On The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dystopian Genre, And The Black Heroine

When will Hollywood realize that black women are the ones rewriting the future of women’s lives in America?

Peggy and Poussey are going back to the future. News broke this week that Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley have been cast in Hulu’s upcoming miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminine and feminist dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Actors Ann Dowd and Max Minghella were previously announced as members of the series’s ensemble cast, and producers are reportedly in talks with filmmaker Reed Morano to direct the show. Morano started out as a cinematographer, but her first film, Meadowland, debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. The new series is slated to debut in 2017.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, a woman living in Gilead, the society that remains after an environmental disaster brings forth a theocratic revolution. The citizens of Gilead are strictly confined to roles dictated by the religious state, and adherence to those roles is strictly policed by its believers. Women bear the brunt of the new direction, and their lives become the most limited. They are not allowed to read, and they are only allowed to leave the home provisionally. As one of the rare fertile women in a barren and sterile society, Offred is a handmaid to a powerful commander, and the novel follows her inner monologue as she negotiates the treacheries of the world she occupies and struggles to persevere when the odds are stacked against her survival.

Offred is our gateway into Gilead and we meet all of the characters through her perspective, as the novel is written entirely in first person. As readers, we’re limited both by what she knows at any given moment about the people around her and also by her willingness to acknowledge what she knows to herself. Offred’s evasiveness obscures our understanding of basically every character we meet in the novel — including herself. So Offred’s relationships become how we relate to her, how we learn about her, and how we begin. For much of the novel, Offred’s college roommate and best friend Moira exists only as a lifeline within Offred’s memory, but Moira becomes a lifeline for us as readers too. Moira is punk, Moira is funny, Moira is defiant, Moira is resourceful, Moira is a survivor. Moira is life and humanity and solidarity in a world increasingly overrun by lies and desperation and trauma. We learn how Offred found her will to live from her recollections of Moira’s example. In the new film, Elisabeth Moss will play Offred, our eyes and ears through Gilead, and Samira Wiley will play Moira — the guide to our guide.

Though she is not a lead, Moira is a plum part, especially since expanding the novel to a 10-episode season will likely entail growing Moira’s role. The character suits Samira Wiley, whose presence as Poussey on Orange Is the New Black was always a bright spot of hope amid a cast of characters whose collective will to live honorably has been compromised by their circumstances. Similarly, Elisabeth Moss is a good match for the often silent, highly internal Offred, as her work performing the complicated emotional subtext of her characters on series like Mad Men and Top of the Lake easily proves. But even though Moss and Wiley are well suited to their roles, it’s hard not to notice that when Hollywood goes for diversity in science fiction, it usually stocks the sidelines of the story with people of color, and very rarely extends that practice to the protagonists. As memorable as Wiley’s Moira might be, she is a part of Offred’s story — except for what Offred can see, her own life remains unknown to us.

The Handmaid’s Tale was previously adapted into an ill-fated movie in 1990, starring Natasha Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern in the roles that will now be played by Moss and Wiley. Like many films produced in the 1990s — and many films produced now — The Handmaid’s Tale was made with an all-white cast. But it should be noted that while Hollywood wrestled with finding white actresses willing to associate themselves with an explicitly feminist novel, black writers like Octavia Butler had already expanded the dystopian genre to acknowledge and explore the way that race might intersect with gender within fantasy societies.

It’s been over 25 years since the release of that first adaptation, and in 2016, studios have finally gotten wise to Atwood, as HBO, Netflix, and Hulu are all simultaneously spearheading projects based on the author’s work. But although Atwood herself has spoken to Octavia Butler’s influence on her work, as of yet there have been no attempts to adapt any of Butler’s novels. Even though dystopian fiction has proven itself to be a viable market for young women because we are living in a hellish panopticon in reality, and even though pop figures like Beyoncé have centered Afrofuturism in their recent work, on film, “olive-skinned” Katniss Everdeen was played by Jennifer Lawrence, Divergent was handed to Shailene Woodley, and Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa went to Charlize Theron. The themes of these movies are meant to appeal to all women, but when the dystopian genre as a whole remains closed to black heroines, it’s hard not to feel like the universal effect is diminished through exclusion.

Noting that black women are rarely offered leading roles in science-fiction films doesn’t diminish the fact that Samira Wiley’s involvement in The Handmaid’s Tale is a reason for celebration. Even as a supporting character, Moira is an essential, complex, beloved character in the canon of feminist science fiction, and that she should be portrayed by a black woman is a vast improvement on the days when alternative societies on film were composed entirely of white people. But if Hollywood wants to start the kind of fire The Handmaid’s Tale sparked in 1985, studios ought to take a look around and note that 30 years after the novel’s debut, black women are the ones pushing policy, changing narratives, and rewriting the future of women’s lives in America. Black girls have black woman heroes — why don’t movies?