Michael Ealy’s Android Paints Black Men “Almost Human”

Good looking men? Oh, hai.

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.

Arguably TV’s most handsome robot. Gratuitous eye candy pic; sue me.

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.”

20 thoughts on “Michael Ealy’s Android Paints Black Men “Almost Human”

  1. I was right with you until you said Michael Ealy could pass for white; he is most certainly a CARAMEL-skinned, blue eyed, kinky-haired BROTHER! 🙂 LOL. But I read your point about his light skin loud and clear and I do wonder if that played a part in his casting.

    Also, it is not entirely up to Ealy to care for his character’s development…I put that squarely on the shoulders of the writers. His input would probably help. I remember hearing that Jennifer Beals requested her character on ‘The L Word’ be made biracial to reflect her own heritage. That added a great deal of racial nuance into the show, which I thought was well written for years before its end.

  2. I agree with you that the writers, headed by Joel H. Wyman, should address the issue of Dorian’s African-American race. I hate to be pessimistic, but I don’t think they will which is why they chose Michael Ealy, a black man who could easily pass for white. I think that for the creators and producers, Dorian is simply an android and race is not a factor. And as for Michael Ealy, I think he doesn’t care if they address the issue of race; it’s not important to him, just as it wasn’t when he played Travis on Common Law. There is an interview on the web somewhere in which he did in an interview in which he said that it is not a big deal that his African-American heritage is a non-issue on Common Law. Ealy sees himself as an actor not a political activist, and I feel like white Hollywood co-signs on that.

  3. Me, too! It reminded of JM’s android theme, but hers seems more figurative than exploring the actual life of an android. You should watch with me! 🙂

  4. I saw the ads for the show, but been so busy with watching my Brits drama..I’m an across the pond lover…:-/
    While reading, I thought of Janelle Monae and her androids series on her albums. Being an “android” is the new normal…ie minority, homosexuals, etc. however both are discriminated against. I do hope this show illustrates a strong contrast of how ” androids” are normal.

  5. I hope so! I watched the second episode last night and thought that it was good. Not great, but the concepts they’re introducing are fresh. Makes me interested in what kinds of future crime they’ll need to solve.

  6. Haha. Yeah he is! You know though, when I first started watching it, I was in love with Wesley. Mainly because he was the kid with a lot to prove, in which he did multiple times. Back to your post though. I have always been a big fan of Michael Ealy (and yes I always thought he was sexy) and although I missed the premier (but DVR’d it) I’m hoping writer/producers/directors don’t screw up this opportunity they seem to have created.

  7. Ahhh. Jean-Luc. lol. My sister is in LOOOOOVE with him. I’d prefer Riker, but we have our differences.

  8. Again, beautifully written and inspiringly honest. And Amen to being in love with Data. Call me a nerd, but I love Star Trek.

  9. No, I’m unfamiliar with Small Wonder! I suppose I need to get on my Google game.

    I did forget about Tasha Yar and Data…mostly because her story was buried under the manner in which she died. They did her rather dirty, I think.

  10. Data was cool and, as Wu alluded to above, he got some loving. I wonder if they’ll take this character in some unexpected directions. I didn’t watch it last night. Maybe I’ll check it out. Oh, shoutout to Small Wonder. You remember that show?

  11. A lot of disbelief will need to be suspened. The Horseman is actually one of the Horsemen of the Apocalyspe. In the show’s setting the American Revolution was a two-front war. One for independence of the colonies and the other against a great evil being unleashed. Ichabod and others were working with George Washington to prevent it but somethings go sideways. It mixes American history, Frasier Irving’s story, and some fantasy together. Besides, Nicole Beharie’s character, Abby and Orlando Jones explaining to Ichabod what happened to all of the Native Americans and how his boy Thomas Jefferson wasn’t such a great guy is worth it.

  12. I haven’t caught Sleepy Hollow for no good reason at all. You thinks I should give it a look-see? How is it on the overly fantastical scale? lol

  13. I liked The Sarah Chronicles because it expanded the universe beyond that horrid third movie. I did pick up a sad robot vibe from the commercials but I’ll give AH a shot. I initially watched Sleepy Hollow for Nicole Beharie’s Nicole Beharieness but I was surprised with the depth of the history they involved.

  14. ewww. The Sarah Connor Chronicles were awful. Almost Human has the potential to be hollow and tinny and overly familiar. There are too many tropes in there that I’ve seen before. I honestly think Ealy’s character being black is the best trump card they’ve got. Let me know how you like it; I think it repeats tonight, so you can catch it.

  15. Mr. Data was my dude. That thing between he and Tasha Yar always cracked me up.

    I forgot to watch Almost Human last night but I will tune in. If it’s as good as Sleepy Hollow then I’m with it. I just hope Fox treats both shows better than they treated The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

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