(Spoilers for the new film abound)
For me, Star Trek has always represented a very specific future. A future that had potentially outrun so many of the ills of present day society and, in specific, the ill of white supremacy. I won’t lie and pretend that this is an ideal that any of the series’ presents in a very strong manner — Deep Space 9 perhaps came the closest to presenting this by showcasing a complex Black captain/father/partner as the lead — but it was an ideal that I allowed myself to fantasize as living just beyond the screen.
And so as Chris Pine, Karl Urban, and Zachary Quinto stood triumphant near the end of the most recent installation to the Star Trek macrocosm, Star Trek Beyond, I realized that while the universe I had conjured in my head was potentially beyond white supremacy, the one that was depicted on-screen in front of me most definitely was not. In fact, this future seemed worse than the present — it felt almost like a dystopia.
First, let me back up. I am not someone who goes to the movies very often. I think that Hollywood suffers from an amazing lack of creativity and originality and the older I get the more certain I am that any story presented on screen is one I’ve seen before. In a similar vein, as I get older, and more socially aware, the blemishes of popular film become more apparent. When I was child I didn’t know what the Bechdel test was. I do now. And knowing these things, and more importantly caring about these things, makes it impossible to slip into fantasy and enjoy the ride. And frankly, knowing and believing what I do now, I wouldn’t want to.
So I came into this movie very much how I come into many other mainstream (read: white) experiences, with my guard up. I understand that if something wasn’t made with you or your experiences in mind you shouldn’t be shocked if it doesn’t resonate.
But even on full red alert — Star Trek Beyond’s failures were able to burrow under my skin.
The first moment that really got me was actually a bit of my own doing. About halfway through the film I remembered that Idris Elba was supposed to be in the movie and realized that I hadn’t seen him yet on the screen. So I pulled out my phone during the film and I googled it. And in fact, I had seen Idris Elba’s character. He just so happened to be covered in layers and layers of blue latex. He was rendered wholly unrecognizable and frankly left incapable of using any of his vast talent or range to contribute anything close to a meaningful performance.
As a black viewer that angered me. I had seen the last two films. Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t altered in any way to play his character (Of course, it’s a whole nother piece ruminating on why Cumberbatch is playing a character named Khan Singh in the first place). Even Eric Bana’s Captain Nero, a Romulan, was humanoid enough to portray emotion. And yet here was Idris Elba, one of the most widely known black actors on the planet, one of the moments brightest stars in Hollywood completely hidden from the viewer for nearly the entire film.
It almost makes me wonder why you would even bring the man on for the project. Why bother paying so much for the name if you don’t want his talent? Any actor could have uttered those lines. The cynic in me wonders if the name was all the producers really wanted — a black man’s name, but not his face and certainly not his skills.
The Algerian born actress Sofia Boutella gets a similar treatment. She’s covered head to toe in black and white paint and prosthetics. Granted, for what it’s worth, given the minimal backstory and depth provided by the script, she does a great job in the role. But it almost feels that she triumphs in spite of her character.
And this brings me to my second beef; two-thirds of the black people in the film and half of the people of color with major roles were rendered as raceless. This goes back to a more common, and well documented, complaint about Hollywood — it’s crippling lack of imagination and will when it comes to diversity.
Sure, many will push back and say that Star Trek is a reincarnation of a TV show from the 1960s, a much less progressive time, and many of the roles had already been race casted with white actors in major positions. But the spirit of Star Trek has always been to push the boundary — Gene Roddenberry’s inclusion of George Takei and Nichelle Nichols in the original show cast was revolutionary. That spirit should have been kept and built upon for a 21st century audience. There should have been more people of color, more women in power, more genderqueer characters. I wanted more than just the hollow nod to Sulu’s being gay.
Especially in this moment, when so much of White America feels under siege and is so desperate to “take their country back” from the hordes of faceless black and brown, and queer, and foreign, and non-Christian people that they are willing to hand over the presidency to a dangerous buffoon, this movie could have served as a resounding rejection of those anxieties. It could have lifted us above the absurd fears and phobias of today and challenged its viewers to explore the vast possibilities of tomorrow. Pointing towards a universe large enough for all of us, towards a ship and its crew that was even more radically diverse than any of us in the year 2016 could have ever possibly fathomed. And maybe we wouldn’t have been fully comfortable with this vision, but that comes with the territory, who is ever fully comfortable with the future?
Alas, instead we’re given exactly what it is, an anthem to making America great again. A movie cast and based off of a television show from the 1960s — boldly reaching for the past. Somewhere I have no desire to go back to.