One of the biggest commercial hits of 2018, Black Panther introduced many viewers to Afrofuturism, a decades-old arts movement that combines traditional African culture with science-fiction and fantasy. This past January and February, Doc Films presented a seven-film series on Afrofuturism in cinema, with selections ranging from Blade (1995), the vampire adventure starring Wesley Snipes, to Space Is the Place (1974), about visionary jazz musician Sun Ra. And this Saturday at 7:30 PM, Chicago Filmmakers hosts a program of Afrofuturist short films from the past decade, curated by Floyd Webb of Black World Cinema.
“In my world view, black speculative imagination in the western hemisphere has always existed and been concerned with physical and spiritual liberation,” Webb writes in his notes for Saturday’s program. “Afrofuturism is a continuity, not a discovery.” Webb sees the roots of the movement in works like “Blake, or the Huts of America” (1859), a short story by black abolitionist Martin Delany about the founding of a black nation in Cuba, and W.E.B. Dubois’s sci-fi story “The Comet” (1919), about a black man and a white woman left alone together after a cataclysmic event kills everyone else in New York City. He goes on to trace Afrofuturism’s development through the 1938 novel Black Empire—a spoof of Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement with black gangsters and scientists plotting to colonize space—and into the publication of the first Black Panther comic books in 1966.
The influence of comic books can be felt in a few of the selections on Saturday’s program, particularly Cédric Ido’s French-produced short Twaaga (2013). In Burkina Faso just after the revolutionary coup of the mid-1980s, a street vendor lectures an eight-year-old boy about how Magneto and Dr. Xavier of the X-Men comics were inspired by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. He urges the boy to draw on his own powers to bring social change, and the boy, helped by his mother, creates a superhero costume that he wears when trying to instill a sense of justice in his neighbors. The Golden Chain (2016), a short animation by former Chicagoans Adebukola Bodunrin and Ezra Claytan Daniels, looks like a graphic novel come to life. On a Nigerian space station in the distant future, a solitary researcher studies a mysterious mass in space and communicates with her colleagues back on earth.
The program opens with Ytasha L. Womack’s A Love Letter to the Ancestors From Chicago (2017), which begins with a parody of the MPAA’s leader for coming attractions (“The following preview has been rated A for Afrofuturism. Under 88 lifetimes requires imagination, accompanied by child or elder”). Womack goes on to present a stirring montage of dancers in futuristic garb as they strut their stuff in various south-side locations. The short sets the tone for the four subsequent pieces, which celebrate through movement and music the possibilities of black imagination. Some of the artistic points of reference come from outside Chicago—one dancer wears a mask similar to that of New York rapper MF DOOM, another sports a mask like the Phantom of the Opera’s—but the overall spirit is emphatically local. Womack identifies the dancers by neighborhood (Woodlawn, Englewood, Chatham), and the settings showcase the beauty of these historically black environments.
Janeen Talbott’s Sight (2017), a story of female empowerment, takes place in an alternate world whose civilization is an amalgam of African tribal society and futuristic technocracy. A young woman is chosen to succeed the leader of her tribe, and despite doubting her power at first, she gains faith in herself after experiencing a vision of her tribe’s future. Seeing that her people may go to war with another tribe, she uses her influence with her elders to avert this conflict. The movie’s message of peace between black people suggests the influence of Pan-African thought, a movement that took root in Africa in the 1960s and seeks to promote unity among all people of African descent.
Where Sight considers the creation of peace, Hasaki ya suda (2010) ruminates on war. This work, also directed by Cédric Ido, imagines life in Africa in the year 2100. The continent is ravaged by climate change and many people have migrated north to avoid severe droughts. People cling to any fertile land, fighting others to the death over it. After setting the scene, Ido stages protracted sword fights between several characters, displaying the influence of Japanese samurai films. (To underscore this influence, Ido presents the narration in Japanese.) Hasaki ya suda is the most urgent work on the program, reminding viewers of the catastrophes that threaten all people on earth, regardless of race. It suggests that Afrofuturism, which meditates on age-old traditions as well as the future, may provide inspiration in confronting everyone’s problems. v