By Annalee Newitz
One of the unfortunate cliches of the science fiction genre is that black supporting characters often become cannon fodder before the first act is over. For every Captain Sisko there are dozens of black redshirts who meet their doom at the hands of prosthetic-headed aliens; and for every Will Smith hero there are hundreds of other black characters who are shot down early - even when they seem smarter and faster than everybody else.
But not always. Today, we count off ten awesome black science fiction characters who aren’t turned into cannon fodder in TV and movies.
We decided to take these characters from TV and movies because the black cannon fodder character isn’t as much of a cliche in novels and comics - though of course the lack of black characters in both places is still pretty noticeable. Here’s hoping that this century brings us more black scifi characters who survive to the ends of their stories.
10. Ker in Battlefield Earth
All I’m saying is that there are black characters who survive even in really bad movies. Forest Whitaker plays a Psychlo who is pretty much the only bearable part of this flick - and he winds up siding with the humans against John Travolta, which shows that he knows what’s what.
9. Charles Gunn in Angel
OK so they made him into a gangster stereotype at first, but he evolves into a crucial member of Angel’s monster-fighting crew. He even survives dating a nerdy scientist and becomes a high-powered lawyer. Gunn makes it all the way through the whole series, though he does have to sacrifice himself for the greater good at the very end. But that’s not cannon fodder - that’s an honorable death for a longstanding character.
8. Childs in John Carpenter’s The Thing
Though there’s some ambiguity at the end of the movie - we don’t really know if anyone is still human - it’s safe to say that Childs survives all the way to the end on the power of his smarts and gutsiness. And some great one-liners.
7. Dr. Karen Jenson in Blade
When hematologist Jenson is bitten by a vamp, she decides to join Blade’s team while trying to figure out a cure for her condition. She’s geeky and brave. And she lives!
6. Alexa Woods in Alien vs. Predator
She’s a badass ninja explorer who leads a team of scientists and adventurers beneath the arctic ice - only to find a hive of scary aliens and the Predators who are hunting them for fun. In the end, Alexa is one of the only survivors, and the surviving Predator acknowledges her skills by giving her a hunter’s scar on her cheek. A strangely moving scene in a movie that’s strangely more awesome than you’d expect from a crossover sequel.
5. Peter in Dawn of the Dead
Even though he has some doubts about whether he’ll make it, Peter pulls through in the end and escapes in a helicopter that’s parked on the roof of the zombie mall. He certainly fared better than the black hero in Night of the Living Dead, who survives the whole zombie ordeal only to be shot by clueless white cops on a rescue mission who mistake him for one of the undead.
4. Geordi LaForge on Star Trek the Next Generation
Not only does Geordi survive throughout the series and the films, but he gets to be a super-smart engineering nerd who is neither Urkel-esque nor unrealistically hunky ala Will Smith in I Am Legend. If Geordi wasn’t one of your favorite characters on TNG, you are dead to me.
3. Zoe Washburne in Serenity and Firefly
Her husband Wash became cannon fodder in Serenity, but second-in-command Zoe made it through the war, and through the series and the movie, without ever having to die for anybody. And she didn’t have to sacrifice wedded bliss to be a hard-as-nails soldier: Her marriage was happy until the very end.
2. Morpheus in The Matrix
There are a hell of a lot of supporting characters who get the ax in The Matrix trilogy, but not Morpheus. He’s a hacker, a fighter, and a lover. And he delivers one of the best goddamn soliloquies in science fiction with his “welcome to the desert of the real” speech.
1. Lando Calrissian in Star Wars
What can we say? Lando is obviously the grooviest character in the first three Star Wars movies - he’s the only character you could legitimately call “swashbuckling.” And he goes from being a rogue to a mega-hero, without ever dying to save some white kid whose dad went Dark Side.
This article originally appeared in February 2011.