Data was the first android I ever loved. I am a Trekkie both by inheritance and by choice, so I grew up watching the humanoid robot’s struggle to define himself as not-human. So, androids are my people. Yesterday, I tuned into Fox’s new show, Almost Human, starring Karl Urban and Michael Ealy as a traumatized human cop and his android partner, respectively. I will admit: I tuned in primarily because of Michael Ealy.
The story takes place in 2048 and typically paints the not-so-distant future as a gray scale dystopia where drugs, guns, and crime syndicates have overrun the country. Conditions are so bad that cops are assigned mandated android partners. These androids are, baldly, pricks programmed as literal rule books, recording and reporting everything you do. They mean-mug and are presented in such a way to make the audience dislike them, as Urban’s character does.
Almost Human uses familiar tropes seen in science fiction/fantasy (SFF) futuristic landscapes. There is android technology, synthetic limbs, black market medicine to retrieve memory, and all touch-screen everything. Oh, and great guns, but no flying cars yet. Yawn. The hook is supposed to be the well-recycled plot line of “cop seeks revenge for teammate’s death.” Nothing new to see there, either.
But I will tune in again just to watch Michael Ealy’s android, Dorian, a robot with feelings. The fictitious scientists have perfected technology allowing Dorian to be conversational (he ends sentences with “man”), intuitive, soft-spoken, and politically correct (he dislikes the use of the slur “synthetics” against androids). But even this is not new: sensitive androids have been seen in films like Terminator, A.I., I, Robot, Bicentennial Man, and countless others.
But one thing about Almost Human is new and intriguing: Dorian is black.
Combing through histories of on-screen androids and cyborgs alike, I could find very few black male androids (Battlestar Galactica’s Number Four Cylon is black). This paucity of black robots could be because SFF as a genre is dominated by white writers who do not readily place people of color in their futures. You can find great reading about race and racism in SFF around the web.
Considering the depictions of black men in film (especially black male police officers) as tough or quippy, and imbued with black cool, the choice of a black actor to play a robot challenges convention. When Urban’s character “wakes” Dorian up, Dorian smiles warmly and says hello; he is promptly told to get going and reacts with a disappointed frown. Dorian is caring and sensitive where his human partner is cold and rude. I am sure this is a deliberate juxtaposition meant to address an overarching question about humanity.
But Dorian’s personality also presents several questions, black elephants in the room: Given programming, would androids help us to “not see” race? If the only thing “black” about Dorian is his synthetic skin, what will his culture be? Android, rather than African-American, is Dorian’s race. His humanoid status primarily colors his interactions with the world around him. But will the character be addressed as black by humans? If the future is as dystopic as they make it seem, racism will not be eradicated by 2048. To render his blackness invisible from racism in such a world would ring oddly utopic.
Almost Human has the unique opportunity to foster mainstream conversations about racism, SFF culture, and (lack of) humanity through a black android. Because, even if the show’s writers decide to ignore Dorian’s blackness in favor of a post-racial approach, the viewers still live in present time. We will see a black man, regardless. And this black man cannot fulfill the tropes and negative stereotypes of many black men on screen–he is a robot “made to feel.” What we see could either re-shape or confirm our biases.
Therefore, I will be watching Almost Human closely, hoping that the writers mine this gem artfully. I want to fall in love with Dorian like I did with Data. More importantly, I look forward to a fresh interrogation of black masculinity from a SFF perspective. It just might take an android to help shift the depiction of black men on television from largely one-dimensional to “almost human.”