Well before Nichelle Nichols gained acclaim for “Star Trek” as the first Black woman on TV that wasn’t a servant, speculative fiction was mostly a white man’s game. Sci-Fi, fantasy and action films were a genre where Black guys always died first and white men always saved the day. There was little room for women, let alone Afro-Latinas.
These days, the lack of diversity in modern speculative fiction remains a problem. White men still run the show on and off the screen, and Black men still die first. But, slowly, the playing field is changing. As Marvel gears up for the release of some of its most promising blockbuster hits, “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” among them, I couldn’t help but notice the significant roles Afro-Latinas like Lupita Nyong’o and Tessa Thompson were playing in these films. In fact, from my numbers, it’s not just through Marvel and it’s not just in recent years that Afro-Latinas have lit up the sc-fi/ fantasy screen.
Afro-Latina actresses have been taking Black girl magic to the stars and beyond for a minute, y’all.
Strap in, and I’ll take you on one hell of a nerdy ride to review.
Gina Torres’ role in Space Western drama helped push a show to cult status.
CREDIT: Gina Torres as Zoë Alleyne Washburne in “Firefly” / FOX
Long before she took up the torch as Zoë Washburne of “Firefly,” the Cubana had established herself as a veteran of a number of science fiction/fantasy projects. There was “Cleopatra 2525,” “Alias” and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” After “Firefly,” she went on to star in “The Matrix: Reloaded” and appeared in last year’s breakthrough HBO show “Westworld.”
But, for me, “Firefly” became the role I knew her for and loved most about her. Mostly because she changed my attitude about the sci-fi shows my dad and brother watched. Torres’ role on “Firefly” was my first positive introduction to a genre I would ultimately go on to love. Sure, sci-fi was nerdy, but put a Black woman at the center of one of those plots, and it could be cool as hell.
Zoë Washburne was the show’s deadly fighter who could kick your ass and make you want to be her all at the same time. She was whip-smart, loyal and a warrior. Oh yeah, and she was a Black woman encompassing all of these things to boot.
Zoe Saldana taught Hollywood that Black women could help feed their franchises.
CREDIT: Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in “Avatar” / 20th Century Fox
We’re living in a world where nearly every Hollywood studio is looking to flip a sequel and make it a franchise. Look up any major Hollywood actress today, and I’ll wager that she has a franchise or two under her belt. (Emma Stone has “Spiderman,” Jennifer Lawrence has “Hunger Games,” Kiera Knightly has “Pirates of the Caribbean” and even Cate Blanchett has a franchise in “Lord of The Rings.”) But few actresses have managed to take on three of the most popular sci-fi action franchises at the same time.
Currently, Saldana headlines lead acting roles in “Star Trek,” “Avatar” and “Guardians of The Galaxy.” In interviews, she has described how taking on the parts of sci-fi characters whose skin tones were as colorful as a Crayola box helped her to kick down doors for herself in the genre.
“It’s hard when you go and fight for a role because they’re like, ‘I don’t know, man, you mean, it’s like the blue girl from Avatar? I don’t know, I want to go down a different route,'” the Puerto Rican-Dominican actress told The Independent. “I feel like a little bit of an underdog because I live in space, nobody wants me here on earth.”
Saldana’s portrayal of both Gamora in “Guardians” and Neytiri in “Avatar” has spawned a trend that can be seen consistently at any Comic Con event. Legions of women wearing blue and green makeup show up to the once primarily male-dominated events to celebrate Saldana’s characters.
Lupita Nyong’o pried open the sci-fi door and made herself seen.
CREDIT: Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia in “Black Panther” / Walt Disney Studios
I’ll be honest, when Lupita Nyong’o graced the Academy Awards show for the first time four years ago, I feared that she was doomed to be forgotten. After all, Black women who both rock their dark skin and natural hair are a rare thing to be seen in Hollywood. When these rare treasures finally do get a chance to shine, they’re either stereotyped, given smaller supporting roles or faded out completely. Fortunately for us, the Kenyan-Mexicana has managed to carve out a massive place for herself in both the industry and its sci-fi genre.
When her role in “Star Wars” was announced, many fans were less than pleased to find the talented actress’s appearance would be covered up with computer animation. But she made do, and her role as Maz Kanata quickly became a fan favorite. Now Nyong’o is set to star in the 18th film of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe as Nakia in “Black Panther,” and in the months before the film, she has inspired young girls and women to embrace their African roots and culture.
Tessa Thompson jumped into sci-fi- and gave it a reboot.
CREDIT: Tessa Thompson as “Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok “/ Marvel Studios
With recent projects such as “Westworld,” “Annihilation,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Avengers: Infinity War” already under her belt, it feels like Thompson didn’t get much of a chance to get her feet wet before doing the sci-fi movie deep-dive. And yet, the Panamanian-Mexican has already paved the opportunity for more diverse characters on screen and in the genre — particularly when it comes to the role she took on for Marvel.
Thompson’s part as Valkyrie was an exciting one to see in a box-office film in general, but her role as a queer POC Marvel character was momentous. Her Valkyrie was as complex and multifaceted as onscreen female characters come: she has might, weaknesses, a sense of her sexuality, a whole heck of a lot of bite and can handle her alcohol. Oh, and never once was her character made to fulfill the role of the leading actor’s love-interest.
Afro-Latinas of Hollywood have had a significant part to play in the beloved genre that is speculative fiction. The characters and roles they play continue to widely influence the way women and Afro-Latinas, in particular, see themselves. Like us, these characters and the actresses that portray them are strong, fiercely independent and up for challenges. Here’s hoping production studios keep doing the smart thing and cast more Black women in these gravity-defying roles. Because while the characters these leading ladies of color have played has been significant, there’s no doubting Hollywood needs a whole heck of a lot more.