On 23rd March, British filmgoers will finally get to feast their eyes on A Wrinkle in Time after months of coverage and promotion. The Disney adaption of Madeleine L'Engle eponymous fantasy novel is arriving as a tribute to women and girls of colour in a genre where they are often only tokenised minorities. Director Ava DuVernay has helmed a $103 million project — the largest budget ever for a Black female director — and it stars Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey as three time-traveling astral beings. And at the centre of the story is Meg Murry played by Storm Reid, a young Black girl on a mission across time and space to find her dad. A Wrinkle in Time is the latest offering in what has been a surge in women of colour playing prominent roles in science fiction projects. Disney and Marvel’s success story, Black Panther, is still killing it at the box office and its female characters, including teenage princess/engineer Shuri (Letitia Wright), have been heralded for carrying the film. Black female actors are slowly but surely being acknowledged as dynamic performers who can shine in a plethora of scripts. Several of these actresses have spoken directly to Refinery29 about their characters and the future of Black women exploring the wildest corners of our imagination.
If you’re a musical buff, or a regular old person who just so happened to be bitten by the Hamilton bug, you probably know exactly who Renee Elise Goldsberry is. She won a Tony in 2016 for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for playing Angelica Schuyler in the production. She is a woman of many talents, having had a 20 year career that included stints on The Good Wife and the daytime soap, One Life To Live. But with the exception of a tiny part in Star Trek: Enterprise, she has only now stepped into her first regular sci-fi role. She plays the sleeve/body of Quellcrist Falconer, a revolutionary fighting for a better world in the Netflix series Altered Carbon, an adaptation of Richard Morgan’s novels. It’s based in a dystopian future where the emotions, memories, and personality of a person is stored on a disc that can be inserted into any body, also called a sleeve.
Goldsberry came by the Refinery29 office to elaborate on Quell. She told me, “She chose to be a woman of colour. And she knew she had something very important and powerful to do. She was going to save the world. And she chose this body to do it. And I think that speaks volumes about who we are and the value that we are.” She went on, “We are not great in spite of the fact we are women and women of colour. Those are two things that make us uniquely great.”
If the shows and films of the last few years are any evidence, she’s right. And female directors have been a great ally. For example, DuVernay’s casting decisions with A Wrinkle in Time, but also Goldsberry’s showrunner on Altered Carbon. The actress made her motivations for accepting opportunity very clear. “I took this job because the showrunner, Laeta Elizabeth Kalogridis said to me while I was doing Hamilton, ‘It’s my mission in life to create worlds where the heroine is a woman of colour.’ Not even the heroine, where the hero is a woman of colour. That was the reason why I went all on this journey with her.”
Nafessa Williams’ journey to playing Anissa Pierce in the CW series Black Lightning was more of a personal one. Without any formal acting training, she briefly pursued a career in law before giving acting a shot in 2011. Now Williams is playing a superhero herself in the TV adaptation of one of DC Comic’s most celebrated Black superheroes. Anissa is the lesbian daughter of retired superhero Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) who resumes his duties as Black Lightning when his community is threatened. She, too, has an alter ego as a metahuman with superpowers: a cornrow-clad Thunder. A queer Black female superhero on primetime television means that we are living in a future that seemed hard to envision not that long ago.
Williams and Goldsberry are just the latest actors in a parade of programming that has been showcasing the diversity of Black womanhood onscreen. Technologically-based anthology series Black Mirror has offered several strong examples of how women of colour exist in alternative realities, one of them being Gugu Mbatha-Raw who starred in the Emmy-winning episode, “San Junipero.” She played a stylish party girl in a beach town that exists in a post-mortem software program. Brooklyn native Jade Eshete told me in an October interview that she originally doubted if she would be able to pull off playing the tough bodyguard to a detective with a knack for the supernatural on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. It wasn’t like any other part she’d auditioned for. Now she’s proud to consider her character, Farah Black, as part of a broader, afrofuturist world in entertainment. “I want to see that slice sci-fi or fantasy and how that casting decision colours the entire world. It’s awesome,” she insisted.
For Williams, she was so engrossed in the work that she didn’t even realise the history she was making by playing one of the members of the first Black superhero family. She was merely embracing the challenge of not only her first acting role, but her first role as a lesbian as well. As is the case with most performers, it’s Williams love for the craft that inspires her the most. It’s what makes a capable actor for a story not rooted in reality. However, the cultural and historical significance of Anissa/Thunder was not lost on Williams, either. “We all want to turn the television on and see ourselves. We also want to be able to relate to the characters that we're watching. We didn't have superheroes who looked like us coming up," she told me over the phone. It's really important for me to be that for our brown girls and to be our inspiration. I'm really honoured to give voice over to Anissa aka Thunder. I'm really proud to be that visual for us because representation is everything. I'm just proud to be a vehicle to be part of the change. Hopefully this is just the very beginning for many other superheroes that look like us, that represent us.”
And I think she’s right. Actresses of colour, both veteran and newcomers are handed amazing opportunities to tell stories through the lens of fantasy and science fiction. Female directors and producers are broadening their scope for roles they play. But the industry itself is finally looking inward to reveal who they’ve been overlooking. When Mbatha- Raw spoke to Arianna Davis about being a woman in Hollywood and said, “The fact that we have to consciously find opportunities for women and support the ones who are already out there is nothing new. What is new is that the awareness has changed. Now, we are all aware of where we actually are as an industry, versus where we thought we were.” Women of colour have finally materialised into a genre that once rendered them invisible. They are making it clear that they can hold their own in any future, past, and present we put them in.