James Earl Jones speaks about his voicing of the Darth Vader character.
Images of Black people in science fiction films have often mirrored the inadequacies of other film genres by under-representing, misrepresenting or deleting the Black body from the narrative. However it came as quite a surprise to me when I came upon this little tidbit of scifi geekery(?), that there are several major sci-fi movies with memorable alien characters, where the face or voice behind the mask, was that of a Black actor. It is an interesting phenomenon that I believe could be considered coincidence or even intentional on a certain level. A good bet though is that the next SF film you see without a Black character may be hiding a Black man or woman just below the latex surface.
Behind the Mask:
James Earl Jones in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), director: George Lucas
James Earl Jones became the voice behind the iconic symbol of evil in George Lucas’ genre changing space opera series after actor David Prowse’s pipes were deemed an insufficient fit for the menacing nature of the ultimate villain. However, Jones apparently declined to have his name appear in the credits because he felt that his vocal contribution did not merit inclusion. I am personally skeptical of this bit of Lucas lore as Jones also took a pittance of a contract for the film ($7000) because he was not working regularly and was self-proclaimed as broke at the time.
Bolaji Bodejo in Alien (1979), director: Ridley Scott
The story goes that Bolaji Bodejo, the 6’10”, well traveled, graphic design and commercial arts student from Nigeria was discovered by accident in a West End pub in London by Peter Archer, an agent from the casting department of Ridley Scott’s memorable scifi-horror film, Alien. Described in the video documentary, The Beast Within: The Making of Alien, the latex alien costume was made from a mold of Bodejo’s body, while the head was a separate part with the mechanisms within for the secondary mouth. It is also rumored that Bodejo took classes in mime and tai chi to enhance his alien movements. But it was ultimately Bodejo’s height, slender frame and long limbs that were thought to be perfect to add an element of “inhuman” proportions that would fit the alien character.
Louis Gossett Jr. in Enemy Mine (1985), director: Wolfgang Petersen
Enemy Mine actually had Louis Gossett Jr. star as an alien twice in the same movie because after production problems with the original director, the whole film was shot again, with Wolfgang Petersen at the helm, in a different country and with Gossett’s alien make up being re-designed. Enemy Mine, a scifi re-make on the war drama, Hell in the Pacific (1968), is about a human soldier and a Drac alien soldier surviving together on a harsh alien planet, but with a twist. Gossett’s character, Jeriba “Jerry” Shigan gives birth to an alien child, through asexual reproduction. Gossett’s performance as an asexual reptilian alien, all in his alien costume, the result hours of make up, has been been described as “intricate” and without any “stock, silly or derivative” characterizations. Around the time of the Oscars, it was rumored that he may be nominated for his alien portrayal, three years after winning an Oscar for his Best Supporting Role in An Officer and a Gentlemen (1982). Alas, it did not happen…
Kevin Peter Hall in Predator (1987), director: John McTiernan
Kevin Peter Hall, the rumored 7’2″ to 7’6″ American actor, who bodied the costume for the title character in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action flick, Predator, in 1987, was a dancer and singer before his breakout role. Having played several monsters, aliens or just unusual characters in his short career including as Harry in Harry and the Hendersons, an alien in Star Trek:The Next Generation, Big John in Big Top Pee Wee and again as the hunter alien in Predator 2, of which he referred to as grunt roles, he always stayed positive about his career and its prospects. Hall’s story unfortunately ended abruptly and tragically though, as he contracted the AIDS virus after receiving a tainted blood transfusion during an emergency operation after being involved in a major traffic accident.
James Earl Jones in Stargate SG-1: Thor’s Hammer (1997), director: Brad Turner
Veteran man behind the mask, James Earl Jones returns to voice the character of Unas in this Season One episode from Stargate: SG-1. Link here.
Forest Whitaker in Battlefield Earth (2000), director: Roger Christian
Academy award winning actor, Forest Whitaker, dons the mask of Ker, the human siding, Psychlo assistant to John Travolta’s alien security chief on a human enslaved Earth, in this reportedly Scientology supported, propaganda, recruiting flick. Link here.
(Note: Doing some research for another article brought to my attention a major character that I originally missed. Silly me.)
Zoe Saldana in Avatar, (2009), director: James Cameron
What’s really amazing about Avatar to me is not so much its’ groundbreaking technology (the 3D camera, motion capture and virtual capture system), but its’ complacency in being so stereotypically Hollywood, in front of and behind the camera, especially with its use of Zoe Saldana, a dark skinned, American-born actor and dancer of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, playing the role of Neytiri, in my opinion, the blue colored alien version of “Pocahontas”. All to her credit, Zoe, who trained Wushu, learned a created language for the role and worked completely in a motion capture environment, did a fantastic job. Of previous Cameron films, she says she found inspiration in other assertive and tough women characters like Sarah Connor (The Terminator series) and Lt. Ellen Ripley (The Alien series). In a sense, I agree that her character Neytiri, was a fierce and committed Na’vi warrior and potential spiritual leader of her people, very Cameronesque. Then, as I watched the featurette above, I noticed that a majority of the actors playing the native Na’vi characters in rehearsal or on set were Black and it made me think again that first and foremost “people of color” will always be the other in the imaginations of Hollywood, before they can be anything else, especially in science fiction films.
(A new film called Storage 24 from Magnet Releasing)
Robert Freeman in Storage 24, (2013), director: Johannes Roberts
A fairly new horror film from Magnet Releasing, which is the “genre arm of Magnolia Pictures, specializing in films from the vanguard of horror, action, comedy and Asian cinema”. Btw, they are also responsible for the great I Saw the Devil and Hobo With A Shotgun. It stars Noel Clarke, the English actor, director and screenwriter, who has famously given some color to Dr. Who and who is starring in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness. Here’s the synopsis of Storage 24. “London is in chaos. A military cargo plane has crashed leaving its highly classified contents strewn across the city. Completely unaware London is in lockdown, Charlie (Noel Clarke) and Shelley (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), accompanied by best friends Mark (Colin O’Donoghue) and Nikki (Laura Haddock), are at Storage 24 dividing up their possessions after a recent break-up. Suddenly, the power goes off. Trapped in a dark maze of endless corridors, a mystery predator is hunting them one by one. In a place designed to keep things in, how do you get out?” I feel like at this point, this blog post could really go on indefinitely.