Are Black Characters Allowed to Exist Outside of their Blackness?
The relationship between Black people and speculative fiction is quite an interesting one. If you are a Black fan, you’re already well aware that the amount of representation we have in the genre leaves a lot to be desired. And when we are represented, it seems the characters who most resemble us are only somewhat accepted by fandom if their stories center around their Blackness.
If we step back from speculative fiction for a moment, we can see that this isn’t a pattern present in only this particular genre. It is, in fact, a pattern that stretches way back to “old Hollywood.” As many know, Hattie McDaniel was the first Black actress to win an Oscar for her role as a slave in Gone with the Wind (1939). But even in the present, most notable recognitions Black entertainers of the film industry receive are for films that center around themes of racism — see: Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), and Spike Lee’s The Blackkklansman (2018).
The speculative genre is known to promote social commentary, but at the same time, it has also been used as a means to “escape” for many people, and people like to see themselves in the heroes of these stories. For years, Black fans related to characters who either were or presented as white because we didn’t have much of a choice, but now that famous characters such as Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid and DC’s Starfire of Titans and Iris West of The Flash are being played by Black women (Halle Bailey, Anna Diop, and Candice Patton), white fandom suddenly has trouble relating to them and are crying “reverse racism.”
White fandom will often make the argument that Black actors should be given roles as original characters instead of “taking” white roles. However, there are a few problems with this argument. Anyone who pays attention to Hollywood will recognize that even with the slow progress taking place, most roles are written with white people in mind. Anna Diop taking the role of Starfire, for example, takes nothing away from white actresses who have quite a number of roles to choose from. The idea that Black actors are “taking” anything away from white actors suggests that Black actors and white actors have a level playing field in Hollywood, which cannot be further from the truth.
Another problem with this argument is that it suggests that original Black characters are not being written and that they along with the actors who play them are not receiving backlash for their inclusion. In 2014, the Batman prequel Gotham premiered on Fox and introduced a new original character by the name of Fish Mooney played by Jada Pinkett-Smith. The character was everything one would expect from a villain of Gotham City, but was immediately criticized by white fandom to be “over-the-top” and “campy.” Now, since when have Batman’s nemeses not been over-the-top in their personalities, actions, and even sometimes sexuality?
For readers who want an example from a bigger fandom, all you have to do is take a look at Finn from Star Wars and his actor John Boyega. From the very beginning, there were campaigns to boycott Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015) as a reaction to his inclusion. Of course, this ended up amounting to nothing and the film went on to be a great success. However, the harassment and backlash Boyega received online from white fandom can be partly credited for his leading role being reduced to secondary in the next two installments of the trilogy.
Black artists cannot even create their own stories surrounding Black characters without receiving backlash for explaining their reasoning behind their casting choices. Following the success of Get Out, Jordan Peele offered another horror film, Us (2019), that centered around a Black American family being pursued by their creepy and homicidal doppelgangers. During the promotion of his upcoming film, Peele stated the following in an interview:
“I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie. Not that I don’t like white dudes. But I’ve seen that movie. The way I look at it, I get to cast Black people in my movies. I feel fortunate to be in this position where I can say to Universal, ‘I want to make a $20 million horror movie with a Black family.’ And they say yes.”
Anyone who reads this statement in full without a motive can understand what is being said. In the past, the horror genre’s roles for Black actors were limited, and when they were included, the role was usually secondary and their purpose was to be brutally murdered or killed — oftentimes very early in the film. In fact, the famous site used by film goers to check for possible triggers present in a film, Does The Dog Die?, includes this on their list which serves as a testament to how often this occurs. However, white fandom used Peele’s statement to prove that “reverse racism” exists and suggested that Peele was “just as bad” as white filmmakers who criticized “forced diversity.”
What Peele did with Us was present a horror story that centered around a Black American family. What separates this film from others is that this story is not about race or racism. That’s not to say subtle themes of these subjects are not present here and there, but the film is not about those themes. The film also offers film goers something different in that the Black family is allowed to survive the horror they are faced with instead of being killed by it.
I think there is something to be said for the fact that Jordan Peele received recognition from The Academy for Get Out, a horror themed racial commentary, and not for Us, a horror themed social commentary that stretches beyond race and racism. The Academy also recognized the quality and significance of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, a comic book film with heavy themes of racism. Again, stories about Black people that center around their experiences with racism are necessary, but they should not be our only stories, and I believe this is partly the reason why some among white fandom have a hard time relating to the characters who resemble us. Many people are limited in their exposure to communities that are not their own and get their information from the media, and a common argument used against casting Black leads is that white and non-Black audiences will have a hard time relating to them, but this comes from a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it is consistently made the job of Black characters to exist only to “overcome racism” or illustrate racial inequalities, then how are Black characters ever going to be perceived as anything else? Our presence in speculative fiction is almost always seen as “political” even if our characters aren’t making a political statement. I can only conclude that for this reason, more films like Us are necessary. It’s time that art that features Black people as more than just their experiences with racism to be better recognized. It is no longer enough to “stan” movies or television shows that include Black characters but don’t know how to write them as people who are more than just their racial hardships. It’s time for Black people to be able to use speculative fiction as a means for escape instead of being reminded of the struggles we are faced with each and every day of our lives.