I always liked Sun Ra: hypno jazz with sci-fi Afrocentric lyrics, all decked our in Egyptioid finery.
I wanted to see his movie, Space is the Place. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did. I was braced for a spacy, obscure jazz art film. Instead, I got brain-slammed by a gripping mind-bender that starts like sci-fi blaxploitation, then hits it out of the park. Or maybe it hit me out of park -- or out of this world.
Never trust those preconceived expectations.
It starts with a vision of an alien world, and black separatist space colonization. This was 1974, when the idea of astronauts who were not white was considered absurd. Technology was something “enlightened” circles thought to be the tool of the oppressor, something to give up, while going back to nature.
Then there's a 1940 flashback in which Sun Ra plays jazz that literally brings the house crashing down, sending black night-clubbers fleeing as if a sci-fi monster has attacked.
Back to the Seventies: the plot is established with Sun Ra returning to Earth in a spaceship. He is soon competing with the Overseer (a term for the person who kept the slaves in line, who was sometimes also a slave) for the future of black people. Their roles are like an angel and a devil, though those terms are not used.
Space is the Place does the whole pimp/whore/gangster-in-blazing-color, typical of the blaxsploitation films of the time. But the script, by Sun Ra and Joshua Smith, goes beyond the genre with Ra's material, that constantly challenges the intended audience – young black people (though we see white jazz enthusiasts in concert scenes). Most of the urban youths don't seem to be impressed – at one point Ra threatens that he'll “do you like they did you in Africa: Chain you up, take you with me.”
Inner city teens kidnapped to colonize another planet . . . there's an idea!
And I wonder what the black kids I see these days, walking down the street doing tech support for their parents via smartphone, would think of this movie.
It's a foreshadowing of the message in Minister Faust's Africentric (Afri, not Afro, this is another generation) The Alchemists of Kush.
Sun Ra is out to knock people out of the ghetto, out of this world, get them thinking out of the box, open up to new possibilities. And maybe, go out and make them happen.
We need this kind of mythology in this New Space Age.
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