20 legendary Black science fiction actors who rocked the genre

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LeVar Burton

If you were a child during the 1990s, it was pretty hard to ignore LeVar Burton. Even if you weren’t, he’s still had such a wide-ranging and frankly impressive career that it’s honestly on you if you haven’t heard of his work.

When it comes to science fiction, though, Burton is best known for his work on the Star Trek television shows and movie. He first appeared in the second series of the franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation, as the brilliant head engineer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Geordi LaForge. Burton has also directed two episodes of The Next Generation, along with 10 episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, eight on Star Trek: Voyager, and nine of Star Trek: Enterprise.

LaForge definitely wasn’t the first Black character on Star Trek, nor was Burton the first Black actor to spend time on a Star Trek set in a substantial way. Nichelle Nichols was one of the first actors to break the mold when she played Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original series. There was also William Marshall as the brilliant and disturbed scientist, Richard Daystrom, on the same series.

Yet, for all that, the original series was pushed as a progressive and diverse vision of the future, it often fell flat. It was created in the 1960s, after all. Where was the Black starship captain? Why didn’t Lt. Uhura ever get a promotion on the show? (She did eventually become a Commander in the films.) Why was she often the only Black character on screen for long stretches of airtime?

It’s not as if things suddenly became perfect with the next series, but Burton’s character helped things along considerably. He was a series regular with some hefty rank. LaForge was also a brilliant engineer who was visibly disabled, using a VISOR to not just make up for his original blindness, but to enhance his perception. LaForge is able to see human biosignatures and light outside the range of normal human vision.

He was also, as it turns out, a huge nerd who often embarrassed himself. Let’s not talk about the holodeck in front of LaForge, okay? But, incidents like that, along with Burton’s warm, humanistic portrayal, make him a deeply beloved character.