What does Tyler Perry have to do with science fiction? The playwright / actor / filmmaker has not yet ventured into our beloved genre, but the arrival of his next movie, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, made me think about the loyal audience that he's developed. It's an audience -- African-American, religiously-inclined -- that has been severely under served by Hollywood, and so Perry set out to create material that would connect with that audience.
A sci-fi version of Perry has not yet emerged, and so African-American actors and characters remain rare in science fiction films. The upcoming television season will feature Gabrielle Union in ABC's sci-fi series FlashForward, Ving Rhames will appear in Surrogates with Bruce Willis later this month, and Zoe Saldana will star in James Cameron's Avatar later this year. For now, let's look back at the top 10 African-American sci-fi characters -- including those who are not identified by their race in the film. (Please note: Chris Tucker as the constantly screeching Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element did not make my list.)
1. Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in The Matrix
Playing one of the great teachers of the silver screen, Fishburne as Morpheus tries to guide Neo (Keanu Reeves) to the truth, gently yet firmly. He's on an important, urgent mission, but he cannot overplay his hand or he risks losing everything, far more than Neo -- or the viewer -- can initially imagine. How does he do it? Morpheus implores, "Free your mind," and jumps. Neo can only say, "Whoa."
2. Tina Turner as Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Despite my general feeling that the third Max Max movie was the weakest, I can't deny the majestic, imperious power displayed by Tina Turner as Aunty Entity. The post-apocalyptic movie idea of a barbarian queen or king rising up from among the dregs to rule brutally over mad hordes of survivors is not new. Watching Turner, I always felt like she might suddenly burst into a hard rocking song -- "Proud Mary," maybe? -- and perhaps it's the threat that makes her performance so compelling.
3. Joe Morton as The Brother in The Brother From Another Planet
John Sayles boldly sallied forth into sci-fi territory with this independent film released in 1984. Joe Morton plays an outer space visitor who lands near Manhattan and wanders around learning about humanity. He's mute, which allows the people he encounters to interpret his expressions to suit their own fashions. In that sense, he's a bit reminiscent of Peter Sellers in Being There, but The Brother would never be allowed to get that close to the corridors of power -- he may not understand why he's treated differently because of the color of his skin, but everyone else does. (Check out a scene we love from the film at Cinematical.)
4. Will Smith as Steven Hiller in Independence Day
I prefer his Men in Black character -- it's also a better movie -- but Independence Day made him a star, and introduced the world to the cocky cool he'd already demonstrated in Bad Boys and, to a lesser degree, on television. The likable, family-friendly nature of his role, combined with his good looks and wisecracks, made him seem like a seasoned screen veteran. He's a true hero to fans of science fiction, returning time and again to the genre with varying degrees of success (I, Robot / Hancock / I Am Legend).
5. Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek
Show some respect! She may have been stuck for too many episodes playing a glorified telephone operator, but that was better than a maid or a housekeeper: she was an officer, damnit!
She portrayed a character who had equal standing with the other chief supporting players -- Scott, Sulu, and Chekhov. And she even
got to was willing to kiss William Shatner. Bravo!
6. Wesley Snipes as Simon Phoenix in Demolition Man
Seriously underrated for years, Demolition Man holds up very well to repeat viewings, and Snipes' convincing performance as the evil side of the resurrection coin -- the flip side being the eternally good, somewhat boring John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) -- gives the picture considerable life. He's an outlandish cartoon composite, gifted with superior intelligence, and a diabolical foe for Spartan and his good-hearted, bumbling colleagues of the future, notably Sandra Bullock.
7. Yaphet Kotto as Parker in Alien
If only Parker was in charge, everyone might have survived. Instead, he was stuck down below with Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), dutifully performing his chores until the command chain started to disappear. Even then, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) might have lived if only she wasn't paralyzed with fear. Parker always did the right thing, and what good did it do him?
8. Isaac Hayes as The Duke in Escape From New York / Keith David as Childs in The Thing
Musician turned actor Hayes has a powerful presence as the self-proclaimed Duke of New York, ruling over a huge gang of ruthless criminals; he's all gruff bark and fiery glower. David oozes menace and confidence as Childs, the only man you believe could take down R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) one on one. They're both prototypical John Carpenter supporting characters: manly macho men with a hint of bemusement at their fates.
9. Halle Berry as Storm in X2: X-Men United
Storm (AKA Ororo Munroe) gets more screen time in X-Men: The Last Stand, I think, but X2 is superior as a movie, and I liked how Bryan Singer used her in X2 more than in X-Men.
Halle Berry never seems entirely comfortable wearing the uniform, yet that almost feels like a manifestation of the character, who can control the natural elements of the world, although she is sometimes reluctant to wield her mighty powers.
10. James Earl Jones as Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Don't tell me you thought Darth Vader was Caucasian after watching the original film and hearing the immortal baritone of James Earl Jones thunder through time and space! I felt betrayed when Luke pried off his father's helmet in Episode VI to reveal a pasty white face. I don't care what anyone says: Darth Vader was African-American.
Honorable Mention (listed alphabetically):
Angela Bassett as Mace in Strange Days
Roscoe Lee Browne as Box in Logan's Run
Terry Crews as Alonzo Camacho in Idiocracy
Morgan Freeman as President Beck in Deep Impact
Danny Glover as Mike Harrigan in Predator 2
Louis Gossett Jr. as Jeriba 'Jerry' Shigan in Enemy Mine
Steve Harris as Jad in Minority Report
Ernie Hudson as Winston in Ghost Busters
Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Paula Kelley as Martha in Soylent Green
Brock Peters as Hatcher in Soylent Green
Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back