Is the Star Trek Reboot Racist?

Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) first aired on NBC in September 1966. It has been praised as an exemplar of our multicultural future for more than half a century. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan and personally convinced Nichelle Nichols not to leave the cast after her first season of playing Lt. Uhura: “You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.”

But the egalitarianism among the Star Ship Enterprise’s diverse crew isn’t the whole story. Subtler issues of racial harmony are at play, which we can now observe in hindsight as lessons going forward.

First, what are we to make of the fact that characters born on earth are not called earthlings, but are referred to as humans, in contrast to Vulcans, Klingons, and other “alien races” from star systems that we will encounter a couple of centuries from now? We know that these galactic races can interbreed, as exemplified by Mr. Spock, a key character who had a Vulcan father and a human mother. Interbreeding is generally evidence that the parental difference is between two races rather than two species. Biologically speaking, then, Star Trek’s alien races are human, too.

As Michael Wong pointed out in his blog 20 years ago, the aliens in Star Trek are portrayed as pure types: Klingons are warriors, Vulcans are intelligent but emotionless, etc. In other words, everyone from their entire planet has the same personality. Wong identifies these stereotypes as a subtle form of racism: “if you think that you can make assumptions about someone’s personality based on nothing other than his or her race, then you are a racist.” Clearly, Star Trek’s TV scripts are full of assumptions about people from other star systems. After all, it simplifies the plot and dialog.

In fact, the crew in TOS expresses a 1960s vision of diversity as a conglomeration of pure types. Most of the main earthling characters appear to have clear roots based on a single bloodline: Uhura has African ancestry; Sulu has Japanese ancestors; engineer Scotty was born in Scotland; and Chekhov is Russian, with a thick accent to prove it. That was diversity half a century ago. Nowadays, it’s reasonable to ask, “Why not have biracial earthlings in the crew?”

The US census only began tracking mixed-race Americans in 2000. Table 1 of the Census Brief shows that this category of human rose from 2.4% of the US population in 2000 to 2.9% in 2010, more than two million additional people, or a leap of 32% compared to the 10% increase in the country’s total population.

Even allowing for the inexact way the definitions of races were officially clarified in the Clinton era, there is a strong trend toward more multiracial humans inhabiting the United States: 10% of babies born in 2013 according to the Pew Research Center. Other countries are also seeing a rising trend, and some regions have had significant numbers of mixed-origin humans for centuries. Will this global trend somehow reverse itself during the course of the next quarter of a millennium? It seems very unlikely.

To be fair, racial intermarriage was a lot less common in the 1960s. It was even illegal in some places, as the movie Loving recounts nearly half a century after Loving v. Virginia (1967) went to the US Supreme Court. And even if writer/producer Gene Roddenberry et al had “boldly gone” beyond the Vulcan-Human hybrid Spock to include one or more other multiracial characters, which actor(s) could have played such a role authentically?

There is less justification for this omission now. The actress Zoe Saldana is multiracial, yet there is no hint that her character Nyota Uhura might have a diverse bloodline. This oversight seems more glaring in light of the romance between Uhura and Spock that is a sub-plot in the reboot movies that began in 2009. It would be easy to imagine that one reason for their mutual attraction is that they both have the experience of feeling out of place due to a dual heritage. This possibility seems not to have been considered by the various teams who produced the three reboot films.

The writers did consider another aspect of diversity: writer/actor Simon Pegg reinvented Sulu as gay in the third film of the reboot sequence Star Trek Beyond (2016), which briefly portrayed his life partner and their child. However, George Takei (who played Sulu in TOS and publicly came out as gay in 2005) opposed the idea because it diverged from Roddenberry’s intention and implied that the character was “suddenly being revealed as being closeted”. Takei said, “Be imaginative and create a new character who has a history of being gay.” He was overruled by Pegg.

The reinvented Sulu has a lover named Ben (played by script co-writer Doug Jung) who has similar Asian ancestry. This opens up another underexamined topic: racial prejudice within the homosexual community, as discussed by Owen Jones in The Guardian in November 2016 (four months after the release of Star Trek Beyond). On the other hand, the racial homogeneity means that it’s not too late for future screenwriters to follow Takei’s advice and re-spin Ben as Sulu’s brother while introducing a new character who is homosexual.

Successful films portraying mixed couples were produced years before Star Trek TOS. American productions included Island in the Sun (1957) and Academy Award-winning Sayonara (1957), while French cinema offered Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Fictionalized accounts of historical mixed-race couples include the more recent movies Loving (2016) and Free State of Jones (2016). However, filmmakers generally neglected biracial adults, who would naturally arise from the mixed-race couples they so boldly portrayed.

Star Trek was a pioneer in presenting a multicultural future of mutual respect, but the reboot movies seem restrictive in regard to interracial coupling. The 21st century writers are stuck in a time warp, emphasizing the difficulty of Spock’s dual nature in the initial reboot film by creating a childhood scene where he’s bullied by Vulcan boys.

The “torn between two halves” meme exemplified by Spock works well for plots that adhere to the writing workshop dogma that all stories must include conflict, but Michael Wong (who like myself is the father of biracial kids) finds it offensive: “What’s the message? Mixed-race children are culturally confused. Hidden message? Don’t have mixed-race children.”

An encouraging perspective on the destiny of mixed-race children is offered by Anna Holmes, executive producer of a TV mini-series called The Loving Generation. In a thought-provoking op ed published in The New York Times in February 2018 (around the time the first episode aired), she explained that the title refers to biracial children born during the first two decades after the 1967 Supreme Court decision. She recounted how, after age 30, she began to compile a list of biracials like herself, including the names of successful blacks who had one white parent.

Holmes asks, “what did it mean about race and opportunity in the United States that many of the most celebrated black people in American cultural life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries happened to have been born to one white parent?” She reflected that “familial love and close connection to white people” were more significant than the simplistic view of sharing in white privilege.

Holmes concludes, “I knew, even as a young adult, that I moved among and around white people with relative ease, in a way that my blackness — and my own perception and self-consciousness of it — wasn’t at the foreground.” In other words, Holmes realized that her biracial identity enabled her to transcend race.

Transcendence of ethnic and even planetary origin was a key feature of the cooperative diversity repeatedly depicted by the Star Ship Enterprise crew members in TOS. Perhaps Hollywood’s traditional reliance on dramatic conflict is one reason why Star Trek’s recent screenwriters don’t want a 23rd century multiracial character who is comfortable with her or his heritage. However, such a character would not only complement Spock, but also take the futuristic camaraderie of races to a new level appropriate to the 21st century.

It would be refreshing to see a Star Trek sequel that transcends the current obsession with static identity tags and portrays a future vision of racial harmony even more boldly than TOS did.

copyright 2019 Martin Schell

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