Last month, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I highlighted some of the top characters of color in comics. February happens to be Black History Month, so in honor of that, I have cast a broader net and will be examining some of the best black characters in science fiction, including movies and television. (One character is so important in the world of comics, they reappear here.) One rule I imposed upon myself was that in order to showcase as diverse a range as possible, I limited representation to one character from any given franchise, so unfortunately as awesome as Mace Windu or Geordi LaForge or Jake Sisko are, they aren’t included. Shall we begin?
10. Valerie Brown (Josie & the Pussycats In Outer Space) - Okay, it’s a stretch, I admit but they did spend a season of their cartoon rocketing around the galaxy, visiting strange planets every episode and their live action movie dealt with mind control so I deem Miss Brown as eligible. Valerie was the level-headed Pussycat that served as the wise counsel to team leader Josie. She was brave, loyal and was often described as the most mechanically inclined. She wasn’t the first black character on a cartoon, but as popular as ‘Josie’ was, she made a lasting impression as part of a show that is still fondly remembered today.
9. Winston Zeddmore (Ghostbusters) - Portrayed by Ernie Hudson, Winston wasn’t one of the founding Ghostbusters, but joined soon after to provide an extra set of hands. He is the most skeptical of the team and is level-headed, compared to the larger-than-life Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray. He is the primary driver of the team’s vehicle, the Ecto-1. He played a part in vanquishing Zuul in ‘Ghostbusters,’ Vigo in ‘Ghostbusters 2′ and dozens more on ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ animated spin-off series, where he was voiced by Arsenio Hall and later Buster Jones. (Who also voiced Black Vulcan on ‘Super Friends.’)
8. Brother From Another Planet - In this film, directed by John Sayles, a mute, brown-skinned alien, played by Joe Morton, finds himself in early 80s Harlem and must adapt to the strange and dangerous setting. The film itself is a commentary on the treatment of black people in America, seen through the eyes of an outsider. The alien (who is never referred to by name) is being pursued by two Caucasian aliens, the Men In Black, who locate him in a bar, where the other black patrons rise up to protect this strange mute stranger. They don’t know or understand him, but they stand united ready to defend him. It’s a low budget film and incredibly dated, but its messages are as relevant now as they were then.
7. Ben (Night of the Living Dead) - Ben, the hero from George Romero’s classic zombie thriller was one of the first African American action heroes in film, headlining a cast of otherwise Caucasian actors. He rescues Barbara, the female lead, from zombies and barricades them in a farmhouse. Throughout the film, Ben remains calm and rational. He bravely goes to seek medical care for one woman who is bitten. Ultimately, Ben is the sole survivor of their group, but is accidentally killed by another human who mistakes him for a ghoul. Irony.
(Honorable mention goes to Michone from ‘The Walking Dead’ who is an excellent character, but who only exists in the comic as of yet, so she hasn’t made the cultural impact needed to make the list… yet!)
6. Morpheus (The Matrix) - As portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus is the leader of a group of rebels, battling evil robots who grow humans that they keep imprisoned in The Matrix, a virtual reality world. He pilots the hovercraft The Nebuchadnezzar, and in the first film, was foretold by The Oracle, that he would find The One, the human specially gifted with the ability to defeat the robots, which he accomplished by locating Neo, played by Keanu Reeves. When he is captured, the other rebels plan to disconnect him from The Matrix to prevent the machines from gaining access to the valuable information in his brain, but he is saved by Neo and Trinity.
I like to pretend the second and third movies don’t exist.
5. Blade – Hopefully this will get everyone off my back for leaving Blade off my comic book list! See, I already knew I’d be doing this piece and he’d be on it! Patience is a virtue!
The funny thing is Blade has never been a huge comic book star. He originated in the ensemble series ‘Tomb of Dracula’ and has on occasion headlined his own books, but they typically don’t last very long. Yet somehow, Wesley Snipes managed to take this often supporting character and turn him into a leather-clad, karate-kicking badass on the silver screen! The ‘Blade’ movies feature brilliantly choreographed fight sequences! Snipes is calm, cool and killer in the role! (It helps that he’s a huge comic book fan in real life!) So while Blade has never been an A-Lister in the comics, his three films are excellent science fiction, action movies! (Yes, I even like the third one.)
4. Storm (X-Men) – My sole comic book representative (not counting Blade) is Storm, Ororo Munroe, the weather-controlling leader of the X-Men, the number one selling team in comics! The X-Men starred in their own Saturday morning cartoon series for four seasons as well as two subsequent animated series, ‘X-Men: Evolution’ and ‘Wolverine & the X-Men’ not to mention an anime. And of course, she was portrayed by Halle Berry in three live-action X-Men movies. As such a prominent character in such a high-profile franchise, Storm is one of the most recognized female super heroes in the world. She has had many toys, statues, clothing items, etc. bearing her likeness.
Through it all, she has been depicted as being strong, intelligent, resourceful and dignified. She is maternal, serving as a “big sister” to Kitty Pryde. She defeated Morlock leader Calisto in a knife fight, thereby taking over control of the underground mutant group. She was even tough enough to lead the X-Men after she’d had her powers stolen from her!
3. Lando Calrissian (Star Wars franchise) - I know some would select Lando as the #1 black character in science fiction, but I think a couple of others outpace him ever so slightly. Lando is introduced as the suave administrator of Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ But he has a shady past, as it is revealed that he has past ties to smuggler and scoundrel Han Solo. He is forced to betray Han to the Empire, but joins the Rebel Alliance and goes undercover in Jabba the Hutt’s palace in order to free Han in ‘Return of the Jedi.’ Also in Jedi, he pilots the Millennium Falcon and leads the Rebels’ assault on the Deathstar and succeeds in destroying it, thereby crushing The Empire for good!
Star Wars is arguably the biggest franchise in all of science fiction and Lando plays a huge role. Honorable mention goes to Mace Windu, another kick ass character, but like I said, one character per franchise.
2. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura (Star Trek) – Lt. Uhura was a ground breaking figure, one of the first black characters to ever appear on a science fiction series. As Whoopi Goldberg famously recalled, when she saw Uhura on TV she declared, “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!” (Goldberg would later join the franchise herself as Guinan on ‘The Next Generation.’) Actress Nichelle Nichols planned to leave the show after the first season, but was persuaded to remain by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who saw her as a role model for the African American community. Dr. Mae Jemmison, the first black female astronaut in space has also cited Uhura as an influence. (Jemmison also appeared on ‘TNG’ in a one-off role.)
In the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ Uhura shared a kiss with her white male captain, Kirk played by William Shatner, which was the first interracial kiss on television.
What is most influential about Uhura is that she was never treated as “the girl.” She never needed rescuing. She was a full-fledged part of the team and went into action alongside her male teammates without ever being treated any differently. She was a role model and influenced countless children of all races. Nichelle Nichols appeared in every season of the original television series as well as the spin-off animated cartoon and the live action film franchise.
Currently, Zoe Saldana has taken on the role as part of J.J. Abrams’ relaunched movie series.
1. Will Smith - Okay, I know that Will Smith isn’t a character, but it was impossible to choose from among all of his huge science fiction roles and few actors of any race have proven as successful in the genre as he. It all began in 1996, in the role of Steven Hiller in ‘Independence Day,’ which found him battling an alien invasion. Smith’s natural swagger and charm shined and audiences embraced both the actor and the role. The film cost $75 million to produce and grossed $817,400,891 world wide. The next year, Smith avoided the sophomore slump in the role of Agent J in the film ‘Men in Black.’ The Men in Black are a government agency charged with policing extraterrestrials living on Earth. Once again, Smith delivered and the film made $326,600,000 and spawned a successful sequel, with another on its way this year! He faltered slightly with ‘Wild, Wild West’ wherein he played James West and battled a giant robot spider. Thanks to the foreign market, the film made a profit, but audience reaction was mixed.
The list goes on and on, ‘I Robot,’ ‘I Am Legend,’ ‘Hancock.’ Smith is a box office juggernaut and continues to deliver in the science fiction genre. No other character on this list has generated as much money or attention in the genre, so while I can’t pick from his various roles, combined they put him at the top!
Of course you disagree! That’s the whole point of these lists, so you think I’m an idiot for leaving out “so and so” or putting them in the wrong order! That’s cool! Let me have it, in the comments section below!