The Last Black Man
Summer blockbuster season has become a time to witness The End. Ends of cities, ends of civilizations, ends of worlds (and the rare ends of universes). This year’s summer box office has had and will have no shortage of apocalypses, with a long list of films featuring the ends of worlds and exciting new replacements crowding IMAX 3D theaters and midnight releases. The science-fiction films that have now permeated the fabric of the mainstream are about deconstruction and reconstruction of rules and eras. Many take place in new post-apocalypse eras where the rules are No Rules, studded leather is the only available fabric and names like Cypher Raige and Stacker Pentecost and Jericho Cane and Rayford Steele are common (my screenplay featuring Bluffer McBromium is available upon request). Many other offer more existential views on looming destruction of worlds (or smaller life and system worlds). But there are other common threads beyond the use of advanced technology in science-fiction films. For one, they all tend to represent alternate realities where every single Black person in the world has somehow gone extinct, except one.
Enter The Last Black Man. The Neo-Negro. Usually, this paragon of resilient Blackness arrives in movies in one of two specific trope forms. The first is the badass Human Cheat Code who is either the main character in Will Smith movies or a supporting character who should probably be the main character if we’re being honest with ourselves. The second is the older Future Magical Black Man, most times a former Human Cheat Code that mentors the main (white, often Tom Cruise) character and usually sacrifices himself for the protagonist in a heartbreaking scene. Not only do both of these character tropes shoulder the tough burden of knowing most people on the Earth just died and robots or zombies or robot zombies (ask Mr. McBromium) are threatening to wipe out the rest; they also have to live with the knowledge that somewhere along the line all of their extended family members, college friends and President Obama were unfortunately taken in by some race-specific rapture. What gives?
Let’s start with a few recent examples before we move further. In no particular order, here’s a list of Last Black Men in science fiction.
Eli is the easiest example of the prototypical Human Cheat Code. Here we have an A-list actor still in the “Action Movie Believability Phase” of his career (although Sly Stallone and Liam Neeson have dramatically stretched the limits of this phase) playing a bow-toting, knife wielding, generally unruly sonofabitch who also happens to be blind for bonus points. While Book of Eli was an uneven film at best, it is a classic example of post-apocalypse Last Black Man fiction. Somehow the nuclear cataclysm that was only kind of good at killing everybody was REALLY efficient at killing Black people. Save him. But he dies at the end.
Robert Neville is another great example, although any number of Will Smith roles where he’s inexplicably the only Black cast member fit here. At first I Am Legend seems like an inversion on the Last Black Man trope. Neville is the lone survivor of a disease that seems tailor-made to kill everyone but him. He’s the Last Black Man because he’s the Last Man. Somehow against all odds a Black man makes it! But then halfway through the movie in the decidedly more awful second act he gets discovered by other survivors who reveal there are even MORE survivors and promptly dies. It’s like the apocalypse forgot about that Black guy and had to fix its mistake a la Final Destination when notified. Bummer.
As the preeminent Magical Black Man in cinema, it’s only fitting that Morgan Freeman get a shot as a Future Magical Black Man. The man has certainly battled off his share of apocalypses on the other side as a mentor of young heroes (Dark Knight series, Deep Impact, etc), but this film has him staring at it from the post-apocalypse side. Even as a pretty thin Morpheus clone down to the glasses, Morgan Freeman brings his Godlike gravitas to the screen as the sage who leads the hero through his awakening and eventually sacrifices himself in the end.
Consider the apocalypse canceled. Despite the fact that giant monsters seem a rather laughable method of inflicting apocalypses (my money would be on the other end of the size scale), Stacker Pentecost is an equally laughably-named badass who is dedicated to personally face-kicking each of those giant monsters. The classic supporting actor version of the Human Cheat Code, it’s very clear that a movie featuring Stacker Pentecost as the main character would have been infinitely better than the version we got. But demographics, or something. For some reason the “Damaged White Protagonist finds himself under the tutelage of a Black hero much more equipped to actually save the world” trope sells tickets. We all know what the reason is, but let’s play coy for now. Also, Pentecost sacrifices himself in the end. Noticing a pattern here?
These four characters are good examples of the phenomenon but there are plenty more in the specific genre of post-apocalypse films. When you consider disappearing Black characters in sci-fi at large it’s clear that the box office will usually be full of Last (or Only) Black Men. From Lando Calrissian to Uhura to Mace Windu (and to the new Black lead for the upcoming Star Wars films), Black characters are simply a rarity in science-fiction. The convention is common in literature too. Even more so than in other genres, it seems that diversity, when it is even considered, takes the form of a strange tokenism. Also, they all die in the end.
So what gives here? Just why is diversity such a struggle in science-fiction, even beyond the mainstream issues with it? The root of the problem has to do with the roots of science-fiction. Science-fiction as a genre arose in literature as a sort of long-lost twin of fantasy. Indeed, the first science-fiction literature borrowed heavily from mythology, which was the mother of the fantasy genre as we know it. Titles like Frankenstein, one of the first sci-fi novels, even reference the mythologies they pattern themselves after (Prometheus). Even earlier, works based on alchemy and necromancy like Doctor Faustus blurred the lines. By the time the progenitors of modern science-fiction work (film and literature, as the two are intricately intertwined) wrote I, Robot, I Am Legend, and War of the Worlds, science-fiction had emerged as a separate genre, but one that was still at times indistinguishable from fantasy. After all, super advanced technology can often take the appearance of magic and both are used for the same plot devices.
As a close relative to fantasy, sci-fi inherited some of its pathology and weaknesses as well. European-history and medieval-based fantasy have long suffered from a tendency towards whitewashing, overt racism and sexism, and hand-waving away some of the more difficult social elements to explain. Even our favorites were not immune. Tolkien created a breathtaking world full of names, places, and races and even created up to five distinct languages to breathe life into Middle Earth. A mythology was created for the sole purpose of animating his stories that rivaled creation myths from major religions. But even with all of the complexity, he cast global struggle as a child’s simplicity of good versus evil and had several issues with portraying dark-skinned peoples as exclusively evil. At the very least, Whiteness and fairness were highly associated with cosmic Goodness, even to the point where the Whitest and fairest individuals were members of a different, more godlike race (the Elves). Even in creating perhaps the most well thought-out and influential world in literature up to that point, Tolkien fell prey to the weak thinness of the Eurocentric and paternalistic nature of his genre. Fellow titans like C.S. Lewis could do no better in this regard. Fantasy often falls prey to a disease implied in the very title of the genre. Just whose fantasy is it?
Understand then, that science-fiction is just fantasy looking forward rather than backwards. While fantasy literature and film provide an often-whitewashed and sanitized nostalgic Tea Party-esque feel of absolutes, so science-fiction often represents an oversimplified and naive fantasy of what life might look like down the road. Even in the most intricately developed worlds with the most extensively researched and plausible future technology, the central conceit shines through ever-so-brightly. Too often the fantasies belong to writers who have had no dealings with diversity beyond inconvenience or tension, so I’d wager that imagining a world without those tensions and the need to self-reflect comes natural. Talking about race and where we are realistically headed as a nation and world is perhaps far more difficult for the average writer than researching just how inertia might damage the body during space travel or how quantum computing could actually take shape. So the temptation is too often to, with a flick of the pen, erase the problem altogether with the common off-screen racial apocalypse that I poked fun at above. In films that often center around the struggle of humanity against outside invaders and coming doom, the irony is palpably thick.
The irony is even stronger when you consider that real-life apocalypses happen on the worlds at the margins of society and have been for centuries. Native Americans across two continents fought wars against hostile alien invaders years ago. The Holocaust and other genocides spelled the end for entire generations and for some entire groups of people. Even now, the events of 2012 or Mad Max or Waterworld happen across the globe at local levels as climate change kills thousands and forces millions away from their homes, creating the types of resource clashes and chaotic struggles for survival that we’re more accustomed to seeing in Book of Eli. The people affected by these local world-enders have mostly been the same types of folks erased from the movies, minorities and the global poor. The scariest thing about the Last Black Man phenomenon is that perhaps in their blindness, science-fiction writers have unwittingly stumbled across a rather inconvenient and horrifying truth: that the people at the edges of the story are already facing their last stands.