and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Creed (2015) is the moment when, after Rocky Balbao falls sick and is forced to drop out of training Adonis Creed, and after Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago step up to help Adonis prepare for his title shot, and after Adonis is forced to drop out because of a hand injury, Rocky himself puts on the gloves and stars-and-stripes shorts for one last shot at glory…
So much has happened since the appearance of Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (2012). It is not just that AfroSF is more visible than it was four years ago, but that the market and venues for it are growing, especially at short story length. This year alone has given us Jalada’s online Afrofuture(s) anthology, Nerine Dorman’s Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa, Jo Thomas and Margrét Helgadóttir’s African Monsters (2015) and five issues of omenana. This proliferation must have seemed impossible when Hartmann started work on AfroSF 2, but it makes his decision to follow up his anthology of 22 short stories with a collection of just 5 novellas all the more significant.
There is a long tradition of sf writers cutting their teeth on short stories before proceeding, via novella and novelette lengths, to full-length novels. Primarily a peculiar by-product of the demands of mid-twentieth-century US magazine publishing, it nonetheless provided a pragmatic apprenticeship and trajectory. We no longer live in that world (as Eric Flint’s Hugo commentaries spent a bunch of 2015 explaining), and with the majority of sf magazines now electronic rather than hard-copy there is relatively little demand for fiction at those intermediate lengths. But the step-up from short-shorts and shorts and even long-shorts to novels remains a big one. And so AfroSF 2’s change of format represents a conscious commitment to the further development of the field – and of the writers within it. Only two of the six writers in this volume have published a novel before: Nick Wood, whose YA sf The Stone Chameleon appeared all the way back in 2004 (although his sf novel, Azanian Bridges, is due out early next year), and Tade Thompson, whose crime thriller Making Wolf appeared just a couple of months back.
AfroSF 2 opens with Thompson and Wood’s ‘The Last Pantheon’, a sprightly tale of rival African superheroes, called Black-Power and Pan-Africa, that riffs off Luke Cage and Black Panther (and Superman), as well as name-checking Nigeria’s Powerman aka Powerbolt (drawn by a young Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland) and South Africa’s Mighty Man (but why not Jet Jungle?). Although the backstory covers millions of years, the story itself focuses on their decades-long disagreement over the role they should play in the period of post-WW2 anti-colonial and post-colonial struggle – the assassination of Patrice Lumumba is a watershed moment – and on an attempt to bring them both out of retirement for one last smackdown, to be televised globally. It is all rather canny and quick-moving.
Next up is Mame Bougouma Diene’s ‘Hell Freezes Over’, set in a post-human post-civilisation hanging on in the watery ruins of our world as a new Ice Age advances. The two halves of the story, placed (I think) in reverse chronological order, feature treachery, betrayal, revolution and retribution. Sadly, it is not the kind of story I ever enjoy, regardless of who wrote it (reminded me of Claude Nunes, kinda, but that’s probably too obscure to be helpful), and I read it under considerably less than ideal conditions (involving tube trains, loud drunks, illness and fatigue). But it does contain some quite beautiful passages, such as when the Fish People swim into waters that freeze around them.
I am a big fan of Dilman Dila, and his ‘The Flying Man of Stone’ is for me probably the best piece in the anthology. Like his ‘A Killing in the Sun’, it is about surviving (or not) in the contradictions, uncertainty and sheer randomness of conflicts; like ‘The Healer’ it is about the complex cultural and social identities left in the wake of colonialism; and like ‘Itanda Bridge’ and ‘The Yellow People’ it is about crash-landed aliens living underground and forging ambiguous symbiotic relationships with humans. It is also a superhero story, full of questions about power, responsibility and consequences.
Andrew Dakalira’s ‘VIII’ is set in a near-future Malawi where a series of apparently random killings breaks out just as the world’s population hits eight billion. These attacks turn out to be a global phenomenon, presaging a wider slaughter (there’s a kind of AVP backstory lurking in the backstory). It rattles along at great pace, jumping between multiple viewpoint characters. You wonder how this apocalypse can possibly be averted and, when the story is over, you continue to do so.
Efe Tokunbo Okogu, whose BSFA-nominated ‘Proposition 23’ was one of the highlights of AfroSF, ends the volume with ‘An Indigo Song for Paradise’. It is the longest piece in the anthology, a great big sprawling mess of story that works really well when it does work, but never quite hangs together, especially when it switches from cyberpunkish crime caper action sequences to meandering, sententious speechifying. As with Diene’s ‘Hell Freezes Over’, I found the setting a little too unfocused to get a clear grip on. There is an idyllic Gaia and a post-apocalyptic Terra which also seems to be a post-historical Dying Earth. There is the ironically named Paradise City, presided over by an evil corporation and the remaining few white people (known as vampires), and populated by people of colour who sound a lot like they’ve popped in from the 1990s. And there is a xombie apocalypse. And it might all just be a simulation running on a computer anyway. Everything the author could think of seems to be crammed in somewhere somehow, and some of it might be jokes I just don’t get. But there is no denying the pell-mell energy that dominates stretches of it.
There is, of course, a downside to publishing just novellas. Obviously, Hartmann’s desire to do something new and different with this volume, to help writers step up to the challenges of writing at greater length, means that AfroSF 2 inevitably lacks AfroSF’s wide variety of story types and voices from across the continent and diaspora. This is most obvious in the absence of women writers (discussed with Hartmann and omenana’s editor Chinelo Onwualu on the always fabulous bookshy).
Maybe the next challenge, whether for Hartmann or others, should be an anthology of AfroSF entirely by women writers. It should only be a matter of logistics – as the original AfroSF and other anthologies/magazines clearly demonstrate, there are already more than enough potential contributors out there.
(Many thanks to Ivor for providing me with an ARC.)
The months since my last update have been crazily busy with other things, so there has been little time for research and even less time for actually reading any of the goodies I’ve uncovered. Most of which are annoyingly inconvenient sizes and shapes to lug around with me over my Xmas perambulations. But I thought I would post another list before Xmas (and before that teetering pile of books in the corner falls over on top of me).
First up, I should mention the hugely embarrassing omission of Amos Tutuola from the article that started all this (and my indebtedness to Paul March-Russell for drawing it to my attention in such a generous way). Truth is, I have never read anything by him, though The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954) and Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962) may well be squeezed into the suitcase. As might D.O. Fagunwa’s Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga (1939), translated by Wole Soyinka(!) – the first Yoruba-language novel, said to be an influence on Tutuola, not least in its fantastical landscape in which the supernatural is as real and present as the natural world.
While we’re in the margins of what might be considered sf, I have had a load of things recommended to me that might be more appropriately labelled ‘weird’ or ‘slipstream’:
- Tawfiq Al-Hakim, The People of the Cave (1933) – a play based on the seven sleepers of Ephesus, who sleep their way into the future; their story is told in the eighteenth surah of the Qu’ran
- Bertène Juminer, Bozambo’s Revenge (1968) – satirical alternate history in which Africans have colonised a swampy Europe full of idle, childish, pallid natives
- Gamal al-Ghitani, The Zafarini Files (1976) – in a crowded corner of Sadat-era Cairo, a sheikh uses magic to take away men’s sexual potency
- Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, Snares without End (1978) – there is an essay about him at Weird Fiction Review
- Ivan Vladislavić, The Folly (1993), which seems to have a nice salvage vibe to it, if not exactly salvagepunk
- Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way (2002) – begins with a black woman explaining how she turned white, but not in quite the way I initially thought it was going to go
- José Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons (2004) – a murder mystery involving a trader in memories and identity creation
- Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008) – a wonderful poetic novel, one of the best things I’ve read this year; there is something fantastical about it, but there is not any fantasy in it…
- Franklin Rosemont and Robin DG Kelley, eds, Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (2009) – does what it says on the tin
- Fiston Mwanza Mujilla, Tram 83 (2014) – according to reviewers it is ‘Blade Runner in Africa with a John Coltrane soundtrack’ that ‘transfigures harsh reality with a bounding, inventive, bebop-style prose’ and depicts ‘a world so anarchic it would leave even Ted Cruz begging for more government’
- A. Igoni Barrett, Blackass (2015) – Furi Wakiboko wakes up one morning to discover he has turned white; well, all but one part of him has…
The more obviously genre works that have come my way include:
- Charlie Human, Apocalypse Now Now (2013) – an urban fantasy thriller in Cape Town’s supernatural underworld
- Masha du Toit, Crooks & Straights (2014) – YA urban fantasy in which Cape Town provides a home for magical refugees
- Sarah Lotz, The Three (2014) – global thriller with horror/fantasy edge
- SL Grey, Under Ground (2015) – while a lethal virus sweeps the world, the folks hiding out in a plush subterranean survival bunker find they have brought horror with them
- Rob Boffard, Tracer (2015) – set on the falling-apart space station housing the last of humanity above a devastated Earth
- Ivor W. Hartmann, ed., AfroSF volume 2 (2015) – contains five novellas by Tade Thompson and Nick Wood, Mame Bougouma Diene, Dilman Dila, Andrew Dakalira, and Efe Tokunbo Okogu
- Jo Thomas and Margrét Helgadóttir, eds, African Monsters (2015) – contains fifteen stories and a comic strip by, among others, Dilman Dila, Nerine Dorman, Tendai Huchu, Sarah Lotz, Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Nick Wood
(Should also mention Tade Thompson’s debut novel, Making Wolf (2015), although it is a crime thriller, not sf/f.)
One of the things I am interested in starting to trace is the role of speculation and futurity in African political discourse, which has recently led me to:
- JE Casely Hayford (aka Ekra-Agiman), Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation (1911) – a novel which apparently includes a vision of a future pan-Africa
- Camara Laye, A Dream of Africa (1966) – a novel which apparently does the same
Taking of awkwardly shaped and sized books, as I was some time back, one final goody I stumbled across, which provides some useful context for thinking about African sf/f is Readings in African Popular Literature (2002), edited by Stephanie Newell. It reprints some critical articles, but also some fiction and comics and various pages from Drum magazine.
‘The Princess Steel’, a previously unpublished sf/fantasy story by W.E.B. Du Bois, can be found in the most recent issue of the PMLA (130.3: 819-829). It was written some time between 1908 and 1910, and there is an earlier draft called ‘The Megascope: A Tale of Tales’.
The earlier title acknowledges Du Bois’s self-conscious embedding of one tale within another within another. It also shows a clear sense of how the introduction of a science-fictional innovation (not really what Suvin means by the novum) functions as a narratological device to generate fictions. The Megascope shifts the story from one genre/diegesis into another and then into another – or, perhaps more accurately, revises the reader’s expectations of the story as it rewrites the rules of the world in which the story takes place.
‘The Princess Steel’ begins as an apparently realist story in contemporary New York, told with a certain wry humour, as the unnamed protagonist and his wife, in response to a newspaper advertisement, go to witness a scientific demonstration by the sociologist Professor Hannibal Johnson:
Now my wife and I were interested in Sociology; we had studied together at Chicago, so diligently indeed that we had just married and were spending our honeymoon in New York. … it certainly seemed very opportune to hear almost immediately upon our arrival of a great lecturer in Sociology albeit his name, to our chagrin, was new to us. (822)
To their even greater chagrin, Johnson is black (and initially they assume he must be the Professor’s servant). On reflection, however,
One would not for a moment have hesitated to call him a gentleman had it not been for his color. His voice, his manner, everything showed training and refinement. Naturally my wife stiffened and drew back and yet she felt me smiling and hated to acknowledge the failure of our expedition. (822)
This is an intriguing passage in that it is also the one at which we realise that the newly-weds are white. Their studies provide a clue to the likelihood of this, but it is only their assertion of the colour line that definitively places them on one side of it. By making it manifest in this way, Du Bois prepares the ground for a story that will use fantasy so as to imagine some of the determining forces of everyday life that many varieties of realism and naturalism, with their emphasis on surface detail, interpersonal relations and individual psychology, struggle to capture. Like naturalist Frank Norris’s incomplete trilogy of wheat (The Octopus (1901), The Pit (1903)), Du Bois’s first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), is an epic that attempts to map out the complex social relations of a single industry (for Du Bois, cotton); but even Norris, especially in his first novel, bows under the weight of the task and includes weirdly ecstatic visions, as if the real were too complex for mere realism. In this context, one cannot help but also recall the fantastical spirit that imbues Du Bois’s second novel, The Dark Princess (1928), especially when it draws closest to heavy industry in the stunning passage when protagonist Matthew Towns chucks it all in to become a manual labourer digging the subway tunnels:
Lakes and rivers flow … pouring from the hills down to the kitchen sinks with steady pulse beneath the iron street [and] great steel Genii, a hundred feet high, lumber blindly along at out neck and call to dig, lift, talk, push, weep, and swear [and us] houses sag, stagger, and reel … but …do not fall: we hold them, force them and prop them up [even as we] tak[e] away the foundations of the city and leav[e] it delicately swaying on air. (265, 266).
In ‘The Princess Steel’, however, Du Bois approaches the problem from the other side. His broadly realistic opening is just a frame for an exercise in the fantastic, using sf to access the allegorical as a means to draw out the unseen determinants of an exploitative patriarchal-colonial-capitalist modernity and contemporary social life.
Johnson’s library contains volume upon volume of The Great Chronicle – a record he discovered a quarter century earlier of the ‘everyday facts of life but kept with surprising accuracy by a Silent Brotherhood for 200 years’ (823). We learn no more about this surveillant order – perhaps for Du Bois an imaginative precursor to The Dark Princess’s secretive revolutionary Great Central Committee of Yellow, Brown and Black – but their copious records have enabled Johnson to develop the Megascope.
Rather than plunge into directly into allegory or deploy the kind of slippery kind transition into an alternative realm deployed in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) – I am insufficiently familiar with Du Bois’s biography to know whether he had read Mark Twain’s novel, but it does seem to me to lurk in the background of what is to come – Du Bois turns to scientific innovation, the very stuff of modernity, to investigate modernity. (Foucault scholars will be excited to learn that Du Bois begins with technologies of statistics and surveillance; Hegelians will have to wait a few moments longer for their fix.)
Professor Johnson first shows his visitors a mechanism by which a human deed can be represented in two dimensions on a ‘thin transparent film’ (823). Layering such films one on top of another produces a representation of the ‘history of these deeds in days and months and years’ (823) and, he explains, if
“these planes be curved about one center and reflected to and fro we get a curve of infinite curvings which is—”—he paused impressively—“which is the Law of Life.” (823)
He next reveals the ‘vast solid crystal globe’, ‘fifty feet in diameter’, on which he has spent twenty years plotting the curves of life; and for twenty years he has been thwarted in his quest for the ‘Great Curve … by curious counter-curves and shadow and crossing’ (823). This endless frustration has led him to hypothesise that
Human life is not alone on earth—there is an Over-life—nay—nay I mean nothing metaphysical or theological—I mean a social Over-life—a life of Over-men, Super men, not merely Captains of Industry but field marshalls of the Zeit-geist, who today are guiding the world events and dominating the lives of men. It is a Life so near ourselves that we think it is ourselves, and yet so vast that we vaguely identify it with the universe. (823)
And so he reveals the Megascope, with which he will reveal an Over-Man. First they see
the Curve of Steel—the sum of all the facts and quantities and times and lives that go to make Steel, that skeleton of the Modern World … the Spirit of the wonderful metal which is the center of our modern life, and the inner life of the Over-life that dominates this vast industry— (824)
I love this slightly awkward description of imaginary technology. It beautifully captures the extent to which all language – including and perhaps especially scientific language, for all its pretensions otherwise – is inherently and unavoidably metaphorical. Du Bois transition from more or less mundane descriptions of physical objects
with one more swinging of the lever there swept down before the window a great tube, like a great golden trumpet with the flare toward us and the mouth-piece pointed toward the glit[t]ering sphere; laced round it ran silken cords like coiled electric wire ending in handles, globes and collar like appendages (824)
to the heightened and elusive description of their purpose introduces an ineffable tone that eases the next generic switch.
The great tube’s window displays a vision of New York that transforms before the viewers. The landscape becoming apocalyptically fantastical as the view rushes towards Pittsburg, where steel mills rise like cyclopean castles or ‘the Mills of the Gods’ and between them move obscure and terrifying Things – the ‘Things of this New World, the World of Steel’ (824).
A giant knight emerges. He is the Lord of the Golden Way, a disembodied Voice explains, and then tells in some detail a cod-epic story – part medieval romance, part allegory. (It is only loosely allegorical – there is not the direct one-to-one correspondence between manifest and latent content insisted upon by allegory proper, so it might be more accurate to think of it as a symbolic story, but only so long as you then don’t fall into the trap of expecting each symbol to directly correspond to one specific symbolised thing in a clearly delineated overarching scheme (because that would be allegory proper, horribly reductive and maddeningly dull).)
The Over-Man Sir Guess of Londonton captures the Witch Knowal – the wife of the ogre Evilhood – and she tells him of ‘the dark Queen of the Iron Isles—she that of old came out of Africa’ (825) and who is held captive in the Pits of Pittsburg, along with her enchanted daughter, Princess Steel, fathered by the Sun-God . The Lord of the Golden Way agrees to help Guess rescue the Princess Steel from her enchantment in exchange for her treasure. This leads to inevitable conflict. Guess promptly falls in love with the freed Princess, but the Lord realises her treasure resides in her body:
her hair is silver and her eyes are golden, and … mayhap there be jewels crusted on her heart. (828)
Guess is defeated, and as the Princess watches over her fallen lover, the Lord of the Golden Way begins to spin strands of her hair, which is the steel upon which the modern world is built. The San Franciso and Valparaiso earthquakes of 1906 are signs of her rage at the Lord of the Golden Way and she warns him
I watch and ward above my sleeping Lord till he awake and then woe World! when I shake my curls a-loose. (829)
On this note – presaging the dire consequences of industrial modernity, of capitalist and colonial and gendered exploitation, which include the violent overthrow of such a world – the vision ends.
The wife has seen none of this because, a little troublingly, the megascope ‘was not tuned delicately enough for her’ (829). (Even in The Dark Princess, Du Bois tends to push Princess Kautilya, one of the key members of the revolutionary Committee, into domestic roles.)
The couple make a hasty exit.
In the PMLA, ‘The Princess Steel’ is introduced by Britt Rusert and Adrienne Brown, who are currently co-editing a collection of Du Bois’s sf, fantasy, mystery and crime fiction. The story is locked behind the journal’s pay-wall – but there are bound to be people out there whose universities have institutional access.
Ultimately, the opening text tells us, the war became unnecessary. Perhaps it was a mutation, or perhaps bone-deep ideology just changed. But people gave up on survival, on perpetuating the species. (The cost, after all, had proven terrible.) The remnant population
slowly started to decrease, wane and languish like the dying flame of a candle that barely resists extinguishing itself. … The elderly passed on and the young became elderly. The news of the sporadic birth of a child, probably conceived out of neglect, was received with condescending smiles the same as in those who mock ignorant people who with pride show off their out of style garments.
Crumbs begins with a series of gently floating shots, starting with a broad view of the peculiar mineral structures in volcanic landscape of Dallol, before moving in to detail their folded textures and colours. Water washes over the surface, as in something by Tarkovsky; the shots commute each other, as in something by Kubrick. A desert wind blows, accompanied by Atomizador’s throbbing alien score. There are mountains in the distance. A lone figure in a light shirt and darker trousers, with a satchel slung over his shoulder, makes his way through this alien yet terrestrial landscape. He is dwarfish, hunchbacked, deformed in some way. We will learn he is called Candy (Daniel Tardesse).
Among the rusting vehicle carcasses and other long-abandoned matériel are the remnants of a pipeline. In the ruins of the salt-block buildings he finds an artificial Christmas tree, its spindly green plastic branches still furled close to its metal trunk. In the distance he spots a figure (Quino Piñero). A man in a military uniform: a medal on his chest, a swastika on his armband, and a rat mask covering his head, grey ears visible above the gas mask covering his face. Candy flees. Distortion fills the soundtrack. Above the salt flats across which Candy runs floats a spaceship, an immense citadel hovering in these post-apocalyptic Ethiopian skies.
The tree is a gift for his lover, a young black woman called Sayat or Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) who makes sculptures from salvaged metal. In the derelict bowling alley in which they live – surrounded by fetishes hanging from trees like those in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – the ball return mechanism has started to activate itself. Sayat suggests that there must be a magnetic field being directed at it, as if someone, maybe the spaceship, which has been ‘rusting in the sky since the beginning of the big war’, is trying to send them a message. When Candy investigates the mechanism – like Henry (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead (Lynch 1977) looking behind the radiator – he finds something unexpected down inside it: a voice, that will later be revealed as that of a skinny black Santa (Tsegaye Abegaz) who might be very small or just a long way away.
Candy undertakes a quest to find out what is going on – a quest that will take him through the stunning green highlands around the Wenchi crater-lake, to a witch who won’t let him pay for her insights with the pristine copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous LP which is supposed to finance his wedding, and then on through an abandoned rail depot to the old city, and through it to a derelict lakeside zoo and a violent encounter with Santa Claus…
I have no idea whether there is a specific folktale lurking in the back of all this, an Ethiopian legend akin to the Malian epic of the crippled warrior-king Sundjata, and accounts of Llansó’s improvisational style of direction – responding to what he finds on location – suggest that while there might be some such narrative armature the final film is unlikely to map onto it with any kind of precision.
It is a film full of allusions: Candy is challenged by a masked warrior on horseback who gallops up like something out of Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968); a bowling ball rolls mysteriously across the floor, like something from The Shining (Kubrick 1980); a rail line subsiding on a narrow stretch of land built across the middle of a lake recalls China Miéville’s Railsea (2012). There are also bits that reminded me of Space is the Place (Coney 1974) and Save the Green Planet! (Joon-Hwan Jang 2003).
There is the detritus of a lost world, given fresh meaning: a plastic figurine of TMNT Donatello, a Max Steel ‘Force Sword’ still attached to its colourful cardboard backing, a Michael Jackson album, a figure of a child asleep on a mattress, all of which are seen within the story world; and then once more, floating in Earth orbit as gracefully as a Kubrick weapons platform or space shuttle, while the voice of the shopkeeper (Mengistu Bermanu) describes them in relation to their production in the pre-apocalypse and their use by the legendary Molegon warriors – an amulet, an instiller of courage before battles, a reminder of the adored Andromeda baby and of its twin who lived in the pyramid of Cheops. There is an altar to Michael Jordan. Sayat, perhaps awaking from a dream, intones a fervent prayer to a string of deities: ‘Einstein IV, San Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking III, Justin Bieber VI, Paul McCartney XI, Carrefour!’ (Though the film is as dark as the storm raging outside, and it is possible she is chanting this litany as she masturbates.) There are also a lot of plastic dinosaurs, and a plastic lion. There are children’s superhero costumes. There is a cinema that has screened Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar’s 1979 Turkish Superman knock-off, every day for forty years, including the day on which we get a glimpse inside.
Candy’s quest brings him to a landscape littered with abandoned trains, rusting wheel-less cadavers, somehow both modern and prehistoric – like the rotting symbols of earlier waves of (failed) colonial expansion Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness (1899). Among them he finds a man who used to work for the railway (Girma Gebrehiwot), but the man does not speak. When Candy starts claiming that he is from another world – rocky, frozen, windswept – the man does not hear him; the discordant soundtrack – part Sun Ra, appropriately enough, part Texas Chain Saw Massacre – drowns his voice (a little like the bar scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch 1992)).
Candy moves on, past corroding watertowers that resemble abandoned Martian war machines. All he wants is to be able to return to his home planet, taking Sayat – and the child he intuits she is carrying – with him.
Some reviews of Crumbs suggest that its elliptical narrative, its congeries and clusters of salvage and allusion, defy meaning. That this rather gentle, beautiful, endearing film is somehow impenetrable. Such reviews are simply and straightforwardly wrong. Crumbs – probably the best sf film to come out of Africa so far, and by a wide margin the best sf film of 2015 – is as easy to follow as the autobahn down which we are pellmelling to the end of the world.
We are living in the capitalocene moment, the gutted shell that is the present of the future Llansó depicts. The toys and costumes and other absurd relics, some in their original packaging, represent what Evan Calder Williams calls salvagepunk’s returning-repressed ‘idiosyncrasy of outmoded things’.
If I have one anxiety about this film it is that the unfamiliar landscapes it shows us are so beautiful they seem desirable. In this, it speaks to something dark in us. The thanatopic social sadism, recently anatomised by Miéville, the ‘thuggish idiot’s prometheanism’ that proclaims climate change is good for business; that longs with ‘spiteful glee’ for the further ruination of developing countries and the additional edge it will give to first-world corporations. That yearning to wipe the slate clean. To purge the Earth of the human stain.
[Many thanks to Miguel Llansó, Ewa Bojanowska and New Europe Film Sales for giving me access to a copy of the film; and to China for flexing his celebrity to make it happen.]
Miéville, China. ‘On Social Sadism’, Salvage # 2: Awaiting the Furies. 17-49.
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2010.
 A ghost town in northern Ethiopia, build for potash mining in the early twentieth century. Photos here – also google ‘Dallol’ for images of the astonishing landscape. And while you’re at it, take a look at ‘Wenchi crater-lake’.
Calixthe Beyala, born in Cameroon in 1961 and resident in France since 1978, is generally counted as one of the second generation of African Francophone female writers – a judgment that is not merely to do with when she started publishing fiction (the 1990s) but also a reflection upon her typically feisty, feminist, vulgar subject matter and her eschewal of standard French in favour of a Parisian-African vernacular (not that I can tell, being monolingual). For all that she has won a number of major literary awards, there is a lot of critical commentary (mainly by men, at least from the sample I have been able to access online) that portrays her as, in various ways, not a proper writer. And I guess there are what some might consider improprieties in this novel, but I found them interesting and/or enjoyable rather than shocking or somehow disqualifying.
How to Cook Your Husband the African Way begins with what appears to be a fantastical premiss, with the black protagonist/narrator Aissatou explaining that at some point she became white:
My roots are black. I’m a black woman, but being away from my roots has confused me. Let me be honest. I embraced dissipation. I abandoned myself to it as you abandon yourself to a heavy fog. … I don’t know when I turned from ebony to ivory, but I do know that I smear my hair with a product called White Glow. Guess what it does?
I am, as I said, not sure when I became white. I now smear my skin with Venus de Milo and other cosmetics made for whites. That isn’t the end of it, though. Because to be white you’ve got to be thin. I’ve tortured my body to make it as small as possible. So now, I don’t have any breasts and my thighs are flat geometries – all because the mirror of the world requires that I make my body pleasing to white men. A beautiful woman is flat as a pancake, thin as a rake or a slice of Melba toast. Melba toast snaps easily. Crickle crackle. (7)
However, as soon becomes clear (and is already hinted at in the full version of the quoted paragraphs), this fantastical transformation should not be read literally. This is not like George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) or Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man (1970). It is a moment of hyperbole that captures a certain truth of double-consciousness, of a black woman’s conformity to white standards of beauty, of her willed bodily transformation and the abandonment of African aspects of her cultural heritage it entailed:
I am a white negro woman and food poisons my powers of seduction. I make my body sing by peeling my buttocks, by minimizing my breasts, convinced that if I make a martyr of my stomach, I’ll win a great prize. The pores of my trim body will exude divine sensuality. (15)
And apparently, where white Parisian men are concerned, they do. Which is of no help whatsoever when she falls in love/desire/passion with the Malian Suleiman Bolobolo, the new tenant in her building, who lives with his senile mother, who keeps a chicken in their apartment and who thinks she is in contact with the inhabitants of planet Oburne.
Aissatou’s initial approach to winning Bolobolo is to follow her white consciousness:
Rainbows appeared in the sky to answer women’s need to seduce. When a woman wants to seduce a man, she must smell sweet and glitter. Which is why we visit the lingerie shops when we’re in love. The modern knicker is available in all the glorious colours of the universe. These are consolations the gods have granted us to make up for the fact that we are mortal. (28)
But she realises that she is both ‘in Paris and not in Paris’, bilocated between ‘the African jungle’ and ‘a different jungle, the metro’ (33). And although she cannot ‘be bothered’ (40) to return to or embrace some half-remembered/half-invented version of négritude or africanicity, she can follow the advice she imagines her mother would give: cook for him, cook African meals that awaken his senses and sensuality, and thus capture his heart (and loins).
And in between each short chapter, there is a recipe or two – for meals as varied as paprika ngombo, boa in banana leaves, domba de macabe, mango puree on toast, and crocodile in tchobi sauce.
The novel tacks a course somewhere between essentialism and cultural constructivism, using the later to undermine the former even as it tend to rely on the former to explore notions of identity and hybridity. The tone throughout is a little bit raunchy – or at least blunt about sex – without ever being pornographic (a charge often levelled against Beyala). And while it is never laugh-out-loud funny, it is always comical.
Time heals all wounds though it doesn’t really wound all heels. If only. (9)
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the Angolan Ondjaki is one of those books I picked up for the Speculative Africas project because it sounded like it might be sf. It isn’t. At least not in any straighforward sense. But it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and there is something fantastical about it. And it features the astonishing mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, which I have become mildly obsessed with since seeing photos of it in Kiluanji Kia Henda Icarus 13 installation.
The novel is set sometime in the early 1980s: Reagan is in power in the US; Jackie Chan’s The Big Brawl has reached Angola; and the mausoleum of Angola’s first president is under construction. (In reality, it ground to a halt because Neto’s successor, Jonas Savimbi, was a member of UNITA, backed by South Africa, rather than of Neto’s Soviet- and Cuban-backed MPLA. (There was a third-side in the post-independence civil war, the Mobutu-backed FNLA.) During Savimbi’s thirty year reign, he saw no reason to support its completion, and the possibility of further Soviet financing collapsed with the end of the Cold War. When the MPLA regained power in 2008, they used oil revenue to complete the structure on a much less grand scale than initially planned, and it was inaugurated in 2012, on the ninetieth anniversary of Neto’s birth. (See, I told you, mildly obsessed. Back to the book.))
It starts with an explosion in the sky over polyglot Bishop’s Beach, next to the mausoleum’s constructions site, that
woke up even the birds asleep in the trees and the dozy fish in the sea. Colours came out that had never been seen before: yellow mixed with red pretending to be orange in a bluish green, flares that mimicked the strength of the stars reclining in the sky and a warlike rumble of the kind made by the MiG planes. In the end it was a beautiful explosion that lingered in the noises of the pretty colours that our eyes looked upon and never again forgot. (9)
This is the first of several synaesthetic prefigurations – where colours and sounds get jumbled, as do birds, fish, kites and stars – in the initially episodic account of everyday life in the Bishop Beach. The cast of characters include the young protagonist’s several abuelas (Granma nineteen is not his nineteenth Granma – when Dr Rafael KnockKnock amputates her toe, she is left with nineteen digits and a new nickname); his friends Charlita and 3.14, whose real name, Pinduca, was first shortened to Pi; Comrade Gas Jockey, who faithfully, if lethargically, mans the local petrol station even though there is never any petrol; Sea Foam, who is more mad than wise, but sometimes it seems the other way around; and Soviet Comrade Gudafterov, really called Bilhardov, who is in charge of the blue lobsters, as the children call the Russian troops, and who longs to return to his snowy homeland. All of these characters have stories, and Ondjaki laces his story with glimpses of this much-storied world:
Granma Agnette … sang the music of slow Fado tunes, adapted to put us to sleep, and nobody slept. She told crazy stories about her friend Carmen Fernández who had become pregnant, but had given birth to a huge bag of ants that bit the inside of her stomach. The second time she got pregnant she finally had a baby, but it had the head and wings of a bird and, as the window was open, it flew away and escaped. Granma said that Carmen Fernández was afraid of becoming pregnant a third time, but even then we didn’t fall asleep. Then Granma started with her threats. (26)
When the young protagonist learns that Bishop Beach is going to be demolished, their houses ‘dexploded’, to make way for the elaborate grounds around the base of the mausoleum, he and 3.14 decide their only course of action is to beat the builders to it – they must steal dynamite from the construction site and blow up the mausoleum instead.
This slender narrative is made delightful by comical encounters and episodes; a bittersweet treatment of the civil war, which the children do not quite get; a romance which they do not quite perceive, either; by references to Brazilian soap operas and popular movies; and by a linguistic playfulness in which ‘gangrene’ can be misheard as ‘gangrenades’ and Sea Foam can persuasively argue that the sky is occasionally lit up by ‘fouling stars’:
a phenomena of the skies of the dark universe, the cosmic dust and so on… there are two skies: the blue sky that belongs to our eyes and to the wings of planes and little birds. And then there’s a black sky that’s as big as a desert. … Fouling stars melted in the heat of the sun and that’s why they fall towards planet world. Our planet is the only one that has water where they can cool down again. They’re fouling stars, and one day, after cooling off, I swear, those stars are going to want to return home … We’re still going to see those stars rise up from the earth to way up there, in the skies that sleep far away dressed in bright brightnesses… (12)
Needless to day, it offers an alternative explanation as to why work on the mausoleum stopped in the early eighties. A happier, if not entirely happy, one. And it is appropriate that such poetry surrounds the mausoleum of a president who was once a poet, even if he is not actually buried there.
From May 5 to July 1 2012, the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, UK, was home to “Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction,” an exhibition curated by Nav Haq and Al Cameron. Exemplifying a recent trend for artists to view the continent through science-fictional lenses, it includes work by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva (Portugal), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola), Luis Dourado (Portugal), Mark Aerial Waller (UK), Neïl Beloufa (France), Neill Blomkamp (South Africa/Canada), Omer Fast (Israel/Germany), Paweł Althamer (Poland), Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya), and Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq (Egypy/US/UK).
Some of the short films on display – Kahui’s Pumzi (2009), set in a water-scarce future Africa, and Blompkamp’s Tetra Val (2004) and Alive in Joburg (2005), the latter of which was hothoused into District 9 (2009) – might already be familiar to SFS readers. Of them all, though, the most intriguing is Omer Fast’s Nostalgia (2009), consisting of three parts, each of them continuously looped in an individually dedicated room.
Nostalgia I is a four-and-half minute HD video: in a forest, a white man in camouflage fatigues builds a trap from branches and twine; on the soundtrack, a former Nigerian child soldier talks about his childhood and how a surrogate father figure taught him how to make a partridge trap from branches and twine.
Nostalgia II runs for ten minutes on two synchronized HD screens: on the left, the former child soldier, now a man; on the right, Omer Fast. The interview subject does not seem to understand the artist’s questions, and although he describes the partridge trap his father taught him to build from sticks and twine, the artist grows skeptical of the subject’s inability to provide specific detail about growing up in Nigeria. And, depending on when you join the film, it sooner or later becomes clear that both men are actors, the interview a reconstruction.
The thirty-two minute Nostalgia III, shot on 16mm and transferred to HD, contains eight scenes, with several momentary flashforwards (or, depending on when you join the film, flashbacks). The setting, loosely sketched in passing hints, is an Africa faced with the problem of illegal immigration from Europe (it is unclear whether this is an alternative present or a future after European civilization has collapsed, but everyone dresses like they are from seventies Britain or from a seventies British adventure television series). Nostalgia III alternates scenes from two stories. One follows three British illegal immigrants, who meet their fate in secret tunnels under the African security perimeter. It is a linear narrative, albeit with two scenes actually occurring simultaneously, but the second story is a closed loop. In each scene, one character describes how to make a trap out of sticks and twine, and in the next scene, a character who has heard this information recounts it as first-hand knowledge – A tells B, B tells C, C tells D, D tells A, A tells B, and so on.
While fascinating, Nostalgia is also a little troubling. Its spiraling narrativization, and concomitant destabilization of experience, marginalizes a specific Nigerian voice, transforming his life into an art-commodity. But it is not as troubling as Blomkamp’s shorts, which contain all the problems of District 9 in embryonic form; or as Althamer’s Common Task: Mali, a photographic record of an “encounter” with Dogon villagers that reeks of colonial appropriation and the touristic gaze.
The other highlight is Kia Henda’s Icarus 13 (2008), an installation recounting the first African space mission – an endeavour every bit as foolish as the one in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006). Launched from Angola, Icarus 13 landed on the surface of the sun – at night, so as to avoid deadly heat – and successfully returned to Earth with ‘some particles from the photosphere’ for laboratory study. The six-hundred-word account of the mission covering one wall culminates in the observation that ‘from the description given by the astronauts, the Sun has the most beautiful night’, before announcing upcoming tourist flights to finance further scientific investigations. There are also a tabletop architect’s model of Icarus 13 on the launch-pad, and eight photographs. The first photograph shows Icarus 13, rising in the centre of the frame, viewed from Luanda, with a vast open sky above and beyond it. The rocket, though, is actually the mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president – its base resembles the flared rockets of a Soyuz launch vehicle, while its jagged pinnacle looks like a prototype for London’s The Shard. Other striking buildings are similarly repurposed: a domed structure is labeled “Astronomy Observatory, Namibe Desert,” despite its obvious lack of astronomical equipment, and a low, flat building whose obliquely angled walls might suggest, from above, a star shape, is described as a “Centre of astronomy and astronaut training, Namibe Desert,” although in reality it is a cinema. A medium shot of five construction workers is captioned “Building the spaceship Icarus 13,” while a yellow torus against a dark background is “First picture of the Sun’s photosphere from Icarus 13 in orbit.” The final photograph, labeled “The return of the astronauts,” prises open the gap between image and caption even further by containing nothing to which the caption could actually apply. It is a gap that frustrates, and which calls for the viewer to inflate it with story – just as Kia Henda fills the frustrating gap between the dream of independence and the nightmares of civil war and post-colonial dependence, between socialist aspiration and neo-liberal hegemony, with myth, tall tale, humour and hope.
Among related events at the Arnolfini, Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck), Rehan Hyder (UWE) and I ran a workshop, “Martians of Africa,” on the relationship between sf and colonialism, asking what would happen if one considered such anti-colonial and post-colonial films as Les statues meurent aussi (Marker and Resnais France 1953) and La Noire de… (Sembene Senegal/France 1966) as works of sf. The exhibition’s run came to a close with a double bill of Africa Paradis (Amoussou Benin/France 2006) and Les Saignantes (Bekolo Cameroon/France 2005).
(Blompkamp’s short films, Gusmão and Paiva’s The Shadow Man (2006-7), and almost all of Beloufa’s Kempinski (2007) are available on youtube. The text of El Baroni, Beaudry and Haq’s second ARPANET dialogue – a fake conversation between Samir Amin, Steve Biko, Francis Fukuyama and Minoru Yamasaki, which would not have seemed out of place in Moorcock’s New Worlds – can be found here.
A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 118 (2012), 559–61.
In the South Atlantic Quarterly interviews most famous for coining the term ‘Afrofuturism’, Mark Dery asks Samuel Delany why, in a recent piece on William Gibson’s Neuromancer called ‘Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?’, he did not comment on the representation of the Rastas on the Zion space station.
Dery sees them as bricoleurs offering a quite utopian potential for imagining a harmonious relationship with technology. Delany schools him on how ‘a black reader’ might respond to these marginal, withered figures, concluding
You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing representation of a powerless and wholly non-oppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction: but maybe that’s just a black thang… (751)
Delany promptly steps back from the ad hominem aspect of this to praise Gibson and Neuromancer’s achievements. And to point out that while the three pages or so devoted to Zion and its inhabitants are problematic, there are far more problematic (Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold) and interesting (Disch’s Camp Concentration) white authored sf novels to deal with, let alone the sf produced by black writers – himself, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes. (He also argues that the dry-run for the Rastas – the Lo-Teks of Gibson’s ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ – are ‘Gibson’s real romantic bricoleurs: they were not specifically black, but rather “fourth world” whites’ (753).)
But there is something interesting about Gibson’s Rastas. In a globe-trotting (and cislunar-trotting) novel, they are the only black people mentioned. In a novel depicting a globalised future in which capitalism has consolidated its hold on the planet, and in which the quality of a commodity is indicated either by its make and model or by reference to its country of origin, there are no corporations or trade names of African origin, and not a single mention of Africa or any of the countries in Africa.
Those enervated orbital ghosts – brittle-boned from calcium deficiency, their hearts ‘shrunken’ from so much time in low-gravity, their Rastafarianism reduced to a Rasta lifestyle of ganja and dub, and their dub easily replicated by computers – are all that are left. A spectral remnant of yet another world-building genocide.
At least in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, we learn in passing that the Nazis are in the closing stages of a continent-wide final solution to the ‘problem’ of Africans. It is a cold comfort, but at least he doesn’t just leave them out.
I am currently re-reading a bunch of cyberpunk novels, some of them for the first time in twenty years, as background for an essay I am writing this winter on Afrocyberpunk film (Les Saignantes, Bedwin Hacker, Tetra Vaal, Adicolor Yellow, Alive in Joburg, Tempbot, perhaps Crumbs if I can ever get hold of a copy, perhaps Africa Paradis).
The focus of this reading is on the representation of Africa/Africans/Afrodiaspora in cyberpunk, and cyberpunk by African and Afrodiasporic writers, and I will inflict my thoughts/notes on the world here when I can. My provisional reading list is below, though I cannot promise to get to them all. Please point out the things I’ve overlooked. (And do we ever find out whether the Effinger novels are set in North Africa? Or are they in the Middle East? (And yes, I know they are ‘really’ set in New Orleans.))
Steven Barnes, Streetlethal (1983)
–. Gorgon Child (1989)
–. Firedance (1994)
Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008)
–. Zoo City (2010)
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails (1987)
–. A Fire in the Sun (1989)
–. The Exile Kiss (1991)
–. Budayeen Nights (2003)
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade (2001)
–. Effendi (2002)
–. Felaheen (2005)
Andrea Hairston, Mindscape (2006)
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs (2009)
B Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimoto Wars (1992)
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988)
G. Willow Wilson, Cairo (2007)
–. Alif, the Unseen (2012)
plus various stores from Afro-Sf, Lagos 2060, omenana and other collections/sites
In the late 1960s, Melvin Van Peebles, an expatriate novelist and the director of four short films, including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), which depicted the brief romance between an African-American soldier and a white French woman, was hired by Columbia Pictures to direct the comedy Watermelon Man (1970). His debut feature starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a white racist who, one morning, wakes up to find he has become black. Driven out of his community, he eventually finds pride in his new identity. In a remarkable final scene, he is shown working out in a basement somewhere with two dozen other black men, practicing martial arts with mop and broom handles. The camera zooms in over these men and into a medium close-up of Gerber as, yelling, he thrusts his mop handle toward the camera, freezeframing for a full ten seconds.[i]
This image of militant radicalism resonates with the final shot of the anti-imperialist film Yawar mallku/Blood of the Condor (1969), about the resistance triggered by the revelation that the Peace Corps were sterilising indigenous Quechua women without their consent (which in reality led to the Peace Corps’ expulsion from Bolivia). Jorge Sanjinés’ film ends with a still of raised hands, holding automatic rifles. Although there is no reason to suggest direct inspiration or imitation, the connection is not a spurious one, as Van Peebles’s subsequent film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, makes clear. It defied Hollywood conventions of racial representation, narrative structure, the construction of time and space, and the relationship between soundtrack and image. And in its adaptation of nouvelle vague techniques, which it re-radicalised through merging them with Black Power politics and African-American aesthetics, it represents not only a landmark in black American cinema and American independent cinema but also a rare instance of Californian Third Cinema.
In their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino identified three kinds of filmmaking: First Cinema (the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators), Second Cinema (auteurist and art cinema, always limited politically by being a bourgeois cinema dependent on First Cinema distribution) and Third Cinema (neither commercial nor bourgeois, an activist cinema directly involved in political struggle). Mike Wayne’s Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema argues that rather than treat these categories as pigeonholes into which we can place films, they should be understood as conceptual categories whose dialectical interaction can be observed in individual films. Regardless of its political impact – Huey Newton devoted all of the 16 June 1971 issue of The Black Panther to a laudatory review of Sweetback, declaring it ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’, and made it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party nationwide – it retains significant First Cinema elements: Van Peebles’s desire to make it as entertaining as ‘a motherfucker’, its commitment to a narrative about an individual, and its commercial distribution and exhibition (however much Van Peebles had to fight to get it screened, it made $15 million on its initial release and dislodged Love Story (Hiller 1970) from number one at the US box-office; and it has been commercially available on video and DVD for some years).
Its Second Cinema elements can be articulated around the figure of Van Peebles himself, who has credits as writer, composer, producer, director and editor, as well as star, while its Third Cinema elements can be detected in the goals towards which he flexed his auteurism. Sweetback is precisely, as the opening titles claim, ‘a film of Melvin Van Peebles’. The narrative is a slender armature upon which a unique – and arguably a uniquely African-American aesthetic – is developed. Growing up in a South Central whorehouse, a ten year-old boy is introduced to sex by a prostitute, who cries out in ecstasy that he has a ‘sweet, sweet back’. Strangely passive and nearly as mute as John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, the adult Sweetback seems disconnected from the black community in which he makes a living performing in sex shows. Lent by his boss to some white cops who need to bring someone in for questioning to make it look like they are making progress on a case, Sweetback eventually intervenes when they brutally assault the young black radical Mu-Mu, beating them to death with his handcuffs.
‘Where we going?’, Mu-Mu asks him.
‘Where you get this “we” shit?’ he replies.
But as Sweetback goes on the run, he encounters his community for the first time, and as a result later sacrifices his own chance at escape to ensure that Mu-Mu survives because ‘He’s our future’. Fleeing the police and an army helicopter, Sweetback finally escapes the city and heads for the Mexican border. When the hunting dogs unleashed to bring him down fall silent, his pursuers are convinced they have killed him. But the next morning, the dogs are found dead, floating in a river. And out of the Californian hills flash the words:
Generically, Sweetback can be understood as an example of the neo-slave narrative which, beginning with Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966), reworked the 19th century tradition of autobiographical writings by escaped slaves so as to explore the ongoing legacy of the West African genocide, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas.[ii] It also has (like the final minutes of Watermelon Man) strong affiliations with a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s by such authors as Chester Himes, Sam Greenlee, Blyden Jackson and John A. Williams which imagine a radical black uprising against white supremacist America.[iii]
Formally, though, it is difficult to think of an American narrative film – even in the midst of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – to compare. Van Peebles shot the film, with a non-union cast and crew, in about 19 days, and then embarked on five and a half months of editing. The film is a compendium of technique: location shooting, actuality footage, handheld cameras, imbalanced framings, zooms, slow motion, expressive shifts in and out of focus, superimpositions, multiple superimpositions, colour synthesisation, split screens, mirrored split screens, multiple split screens, and so on. An uncharitable view might be that such overt stylisations were nothing more than a bravura attempt to expand the slight narrative to feature length and get around problems with shooting sufficient coverage and recording sound on location. But whatever shortcomings the footage might have had, in its editing this low-budget crime drama was transformed into one of the most important films made in America. While the radicalism of, say, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dixon 1973) lies almost entirely in its narrative of black revolution, Sweetback simultaneously developed an aesthetic radicalism far in excess of, say, The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), even of Tout va bien (Godard 1972).
According to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the brutal dislocation of the slave trade was such that Afrodiasporic
historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continually like a sediment. (62)
Others have built on this insight to argue that this different experience of historical space-time has led to the development of a diasporic black aesthetic, manifested in contemporary music, for example, in terms of scratching, dubbing, breaking, mixing and remixing. Throughout Sweetback, Van Peebles improvises a similar aesthetic, returning materiality to the film, rendering it sensible through a complex play of prolepsis and repetition, folding and layering, which shatters the white reality constructed through Hollywood’s technical and narrative conventions. (One particularly moving instance has the camera and the soundtrack return again and again to a poor African American woman, surrounded by the children she looks after for the county, repeating with slight variations the lines ‘I might have had a Leroy once, but I don’t rightly remember’ and ‘When they get older and bad, they take them away from me.’)
But rather than an aleatory jumble of fragments, the film coheres through its soundtrack, which includes music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The blaxploitation films which flourished, briefly, in the wake of Sweetback’s success, resulted in impressive soundtracks by James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Edwin Starr, and footage shot on location without synchronised sound was often edited into a montage sequence to accompany a particular track, as with Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly’. Van Peebles went much further – the only comparably imaginative soundtrack of the period is that of the rather different The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – and produced a layered, ruptured, sometimes deeply discordant blend of diegetic sounds, diegetic and extra-diegetic voices, and music. Throughout the film one can sense the dialectical tensions and unities of sound and vision.
In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic Teflon spectacles, Third World countries should aim to develop an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggles. Sweetback tends towards this kind of imperfection. If financial restrictions mean that Van Peebles’s techniques are raw, that rawness itself is a direct manifestation of and testimony to the marginalisation of African Americans in mainstream America and to the radicalism of the project. As, perhaps, is the extent to which the making of the film became such a one-man show – the opening titles might declare that it is a film ‘starring the black community’, but ‘and Brer Soul’ gets its own, separate title afterwards. Faced with such effective exclusion from filmmaking as a way to express African-American experience(s), and with the US state’s violent and often illegal suppression of such radical black groups as the Panthers in full swing, perhaps there simply was not available the possibility for the kind of collectivism often seen as crucial to Third Cinema. Perhaps, also, there were political and personal factors.
Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! – a sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes inspiring (in a TV movie kind of way) adaptation of his father’s book about the making of Sweetback – indicates the latter while also, incidentally, revealing something of the former. There can be no denying the sexism and homophobia evident in Sweetback (or, indeed, Baadasssss!) and these problems were not uncommon in Civil Rights and Black Power movements.[iv] Baadassssss! is sufficiently certain of the importance of Sweetback to not need to paint its creator as a saint.
In easily the best performance of his career, Mario plays Melvin as an egotist tormented by insecurity, a bully whose manipulations and threats could also inspire, a radical who might also just be a hustler talking radical, a genius who might also just be simulating genius through a deep-rooted fear of being seen to fail. But he is always meant to be admired, or at the very least excused. The Oedipal conventions of the narrative – Melvin justifies putting thirteen year-old Mario in a sex scene by telling how his father sent him out every day from the age of nine to do demeaning work which might see him beaten up and robbed – further accentuate this, even as they make the phallus as central to the making of Sweetback as Sweetback’s own phallic mastery is to the original film.
As the casting of Lawrence Cook, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Melvin in Posse (1993) suggests, Mario Van Peebles has always seemed keen to place himself in a lineage of black American actors which reaches back through his father’s generation at least as far as Woody Strode, while also aligning himself with the New Jack Cinema of the 1990s (as attested by his casting of John Singleton as a DJ in Baadasssss!). In Baadasssss!, he captures very well the look of the early 1970s, but sadly very little of the politics or spirit (one is constantly reminded of how its executive producer Michael Mann stripped everything of real political significance from Ali (2001), his own biopic of Muhammad Ali). Mario Van Peebles has made a very competent film in admittedly difficult circumstances, and even made some interesting stylistic choices, but is not really any kind of meaningful successor to ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’. It is First Cinema, longing to be Second Cinema.
At the end of Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema (2002), Fred Williamson is asked about the ‘black Hollywood’ whose success is signalled in the Oscar wins of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Chewing on his cigar, he laughs as he says,
Black Hollywood? Yeah, right. … it don’t exist, man, no, no.
The point of Sweetback was that it was not about integrating into the white Hollywood machine; the sadness which haunts Baadasssss! is that the trail that it blazed in the early 1970s has led many right into that trap.
Columbia supposedly had a ‘happy’ ending in mind, in which Gerber regains his whiteness, but Van Peebles reputedly shot this different ending without telling the studio.
Other examples include Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Samuel Delany’s Star in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and arguably every novel by the late Octavia Butler.
On this cycle of novels, see Kalil Tal’s ‘“That Just Kills Me”: Black Militant Near-Future Fiction” (Social Text 71) and my ‘Come Alive By Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power Sf’ (Science Fiction Studies 102). In 1973, Greenlee’s novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) was adapted as an independent film of the same name. Long rumoured to have been suppressed by the FBI, it has recently become available on DVD. Lacking Sweetback’s formal experimentation, it is nonetheless still a potent Black Power document.
See Steve Estes I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement for an acute analysis of why the fight for African American equality was so often articulated around remasculinising the emasculated black man. These problems were also common in the New Left and other radical movements of the period, as well, of course, as in mainstream and conservative politics.