Is it worse to be invisible or to suffer misrepresentation? Generally those have been the only options available to people of color — especially those in the African diaspora. Characters were either not there when they should have been, or gross stereotypes or tokens when present. But perhaps times are changing. It meant slogging through a wasteland of poor opportunities, but now African filmmakers are breaking new ground with Afrofuturistic science-fiction films that could mean the establishment of a new cultural mythos.
After the release of 300 in 2006, studios gave the greenlight to produce a slew of films glorifying Greek mythology. They were entertaining and pushed action cinematography to new levels, with expansive worlds and intense aesthetics that made them feel more like epic fantasy than historical drama. But these epics – like Immortals, Wrath of the Titans, and Hercules – featured few black characters. Certainly none cast as the hero. Naturally, I began to wonder where the historical depictions of my people were to be found in epic film.
These African elements offer a deepened creative landscape for filmmakers and the opportunity to present broader, more complex and nuanced depictions of black people in film.
I wanted to know where the films are that match 300 and Gladiator in cinematic grandeur without relying on eurocentrism and historical distortion, placing palatability for white audiences above all else. In the years following 300, I became more attentive to the lacking black representation in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Considering Hollywood’s racist history, this was quite the shocking revelation (your sarcasm senses should be tingling about now). And while I’m not an expert in all mythologies and histories that comprise the larger diasporic culture of black people, I know there is a bevy of wealth in that cultural wellspring–the beginning of our own founding myth–that is not being tapped.
When I do find black skin in movies, the characters are cast within narrow narratives that stifle the possibilities for what a black identity can be and what black creatives can produce in film. This contributes to what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie referred to during a TED talk as a “single story,” illustrated through anecdotes about her childhood in Nigeria and her experiences upon first moving to America. The limited field of stories available to black people produces this same one-story scenario. And that furthers pathological stereotypes of black people worldwide and characterizing Africa and its people as only impoverished, uneducated, uncultured savages in need of western intervention and salvation. This truncated scope of black representation and narratives leaves a restrictive creative landscape where filmmakers must work.
However, within science-fiction we are beginning to see those gaps filled. The addition of cinema rooted in African narratives from throughout the diaspora expands the lexicon of what is allowable in the medium, and while these new films are not historical or pure retellings of African myths, they represent an important shift. Black films are for the first time claiming a space where black narratives can be expansive. These African elements offer a deepened creative landscape for filmmakers and the opportunity to present broader, more complex and nuanced depictions of black people in film.
One facet of the motivation for the constant human push toward equality has to do with a need for freedom.
These Afrofuturistic films already feature post apocalyptic and superhuman elements of science-fiction, and if they venture into the realm of alternate histories or steampunk, there could be interesting implications for them to be the foundation for a new type of cultural mythology that spans and connects the diaspora. Below are short reviews of some of the great film offerings that hit the mark.
Be warned, spoilers abound:
In Oya: Rise of the Orishas, brought to us by Nigerian filmmaker Nosa Igbinedion, we see Nigerian gods filtered through the science-fiction lens, reimaged as supernatural superheroes and villains. Oya here is reminiscent of X-Men’s Storm, the singular African element in the X-Men universe and one of its few black characters. In the film, Oya is called upon to save a woman’s daughter who has gone missing, and we later find out the daughter is to be used by evil gods as a sacrifice to unleash a horde of evil spirits upon the earth. Their plan is thwarted as the mother, possessed by Oya herself, comes to the rescue. Watching Oya as one of many characters – played by African actors whose representation runs the gamut from victim to villain to savior – rooted in cultural mythology makes them all the more intriguing.
Pumzi, a film by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, is set in a post-apocalyptic Kenya where the world is wrought with scarcity and conservation of water is the key to survival (we see similar contexts in films like Mad Max and Waterworld). The main character, Asha, lives in a closed community and works as a museum curator who spends her days testing soil samples for water content. The film has ecocentric and technocentric themes, exploring the use of technology for ecological conservation as well as facilitated societal interactions. What’s awesome here is that by creating this world in Africa with a dominant black population, Kahiu forces both a space where there exists a black voice in these conversations concerning technological conservation methods, as well as a post-apocalyptic future that for once allows for black people to exist within it.
Miguel Llanso’s forthcoming Crumbs, set in Ethiopia, promises to paint even further outside the lines as a surrealist love story that follows the protagonist as he attempts to discover himself. The film traverses otherworldly topographies in another post-apocalyptic world – one in which a major war has occurred and latent alien ships loom in the skies – with zany elements like Santa Claus as the apparent “big boss”. With a Spanish writer-director, this could’ve gone the way of other films of the ilk, like Pan’s Labyrinth, but instead Llanso leans on the landscapes, language and people of the East African nation to drive the plot.
Umkhungo, though directed by white South African Matthew Jankes, follows an orphaned boy, Themba, as he struggles to understand the origin and meaning of his supernatural powers while dealing with guilt surrounding his mother’s death. Mthunzi, a street hustler burdened by the shadows of his own past, kidnaps Themba with the intent to sell him into servitude to the highest bidder. But upon discovering the boy’s power, Mthunzi protects Themba from those who consider him a demonic spirit and seek to destroy him. Ultimately, Mthunzi makes peace with his past by sacrificing himself to save Themba, who escapes the clutches of the authorities and begins life anew, secure in his powers. We are left to wonder what he will become, and the film ends as an origin story that holds up against some of the best – such as Superman, Wolverine, or Apocalypse – giving the viewer enough meat to connect with the character, but with the true origins of the powers themselves still shrouded in mystery.
There are and have been many black filmmakers throughout the diaspora – like Sun Ra, who in 1974 graced us with his Afrofuturistic space odyssey Space Is the Place – who have been struggling and succeeding in making films that employ an African mythos to present an expansive narrative informed by African notions of storytelling and identity exploration. My hope is to see these short films blossom into blockbusters that are shown and seen with the same frequency as their American counterparts. With growing markets and industries like Nollywood and Bollywood, the plausibility of hope increases, and becomes perhaps inevitable.
I do not purport here to know exactly what these narratives should look like, nor do I pretend to be versed in African mythologies and histories that exist throughout the diaspora to the extent that I can soundly say what should be included or leveraged in Afrofuturistic science-fiction films.
At its foundation, though, this is but another argument for the importance of equality. One facet of the motivation for the constant human push toward equality has to do with a need for freedom. In this case, the freedom of creativity and identity. With it, screenwriters can widen the latitude of considered characters and plots, and develop scripts that inform the overall narrative and presentation of films with the same ease as their white counterparts. We deserve these textured narratives. We deserve such depth of experience. We deserve to be steeped in the culture we choose, our culture, not one that is constructed for us.