Hallelujah, television is finally giving us black women characters in sci-fi who are more than just part of the background! Here’s a list of a select few standout characters who play crucial roles in the series in which they appear and are ushering a new era in television where black women have a firm place in future civilizations.
1. Nafessa Williams – Thunder/Anissa in Black Lightning
Who could resist celebrating with Thunder as she finally started to accept and own her superhero powers last season on Black Lightning? Anissa Pierce is both fierce and vulnerable, a fighter and activist with an earnest desire to improve her community even before she gained her superpowers. Of the three people in her family with powers, Anissa has the most comfortable time accepting them, although she kept them a secret at first. Perhaps this is because, as a queer woman, she already had the experience of being someone with an identity that differed from the majority of people around her. So what if she can cause an earthquake by stomping her foot or create thunder by clapping her hands? She’s still just the girl next door, and that makes her utterly relatable.
2. China Anne McClain – Lightning/Jennifer in Black Lightning
Anissa’s younger sister also has superpowers, and more than any other Pierce she gets her strength from her connection to her family. Unlike her sister, Jennifer is a reluctant superhero. In fact, she’s the epitome of “I didn’t sign up for this.” All she wants is a normal life: to be married and have children and to hang out and have fun with her friends. To that end, Jennifer tries to take steps to get rid of her powers. She also masks her fear and resentment of her new abilities with massive doses of rudeness, sarcasm and rejection. That is until her father’s life is threatened. As the ultimate daddy’s girl, she then responds to the call like the heroine she was born to be.
3. Sonequa Martin-Green – Michael Burnham, Star Trek Discovery
Despite being dressed down by the know-it-alls she encounters on her adventures in space, Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham is unflappable. She’s also supremely courageous, and while she maintains impeccable integrity is unafraid to flout the rules (and suffer the consequences of doing so) for what she thinks is right. Having spent much of her childhood among Vulcans, she is also a cool-headed fighter who is so skilled she can neutralize multiple opponents in a matter of seconds. Michael Burnham, a woman of color, possesses an intellect that’s a threat to some of her colleagues. Burnham, though, remains unbothered; her sole focus is the mission at hand.
Burnham’s technical skill is also significant in other ways. There has been an apparent push over the past few years to have white female characters who were technically and scientifically knowledgeable, from Atomic Blonde to Red Sparrow to even Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. While this is something that has been long overdue, that same energy isn’t being put forth concerning black female characters despite their increased representation in science fiction narratives. The challenge ahead is to write them as equally technically and scientifically knowledgeable and to show them applying that knowledge to advance the causes of their teams. Michael Burnham is at the vanguard of this change.
4. Simona Brown – Tess, Kiss Me First
If you liked the iconic “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror’s third season, you might appreciate Leila and Tess’ friendship in Kiss Me First. Though Tessa and Leila aren’t lovers, they are two young women who love each other fiercely. Extremely vulnerable and broken from familial fractures and the experience of being social misfits, they find themselves caught in the twisted and very possibly fatal snare of one of their fellow gamers in the Second Life-type VR game called Azana. Brown’s Tessa suffers from the pitfalls of unexamined loneliness in a way much acuter than Leila’s. But she fights through her brokenness. In doing so, she proves herself much more selfless and badass than we would expect based on the impulsive, self-centered person she seems to be at the beginning of the series.
This portrayal comes on the heels of Netflix’s recent launch of its very popular “Strong Black Lead” promotion of Netflix original series featuring black actors. It’s well thought and has been well-received in general. But some raised the idea that black women can be more than just strong; they can also be vulnerable and in need of friends, family, affection and understanding the same way as others. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t also tough when it matters. Brown’s Tessa is a heroine in that mold. She suffers greatly from psychic wounds but taps into her strength by acknowledging her emotional needs. It’s in this way that she can defeat a heartless and formidable opponent.
5. Ruth Negga – Tulip, Preacher
Tulip looks a little like Betty Boop but has the heart and attitude of a warrior. She’s utterly fearless in the midst of nemeses both spiritual and physical, and she’s a bona fide hellraiser. This is all fitting for a show that parodies hell and heaven equally. Tulip is also woman enough to overcome the awkwardness of working with her ex, who remains the love of her life.
Despite this, their situation is still pretty complicated; from literal soul-snatching to PTSD dealing with killing demons and a miscarriage. But she rises above their issues to help him achieve his goal and hopefully find some peace, metaphorically speaking and literally, with God.
6. Maisie Richardson-Sellers – Amaya/Vixen, Legends of Tomorrow
Ever since her introduction, Amaya, the totem-wearing, animal power using heroine known as Vixen, has been one of the best POC characters in the Arrowverse. Amaya is great to watch because she is consistently forced to make hard choices that affect not just her friends, but a family she doesn’t have yet. Her ability to travel through time allows her to see the future consequences of her actions. She is a relatively fully fleshed out black female character imbued with agency. Firmly rooted in her African culture, her narrative doesn’t dwell heavily on race-based struggle but her love for her family and community and her commitment to her destiny.
Amaya is also allowed a level of vulnerability often not given to black women on television. She gets to be hurt and go through periods of doubt. We see her not just fall in love but to be in love and to be maternal as well as sensual. Perhaps, most importantly, Amaya is also often the person who comes up with ideas that save the team. For example, at the end of the most recent season, she figured out how to use the totems that led to the defeat of the big bad.
7. Renee Elise Goldsberry – Quellcrist Falconer, Altered Carbon
Everything in Netflix’s Altered Carbon begins and ends with Renee Elise Goldsberry’s character, Quellcrist Falconer. Spoiler warning: Falconer’s gift to the world—immortality through body-hopping—creates a situation that eventually, because of human weakness, becomes untenable. The main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is a cynic at first but soon comes to see things Falconer’s way. As a talented leader, she inspires him and others to do their utmost to fulfill her vision. It is also the wise, beautiful and fearless Falconer that ignites Kovacs’ undying loyalty and love.
She is an exacting and unrelenting teacher and instructor, endlessly fueled by the belief in her purpose and her love for humanity. Most intriguing, Falconer is the woman who changes Kovacs’ entire point of view on himself and the world around him. This is revolutionary. Charismatic leaders who chart the philosophical course of civilization generations into the future have never been written as black and female in sci-fi television. Goldsberry’s Falconer is the first of hopefully many.
8. Letitia Wright – Nisha, Black Mirror
Before she wowed us as Shuri in Black Panther, Letitia Wright appeared in one of the best and most powerful episodes of Black Mirror’s fourth season. She disarms the viewer as Nish, a traveler who goes to the “Black Museum” full of openness and enthusiasm. The museum owner takes her on tour, regaling Nish with stories from his past where the use of technical devices used to override natural human limitations goes sideways, creating freakish tragedies instead of happy endings.
The last story is of Clayton Leigh, an alleged murderer who was convicted and executed. Before his death, he had surrendered his consciousness to the museum owner so his family could share in some of the museum’s profits from his demise. “Black Museum” is a devastating comment on the way society commodifies the pain and anguish of its citizens and its unique fascination with brutalization on black bodies. Wright’s Nish, however, decisively and heroically turns that fascination on its head in the episode’s climax.
9. Taylor Russell – Judy Robinson, Lost in Space
In the first episode of Lost in Space, young Judy Robinson runs directly into danger to protect her family. She later keeps the recurring trauma of the incident to herself to save them the trouble of worrying about her. While she keeps everyone on an even keel, she’s also stoic to a fault, cautious and so repressed it takes a group of people working in concert to force her to have a little fun. She’s also a focused savant who is already a doctor at 18 years old. This rendering of Judy Robinson as a brilliant and protective genius is a refreshing departure from the status quo when it comes to young black women’s representation onscreen.
Not all, but indeed too many writers still don’t seem to be able to imbue black characters with these traits, in general, let alone very young ones. Judy is a born heroine who goes beyond the extra mile to get things done, qualities that have elicited a soft spot by her adopted father, John, and a bit of envy from her younger half sister, Penny. In this character, Taylor takes what could easily be a two-dimensional robotic shrew and makes her a smart, multifaceted, fiery cynic ready to defeat a nemesis one minute and vulnerable daughter needing her father’s reassurance the next.
10. Simone Missick – Misty Knight, Luke Cage
Simone Missick’s Misty Knight is another character who gets knocked down but never fails to get back up again, despite having been charged with the Sisyphean task of clearing Harlem of corrupt politicians and criminals. It doesn’t help that one of the dirty cops she’s trying to fight against turns out to be her partner.
Slowly, the scales fall from Misty’s eyes, and she is challenged not to lose her fighting spirit in the face of awful betrayal. Knight, a lifelong Harlemite committed to her cause, refuses to give up even after becoming disabled by a critical wound in the course of her duties. Knight ends up using her disability to grow even stronger both mentally as well as physically.
11. Alfre Woodard – Luke Cage
Anytime Alfre Woodard hits the screen in Luke Cage, there’s no looking away. Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard (nee Stokes) is decidedly no heroine. In fact, Mariah is about as villainous as they can ever come. Still, Woodward instills Mariah with so many layers; she becomes one of the most interesting characters to come along in a while. Like the show’s heroes Luke Cage and Misty Knight, she also loves Harlem. But unlike them, she is willing to exploit and destroy its people to keep her idea of Harlem alive.
Some of this villainy is a result of generational traumas and social oppression, which Luke Cage’s writers adroitly incorporate into the narrative and Woodward presents expertly. Together, this makes her undertaking of this portrayal of Mariah Dillard a larger-than-life, sinister, urbanized Norma Desmond ceaselessly traversing back and forth across sanity as she tramples reality underfoot. It’s an inspired interpretation of the character; at once brilliant, fascinating, repugnant and shocking.
12. Dominique Tipper – Naomi Nagata, The Expanse
The brilliant but enigmatic engineer Naomi Nagata is a girl from humble beginnings done well. She carries with her an apparent determination not to allow her circumstances to ever destroy her spirit, despite the solar system being at war with itself at every turn. An engineer with multiple degrees and a ton of common sense to boot, her smarts and know-how have saved her team of unlikely heroes time and time again. This is important, as Naomi is constantly surrounded by men who doubt her throughout the series. In spite of it, she’s confident enough to hold her own.
She is also gloriously unapologetic about her confidence and her choices, even when it involves things like hiding away the proto-molecule to give the Belters a chance in the coming wars throughout the galaxy. Although there are hints that Naomi is on some journey of repentance, she doesn’t reveal a heck of a lot about her past, and Tipper does justice to this with her performance. The mystery only adds intrigue to the character, and you can’t help but wonder if we will like what we learn about the old Naomi.