Parker: An Afrofuturist Reflection
Much has been written about the 1979 blockbuster sci-fi horror film Alien, especially in light of its recent 40th Anniversary. I have found that this criticism focuses heavily on themes of gender and sexuality. These critiques highlight Ripley and the alien creature, and most are quite insightful. However, upon revisiting the film, I've found that when the viewer focuses on Parker, an iconic black character in science fiction, the movie also resonates strongly with important Afrofuturist themes.There's ton's of spoilers in here, which, I'm not totally apologizing for because I'm assuming you've probably watched the film several times. If not, well hop on over to your favorite streaming service and check it out. Then we'll dive in!
Parker's character represents several themes which resonate heavily in an Afrofuturist paradigm. He is a black man who defies stereotypes, and so, he becomes a lens for the audience's re-imagining of a futuristic, techno-enhanced black experience. A glimpse of what black people can become as manipulators of technological skill is an important idea, and so viewers of Alien are treated to a vision of Black Liberation.
The Black Man as Leader
By the summer of 1979, when Alien was first released, Americans were becoming more accustomed to seeing blacks in various leadership roles. This renewed acceptance evolved largely due to the major social movements of the 60's and 70's. Yaphet Kotto's portrayal of Parker reflects this shifting attitude in several scenes throughout the film. We first meet Parker in the ship's mess hall. Due to their lighthearted, lunch-pail banging camaraderie, we gain the sense that the crew is a close knit group of blue collar stiffs, weary but satisfied after a long interstellar mining haul. Parker is one of the first to speak when he complains about the "bonus situation". A brotha needs to get paid, right? After all, an honest day's work for an honest day's pay is an age old American tradition, and at this time in America, the demand for equal pay was steadily growing among blacks and women in the workplace. The audience instantly resonates with Parker's indignation and self-advocacy, and begins to embrace him as one of the film's journeyman heroes. His brief complaint also illustrates one of the film's underlying themes of resistance to corporate exploitation.
Although he is overworked and underpaid, Parker still represents the new era of black social mobility which marked the late 70's and early 80's. Parker is the ship's chief engineer, and so has authority over his white sidekick Brett. As the main care taker of a multi-billion dollar star ship, Parker is the H.N.I.C. if you will, and in this role, assumes responsibility for his loyal partner. Parker is the one with the verbal eloquence and intellectual courage to speak up on their behalf. While Parker ranks fairly low on the ship's social hierarchy, he is not on the very bottom rung. As The Jeffersons so eloquently proclaimed in the late 70's, "Well, we're moving on up . . .", a familiar social refrain at this time in black American culture.
Interestingly enough, Parker's role is also progressive in that it restructures the "super-masculine menial" archetype of colonial oppression. In reference to this archetype, Huey P. Newton of Black Panther fame (borrowing heavily from Martinican philosopher Frantz Fanon) wrote extensively about the influence of colonialism on the black experience. In particular, the idea of the "super-masculine menial" suggests that dark, heavily muscled blacks are good for nothing but mindless labor, and should be treated as such. While Parker is dark in complexion, undeniably black, and is saddled with the grunt work of the ship, by contrast, he is also obviously highly trained. He is the only one among the ship's crew who can diagnose and repair the lander after it crashes on LV-426. Without him, the crew would be stranded. None of the other crew dare to enter his realm or try to advise him. (Ripley is chastised heavily when she intrudes on Parker's turf, and ship's captain Dallas dutifully accepts Parker's directives). The crew are solely reliant upon his knowledge of the ship's intricate circuitry and technological components. Interestingly enough, it is Brett, the white sidekick, who is reduced to the role of the simple-minded day laborer. In a further display of cleverness, Parker even lies about the estimated repair time, so that he and Brett can work at their own pace. This distinct act of self-determination, entwined with advanced technological know-how, elevates Parker beyond the narrowly defined post-colonial archetype.
The Horror of "Otherness"
The concept of "otherness" resonates throughout media of the African diaspora. Particularly, as a result of America's colonial past, African-Americans have been subjected to a sense of alienation and outsider-ism. This feeling of "unwantedness" was so severe, that activists like Marcus Garvey proposed that American blacks should return "home" to Africa. In fact, American history is rife with examples of how black people have been considered "expendable".
Similarly, when the crew of the Nostromo, has been decimated by the alien, Ash tells the survivors that they are "expendable". Parker, Ripley, and Lambert are reduced to the crudest of animal instincts: survival at all costs. They are horrified and angered to discover that the company has stripped them of their humanity, and regards them as "expendable" commodities. They find themselves held as captives, far from home, facing imminent death at the behest of a seemingly omnipotent faceless corporation. Audiences were vicariously subjected to this haunting dread of "unwantedness", and I would argue it is part of what makes the film so unsettling. Such existential horror also lurks in the subconscious minds of blacks from the African diaspora, as well as among other BIPOC cultures, who have been held as expendable commodities in slave economies across the globe.
These themes of captivity, isolation, and abandonment are recurrent throughout the diaspora and are reflected in the film. However, the themes of Afrofuturism overwrite these tragedies through visions of personal freedom, cultural connected-ness, and social responsibility, providing a way forward. To this end, it is fitting for Parker to be included in the film's violent backlash toward corporate greed and manipulation. In a cathartic release for the audience, Ripley, Parker, and Lambert band together to rebel against the company. They decide to blast the alien out into space and blow up the ship, knowing full well that their stand against corporate exploitation, may cost them their lives. It is a desperate attempt at ego reclamation, and ultimately, a final "F-You" to the company who betrayed them.
These themes of self-determination and existential freedom resonate deeply with the Afrofuturist world-view. Parker makes for an iconic and extremely interesting character to study, as his role in the film Alien depicts many aspects of Afrofuturism, and helped 70's audiences to see a refreshing vision of blacks in American popular culture.