by Simi Adeniyi
Representation for Black-Americans in Hollywood doesn’t have a very good track record, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genre. It seems like whenever a new superhero film comes out, the default protagonist must be a White person with their token Black best friend. The Black sidekick doesn’t have a story of their own, they revolve around the White or non-Black protagonist.
This trope had been especially prevalent in Marvel movies. James Rhodes’ (a character introduced in the Iron Man as the protagonist’s confidante) storyline revolved around Iron Man to the point where he sustained permanent physical damage in one of the movies. Maria Rambeau, the best friend of Captain Marvel’s protagonist, was the strong Black woman who encouraged Carol from time to time. Previously, little was known about Sam Wilson, a character introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, only that he was willing to do anything for Captain America. Black people in the MCU were sidekicks and helpers, occasionally veering into Magical Negro territory, but never the main characters.
This changed with the release of Black Panther.
In a deviation from the norm, audiences saw a group of Black people constantly be shown as sophisticated, advanced, and regal. There was no talk of barbaric Africans or poverty, which is usually the depiction of African countries in Hollywood. February 16 was a joyful day for Black people all over the globe, with “Wakanda Forever” becoming a half-salute, half-inside joke in the community. In addition, Black Panther became the first superhero movie to be nominated for the Best Picture at the Oscars. With Ruth E. Carter winning Best Costume Design (the first Black woman to do so) and Hannah Beachler winning Best Production Design, it also became the only Marvel movie to win Oscars.
Black representation in sci-fi only increased from there. In 2020, Marvel announced three Disney+ shows to feature Black leads (Ironheart, Iron Wars, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). On March 19, 2021, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuted on Disney+, tackling socio-political themes like race and class through the eyes of Sam Wilson (the hero) and Karli Morgenthau (the antagonist). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier subverted the theme of the Black sidekick by making Sam Wilson the main character and having an ensemble cast of White and nonblack people, along with Karli, whose story unfolds throughout the show. On April 23, Anthony Mackie became the first Black Captain America on TV.
A question rises with this new wave of Black representation in the superhero genre specifically. Do Black actors and characters have a place in the industry, and what does this mean for Black viewers who rarely saw themselves represented?
Folajinmi Awofeso, a junior at Atholton, talked about diversity in front of and behind the camera. “When done right, it’s really reaffirming to any minority group. You’re essentially telling them ‘Hey! You can be part of the story, you can write the story yourself, you can be the main character, you can direct the story, you can do anything no matter what.’”
When minorities are pushed to the front of a sci-fi story and given the cool powers, ambitious (and satisfyingly unrealistic) love story, and hero’s journey, it allows them to think beyond the sad reality.
Audiences are seeing more Black heroes take center stage, including a new rise in Black love interests. Black women in sci-fi are being written as fully realized characters who are allowed to partake in the sci-fi action while also being sought after. Zendaya plays Michelle Jones in the MCU and Candace Patton plays Iris West-Allen on CW’s The Flash. Along with Lupita Nyong’o, these characters are main love interests with their own ambitions. This is important because women of color are rarely given the opportunity to be loved in a film, as stated in this article by Clara Mae.
“Our society puts a very high premium on beauty when it comes to women,” Ms. Cheryl Grimes, the Black student representative, said on Candace Patton’s 2014 casting, “and it’s difficult when you are a woman and your version of beauty never shows up on screen. So if you are a brown or dark skinned woman and you never see the love interests reflect those features, it tells you that you’re not worthy of being loved or admired. Having [Candace Patton] in that role really sends a great message to Black girls, that you are worthy and you are beautiful, and the world does see you as beautiful.”
But diversity only has value when it’s done right, and too many times, that isn’t the case.
“That’s the big emphasis,” Kendall Dean, a junior at Atholton, said about the Token Black Character trope and bad representation. “Before now, it’s just been ‘we need to make sure we have a person of color’ but the character never has any depth. But now, they have flaws and you’re allowed to form your opinion on them.”
This rise in fleshed out, lovable characters of color can be seen in comic books. Comics seem to be adapting to diversity better than TV has. More characters of color (such as Kamala Khan from Marvel and Duke Thomas from DC) are being integrated into important events, and these characters are now being introduced into comic book films as a result.
It’s hard not to have an optimistic outlook when comparing representation now to representation ten years ago. Comic book adaptations are becoming more and more popular, which means the impact they have outside of fiction will increase as they become mainstream. There’s room for improvement (on colorism, whitewashing, etc.) but comic films and books have moved on from the all-white Avengers to teams such as Marvel Comics’ Champions, a team with members who are mostly people of color.
Fantasy and sci-fi is the perfect genre to diversify. As Ms. Grimes said, “seeing Black superheroes in general is super important because the power of representation is that it gives you a greenlight to dream.”