Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

Is crime fiction ready for black villains?

Crime fiction has come a long way. A 100 years ago, if a character in a crime novel had dark skin, a hooked nose, differently-shaped eyes, or even just an accent, it was a known signifier of villainy. These tropes were recognised and accepted by readers and writers alike.

It must have made writers’ lives very easy. If you wanted to suggest that a female character was promiscuous, you gave her a French accent and described her as “purring”. If you wanted to suggest that she was a spy, you gave her a Russian accent and described her as “slinking”.

In that notorious early Tintin book, Tintin in the Congo, Hergé used blackness to signify everything from stupidity and villainy to laziness and cannibalism.

The real laziness, of course, lay with the writers for relying on these vicious old stereotypes. Fortunately, the world became a more enlightened place and it swiftly became both morally and commercially unviable to use simple “otherness” to signify evil. This sensitivity became so acute that from the 1980s onwards it is difficult to find a black villain anywhere in crime fiction at all.

Black characters often occupy roles of low-level villainy as thugs, or “muscle” or “gangbangers”, but the plum parts inevitably go to the white characters. The arch-baddies, the baddies in charge of all the other bad guys, are generally white. The rapists, slashers and juicy serial killers also almost always turn out to be white.

There is a long-running joke in literary circles that the black guy never makes it past chapter 10 of the book, or the second reel of the movie. He is always the cannon-fodder – the guy who will buy it first when the aliens start blasting. Remember when a team of officers would beam down to the unknown planet in the original Star Trek? If there was a black guy among them you always wanted to shout at him: “Quick! Get out of the transporter. Stay on the ship. If you go down there, the aliens are going to vaporise you first!”

It is a similar patronising mind-set that gives all the juicy bad-guy roles to white characters and reserves the low-level muscle roles for black characters.

But it’s not only that. In a world in which black communities are disproportionally affected by poverty and urban blight, they are also disproportionally affected by crime. It is widely recognised that the vast majority of crime is bred by hunger and desperation rather than by some kind of “inherent” evil.

Many modern crime writers carry this awareness around with them and are therefore sensitive about making their villains black. It is much easier and less controversial to make your baddie a truly loathsome white guy who is possessed of a satanic kind of “innate” evil that is easy to hate.

One can understand and sympathise with this impulse, but there is no doubt that it is artificial. Race relations need to be normalised in crime fiction almost as badly as they do in real life.

It is heartening, therefore, to know that South African crime writers are leading the pack when it comes to creating believable black villains. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is our black writers who have been most successful in this regard.

In Red Ink, Angela Makholwa creates a truly chilling black serial killer and his even more evil associates. In the multiaward-winning Young Blood, Sifiso Mzobe’s 17-year-old narrator Sipho falls in with a desperate set of township villains that eventually scare him back to the education he starts off despising.

More recently, Diale Tlholwe’s Counting the Coffins (which has just been awarded the K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award for a novel written in English) features a private eye, Thabang Maje, wading through a cesspool of bad guys bent on defrauding investors of their savings.

Our white crime writers are also overcoming their natural squeamishness to create some memorable black villains. Of her five crime novels, Jassy Mackenzie has written two – Worst Case and Stolen Lives that feature black criminal masterminds.

Mike Nicol says there is “a range of serious black baddies who call the shots throughout my revenge trilogy, including the uber-baddy Sheemina February who of course is not a man but a woman”. He also lists Margie Orford, Roger Smith, Margaret von Klemperer, Richard Kunzmann, Wessel Ebersohn and Deon Meyer as SA crime writers who have featured some formidable black villains.

This trend can only be a positive one. It is good to see that our local crime writers are leading the way along the problematic path of normalising how black characters are portrayed in fiction.

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    • Lennon

      Uhm… You’re waaaay wrong about Star Trek. It was always the “red shirts” who were toast and most of them were white.

      FYI: Star Trek also had the earliest scenes with an interracial kiss on American TV between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato%27s_Stepchildren

      Star Trek also cast a lot of so-called non-white actors as high ranking officers (Captain Chandra) and VIP’s (Dr Richard Daystrom) never mind that two of the main characters weren’t white either. Considering NBC’s attitude towards the show, it’s a wonder they didn’t can it sooner than they did. NBC didn’t like the pilot: it was too “cerebral”. They also didn’t like the fact that the first officer was supposed to be female or that Spock was (half) alien. They even doctored the promo posters to remove his ears.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Not on American and British TV sitcoms! I agree with Doris Lessing about how dangerous these fantasies are – people in the Developing World really believe that waitresses and receptionists live in fancy New York Apartments, and that a Black Doctor and his Black Attorney Wife have successful careers, 5 children (one of them 5), in a Brownstone House with no maid and no garden (The Crosby Show)!

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      Nice article.
      Yep, guess who writes these books? Our literature reflects the power dynamics of our society where white supremacy still reigns supreme!

      One of these days however, we will once again have BLACK HEROES – this you can be certain of!! Its worth noting however, that in non-fiction aka REAL LIFE, the three great souls that the world draws inspiration from are Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela – and they’re all black guys!

      Only when the publishing houses rid themselves of racism (almost impossible), or we destroy the outdated publishing business model (the internet started this) will people of color be better represented in literature.

    • Mr. Direct

      Never really thought about this to be honest. I always consider the quality of a villain based on the script, and the actor’s ability to pull it off.

      The only time I heard outrage in the press about the casting of villains, was for Lethal Weapon II, where the baddies were South African White Supremists. That was really funny

      I think South Africa is way to sensitive for black skinned baddies as main stream casting though, especially after the way the general public reacted about “The Spear”.

    • shakeer

      Startrek is sacred !!!!!!!!!

    • shakeer

      they are those that still walk the earth and breath …. Heros of all colour …. find and start honouring the living ….. while they alive ….. imagine when the children see their superheros bringing joy and love in their homes in the flesh ?
      Villians ………. I got a few CUZZIES

    • shakeer

      real Villains are the ones who know the dark magic art of backstabbing and using the tongue as the ultimate dagger ……. new resolution …. I am sure we all know of some really scaly ones born from an eggshell ……. sorry real scaly ones ……. we all know that ” you cannot trust a snake “…… old Sotho saying ” soccer captain on dust pitch player told me when he saw one and ran” real life is so much more insightful than fiction ….. if you need ideas on villains please contact me , and if you use their real names in show i don’t charge royalties ……..

    • Nightjar

      Re – BLACK HEROES

      Gandhi would have been highly insulted at being called a black guy because he believed that Indians, along with whites, were a superior race to black people.

      Tshaka is today regarded as a hero by most south Africans although he was actually a specialist in armed robbery and rape and out President makes no secret of the fact that he considers Tshaka his role model.

    • Jean Wright

      Tshaka was also an expert on torturing his opponents, who he condemned to death in particularly nasty ways, although I believe Dingaan was worse.

      Shakespeare’s Othello was a tragic hero, conspired against by a lying, jealous white baddy….

      No doubt as more black writers are published, we will see more black villains, together with more black heroes.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Doubt Manhingi

      If you are missing believable black villains then try watching Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (circa 1997) or Training Day (circa 2001) were Samuel L Jackson & Denzel Washington are the baddies.

      The characters Ordell & Alonzo played by Jackson & Washington respectively, give great credit to baddies everywhere – black or white. Proper ‘hood. Ruuudbways fi real.

      D Washington went on to play another drug dealing baddie in American Gangster.
      There is also a UK gangsta flick Cass, about football hooligans who’s ‘gang leader’ is black. Not very entertaining but still, there is another black villain for you.

      I think Hollywood is ahead of the literary world when it comes to normalising race relations between black & white villains.

    • thandinkosi sibisi

      You say ” it is widely recognised that ….. crime iscaused by hunger and desperation”. Does this refer to “all crime” or only to certain kinds of crime such as pickpocketing and bag snatching?Is rape caused by poverty?Further organised crime bosses seldom fit the description of ” poor , desperate people”. ( remember Chreyl Cwele)

    • Lennon

      @ Doubt Manhingi: Another good example of a black villian is Crovax Windgrace – a character from the “Magic: The Gathering” novels.

    • The Creator

      South African fiction had black villains for 350 years or so! It was only 1994 which drove them underground!

      Temporarily.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Nightjar

      EVERY race, culture and religion has thought itself superior – The Zulu to the Xhosa, the Matebele to the Shona, the Japanese to the Chinese (etc etc).

      One of the reasons the Japanese treated their prisoners of war so badly it that they thought them cowards – in Samurai culture a soldier commits suicide (falls on his sword or suicide by aeroplane bombers) rather than surrender.