Black Atheist Characters in popular television and film

By D. Frederick Sparks

While white atheist characters have been far from a mainstay in popular television and film, the list of fictitious white atheists in television and film include Eleanor Anne Arroway in the movie Contact, Michael Stivic on the celebrated sitcom All in the Family, Gregory House on the medical drama House, Mr. Big on Sex and The City, Brenda Chenowith on Six Feet Under, Tyler Durden in the film Fight Club, and a least a dozen others. Portrayals of black atheists have been even fewer and further between.

Carl Dixon, played by venerable actor Moses Gunn, appeared in Season 4 of the popular 70s urban sitcom Good Times, which focused on the Evans family and their struggles in the projects of Chicago. Carl employed Michael Evans, the youngest son of Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), at his repair shop. Florida is shocked when Michael reveals to her that, like Dixon, he does not believe in God. When Florida tells Michael that there is a loving, merciful God, Michael replies “If He’s so merciful why we are still living in the ghetto?” After confronting Dixon and convincing him that an impressionable Michael is probably parroting Dixon’s nonbelief, Dixon tells Michael that he need not be an atheist in order for the two to be friends. In true sitcom fashion, the intelligent Michael’s skepticism automatically evaporates.

Dixon, a war veteran and responsible business owner, eventually falls in love with and marries Florida Evans. Rolle left the show after the end of Season 4 over dissatisfaction with the buffoonish portrayal of Jimmie Walker’s character J.J., and the characters of Florida and Carl were referred to as having moved to Arizona. When Rolle returned for the show’s final 6th season, part of her demands were that the Dixon character be written off because Rolle felt it was inconsistent that a woman with such strong Christian convictions as Florida would ever marry an atheist man. Dixon was never referred to again.

Ice Cube’s character DoughBoy in John Singleton’s hit 1991 film Boyz in The Hood presents a very different face of black nonbelief. Doughboy’s troubles with the law start as a child and result in his repeated incarceration. He also struggles to gain his mother’s love and affection, who favors his brother Ricky (in part because of her feelings about her sons’ different fathers). While hanging out on Crenshaw with friends, Doughboy asserts his nonbelief based on the Argument from Evil: “There ain’t no God. If there was a God, why He be letting motherfuckers get smoked every night?- Babies and little kids, tell me that.” Contrasted with the character of Carl Dixon, it may be easy to dismiss DoughBoy’s atheism as dysfunctional ghetto nihilism. Yet Singleton in his Academy Award nominated screenplay felt that it was important for Doughboy’s views on God to be expressed.

Reality television has also featured a few black atheists. Atheist activist, blogger and podcaster Reginald Finley, aka The Infidel Guy, appeared on a 2005 episode of ABC’s Wife Swap, in which his (also) atheist wife Amber traded places with the wife of a pastor. The 23rd season of MTV’s The Real World (DC) featured Ty Ruff, a self described atheist who called religion a crutch and felt that most God believers were narrow minded.

Though there are more portrayals of black nonbelievers and skeptics in literature and other art forms, popular film and television (for better or worse) perhaps has a greater potential to shape public consciousness. The increased acceptance of gays and lesbians is no doubt in large part due to personal interactions in everyday life. But portrayals in popular culture which help “normalize” gays and lesbians for viewers who may not have had any exposure also contribute. More frequent portrayals of black atheists, particularly in balanced ways, can serve as part of an iterative process, in which these representations both influence and reflect changes in attitudes towards black non-believers. Black nonbelievers should work to get their representations out there and support others who do. And more black female atheists characters would be nice too. Have I missed any?

D. Frederick Sparks is an attorney living in Los Angeles.

Black Atheist Characters in popular television and film