You don’t know me, but I’ve been with you since the very beginning.
I was organizing on-campus screenings when Justin Lin made Better Luck Tomorrow on nothing more than some shoestrings, a little spit, and a handful of maxed out credit cards. I shelled out my movie ticket money for American Pie and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, and even gritted my teeth through the (many, many, shitty) sequels despite my being the polar opposite of these film franchises’ target demographics. I was there for you in Flashforwardand Sleepy Hollow and Selfie. I have supported you for over a decade as an immensely talented actor and one of Asian America’s break-out stars, and no one was more thrilled than I when you landed the part of Sulu in J. J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise; few actors deserved the opportunity more.
Asian American actors are a special bunch: to a person, you all seem to be thoughtful, reasoned, caring and politically conscious activist-actors who are deeply knowledgeable about mainstream media’s (under/mis)representation when it comes to people of colour. Perhaps it comes from the years during which you are forced to toil in acting obscurity as one of the industry’s few Asian American actors or directors, but when at last you get your “big break”, most of you use your newfound platforms to force a conversation on media diversity and better representation. I experience a moment of joyful anticipation every time I stumble across an interview with an Asian American actor, because — whether BD Wong, or Constance Wu, or Daniel Dae Kim, or Daniel Henney, or Aziz Ansari, or you — you use your respective spotlights to force a necessary conversation about Hollywood’s diversity holes. And, you all always have really great and thought-provoking things to say.
It should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.
I’m a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so it was with a certain amount of fangirl glee that I stumbled across this digitized memo from Paramount Studios. The memo (which found its way online in 2010) dates back to April 1987, and it lists some of the short-list casting considerations for some of our ST:TNG first season bridge crew.
There are some expected entries — Patrick Stewart as the favourite for Picard, and Jonathan Frakes winning out the role for Riker (spelled with a “y” in this memo) And, of course, Trekkies like myself were aware that Denise Crosby was initially considered for Troi. Many African American actors of note, including Wesley Snipes and Tim Russ (who would go on to star in Star Trek: Voyager) were on the short-list to play Geordi Laforge.
And, in an alternate universe, Rosalind Chao would’ve been Commander Tasha Yar, the hot-headed and tomboyish head of security. As Trek lore goes, Chao was a favourite for the role until Marina Sirtis auditioned for Troi; Rodenberry then decided to bump Chao’s casting and move Crosby to Yar’s role. Chao, who later appeared as Keiko O’Brien on ST:TNG and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, would’ve — I think — revolutionized images of Asian American women in science fiction. An Asian American Yar is tough and no-nonsense, but also struggles with her femininity and sexuality, undermining chances that Chao’s portrayal would’ve spun off into a “dragon lady” stereotype.
But then there are a few surprises.
Paramount was already toying with the idea that it might be ST:TNG, not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that might give the franchise its first African American Starfleet captain; esteemed actor Yaphet Kotto was considered a competitor for Patrick Stewart in the role of Picard. Kevin Peter Hall, another African American actor, was in the running for the role of Data.
In case you missed it, last week was a nerdgasm of Trekkie race-blogging at The Nerds of Color. There was some truly great writing, and very diverse perspectives on the show(s) we all know and love.
In particular, I want to draw your attention to a trilogy I participated in focusing on Deep Space 9 captain Benjamin Sisko.
In part 1, James wrote a really phenomenal post on Sisko and Black manhood; in it, he recounts parallels between the character of Sisko and his own father. This post was easily my favourite post of NOC’s “Trek Week” (although, of course, one could argue that I’m biased). An excerpt:
Mostly though, I think I saw my father in Ben Sisko. There exists an unrepentant Black manhood, designed to teach youth from the darker nation how to live in a world designed to benefit others. This is masculinity written in moral absolutes where emotion is what you control to logically consider how best to help your family. Mistakes cost blood; survival demands a “twice as good” perfection that must be trained. Ask Michelle Alexander. Where we’re from, consequences include the nightstick and the chokehold. Jake’s relationship with his father paralleled my relationship with my father: we are not friends. We could be cordial, polite, even friendly. But we are not friends. I don’t know how other families in other cultures handle father-son dynamics, but my father was not my buddy. He wasn’t absentee, nor was he the fun-time guy who played catch to relieve my boredom. My father drove me to band practice in a sweltering August at 14 when I resisted because as a parent, that’s what you do. Feelings are not important. We don’t hang out. He’s my father, and I am a man because he showed me how to be one.
In part 2, I wrote a post that contextualizes Benjamin Sisko’s embodiment as an unapologetically Black man in the larger history of how race is dealt with in the world of Trek. An excerpt:
But, in contrast to earlier Black characters, Sisko is more than just his fashion sense; he is also often unapologetically (sometimes uncomfortably) Black. For example, in the TOS episode, “The Savage Curtain,” Uhura excuses being called a “charming Negress” because in the 23rd century people have learned not to “fear words.” Sisko, on the other hand, refuses to let racism (implicit or explicit) off the hook.
In the episode “Badda-Bing Badda-Bang,” Sisko initially refuses to participate in a holosuite heist with his fellow crewmates — even knowing that his refusal will disappoint his friends — because he is explicitly uncomfortable with the White-washing of 1960s racism and Jim Crow segregation:
And, in part 3, the talented Shawn S. (who is also a great cook) contextualizes the character of Benjamin Sisko in the larger history of how Black men and Black history are depicted in media. Again, this is a truly fabulous post, and a perfect book-end to the Trilogy. An excerpt:
The history of Black people is a painful one. Few rational beings would deny that. Irrespective of whatever box we check off under “race,” most of us acknowledge that Black people have endured great horrors over the expanse of recorded history. Similarly, we are cognizant that the Black experience is still fraught with many hardships today: poverty, mass incarceration, broken families, disassociation from legitimate means of goal attainment, pervasive and ongoing institutional inequality. All of this eventually comes to light in the documentation and summation of historical and present-day accounts of Blackness. But that said, in poking around through such accounts like so many ashes and embers remaining from a once-roaring flame, I ponder: Where to from here? In studying, recording, presenting and interpreting the trials and “tribble-lations” (woot — STAR TREK WEEK!) of Black people and Blackness conceptually, again I ponder: Where to from here?
While respectfully acknowledging what Blackness has been and currently is, what are we to say of the future? Who will we (Black people) be? What will we dream? What will we fear? Who (if anyone) will fear us, and conversely who or what will inspire dread within us? What will our relevance be? By and large, answers to such lofty inquiries — even wildly speculative ones — are offered from a scant selection of sources. Thankfully, for Black nerds like myself, there is sci-fi. Sweet, glorious, sci-fi.
I had a really fabulous time participating in this trilogy, which culminated in a DS9 marathon this weekend including the truly ground-breaking Season 6 episode “Far Beyond the Stars” (which actually made me cry).
I look forward to more great science fiction/fantasy race-blogging at the Nerds of Color in the future. I hope you enjoy the trilogy too!
I’m an unabashed Trekkie. I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, watching it at my piano teacher’s house between lessons. I watched Deep Space Nine and Voyagerreligiously when I was home from college. I crushed on the usual suspects — Wesley Crusher, Tom Paris, Harry Kim, and Julian Bashir — and consumed my fair share ofStar Trek paperback novels in the lull between new episodes.
I saw every TNG full-length movie at midnight openings in theatres. I own the Star Trek Encyclopedia and even made a point to visit the Las Vegas Star Trek Experience exhibit, when it was still touring.
And, I loved Star Trek Into Darkness (which is being released on DVD and Blu-ray this week).