Adilifu Nama, in Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, explores and interrogated (as he notes in his Introduction) "... the intersection of black representation and science fiction (sf) cinema." Acknowledging that actual representation of black people in sf film is extremely limited (even more so in 2008, when the book was published), he adds:
"... in spite of the overt omission of black representation and racial issues in sf cinema, I have found that both are present in numerous sf films. Albeit implicit—as structured absence, repressed or symbolic—blackness and race are often present in sf films as narrative subtext or implicit allegorical subject. Most important, for this book, is the cultural politics of race that such representations suggest not only in sf cinema but alongside the sociohis- torical place that blackness has occupied in American society. As a result, the sf film genre is not merely an imaginative medium primarily focused on the future. Sf film is also a powerful lens by which to observe the collective racial desires, constructs, fantasies, and fears circulating throughout American society."
In discussing the ways in which blackness is both openly represented and covertly coded in science fiction film, Nama acknowledges that he is examining the genre in unaccustomed ways:
"Too often the sf film genre is regarded as addressing only signature divisions in the genre: humans versus machines, old versus new, individual versus society, and nature versus the artificial. In this book, however, I place black racial formation at the center of these common dichotomies. As a result, a more complex and provocative picture emerges of how sf cinema, in imagining new worlds and addressing a broad range of social topics, has confronted and retreated from the color line, one of the most troubling and turbulent social issues present in American society."
Nama organises his analyses into six general topics. In the book's first chapter, "Structured Absence and Token Presence," he looks at the meanings inherent in the absence of black (and other racialised) characters in sf films, the implications of imagined futures in which only white people (and often only white Americans) survive, and the way blackness is coded through the use of symbolic characteristics and animals or animal-like others. While noting a number of films which do incorporate black characters - many of which, in the earlier years of sf film, were produced during the brief flourishing of 'blaxploitation' films which presented and validated black experience - Nama shows how these 'token' black characters often embody white concerns about racial issues. Examining films produced in more recent years, Nama looks at the emergence of the 'safe' black hero - in many instances portrayed by a single actor, Will Smith - as a reassuring figure for white audiences.
In the second chapter, "Bad Blood: Fear of Racial Contamination," Nama "examines the theme of racial contamination in sf cinema and, by extension, America’s fixation with racial boundary maintenance." Fear of racial 'contamination,' and the history of eugenicist responses to this fear, can be seen both in coded implication and overt symbolism in a number of science fiction themes and tropes - mutants, zombies, androids, shape-shifting 'things' - that, when associated, as they frequently are, with dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings, underline the belief that 'blood mixing' is the first step to the end of civilisation.
The third chapter, "The Black Body: Figures of Distortion," begins with the observation that the black body has long been depicted in a distorted or exaggerated fashion in American media. Nama goes on to discuss how "... the black body is often depicted in sf film not merely in ways that connect it with a sense of the grotesque or a source and site of phantasmagoric spectacle but also as a cultural and political metaphor for racial difference." Nama also notes the ways in which the male black body is associated with violent phallic and sexual imagery, suggestive of the construction of black men as sexually aggressive and threatening.
In the fourth chapter, "Humans Unite!: Race, Class and Postindustrial Aliens," Nama explores various unifying interests - class notably among them - that appear to override interracial strife or threats. In a number of science fiction films, the evil corporation becomes the threat which brings together black and white, while in others, the threat of an even greater Other - the invading or infiltrating alien - stand in for loss of jobs and disempowerment in a postindustrial economy and "... make racial strife obsolete." Ironically, while downplaying black/white racial tensions, many of these films symbolically depict fear of Latin@ immigrants 'invading' the shrinking blue-collar labour market.
In "White Narratives, Black Allegories," Nama begins his discussion by noting that science fiction film is a genre that, while superficially recapitulating many of the tropes of the white-supremacist, colonialist 'Western' genre, it is notably more open to resistant and subversive readings. In expanding on this, he "examines the allegorical import of sf film not only in breaching and buttressing the ideological constructs of America’s racial hierarchy but also as sources of subversive pleasure, meaning, and play that often contest the “preferred” meaning..." The chapter discusses a number of films that in Nama's analysis are "...open to racial readings that engage the legacy of American slavery, the racial injustice of the American legal system, black crime, police brutality, black liberation, and “race” riots, as well as racial pro ling."
In the final chapter, "Subverting the Genre: The Mothership Connection," Nama "... shifts focus from Hollywood representations of science fiction blackness to those independent and extrafilmic productions that stand not only outside the mainstream apparatus of cinematic production but in some cases outside the cultural conventions of mainstream notions of blackness." In particular, he examines films which consciously engage with race and the black community. Nama also explores the relatively new movement of Afrofuturism which includes not only film, but "... art, independent black comic books, black music, and even hip-hop videos [which] have functioned as alternative sites where futuristic fantasyscapes populated by black people can find expression." In considering the importance of the Afrofuturism movement in black-created and black-centred cultural productions, Nama asks, as his closing remarks, "... sf film is an important symbol of the social progress of a society still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of American racism. If we cannot look toward the future to imagine new possibilities and solutions for a history of race relations marred with fear, violence, institu- tional discrimination, and deep-seated ambivalence, then where else?"