between the SF film and black racial representation in terms of black stereotypes as either "negative" or "positive," which I view as too reductive in the type of conclusions offered and shortsighted in the ideological implications one can assert. The present work examines the symbolic discourse and ideological messages encoded into black representation, including its structured absence, across a multitude of SF films as a symbolic dialogue with the multiple racial discourses and ideas surrounding black racial formation, past and present, that are circulating in American culture. Moreover, SF films of the 1950s to the current moment are discussed in this book with an eye toward drawing connections between SF cinema, black racial formation, and shifting race relations in America over the past fifty years. Too often the SF film genre is regarded as addressing only signature divisions in the genre; humans versus machines, old versus new, individual versus society, and nature versus the artificial. In this book, however, I place black racial formation at the center of these common dichotomies. As a result, a more complex and provocative picture emerges of how SF cinema, in imagining new worlds and addressing a broad range of social topics, has confronted and retreated from the color line, one of the most troubling and turbulent social issues present in American society.

In advancing past the dull critiques of black representation as either "negative" or "positive" as well as stereotypical racial imagery, I have concentrated my analysis on the broader symbolic function and ideological message that black representation in SF cinema is presenting. Certainly, reflective theory, semiotics, structuralism, Marxism, and psychoanalytic critiques have each shared a substantial role in interrogating SF cinema and revealing what the genre articulates about women, sexuality, sexual difference, class, and social hierarchy. Likewise, interrogating blackness in SF cinema also requires a theoretical scaffolding to support an analysis of how certain SF films imagine blackness and what black characters signify and symbolize, along with the ideas, beliefs, fantasies, and fears communicated about race. On one hand, a strictly post-structuralist approach would stress the open-endedness of meaning as virtually negating the reflective approach I privilege. On the other hand, a purely reflective approach suffers from too literal and strict a correspondence between the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. Although there are connections between the three, serious slippages of meaning are also in play. In my textual analysis, however, I have attempted to walk the fine theoretical line between post-structural analysis and a reflective approach. As a result, this book incorporates the post-structural contention that, regardless of authorial intent, meaning is not fixed, and therefore unstated regimes of racial discourse circulate in SF cinema, waiting to be discovered. Yet my textual analysis rests on the firm contention that no form of cultural production stands outside the culture, the ideas, the values, the beliefs, the desires, and the fears that generate that production in the first instance. Although this book is theoretically eclectic, it is quite straightforward in one way. No matter where the film is set—in a futuristic or otherworldly backdrop—the "cultural work" that the film is performing is not divorced from the real state of American race relations.

Finally, where others have chosen to privilege the social relations of class or gender in their textual reading of SF cinema, I have purposefully privileged black racial formation. In doing so, black representation and the cultural politics of blackness in SF cinema take center stage in this book. Undoubtedly, race relations have changed. Latino and Asian immigration have spearheaded racial demographic shifts that make discussions of race relations in exclusively black-and-white terms appear obsolete in what has come to be referred to as the post-civil rights era. I recognize the contours of these changes and the type of popular discussions of race relations they engender. Nevertheless, as contentious and theoretically dense as this discourse has become, black racial formation still remains a central point of historical fact and contemporary consequences in America's ongoing racial debate.

Although the focus of my work examines the way black representation and black racial formation are operating in discrete SF films, it does not mean to diminish, nor should it be interpreted as diminishing, the place and substance of other racial and ethnic group representation, literal or symbolic, in relationship to SF film. Moreover, the examination and status of blackness in SF film are not a conceptual catchall for all other minority groups. Instead, by examining black representation and the cultural framing of "blackness" in SF film, I clearly adopt the category of race, as a social construction and, by extension, the social history attached to the category that is part and parcel of American race relations and the cultural politics of race in U.S. society. In other words, my critical reading of SF cinema examines the way black representation and black racial formation are imagined in discrete SF films. But the sum of these critical readings is greater than its parts, and the whole underscores the cultural work and sociological significance of race, not merely blackness, in SF cinema and American society. Consequently, black racial representation is the focal point of the SF films I examine, but not the end point, and my discussion includes positioning various SF films in relationship to concurrent social trends and racial discourses circulating in American society that are also germane to other ethnic and racial minority groups.

Layout

From the iconic black-and-white image of a bulletlike rocket ship lodged in the eye of the moon in Georges Méliès's A Voyage to the Moon (1902), the lure of startling special effects has captivated audiences across decades. Below the surface special effects, however, the substantive thrust of SF cinema often projects pressing social, environmental, and moral issues into the future or sets them in alternative worlds. For me and many others this is the most significant aspect of SF film. More than the imaginative manner in which alternative worlds are presented and the eye-catching use of special effects, the best the genre has offered is found in the temporal displacement of contemporary social issues into the far future or distant past. For example, Silent Running (1972) and Soylent Green (1973) exemplify the SF film as cautionary tales that speak to the impact of environmental degradation and overpopulation. Yet, for as much as SF film is an imaginative site that, at its best, invites the audience to engage familiar yet troubling ideas and social practices in an unfamiliar setting, thereby creating the possibility of examining long-standing problems in a new light, a contravening impulse has been the predominant trend when race is a point of futuristic speculation. Indeed, this is the focus of chapter 1, "Structured Absence and Token Presence." The chapter lays out the way in which race is represented and visually coded in SF cinema, primarily through the structured absence of blackness in the genre. Films such as When Worlds Collide (1951), The Time Machine (1960), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and Logan's Run (1976) are discussed in relationship to changing attitudes about racial segregation. Later in the chapter, Star Wars (1977) is brought into the discussion to map out how blackness moves from structured absence to black tokenism. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Back to the Future (1985) are interrogated to answer the question, What political and cultural work is black tokenism in the SF cinema performing?

Chapter 2, "Bad Blood: Fear of Racial Contamination," examines the theme of racial contamination in SF cinema and, by extension, America's fixation with racial boundary maintenance. The chapter draws on the dubious racial classificatory system colloquially referred to as the "one-drop rule" and the network of racial taboos associated with it—interracial sex, racial eugenics, black blood contamination, racial assimilation, and racial paranoia—that are present in several SF films. Moreover, whether by coded implication or overt symbolism, the association of the implosion of racial boundaries with dystopian and apocalyptic visions of the future in several SF films is discussed. To this point, films such as The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), The Omega Man (1971), Blade Runner (1982), The Thing (1982), Gattaca (1997), and 28 Days Later (2003) are films that tap into the symbolic fear of racial assimilation into the American body politic.

Whether marked with some type of physical deformation in Total Recall (1990), physical stigma in Star Trek: Generations (1994), or sadistic victimization in Predator (1987) or Demolition Man (1993), the black body is often a site of representational trauma, the ultimate signifier of difference, alienness, and "otherness" in SF cinema. Chapter 3, "The Black Body: Figures of Distortion," examines how the black body is often depicted in SF film not merely in ways that connect it with a sense of the grotesque or a source and site of phantasmagoric spectacle but also as a cultural and political metaphor for racial difference. The graphic distortion and stigmatization of blackness in SF films such as Enemy Mine (1985), The Fifth Element (1997), and Mission to Mars (2000) are examined in relationship to notions of racial difference, sexual deviance, and social stigma.

Whether it is working-class unity in They Live (1988), military unity in Aliens (1986), or religious unity cultivated in Alien (1992), all of these films, for the most part, use an alien enemy to make racial strife obsolete. The film Independence Day (1996) is emblematic of this approach to smoothing over racial fissures in SF cinema, while Rollerball (1975), RoboCop (1987), and Predator 2 (1990) merge with the dominant American sensibility that economic oppression, not racial oppression between blacks and whites, lies at the core of current social division and those anticipated in the future. The fourth chapter, "Humans Unite!: Race, Class, and Postindustrial Aliens," details how race has taken a backseat to the recurring theme of the corporation as the ultimate hegemony in SF film and the otherworldly alien as the ultimate enemy. In this chapter, the depictions of class fault lines in SF film are deconstructed with a critical acknowledgement of the racial dynamics operating in a postindustrial American economy.

Because SF cinema reflects the values of a society and often presents cautionary tales and social parables, many of its narratives are fertile sites of ideological meaning as they relate to popular discourses surrounding race. Chapter 5, "White Narratives, Black Allegories," examines the allegorical import of SF film not only in breaching and buttressing the ideological constructs of America's racial hierarchy but also as sources of subversive pleasure, meaning, and play that often contest the "preferred" meaning of several SF films. While the film Escape from New York (1981) plays to the most strident anxieties of race and class fueled by postindustrial decline, Planet of the Apes (1968), Alien Nation (1988), Strange Days (1995), The Matrix series (1999, 2003), and Minority Report (2002) are SF films that in various ways are open to racial readings that engage the legacy of American slavery, the racial injustice of the American legal system, black crime, police brutality, black liberation, and "race" riots, as well as racial profiling. These points are fleshed out in this chapter and illustrate how SF cinema is an inherently political genre that produces hegemonic and, periodically, counterhegemonic discourses on race that are outside the intended meaning of each respective film.

Chapter 6, "Subverting the Genre: The Mothership Connection," shifts focus from Hollywood representations of science fiction blackness to those independent and extrafilmic productions that stand not only outside the mainstream apparatus of cinematic production but in some cases outside the cultural conventions of mainstream notions of blackness. This chapter includes an examination of several SF films that were consciously produced and committed to directly confronting racism and exploring the interior dynamics of the black community. In many ways, the chapter examines the avant-garde impulse and import of combining a science fiction aesthetic with blackness, a contemporary trend called Afrofuturism. In this chapter Afrofuturism, an intergalactic vision of blackness, is explored in the independently made film Space Is the Place (1974), the SF liner notes of albums by George Clinton's music group Funkadelic, and a burgeoning Afrofuturist aesthetic in hip-hop music videos and SF film. All of these independent expressions of science fiction blackness become increasingly important as alternative sites of resistant black culture, which, given the cost-prohibitive nature of Hollywood studio-backed filmmaking, become viable sources for the creation of counternarratives that challenge not only the conventions of SF cinema but various racial discourses as well.

Science fiction films, with their fantastical plots and far-off worlds, have the luxury to create any kind of character, social system, and world within the confines of their narratives. We all know that time travel and a transporter that can dematerialize and rematerialize human beings do not exist. Yet, as an audience, we welcomingly suspend our disbelief for the purpose of entertainment and lightweight escapism. Similarly, common sense tells us that biological traits such as eye color, pigmentation, or hair texture does not entitle one group of people to rule over the other on the false pretense of racial superiority. Nevertheless, history has proven this fantastical proposition not only plausible but convincing enough to base entire societies around it. Thus there is an unstated hegemonic affinity between the genre of SF film and the science fiction of race in America. Perhaps this is the most compelling reason to write a book examining the representation of blackness in SF cinema. Both SF cinema and the social construction of race rely on the acceptance of fictions of the highest order to work, and the following chapters reveal the connections between the two.

By Adilifu Nama

Adilifu Nama is Associate Professor and Chair of the African American Studies Department at Loyola Marymount University.

"Black Space stands as fresh, insightful work that fills an obvious and significant gap in the critical and theoretical discussion of the African American absence/presence (along with the broader issues of race and difference) in science fiction cinema. Besides the occasional anthology essay or journal article, I can think of no work by a single author that presents such sustained, 'cover to cover' discussion of this vital and underexplored area in black representation."

—Ed Guerrero, New York University, author of Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film and Do the Right Thing, as well as many essays and articles on black cinema, its culture and politics

2008 Rollins Book Award
Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association

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