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Exploring Afrofuturism, where sci-fi and mythology blur

March 17, 2018 GMT

T’Challa, also known as the Black Panther, the title character of the blockbuster movie, wasn’t the first person to land a spaceship (or something like it) in downtown Oakland, California.

In the 1973 film “Space Is the Place,” musician Sun Ra and his band descend into Oakland from their new home planet, seeking African-Americans to join them, “to see,” as he puts it, “what they can do with a planet all their own, without any white people on it.” In “Black Panther,” T’Challa establishes a tech-exchange enterprise in Oakland; in “Space Is the Place,” Sun Ra opens the Outer Space Employment Agency.

When “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, opened in late January, there was a brief and counterproductive online discussion as to whether it was proper to deem it the first true Black superhero movie. More interesting have been the subsequent discussions about Afrofuturism. The term, coined in a 1993 essay by cultural critic Mark Dery, is defined differently by different writers and thinkers; through my own critical lens, I tend to see it is as an aesthetic that illuminates African culture’s intertwining with the cosmic (in both the technological and metaphysical senses).

Relative to “Black Panther,” the movie’s mythology of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African country “hiding in plain sight,” presenting itself to the world as largely faceless, is an Afrofuturist concept to be sure. Afrofuturism is more prominent in music and the graphic arts than it is in cinema, but there are movies out there that illuminate the notion in different ways. Here are a few that can be watched on streaming video.

“Space Is the Place,” which can be viewed in its 81-minute cut on YouTube (a 61-minute cut, which omits some odd sexploitation-movie elements, had been available to stream on the arts site UbuWeb, but the video link would not respond when I checked) was conceived as a concert picture by John Coney, a PBS director, but Sun Ra had something different in mind when he wrote the narrative film with Joshua Smith; it begins with the Sun Ra Arkestra chanting “It’s after the end of the world.”

The movie time-travels back to the 1940s, and Sun Ra’s origins as a boogie-woogie and stride piano player. It allegorically pits the enlightened orchestra leader against a Machiavellian “Overseer”; the two play cards in an obscure battle for Black humanity.

The crux of Sun Ra’s philosophy emerges in a scene in which he and his emissaries, dressed in garb that evokes both sci-fi and ancient Egypt, confront a group of skeptical teenagers in an Oakland youth center. “I do not come to you as a reality, but as a myth,” he says. “Because that’s what Black people are. Myths. I am a dream that the Black man dreams long ago. I’m actually a present sent to you by your ancestors.”

Using the present tense to describe a Black man who “dreams long ago” is no accident. In Afrofuturism, time is frequently looped. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, a musical collective affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians made its motto “Great Black Music: Ancient to Future.” In the Wakanda of “Black Panther,” incredible medical and construction technology exists hand in hand with ancient practices like the “Challenge Day” battle ritual shown early in the movie.

Similarly, although it deals exclusively with a circa-13th-century African myth, “Yeelen,” or “Brightness,” a 1987 film directed by Souleymane Cissé, can be considered in the context of Afrofuturism, particularly because Cissé, a director from Mali, approaches it like a narrative documentary. The movie, available to stream on Kanopy, follows a young mage on a journey to confront his power-mad father. A man-hyena speaking from a treetop is treated matter-of-factly, rather than as a mystical or mystifying occurrence. Cissé’s languid but mindful pacing and his indifference to Western film language conventions on space and time transitions also contribute to the movie’s distinction.

More radical still is “Touki Bouki,” a 1973 road movie of sorts directed Djibril Diop Mambéty, of Senegal, which is available for streaming on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. Mory (Magaye Niang), a cattle herder (trigger warning: the movie opens with some very graphic slaughterhouse footage) rides a motorbike with a bull’s horns attached to its handlebars; he’s aiming to leave Africa for France and enlists the lithe, enigmatic Anta (Mareme Niang) to join him. Egged on by the Josephine Baker song “Paris Paris,” they go in search of money and find mostly trouble.

In one scene, in a tricked-out car, Mory is driven down a deserted road, declaiming his greatness; Mambéty cuts to scenes of crowds on a different road, seemingly cheering him on; these two lines of footage eventually converge. The movie is replete with such purposeful disjointedness, the better to articulate space-time dissociations.

“Yeelen” and “Touki Bouki” are both arguably art films, but Afrofuturism doesn’t adhere to genre hierarchies. If it did, you wouldn’t be able to discuss it in the context of a superhero movie based on a comic book. Afrofuturism is equally at home with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Parliament-Funkadelic.

In his essay, Dery also examined the works of African-American science-fiction writers such as Samuel R. Delany. On Fandor, there’s a good documentary about him, “The Polymath: Or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman.” Delany has a fascinating life story and a truly radical philosophy of life that reverberates through his books. Being an African-American gay man, he says, imposes on him a responsibility to live his life “as if the world worked differently.” Subsequently, he notes, to read his works “you have to inhabit the world I live in.”

The film, directed by Fred Barney Taylor, presents Delany’s life, but not in linear order, as if the movie were unstuck in time. One of Delany’s key works, his 1975 novel, “Dhalgren,” is an after-the-end-of-the-world epic that also reflects the sexually exuberant pre-AIDS New York underground Delany inhabited then.

“He’s a philosophical, confessional and fictional genius,” novelist Jonathan Lethem says of Delany in the film. One tidbit in the documentary brings us back to the medium in which “Black Panther” originated: In the 1970s, Delany wrote two issues of the DC comic “Wonder Woman.” (The New York Times)