We are witnessing the dawn of what many hope is a long-awaited golden age of black science fiction characters. From the days of Nichelle Nichols as Uhuru on Star Trek, and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman on Batman, Black folks have had a special relationship with science fiction television.
Today, decades after Will Smith proved black heroes sold at the box office, we find a 2016 fall season filled with protagonists and antagonists who look like the many black fans who seek out these works.
The Shadow League recently spoke with actor Malcolm Barrett about his role as Rufus Carlin in the critically acclaimed time-travel drama Timeless, starring Chad Rook, Abigail Spencer and Matt Lanter.
“As a fan of science fiction and time travel, I jumped at the chance to be on a show like this,” said Barrett. “The trouble is, as a black man and African American, we’re very rarely part of the conversation. I think it’s difficult for writers to have to deal with that because they then have to deal with the historical significance of being African in America.”
“What I love about these guys who write for the show is that they run at this full force,” he continued. “They bring what makes every story interesting, which is conflict. The fact that I have the opportunity to be this individual, this character in this genre of show, is an amazing opportunity.”
(Photo Credit: NBC)
In my imagining of a sci-fi, time-travel drama, you just can’t do it without black folks because of their integral partF in the making of the country. Any retelling that doesn’t include them is a failed one.
“(An episode) takes place right after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” said Barrett. “You could imagine the significance for us as a country and for my character as an individual, as a black man dealing with these ramifications. My character is trying to figure out what he should do, what is wrong and what is right, within the context of it.”
“We have the Alamo episode where we revisit the Alamo, we got to Rat Pack Vegas when Vegas was doing atomic testing, we go to the French and Indian War. So, we have a bunch of interesting character costumes, historical figures and sort of fun and artistic license as far as the action adventure that we create within these time periods. I think people will look forward to it every week.”
Though Barrett is fully engaged as a very important character on Timeless, the magnitude of the endeavor has not been lost on his inner geek.
“It’s an amazing experience, both as a fan and as a participant in the culture,” he says. “I’ve always been opinionated about how I felt, and loved all of these Back to the Future, sort of Spielberg-esque scope of movies in the sci-fi genre. Now (we) actually have the chance to be part of that conversation. It’s amazing to see how much audiences hunger for things like that.”
“I think sometimes the big Hollywood structure gets scared,” he continued. “They’re not sure what audiences really want and what we’re realizing is that audiences want to see themselves. They want to see challenges, they want to see more than just a white guy named Jack save the world. They want to see women, and different people of all walks of life for through the struggles that they have to go through.”
With acting credits that include work in Dear White People, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, Peeples and “Better off Ted,” Barrett confides that his stint on Timeless has been among his most favorite. But hard work is a constant.
“Overnight success takes a couple years,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work. I’ve been doing theater since I’ve been a teenager, doing different aspects: writing, spoken word, poetry, all sorts of different artistic endeavors. I’m in a theater company now called ammunition theater and I’ve always been avid about trying different artistic projects.”
“Fame is a really tricky thing. It goes up and down, it ebbs and flows. But it’s really interesting, I’ve never had project support in this way in terms of press, and billboards, and all these things. It’s an interesting ride. But at the end of the day, I’m still a fan of television and of sci-fi, which is why I got into this in the first place.”
(Photo Credit: NBC)
While he didn’t give up many details, Malcolm says fans will be pleased with what writer/creators Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan have in store.
“I think you’ll see how we play with the grandfather clause and the butterfly effect and all sorts of things as it relates to time travel,” he says. “We’ll see how it plays out. I think they do a good job of making the show about more than just that. I think the time-travel aspect is the sort of fun, flashy part of it. Along with the swashbuckling aspect, the shoot ’em up, the running around, the chases, and all of that. That’s a huge part of it, but another part of it is the characters and who they are. I think you see more of fate and free will as well as the butterfly effect and all those others sci-fi time travel troupes.”
Timeless airs on Mondays at 10:00 PM EST on NBC.