Art

The Fantastical Paradoxes of Afrofuturist Film

SPACE IS THE PLACE Photo Credit:© 1974 Jim Newman
Film still from John Coney’s ‘Space Is the Place’ (1974) (photo © 1974 Jim Newman)

Imaginative, aesthetic, historically fixated, and cosmically liberated, Afrofuturism could be subject to low budgets, racism, sexism, and indifference, and still count itself a master of radiant ideas. Blackness as alienness, science-fiction as black realities, Afrofuturism tunnels through race, music, art, science, and history, holding that life, especially black life, is a fantastical paradox: fixed, changeable, and transcendent.

Focusing on film — features, shorts, documentaries, and one TV show — the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Space Is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film is just a slice, then, of Afrofuturism’s multiverse vision. Nevertheless, film critic and curator Ashley Clark’s program is a fever dream series, stung and visionary: Wesley Snipe’s half-vampire, half-human horror-action flick, Blade (1998), John Sayle’s offbeat, stellar runaway slave drama The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Lizzie Borden’s feminist dystopia Born in Flames (1983), and Haile Gerima’s searing, time-traveling Sankofa (1993). Other films travel through space, feature cyborgs, or get graced by Sun Ra’s astral, ancient Egyptian musings and George Clinton’s funky floating head. The international film selection, many of them directed by female directors, speaks to Afrofuturism’s power and reach: Sayle and Borden are white American directors, Gerima Wanuri is Ethiopian-American, and Wanuri Kahiu, whose short film Pumzi (2009) is a postapocalyptic tale, is Kenyan.

Still from Lizzie Borden’s ‘Born in Flames’ (1983) (photo credit First Run Features/Photofest)

Storied and inclusive as this critical perspective is, it wasn’t until 1993 that Afrofuturism got its name and cohesion, coined by cultural critic and author Mark Dery in his now seminal, “Black to the Future.” From the very beginning, Dery noted the connections between alien, alienation, “other,” and transcendence in black American culture:

African-Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees: they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (brandings, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind).

Given a name, Afrofuturism grew into a thing visible and vast. The opposite of Rumpelstiltskin, whose true name broke his hold over his captive, Afrofuturism is an empowering rubric, an approach and aesthetic that clarifies and connects history and the hope, creativity, and pain therewithin. Afrofuturism is wry, wise, and leveling — it believes that a brighter, more equal, funkier future is within the realm of possibility. You can be different; this world can be different — self-invention commingles with worldly reinvention; Africa is both glorious past and technocratic future. 

Time’s flatness and permeability works both ways though. Slavery, imperialism, and the racism of the here and now are never far from the hopes or visions of Sun Ra, author Octavia Butler, or comic book character Black Panther.

Holding close to the bitter intimacy of history, Gerima’s Sankofa and Ngozi Onwurah’s Welcome II the Terrordome (1995) are devastating critiques of the past and present (or near-future). Sankofa transports a conceited, African-American fashion model from a photoshoot in present day Ghana to the American South during slavery. Akin to 12 Years a Slave — itself to have been argued an Afrofuturist text by Ashley Clark — the lead finds herself suddenly, bewildering thrown into slavery’s terrors, but comes to find salvation through communal connection and revolutionary endeavor, the past giving strength and lessons to the present.

Welcome II the Terrordome flows in the opposite direction — fiercely presenting the future as a poisonous resurrection of the past. In the beginning, family members drown themselves rather than live in bondage — and are reborn in an inner-city crushed by hatred, poverty, and abuse. The first feature ever directed by a black British woman, BAM’s screening of Welcome II the Terrordome is an exciting chance to see this scathing, ambitious, seldom seen film.

Space may be the place to be, according to the festival’s title, but the future is not always grand either. Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) presents the revolution as televised, paraded, reported, and reiterated by pundits and politicians — and yet still incomplete. Socialism may reign in Borden’s post-revolutionary America, but so does patriarchy, racism, and sexism. On bikes and over the radio, revolutionary women and people of color run off rapists, push for real rebellion, and play rebel music.

Along with literature and film, music plays a central role throughout Afrofuturism. Long before there was a name for it, Sun Ra, along with authors Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, funkmasters Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, and others, were laying down Afrofuturism’s words, sounds, and mythos, pretty much independently of one another.

Of them all, Sun Ra — jazz man, poet, philosopher — is one of the movement’s unmistakable founding figures, mixing jazz, history, technology, and a fantastic sartorial taste for the space age and ancient Egypt. He’s also a bottomless source of great titles for various series and shows. The Studio Museum in Harlem’s fantastic Afrofuturist show, The Shadows Took Shape, drew its name from a poem by Ra; Space Is the Place springs from his far-out, celestial blaxploitation film and concept album of the same name.

Steering his spaceship to earth to recruit a cadre of folks to live free and musically in his black colony in space (on Saturn), Sun Ra is an astral separatist, pointing to the stars as the remedy for white racial bigotry and abuse. While attending to this, he also battles a sinister figure known as the Overseerer, trading barbs and tarot-esque cards as the two figures compete for the salvation or damnation of earth’s black folks. It’s a strange and dazzling affair, soaring far above its budget and creaky plot. For the Sun Ra fan or initiate looking for a more straightforward film, there’s also the revealing, if comparative earthbound, documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1980).

Ornette: Made in America (1985) and Beat This! A Hip Hop History (1984) join A Joyful Noise as two other music-focused documentaries in BAM’s series. Beat This! is an early survey of the hip-hop scene; Ornette a dazzling portrait of pioneering free jazz musician Ornette Coleman. Not only does Clark consider him an Afrofuturist, but perhaps so too did NASA when it approached the musician to compose for the space program.

Curiously, George Clinton’s head appears throughout BAM’s Space Is the Place — the aforementioned floating in Cosmic Slop, a HBO Twilight Zone-like series, and appearing as a talking head in John Akomfrah’s fantastic, trenchant film essay on Afrofuturism, The Last Angel of History. Akomfrah leaps about from techno to science fiction to funk and jazz, weaving through the threads of Afrofuturism’s crazy quilt. Even better, the screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Clark, the film’s writer and editor Derica Shields, associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem Naima J. Keith, and director Terence Nance.

Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2013) is also on the bill, the most recent production among the lot and one of its most creative and whimsical. Nance’s flittering tale of love is uncertain and intoxicated, both with the romances of his life and the romances he constantly re-renders and remembers in the film. Nance approaches music, animation, film, and identity with enthusiasm and runs them all through a prism of his relentless thoughts and visions that both fragment and accept personal, cultural, and artistic differences, making An Oversimplification of Her Beauty an exciting, contemporary Afrofuturist film.

In a quiet, perhaps implicit way, Nance’s film is also a rebuke of the “digital divide,” the notion that technology favors wealthier, more developed parts of the world. Writing about Afrofuturism, technology, and race, academic Alondra Nelson noted, “Blackness gets constructed as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress.” Computer generated, digital, DIY An Oversimplification of Her Beauty vitally embraces technology and progress. As does the activism of Black Lives Matter and the bracing, redemptive use of phone videos to speak truth to police violence and lies. Afrofuturism is not just on BAM’s screen or in our music, it’s out in the world, sparkling out past the curtain of the theatre’s dark.

OversimplificationBeauty2012_03
Still from Terence Nance’s ‘An Oversimplification of Her Beauty’ (2013) (photo credit: Variance Films/Photofest)

Space Is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Ave., Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through April 15.

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