Afrofuturism is a topic that we have addressed on numerous occasions on Media Diversified. Now, it makes its way to the BFI. Film critic, journalist, and film programmer, Ashley Clark has curated Inside Afrofuturism; a short season of movies, brought together under the afrofuturism rubric.
I spoke with him about his inspiration for the programme, and afrofuturism’s place in the cultural firmament:
Shane Thomas: When were you first aware of afrofuturism as a concept?
Ashley Clark: I first became aware of it when I was studying African American history at the University of Sussex. The term was originally coined by Mark Dery in his essay Black to the Future. I was fascinated by the concept that African Americans are – in a sense – the descendants of alien abductees, in that they’ve been taken from a place, and transported to a new place with rampant discrimination and restrictions. That was about eight or nine years ago, and it’s been nice to see the aesthetic and cultural side of it make a comeback in the last couple of years.
ST: When afrofuturism is brought up, what images, themes and tropes does it evoke for you
AC: I don’t think of afrofuturism as a genre. I think of it as a vast network of tropes and influences, that run from the artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat, to the music of George Clinton, to the music videos of Janelle Monae. I think it’s a framework of critical theory, and a very flexible artistic aesthetic.
ST: It’s interesting that you mention George Clinton. If I had to pick one image that springs to mind when thinking about afrofuturism, it would probably be him.
AC: Yeah. For me, it would be Sun Ra. Space is the Place was the first film that I considered when I was putting this programme together.
ST: Let’s talk about the programme. What led you to curate this whole series?
AC: It was viewing the Terence Nance film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. There was something about that film. It’s grounded in real emotions and relationships, and it’s low-budget, but I was struck by the movie’s animation, which seemed to have some strong 1970’s influences, and was very afrocentric.
I started to think about why more films hadn’t been brought together under this banner. While afrofuturism isn’t a genre, I’ve read plenty of articles about it in music, but – bar a couple of small programmes in America – I’ve yet to see films with afrofuturustic influences brought together under one umbrella.
Because it’s such a flexible aesthetic, it gave me scope to bring things together. Some of the films in the programme are afrofuturistic visually, and some thematically. Some skirt the boundary of black fronted science-fiction. Black people are so underrepresented in sci-fi, that I felt it an interesting opportunity to draw that into the afrofuturism banner.
ST: I remember thinking after seeing Oversimplification… that I hadn’t seen much black cinema like it.
AC: Yeah, I work professionally as a critic. A lot of the films I get invited to are low-budget movies set in and around New York. It’s generally middle-class white people falling in love, falling out of love, drinking coffee, and walking their dogs. It’s not often you get to see a straight-up relationship movie about young black creatives. Those films can be very hard to see.
ST: Is there a case to be made that afrofuturism is one of the few black spaces where black art is liberated from stereotypes? Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but they’re not “hood movies”. Even with black films that aren’t set in the inner city, you still have to show how black characters can be oppressed, because that’s society, where with afrofuturism you don’t have to weave that into a story?
AC: I think it depends on what you take an afrofuturistic film to mean. But the idea of futurism, it’s a work of the imagination. It doesn’t have to be rooted in a specific reality, or tethered to a specific genre. Space is the Place came out in 1974, and has elements of blaxploitation. But it also has elements of… almost, Benny Hill. It’s a bizarre kind of movie. Because of the sci-fi element to it, because it’s cinema of the mind, of ideas, it helps steer it away from those generic strictures which you mention.
ST: Can a series like this broaden the possibilities for an audience of what blackness is creatively capable of?
AC: There’s a quote from William Gibson; “I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room.” Afrofuturism is the method by which black authors and artists can carve out some elbow room to project, control, and shape not only their own futures, but also the existing narrative.
A lot of films in the series are allegorical. A film like Sanfoka, for example, made by Haile Gerima, actively seeks to critique contemporary life and issues affecting America’s black community with an artistic and poetic rendering of the past. This kind of cinema isn’t only fantastical, but an opportunity to critique something that’s really happening.
ST: If afrofuturism caught on to a wider public audience, is there the potential problem of it becoming diluted, co-opted, or both?
AC: Once Iggy Azalea gets hold of it, we’re all in trouble.
Not to do its key practitioners a disservice, but afrofuturism’s nebulous nature is one of its strengths. It’s not something that can be co-opted at the moment. It’s not one dance move, it doesn’t have one singular practice that a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ can pick up on, and I think that’s something to be cherished. It’s an emerging movement, but afrofuturistic ideas existed long before the term was coined.
ST: The way womanism and intersectionality existed long before they were given names?
ST: Are there areas where afrofuturism can improve along other axes of oppression, like gender identity or disability?
AC: I think afrofuturism and its spread of ideas is in line with the digitisation and democratisation of media. We both know about ‘Black Twitter’, which ten years ago wouldn’t have existed. Digital communication is a huge part of the movement, and it can definitely open up a space for new voices and discussions along those lines you mentioned.
Looking at Space is the Place, it’s very much a film of its time. There’s a lot of forward thinking in the idea of space as a utopia for African-Americans, but its sexual politics and representation of women leaves a lot to be desired.
However, we’ve also got a film on the programme called Born in Flames. which I feel is intersectionality at its zenith, with an afrofuturistic lens. It’s a stunning piece of work.
ST: Have you got a favourite Afrofuturistic piece of work?
AC: My favourite from the programme is Ornette: Made in America. The film’s like nothing else, a complete one-off. And I don’t think anywhere near enough people have seen it, so I would certainly urge people to spend their cash on that one.
ST: For people who may not be au fait with afrofuturism, what things would you say to try and persuade them to check out some of the programme?
AC; I would say it’s particularly important to come to Exploring Afrofuturism: The Last Angel of History. It’s the sole film in the series which acts as a contextual portrait of what afrofuturism is. It attempts to give it a working definition. It features contributions from George Clinton, Sam Delany, and Ishmael Reed. It’s only a short film, but important in bringing an understanding of what it’s about.
Also, get online. There’s some amazing blogs on Tumblr collating music and art with afrofuturistic influences.
Other than that, I’d say come to everything. You won’t regret it.
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A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).
- What is Afrofuturism? (mediadiversified.org)
- The @Tokenbg Review: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (mediadiversified.org)
- Afrofuturism: Where Space, Pyramids and Politics collide (guardian.com)
- Where are the Black Women in Science Fiction? (www.mediadiversified.org)
- “Popular culture” is no longer a “marketplace of ideas.” (mediadiversified.org)