If you are a geek, the past couple of years have been pretty amazing. The rapid adaptation and wide spread use of technology sparked a shift that made being geek cool and the business world raced to profit off of it. There was a resurgence of interest in comic books and some of the hottest movies and television shows were based on comics and sci-fi or fantasy. Consequently, geeks, who had been shunned and outcast were now putting their years of comic book knowledge to use breaking down things like the multiverse, Earth 2 and Old Valariyan. But while this surge happened, if you were a geek of color you watched and waited with baited breath for your heroes to be recognized too. And then we began to pop up. Iron Man had War Machine, Samuel Jackson was Nick Fury, Idris Elba was Heimdall but we wanted more. And then the sprinkle of color in the geek universe became a pour as more and more the shows started to reflect the diversity in the world. And those sentiments started to pour outside of just traditional entertainment. Even the geek world started coming to the realization that all geeks aren’t created equal and while we have been here all along it seemed the world finally started taking notice. And not just as just part of the geek market but its own entity that had its own culture, views, ways to communicate but more importantly its own economic and cultural influence. And the era of the black geek had begun.
By Ian Freeman*, AFROPUNK contributor
Nowhere was the black geek’s impact felt more than on television. Over the years , both network and cable stations have made efforts to diversify their programming but when it came to the geek market it was typically the very stereotypical white-washed version we had all been accustomed to. But recently programming started popping up that included characters that not only appealed to diverse audiences superficially but began addressing the different facets of the cultures these characters were a part of. And as that pendulum shifted programming towards geeks still remained pretty stuck in the stone ages with characters of color regulated to support roles that often echoed the same stereotypical tropes. The dragon lady, the sassy Latina, the street tough with a heart black guy, etc… But now networks have not only been creating shows with the geek market in mind but also characters that appeal to urban geeks. Where shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead boasted diverse casts, the people of color in it usually didn’t last long or fit into very stereotypical molds. Which was why SyFy’s zombie show Z Nation’s character Roberta Warren played by Kelita Smith was such a breath of fresh air. And SyFy didn’t stop there. With shows like Dark Matter, Killjoys, Hunters and The Expanse, they slated a number of prime time shows with not only diverse casts but with females of color in lead roles in sci-fi shows. A rare happening in the still very guy-centric world of science fiction where women tend to be eye candy or damsels in distress
Luke Cage credit photo Myles Aronowitz
In Television there was also the phenomenon that was Luke Cage which literally broke Netflix. While Marvel’s slate of shows on Netflix had received rave reviews nothing took on the energy and galvanized the audience as much as Luke Cage. Marvel spared no expense to make it successful as it pumped in resources to create a show that was authentic to the multi-culture audience it was speaking to. The cast which included Mike Colter, Alfre Woodward, Rosario Dawson and Simone Missick, the music which was produced by Andre Young and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the show runner, the atmosphere all were unapologetically black but it was also authentic to the comic and didn’t alienate comic fans. A feat in itself based on the recent rumblings comic fans have had this year regarding castings and color. Luke Cage which as a comic had a very Blaxploitation feel to it kept that air and arrogance in the show, but managed to give it sophistication and make it modern while still paying homage to the past. Like Netflix’s Stranger Things was a treasure hunt for 80’s sci-fi and horror movies, Luke Cage was for black media. The homages to movies like Uptown Saturday Night, Barber Shop, Let’s Do it Again and popular shows like New York Undercover struck up a sense of nostalgia for films that harkened to the black experience.
The big screen got it’s taste of black geekiness as well as some of the recent blockbusters set the stage for more opportunities on the horizon. DC Comics’ Suicide Squad was received well by movie goers if not by the critics but the consensus was the standouts were easily Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, the slightly stereotypical Diablo played by Jay Hernandez and the two African American characters Deadshot played by Will Smith and Amanda Waller played by Viola Davis. While it can be said that Smith’s portrayal was just Hancock with a gun what can’t be ignored is the impact that the characters had on the film and how they both not only helped make the film the success it was but also there are talks of a Deadshot movie in the works.
Idris Elba as Heimdall
Marvel’s Civil War had its own scene-stealing role. While African American actors Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle reprised their roles of Falcon and War Machine from previous films, it was Chadwick Boseman’s role as T’challa / Black Panther that sparked a resurgence of interest for the character. Coupled with the Marvel series Black Panther: A Nation Under our Feet written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the interest grew so much so that the studio pushed up the timeline to shoot the movie and signed on a cast of Black Hollywood’s elite to bring the kingdom of Wakanda to life.
The gaming industry took notice of the power of the black geek as well. The industry which had been under constant fire for its treatment of women and minorities, was only intensified in how they were portrayed in their games. Outside of sports games characters of color were few and far between. If they showed up they were typically villains, gang-bangers, or some other criminal entity or NPCs (Non-Playable Characters). But while black characters started popping up in more prominent roles i.e. the Assassin’s Creed Black Flag DLC Freedom’s Cry that was set in Haiti, or Sheva in Resident Evil 6, it was in 2016 that real progress was made in which flagship AAA games were released with people of color in not only roles, but roles that showed their diversity and their leadership and that they could lead a franchise. Games like Mafia III which had you play as a half white, half black man in 1960’s New Orleans and work to take over the local crime ring started looking at the realities of racism in the world and how it affected people. During one of the missions the protagonist even has to battle members of the KKK. There was also Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2 that garnered a lot of attention. Ubisoft had received not so flattering remarks on its previous Watch Dogs game from women’s groups and diversity associations as well as consumers because of how black and latinos were only seen in the game as gang members and the women in the game seemed to be only there as vehicles to push the story along by being victims of violence. True to their chairman Yves Guilltemot’s sentiment of “trying to be less like we have in the past with some characters. We’ll try to extend more diversity.” Watch Dogs 2 showcased a diverse team of bay area hackers lead by a young African American man named Marcus. The story line seemed like something ripped out of current newspapers as the city government was using technology to not only monitor it’s residents but cover up corruption. The hackers decided to take the fight to the government by building a movement through hacktivism and while there are still gangs and gunfights there is also real attention paid to the characters and they are shown as complex and facing real challenges. And these are only a pair of examples as there was also the inclusion of the Harlem Hell-fighters as part of the intro to the blockbuster Battlefield 1. The industry not only saw diversity as a box to check by sprinkling in some color in the background, they made deliberate steps to include not only color to the images but also to the storylines.
Another area where the influence of the black geek was felt was in the comic industry. Once seen as a playground for the indulgences of white males the widespread interest in comic books has crossed not only lines of gender but race as well. While most publishers had been integrating characters of color in their books for some time, 2016 seemed to be the crest of the wave that started in 2015 with the major publishers DC and Marvel giving characters of color their own books. Marvel introduced titles like The Totally Awesome Hulk which recast everyone’s tantrum throwing green giant as a Korean genius teenager, Moon Girl of the Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur book was given the title smartest human in the universe despite being a pre-teen African American girl, and probably the shot that was heard around the multiverse with the most egotistical billionaire inventor part-time superhero Iron Man was demoted to AI helper as the mantle was passed to an African American teenage M.I.T student named Ri Ri Williams after finding out she had built her own Iron Man suit. DC had followed suit announcing a Chinese Superman as well as giving a Lebanese American Green Lantern and a Spanish Green Lantern their own title as part of DC’s new rebrand. But while the representation on the page has been a welcome change what was encouraging was more representation in the writing room and behind the pages. Ta-Nehisi Cotes critically acclaimed run as writer for Black Panther: A Nation Under Foot spawned a spinoff series with an all black creative team. The title Worlds of Wakanda focus on the women of Wakanda and feature a team consisting of Cotes, veteran comic artists Afua Richardson and Alitha Martinez and Marvel’s first African American female writers Yona Harvey and Roxanne Gay. Actress and activist Amandla Stenberg teamed with indie publisher Stranger Comics and artist Ashley Woods to create Niobe which has received rave reviews. The success of these titles and others like them hopefully will continue the ability for creators who more resemble the characters they are writing for and can give authenticity and scope to them.
And we would be remiss to say this was the beginning of the black geek era without noting some of the leaps that have been made in the cosplay industry. While the cosplay world be thought to be a perfect place for diversity (you’re dressing up as characters whose skin tones run the gambit from clear to the color of the galaxy and everything in between). But while this you would assume would be a place where black geeks would be able to feel comfortable they often faced the same prejudices. Black cosplayers often faced a number of issues including the lack of characters to cosplay that looked like them to ridicule about cosplaying characters that weren’t the same skin tone as they were. But thankfully they persevered and now because of their creativity and passion and dedication black cosplayers are getting recognition and drawing fans all over the world for their cosplays as well as media attention. Movements like #28daysofblackcosplay started by veteran cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch highlighted the contributions black cosplayers were making to the geek community and outlets like Forbes took notice. Now cosplayers like Kayyybear, Sun_z, Makiroll, Black Krystel and BlerdVision are building followings of dedicated fans who not only appreciate their talent but also their dedication to the geek community.
Zendaya gearing up to portray Mary Jane in new Spiderman film series
If you look to the future the prospects for black geeks seem to be growing. A number of upcoming hi-profile movies targeting the geek market will feature roles with black characters including Zendaya in Spiderman: Homecoming, Zoe Saldana reprising her role of Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Ray Fisher as Cyborg in the Justice League, and Tessa Thompson joining Idris Elba to add some color to Thor: Ragnarok as she takes on the role of Valkyrie. Televisions will welcome the return of Star Trek after 11 years and the story will revolve around a first officer played by Sonequa Martin-Green who most likely will be splitting time between it and her role on AMC’s Walking Dead. And while there have been great steps made, let us not forget that there is always work to be done. While Marvel made huge strides in an area that has always been a sticking point with the creators and consumers about writing for characters that done look like them, they also showed why the need is so prevalent with their miscue of hiring a pin-up artist to create the cover for a teenage African-American character. The cover drew a lot of debate because of concerns that it oversexualized the character unnecessarily. Marvel and Midtown comics decided ultimately to pull the cover but not before the damage had been done. Leslie Jones’ role in the Ghostbusters reboot caused a stir as her white co-stars were scientists and inventors but she was cast as an MTA worker. So while it is fine to stop and smell the roses let us not forget to stay on the path.
The Walking Dead star Sonequa Martin-Green
*Ian Freeman hails from the planet of Brooklyn and is a tech, pop culture, gaming and entertainment contributor whose writings can be found in The Urban Daily, Evolve Entertainment, Stuff Fly People Like, GIANT, Global Grind and Vibe. When he isn’t writing, he is out bringing the good word of geekdom to companies, brands and the unenlightened masses.