Even though Gravity — the new movie opening Friday that stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a couple of astronauts who get lost in space — isn't technically a sci-fi flick, it did get us thinking about our favorite black characters who've been to galaxies far, far away. Here are 11 iconic characters who faced all manner of intergalactic challenges — from acid-spewing aliens to the men in black trying to maintain an illusionary world.
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), 'The Matrix'
With his Zen-like cool and fighting skills straight out of a videogame, Morpheus is not only one of the baddest black characters in space, he's one of the baddest characters, period. As the leader of the crew searching for Neo (Keanu Reeves), Morpheus barely works up a sweat as he faces down the agents who are attempting to maintain the false reality of the Matrix. Morpheus was a career-defining role for Fishburne, who has a resume filled with them.
Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols, Zoe Saldana), 'Star Trek'
As one of the first black characters in space, Uhura lived in a future where blacks were welcome throughout the galaxy at a time when we were still struggling to be accepted in our own country. She was a role model for a generation of girls who only saw black women play maids or secretaries. Unfortunately, the recent iteration of Uhura (Saldana) has mostly served as eye candy in the feature films. Maybe that will change in future sequels.
Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton), 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'
Chief Engineering Officer Geordi La Forge proved it was cool to be a blerd before we even started using the term. Besides that, only a brother could pull off wearing those high-tech glasses.
Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), 'Star Wars'
Calrissian, who appeared in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was as smooth and debonair as the actor who played him (did Billy Dee Williams ever play anyone who wasn't smooth and debonair?). He was also the original owner of the Millennium Falcon, the baddest ride in the galaxy, before he lost it in a card game to Han Solo. Calrissian does get to pilot the Falcon again during the climax of Return of the Jedi when he helps bring down Darth Vader's second Death Star.
Cypher and Kitai Raige (Will and Jaden Smith), 'After Earth'
Father and son play … a father and son who are stuck with each other after crash-landing on Earth eons after the planet has been abandoned by humans following a catastrophic event. This film will most likely be remembered as the summer film that didn't turn into a blockbuster for Will Smith.
Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace'
We finally get a black Jedi master in the fourth film of the Star Wars franchise. Jackson made sure Mace wasn't any ordinary Jedi — he insisted that his character have a purple lightsaber, even though up to that point, lightsabers had only been red, green or blue in the movies. And when Jackson found out that Mace was (spoiler!) going to die, he asked that he die in a blaze of glory and not "go out like some punk."
Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'
If for nothing else, the Star Trek franchise will be remembered for its groundbreaking depictions of strong black characters. Sisko is another one of those leading characters, who served as the commander of a galactic space station for the United Federation of Planets.
Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews), 'Aliens'
This cigar-chomping, no-nonsense Marine Corps leader was a major scene stealer in the first half of this sequel to Alien. Unfortunately, there could only be one true hero, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), so Apone and most of his soldiers met their demise in the second half of the film.
The Brother (Joe Morton), 'The Brother From Another Planet'
OK, so this is kind of a cheat because The Brother was only in space in the first few seconds of the film before he crashed into New York harbor near Ellis Island. But we don't get many chances to mention this must-see cult classic. The Brother, an escaped slave from another planet (natch), arrives in Harlem, and without saying a single word, makes friends, improves race relations, takes out the white guy supplying heroin to the neighborhood and even gets a girlfriend.
Parker (Yaphet Kotto), 'Alien'
Parker is memorable mainly because of Kotto, one of the few famous black character actors back then. That's probably why Parker managed to almost survive to the end of the movie, avoiding the "black dude dies first" trope common in most films.
Darth Vader (voice by James Earl Jones), 'Star Wars'
Technically Darth Vader isn't "black" black — he's just a man in black. Even though Vader is portrayed by a white actor, his commanding baritone is the voice of one of the all-time great actors, James Earl Jones. Jones, who describes himself as "a guy born in Mississippi, raised in Michigan, who stutters," said he lucked out in getting the iconic role. Fun fact: Jones was paid $7,000 to do the voice. Let's hope his agent negotiated something on the backend.