When I sat down to write this piece at the beginning of November, I had a pretty easy tack to hang it on. Sun Ra, the legendary, prolific maestro of Afro-futurist free jazz, is a daunting figure to wrap one’s head around: with his dense mythology and massive, eclectic catalog, it can be tough for a neophyte to know where to begin. I was going to argue that Space is the Place is the perfect gateway, that it encapsulated Sun Ra’s mythos in a relatively easy-to-swallow narrative structure– think blaxploitation by way of Alejandro Jodorowsky– and I would attempt to briefly summarize his cockeyed history and aesthetic.
Then came Tuesday, November 8th, and suddenly the idea of a black savior shepherding his people to their rightful home in the stars became a lot more potent.
Representation has become an increasingly major point of discussion as of late, particularly (as much of these discussions take place on the internet) representation in superhero movies. Sure, Luke Cage is pretty great, and the much delayed Black Panther standalone film will finally arrive in a couple years, but the field remains pretty uniformly white, with black faces relegated to ensemble players and supporting roles. In many ways, Sun Ra was the black superhero the world needs– except he extended his identity to real life: he legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra and earnestly claimed to hail from Jupiter (a conviction he reportedly kept to his deathbed, much to the confusion of his less-hip attending physicians). His sci fi-tinged message of black liberation was empowering, and would influence Afrofuturists from George Clinton to Afrika Bambaataa to Janelle Monae. And his band, the Arkestra, was a truly formidable group of musicians (including trombonist Pat Patrick, whose son Deval you’ve maybe heard of).
When the HFA launched their repertory series “Say It Loud! The Black Cinema Revolution,” the series was already plenty topical; sadly, its relevance has only become more urgent. But the message of the films screening is rarely one of despair, but rather of power, resistance, and hope. The stars of these films, from Sun Ra to Richard Pryor, Pam Grier to Jimmy Cliff (whose own self-mythologizing masterpiece, The Harder They Come, also screens tonight at 7:00), serve as desperately needed icons in the face of reactionary leadership, whether it be Richard Nixon or Donald Trump (typing that name in that context, not in the name of speculative fiction, remains deeply surreal to me). Filmmakers like Madeline Anderson and Melvin Van Peebles took control of a system not built around their voices and created incendiary works of art which had demonstrably seismic impact. And Sun Ra lifted himself out of a poor Alabama childhood to become a literal Space God. As long as there is government, there will be fascists, creeps, and meat salesmen who manage to worm their way in by preying on their constituents’ fears— but as long as there is hope, they will never be unopposed.
Space is the Place
dir. John Coney
Screens Saturday, 11/19. 9:30PM @ Harvard Film Archive
Part of the ongoing series: Say It Loud! The Black Cinema Revolution