Dr Diana Adesola Mafe talks about black women in speculative film and television
Michael Burnham, the hero of Star Trek: Discovery, is intelligent, attractive, and capable. Burnham has book smarts, athleticism, and an unwavering moral compass. In case our hero seems too one-dimensional, the show also throws in complexity. Burnham is a human raised by Vulcans, a Starfleet officer serving a life sentence, and yes, a black woman.
If Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) on the original Star Trek was limited to the bridge, minimal dialogue, and a miniskirt, then Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) fulfils the untapped potential of her famous predecessor. The plot revolves around this new black female hero, who proves to be a worthwhile Star Trek protagonist—one who travels the galaxies, makes tough (sometimes bad) decisions, fights to survive, falls in love, and seeks redemption. She is imperfect, but that is surely part of the point.
My new book, Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before, looks at radical examples of black female characters in contemporary sci-fi film and television. Since Discovery was not yet out when I finished the book, I did not include the show as a case study. But I have now binge-watched the first season and I can finally answer a question that a number of people have levelled at me with varying degrees of hope and scepticism: Is Star Trek: Discovery groundbreaking?
The short answer is yes.
Discovery normalises a black female hero in space. Evading the extremes of paragon and pariah, the show gives us a nuanced figure and places her at the very centre of the story. Few SF shows have ever tried to do this. The only example that comes to mind is the short-lived Extant, which also aired on CBS. But Extant was never really a space show and it never gained traction with audiences. So until Discovery came along, the primary model for black women in space (even empowered black women) was a sidekick. Shows like Doctor Who, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica include wonderful black female characters but always as secondary players. By casting a black woman as the lead, Discovery is unprecedented in the Star Trek franchise and extraordinary for SF television.
Curiously (or not), Discovery was attacked by online trolls even before the first episode had aired because the trailer featured two women of color—Burnham and her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Indignant “fans” quickly accused the show of pandering to diversity and displacing white male characters with, well, women of colour. But since then, the first season has concluded, the initial racist and sexist backlash has died down, and fans and critics have been able to weigh in after actually watching the series. The response, as with most new shows, is mixed, although formal reviews have generally been favourable.
And defining a show’s quality and success is always subjective. Is Discovery too action-packed for a Star Trek series? Does the plot make sense? Is the writing, acting, and cinematography up to scratch? More pertinently, is the show still subversive if Burnham ends up serving under yet another white male captain in the Star Trek universe instead of Captain Georgiou? To the last question I would answer yes as well. Again, complexity is important, and the show delivers by giving Burnham a range of roles and identities to play. Discovery affords its protagonist the chance to be first officer, disgraced officer, and, in a parallel universe, captain. She is hero and outcast but also everything in between.
Whether the show will (or should) endure remains to be seen. The staying power of a television series is tied to ratings, fan base, and sometimes executive whim. And Discovery, for all its promise, demonstrates the absence of black women behind the camera. But the show still dares to go where no Star Trek show has gone before by putting a black female protagonist at the figurative and sometimes literal helm.
In the end, some viewers may stick with Michael Burnham because she is a black woman and others might stick with her in spite of that fact. Given the damaging ways in which black women have been portrayed in American film and television, it is hard to disassociate a pioneering character like Burnham from the pernicious weight of that cinematic history. But like Uhura before her, Burnham is not just her race and her gender, even if those aspects of her identity have cemented her iconic status. Burnham’s true appeal as a hero lies in the most pivotal aspect of her character—being human.
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Dr Diana Adesola Mafe is an associate professor of English at Denison University, where she teaches courses in postcolonial, gender, and black studies. She is the author of Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines (2013) and Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film & TV (2018).