By Guest Contributor Karishma; originally published at Persephone Magazine
This isn’t a definitive list of women of color in film. This isn’t a “best of” list, or a list of the most complicated or progressive characters in science-fiction or fantasy. This is simply a list of women of color in science-fiction and fantasy films. I tried to make it as full as possible, but ultimately had to decide on some parameters. These are women who are either secondary leads (because there are almost no women of color leads) or supporting characters. To better see how small the visual representation is, we have to be willing to look at all of the characters, in spite of their flaws, or limited screentime, or problematic nature. It helps paint a more accurate picture of the women we do see, and helps us understand why characters like the girls of Attack the Block never seem to break out into fan favorites, or why perceptions of Mako Mori becomes such a hot button topic in the weeks after the release of Pacific Rim.
Looking my previous post on the topic, after asking for suggestions, the answers didn’t really surprise me. Doctor Who’s Martha Jones, and Star Trek’s Uhura were repeat suggestions, but again, they were primarily TV-based suggestions. (I should clarify that even the Uhura suggestion pointed more at the TV-iteration of the character over the current Hollywood portrayal). In searching for a more complete list, what I found, unsurprisingly, is that most of the women of color on film are mostly background players, filling highly stereotyped and exoticized roles. I reached out to sci-fi and fantasy fans on tumblr, and pored through cast lists of the “100 Best Science Fiction Movies,” “Top 100 Science-Fiction & Fantasy Movies,” and “50 Greatest Fantasy Films.” Again, many people were stumped by the question, or reluctant to pick favorites, as women of color served to fulfill stereotypical roles, i.e. meek Asian woman or Magical Negro mystic, that furthered the white, male heterosexual narrative.
Fans often have to isolate the parts of the narrative they find compelling within these problematic portrayals, or be willing to look past the negative aspects of the narrow characterization to find something to relate to. Even in worlds where crime can be predicted before it happens, and lightning can be bottled and sold, women of color still cannot be protagonists, or have complicated and compelling backstories. It’s frustrating when I look at the casts of some of my favorite films and wonder what about the role seems to require a white actress (or actor). As much as I love Stardust, I’m not quite sure why Yvaine had to be played by Claire Danes, or why there weren’t any people of color in the fantastical candy-colored world of Edward Scissorhands, besides Officer Allen. We are slowly moving towards more visibility for women of color, as crowd-sourced films and more venues for the fan conversation call for better characters and more visibility. Just look at the conversation around this summer’s Pacific Rim, led to the creation of an alternative Bechdel test, the Mako Mori test.
Mako Mori being great.
Without further ado, here are 45* women of color in science-fiction and fantasy films. Again, this role isn’t exhaustive or anywhere near complete, but serve to illustrate the types of roles that women of color get in these genre films. All of these women and characters should have greater visibility as we continue this conversation about women of color in Hollywood. (*Two women on the list, Mary Alice and Gloria Foster, share a character, so they have been grouped together, only because I think 45 sounds better than 46.) It should also be noted that superhero/comic-book movies have also been grouped in with the overall sci-fi and fantasy category, if anyone wants to get nitpicky about it.
- Aaliyah as Queen Akasha in Queen of the Damned
- Alfre Woodard as Lily Sloane in Star Trek: First Contact
- Alice Braga (who I’ve mentioned before) with multiple roles in Elysium, Predators, Blindness and I Am Legend
- Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games
- Angela Bassett as Det. Rita Veder in Vampire in Brooklyn and Mace in Strange Days
- Aubrey Plaza as Darius in Safety Not Guaranteed (character isn’t obviously a woman of color, but is played by a biracial actress)
- Charlotte Lewis as Kee Nang in The Golden Child
- Clare-Hope Ashitey as Kee in Children of Men
- Danielle Vitalis as Tia in Attack the Block
- Doona Bae as multiple characters in Cloud Atlas and Park Nam-Joo in The Host
- Eva Mendez as Sand Saref in The Spirit and Roxanne Simpson in Ghost Rider
- Frieda Pinto as Carolina Aranha in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
- Gina Antwi as Dionne in Attack the Block
- Gina Torres as Zoe Washburne in Serenity and Cas in the Matrix movies
- Gloria Foster and Mary Alice share the role of The Oracle in the Matrix movies
- Grace Jones as Zula in Conan the Barbarian
- Halle Berry as Storm in the X-Men films, Catwoman in Catwoman, and multiple characters in Cloud Atlas
- J.L. Reate as The Golden Child in The Golden Child
- Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe in the Matrix movies
- Jennifer Lopez as Catharine Deane in The Cell
- Katie Leung as Cho Chang in the Harry Potter Movies
- Maya Rudolph as Rita in Idiocracy