Monday, February 12, 2018

Q&A with Diana Mafe on Black Women in Speculative Film & TV

This week, the highly-anticipated Black Panther adaptation hits theaters. To celebrate this historic production and Black History Month, we talked to author Diana Adesola Mafe about her new book Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV.

When Lieutenant Uhura took her place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek, the actress Nichelle Nichols went where no African American woman had ever gone before. Yet several decades passed before many other black women began playing significant roles in speculative (i.e., science fiction, fantasy, and horror) film and television—a troubling omission, given that these genres offer significant opportunities for reinventing social constructs such as race, gender, and class. Challenging cinema’s history of stereotyping or erasing black women on-screen, Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before
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showcases twenty-first-century examples that portray them as central figures of action and agency. We asked the author about her research.

CBS's new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery (2017–present), casts a black woman as the lead. Have you followed critical and popular reaction to that character?

I’ve followed reactions to the show in general and the black female lead, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), in particular. When the trailer was first released, there was some racist and sexist backlash from viewers who had a knee-jerk reaction to two women of color in lead roles—and that was before the first episode had even aired. Now, the first season has concluded, and critics and fans can take a more complete and, hopefully, measured view.

Simply in terms of television history, the show is special. No other deep space TV series has ever cast a black woman as the protagonist, which is something I address in the book. I look at examples like Firefly (2002–2003) and Doctor Who (2005–present), which are shows with complex black female characters. But those shows do not take the leap that Star Trek: Discovery has by making the black female character the hero. If Discovery had been released a little sooner (before I finished the book), I would have included it as a vital television case study. The show may have its failings in terms of plot, continuity, writing, and so on. But its significance in the context of race and gender representation in American television still stands.

Do you have any other favorite black female characters subverting stereotypes of black femininity?

I have to mention my favorite black female comic book character, Agent 355, from the series Y: The Last Man (2002–2008). I’ve written on this character elsewhere (African American Review Vol. 48), and I think she deserves to be spotlighted here, as well. Suffice it to say that she is one of the most original black female characters I have ever come across in a comic book universe. Part of her subversiveness lies in the fact that she is the definitive hero of the series despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I argue that the series is really a brilliant example of trompe l’oeil, meaning that none of the characters are what they seem to be. There has been talk over the years of adapting the series for either film or television. And I heard recently that FX might be turning the series into a show. I’m eager to see how 355 would translate to the small screen and if a television adaptation will do justice to her character.

I love that you examine Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Is it that much more impactful to have this character be young, black, and living in poverty in the South?

Hushpuppy certainly provides a different perspective—she is the only child protagonist I discuss in the book. And she adds another layer to the notion of black female erasure and marginalization precisely because she is a young girl living in poverty in the South. If black women are rare in speculative film and television, then black girls are all but invisible. So, the impact factor of this case study is very different. Hushpuppy does not have the same kind of visual agency as the machete-wielding Selena from 28 Days Later (2002) or the mountain-climbing Lex from AVP (2004), but she is no less subversive than these adult counterparts. Her agency lies in reclamation, whether of the cinematic gaze, of narrative voice, or of her lost mother. 

Why do you think psychoanalysis particularly works for this project?

Psychoanalysis has been foundational to film theory for decades. Although it has its sceptics, and some might argue that it has become less relevant with time and technology, I think it can lead to provocative analysis. For genres like horror and SF, which give visual form to our deepest social fears and our deepest social desires, psychoanalysis can be an especially powerful and creative lens. For example, the film AVP imagines racialized and gendered monstrosities in the Aliens and the Predators. The film Children of Men (2006) explores infertility and circles around the question of impotence by way of phallic imagery. Psychoanalysis is a useful tool for engaging with these layers of meaning, which often lie just beneath the surface.

Did anything surprise you over the course of your research?

When I began this project, I was acutely aware of the absence and erasure of black female characters in speculative film and television. In terms of a trajectory or timeline, one tends to begin with Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and then struggle a little bit to think of other key examples. Part of the fun of the research was seeing who else was out there. Although I could list other characters off the top of my head (Lisa in The Omega Man, Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Mace in Strange Days, and so on), I also had certain parameters. I wanted to focus on new millennial examples, and I wanted the characters to be more than just sidekicks or blatant stereotypes. And my research has yielded a range of compelling new millennial black female characters. I was pleasantly surprised by the rich and subversive portrayals that I was able to find by way of these twenty-first-century American and British case studies. Although there is a long way to go in terms of black female representation, both in front of and behind the camera, it was rewarding for me as a researcher and a woman of color to explore the complex roles that do exist.

You have made a deliberate effort to pinpoint “the most compelling and critically complex examples of black female characters in new millennial British and American speculative film and television.” Did you have some favorite roles that you had to cut in service of this project?

Definitely. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009) was one of my initial television case studies—I was going to focus on the character Dee (Kandyse McClure). But in the end, I decided to write just one television chapter and, for that reason, had to limit the number of shows I could discuss. I would have loved to also include Michonne (Danai Gurira) from The Walking Dead (2010–present) and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) from Westworld (2016–present). For the film case studies, I had an easier time choosing my examples. I did not include the new Star Trek or X-Men films, even though I appreciate the relevance of the “new” Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Storm (Halle Berry). But these black female characters were not quite central or nuanced enough in their respective universes to merit inclusion. I was also going to cut AVP from the project because I was not convinced that the film was strong enough as a case study. Yet it turned out to have some very subversive elements by way of its black female hero, and it became one of my primary cinematic examples. In the end, these decisions are subjective. The fact that there were enough examples for me to work with, and that I had to cut some in service of the project, is a good sign. It means that there are more black women in speculative film and TV than we might initially think and that there is more work to be done.

What expectations do you have for the new film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (2018)?

I first read this young adult novel when I was about eleven and have loved it ever since. So, I’m excited to see the new film adaptation, which portrays the Murry family as interracial, and Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the protagonist, as a child of color. Given my earlier point about the absence of black girls in speculative film and TV, this casting choice is important. How often do we get to see girls of color as protagonists doing amazing and fantastical things? How often is a black girl told, as per the trailer, that she is the only one who can stop the darkness and save the world? The cast also includes Oprah Winfrey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in major roles. The fact that this adaptation is directed by Ava DuVernay, one of the few black female directors in Hollywood, is also significant. The people behind the camera are just as (if not more) important to diversifying the film industry. I think the key thing here is that filmmakers are willing to imagine beloved characters from fiction—like a Meg Murry or a Hermione Granger—as any race or background.

Diana Mafe is an associate professor of English at Denison University. She is the author of Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines. Find her at

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