As long as you’re alive, you can change things. That’s what Uncle Jack (David Oyelowo) insists to his niece Ashley (Storm Reid) in the new sci-fi film, “Don’t Let Go.” In the film, which is in theaters Friday, Ashley is preserved from an earlier timeline — one before she, her mom (Shinelle Azoroh) and her dad (Brian Tyree Henry) were murdered. This theme of hope and perseverance can be traced back to Octavia Butler’s 1993 science fiction novel, “Parable of the Sower.”
“That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive,” Butler wrote. “I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.”
It’s been decades since Butler first emboldened her readers to imagine themselves in a world yet unseen, but today, Hollywood has started to recognize the importance of her message, as more Black female lead characters endure unfathomable odds in film and television. In “Don’t Let Go,” Ashley races against the calendar to avert a messy police-involved drug deal to save her life and her parents’ lives. In “Fast Color,” which has just been picked up for an Amazon series order, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a woman with a supernatural gift struggling to survive in a world on the brink of extinction. And in “See You Yesterday,” Eden Duncan-Smith’s character builds a time machine to try to prevent the fatal shooting of her brother by police.
These films follow an impressive — though sporadic — tradition of Black women and girls as lead characters striving to protect their mortality. This cinematic lineage includes Jurnee Smollett-Bell in 1997’s “Eve’s Bayou,” Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae in 2016’s “Hidden Figures,” and Reid in last year’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”
On the TV side, women like Nichelle Nichols and Sonequa Martin-Green in the “Star Trek” franchise, Gina Torres in “Firefly,” Freema Agyeman in “Sense8,” Thandie Newton in “Westworld,” and Nafessa Williams in “Black Lightning” have contributed to the trend.
Still, nothing compares to what we’re experiencing right now, which is a steady flow of sci-fi releases featuring Black women and girls front and center, trying to defeat otherworldly obstacles that bear a stark resemblance to the problems we face in the real world.
However, it would be naïve to think that white-dominated Hollywood would suddenly greenlight a larger quantity of these films without proof they’d be successful. Tananarive Due, an author and screenwriter who also lectures on Black horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA, credits the record-breaking commercial success of “Black Panther” — which features female warriors as focal characters fighting to preserve the motherland Wakanda — for forcing the industry to finally value sci-fi films with Black women as lead characters.
“Black women characters like Okoye [Danai Gurira] and Shuri [Letitia Wright] are as popular as T’Challa [Chadwick Boseman],” Due told HuffPost. “Before, we didn’t have an example of a Black sci-fi movie that everyone had seen, and nobody wants to lose money. As long as it feels like a sure thing, it’s going to be a very interesting time ahead.”
Due also points to increased enthusiasm for literary adaptations, including her own. “I’ve been publishing since 1995,” she said. But recently, “I’ve seen a huge bump of interest in my [earlier novels]. I have more work either under option or being negotiated for option at the same time now than I ever have before.”
Though she’s keeping mum about which of her books have been optioned for the silver screen, Due was happy to discuss other literary titans such as Butler, Tomi Adeyemi and Matt Ruff. They created valiant Black heroines battling supernatural plagues, slavery and other miseries in their works “Wild Seed,” “Children of Blood and Bone,” and “Lovecraft Country,” respectively, and will at last be getting the recognition they deserve on screen in the coming months.
“More executives and producers who’ve been championing this work for years are finally seeing daylight in the pitching room,” Due said. “‘Children of Blood and Bone’ is going to be a Lucasfilm production, the first one that isn’t a ‘Star Wars’ or an ‘Indiana Jones.’ That is huge.”
Other than their rising prominence, Due sees Black female-led sci-fi as a space for audiences to more comfortably address miscarriages of justice that have become more centralized in our conversations.
“These stories are so perfect as metaphors for social justice ills or ills within the family, like in ‘Eve’s Bayou,’” Due said. “They give us just enough distance from real life, so that we can look at it more critically. It’s tough to talk about Black families losing their children to police and gun violence. If you make it a time travel story [like in ‘See You Yesterday’], you can relax just enough to dream of a better life and world.”
While it’s tempting to consider this influx as an indication of a new Hollywood, it’s hard to forget that black films have often experienced waves of success only for that to dissipate after a few years. The Black rom-com heyday of the ’90s comes to mind, when there were films like “Love Jones,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and a host of others. That same time period also produced a slew of Black crime films like “Set It Off” and “New Jack City.” Still, Due remains hopeful about what’s happening now.
“There are so many different platforms now, and so many more Black writers and directors getting exposed to genre,” she explains. “I don’t think we can repeat what happened in the ’90s, when it felt like the spigot was just going off.”
But she is cautious of the enormous responsibility of Black sci-fi protagonists when considered against the “strong Black woman” trope. While the heroines in films like “Black Panther” are worthy of praise, their depictions sometimes don’t allow much room for vulnerability or nuance. “As Black women, we have to understand that we can’t always be expected to carry people with us,” Due said. “There’s a difference between leading and carrying. Leading is great. Carrying will break you.”
What remains at the root of these stories — whether it’s a young Black girl struggling to prevent her future murder due to systemic violence in “Don’t Let Go” or a woman navigating her extraordinary powers to save the world in “Fast Color” — is a desire for Black female preservation, the kind of heroism to which we can all aspire and relate.
“In stories like ‘Fast Color,’ they’re on the brink of an apocalypse, so it hardly feels like fiction on one level,” Due said. “Times are so hard, and we fear that we’re not safe. So images of people fighting for Black women’s futurity are very inspirational. To paraphrase Queen Ramonda [Angela Bassett], this is our time — and we’ve earned it.”
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