The Future of Black Futurism: An Octavia Butler Film & Blacks In Sci-Fi

February 5, 2013  |  


According to Shadow and Act, director Ernest Dickerson, probably most known for Juice, directing episodes of “The Wire,” “Treme” and “The Walking Dead,” is shopping around a script for science fiction film based upon one of Octavia Butler’s books:

In our conversation, when I asked him to share details on any feature film projects he’s anxious to make, Dickerson replied, stating that, amongst other projects (which I’ll share in the full interview later), he’s been shopping around an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s 1984 novel “Clay’s Ark.”

He said the script is done, and he feels it’s a pretty good one; but, of course, attracting funding for it is a challenge – one that he hopes he can overcome sooner than later.”

Hopefully he can find backers for this project. And hopefully Dickerson would be open to the idea of crowd funding at least a portion of the project so us Octavia Butler fan girls (and boys too) could contribute a chance to see one of Butler’s works on the big screen. For those unaware, Clay’s Ark is the third book in the Patternmaster series of novels and deals with an alien plague on humanity and a doctor and his daughter’s attempt to survive it. Although I believe that this is such an unlikely choice to choose for film adaptation (The Parables…would have made a much better introduction to Butler’s vision of a dystopian world), I’m just happy that we are close to finally having futuristic story, written, directed and starring black folks (fingers freakin’ crossed), on screen. Close is the key word.

If current science fiction is any indicator, it would seem that black folks are largely missing from the future. Sure there was a couple of us on Star Trek. But black folks didn’t get to command star fleets until “Deep Space Nine.” Two weeks ago, I started the first season of “Battlestar Galactica” on Netflix. While the series, which stars Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama, is wonderfully written and by television standards, pretty diverse, the people of color on that series still comes off as token characters, put there for the purpose of looking diverse. For instance, the only reoccurring black character on the show, which I have seen thus far, is Anastasia Dualla and she seems to occupy the same job description as her television predecessor Uhura from Star Trek. I mean, all these years have passed, humanity largely exists in outerspace and black women can’t seem to break through the glass ceiling to rise above glorified telephone operators?

But it is not just in intergalactic space exploration in which people of color, black folks specifically, are largely erased. It would appear that people of color can not be found among the Hobbits of Middle Earth. We may existed aboard the Prometheus and may have even been the last man alive (I am Legend) but we have no survival skills beyond sacrificing ourselves for the greater good (i.e. white women). Even in places when the film draws largely from a history of that people, say District 9 and Avatar, we are still not the center of the story. And don’t get me started on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” I find it hard to believe that in Atlanta of all places, the white survivors outnumber black survivors almost 10 to one. Occasionally there are stand out black characters such as Morpheus from The Matrix series but for the most part, there is only one black person, possibly two black characters in the entire futuristic, dystopian galaxy of film. Most times, those two black characters are pretty forgettable. And don’t let them be in the same scene at the same time – that might just cause a riff in the space time continuum.

My desire to have more meaningful inclusion of black folks in the genre on film can not be restrained in what we describe as Black Nationalism. Instead it is more connected to Black Futurism. Having these stories on screen help to raise the level of consciousness and critique about society, race, and in some instances gender and sexuality, which are more nuanced than what we currently get from the mainstream. Sure having Blade, a vampire who just happens to be black, is revolutionary. However having a vampire not only be both black and a woman but also challenges racism and sexism within her own little vampire underworld, such is the case in Butler’s Fledging, gives black folks space to tell more liberating mythologies of not only what are society is but also what it could be.

A relatively new term, derived in the late 70s, Black Futurism, or Afrofuturism, is a term generally used to describe any body of artistic work, which combines science-fiction (including fantasy, magic, horror, technology and speculative) with the culture, history and the people of the African Diaspora. Traditionally the art form is largely associated with authors like Stanley Delaney, Walter Moseley, Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due and of course Octavia Butler. However it was musicians like Sun Ra, who popularized the art form, and artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Earth, Wind & Fire, Janelle Monae, Outkast and Erykah Badu – with their space obsessed rhythms and surreal fashions – whom most visually represents the Afro futuristic landscape.

Unfortunately this movement of art, fashion, literature and music is slow to translate into film. Stateside, there are very few widely distributed sci fi/fantasy films directed, produced, or starring African Americans. My own limited early morning research suggests that since the time that Joe Morton mined through his role as The Brother from Another Planet, there has not been another “serious” foray into Afro futurism on screen until the early 90s when network television brought us the ridiculously stupid “Homeboys in Outer Space.” However the tide might be changing as outside of the United States, black filmmakers appear to be exploring other dimensions outside the box with projects like Lauren Beukes’ “Zoo City,” a science fiction drama out of South Africa and Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death,” an award winning post-apocalyptic fantasy tale, which has been described as the African Lord of the Rings, both on the horizon. The film version of “Who Fears Death,” which is said to be currently in production, has been written and is being directed by Wanuri Kahlu, a Kenyan woman, who last year wowed judges at Sundance with her black female-centered post-apocalyptic short Pumzi.

I’m not really certain, who first dropped this gem of “if you can envision a new world, you can create it,” but I think that certainly applies here to thinking of the importance of science fiction in black art. I guess that the more general belief is that as a people, we just don’t get down with the futuristic landscape, which might explain why there are so little of it out there on film. But I find it hard to believe that as a people, we don’t sometimes envision ourselves in distant times and places – both real and imagined. And I know many of us have to be more forward-looking than that?

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