[A version of this review originally appeared in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 92 (2004), 97–100.]
Imagine Philip K. Dick was born 15 years earlier, black and with an astonishing musical talent in Birmingham, Alabama . . . imagine that, and you might just get Herman Poole Blount who became Le Sony’r Ra who was known as Sun Ra. You might just get the other visionary genius of postwar American sf.
Reading John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (Payback 1997), the comparison with Dick seems not entirely spurious. Both were phenomenally productive (Ra recorded over 1000 compositions on at least 120 albums). Both compulsively permutated and reiterated core themes and images whose shades of meaning and internal contradictions always seemed to imply a larger scheme in which they were reconciled. Both were innovators working with battered clichés. Both were treated indifferently at home and lionised in France. Both had run-ins with the FBI, possibly (in 1971 Ra and his Arkestra were invited to Oakland by Bobby Seale and lived for a while in a house owned by the Black Panther Party). Both were students of gnosticism and the Bible. Both had life-changing mystical experiences (in 1936 Ra underwent an ‘alien abduction’), but while the events of 2-3-74 led Dick to write his 8000-page exegesis, Ra lived his exegesis for the next 57 years, in person and on stage. Both were ontologically-troubled, perceiving the world as a veil (either that, or they were both persuasive charlatans). Both were self-mythologisers. Both have been called mad.
Of course, there were also many differences.
Dick never claimed to be from Saturn, nor did he describe Star Wars as ‘very accurate’. He was not a major figure in post-war jazz, or the frequently unacknowledged godfather of world music, or one of the first musicians to experiment extensively with electronic keyboards. Dick did not mount spectacular lightshows before the likes of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, the Grateful Dead and others whose attempts to transform gigs into overwhelming integrated audiovisual experiences are sometimes cited as inspiring VR’s total immersion grail.
Nor was Dick born black in Alabama in 1914.
And although Dick was keen, at one point, to make a movie (of Ubik (1969)), he failed. Ra, however, succeeded—even if it was not always clear that the barely-released, rarely-seen Space is the Place was a success.
The plot is straightforward enough. Ra, wandering in an alien garden, explains that he is establishing a Black colony there, to see what they can accomplish without white people around—but should he bring the colonists by ‘isotope transportation transmolecularisation’ or by teleporting them through music? Cut to Chicago, 1943. Sonny Ray is a nightclub pianist. Insulted by a well-dressed black pimp called the Overseer (Ray Johnson), his playing intensifies: glasses explode, smoke pours from the piano, everyone flees. Sonny Ray, now Ra, and the Overseer are transported to an arid plain—Chicago, it appears, was just another phase in an ongoing conflict. The Overseer accepts Ra’s challenge to a game of ‘the end of the world’. Ra flies to Oakland, California in a spaceship powered by the music of his Intergalactic Solar Arkestra. The Overseer recruits Jimmy Fey (Christopher Brooks), a reporter for ‘stone jive Channel Five’, to his cause, along with a brothel madam and two female nurses (who are treated throughout as little more than sex objects). Meanwhile, Ra reaches out to the ‘black youth of planet Earth’ and opens the Outer Space Employment Agency. He convinces the Overseer to up the stakes by letting him put on a show. Government agents abduct Ra and interrogate him about his spaceship’s power source and the African space programme, torturing him with a tape of what sounds like a high school band performing a particularly chipper version of ‘Dixie’. But the show goes on, and Sun Ra returns to space, taking with him a selection of African Americans to establish a colony on an uninhabited garden world. In order to secure this reversal of the Middle Passage from the interference of white people, Sun Ra destroys the Earth behind them.
Shot on 16mm with a tiny budget, the movie has some very rough edges: flat visuals, indifferent dialogue (Ra wrote his own), thin characters, weak performances, poor pacing and the kind of inconsistencies and incoherence one often associates with Ra’s self-consciously elusive and playful pronouncements. Director Coney cites movies like Rocketship X-M (Neumann 1950) and Cat Women of the Moon (Hilton 1954) as inspiring the deliberately cheesy special effects that, aware of budgetary constraints, they set out to create. Fortunately, this unpolished quality quite closely matches Ra’s own pre-punk DIY aesthetic—throughout his career, his and the Arkestra’s costumes were generally homemade and looked it, although those in the movie are of a better quality. (A more remarkable example of this DIY aesthetic is the drum Ra told bassoonist James Jacson to make from a lightning-struck tree opposite the Arkestra’s Philadelphia home—an incident Jacson recounts in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise). The movie’s rawness reflects the circumstances of its production. By Hollywood standards, it is only a little less professional than many blaxploitation movies, and more professional than some. But in judging such movies, Hollywood’s standards are not the most appropriate measure.
Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino’s 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ identified three kinds of filmmaking. First Cinema is the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators. Second Cinema comprises auteurist cinema and art cinema; but however well-intentioned it might be, it is a bourgeois cinema dependent upon First Cinema distribution. Third Cinema is neither commercial nor bourgeois. In its most militant forms, it is closely aligned with political groups, has clear political goals and is unconcerned with politically-debilitating myths of objectivity and balance. It is an activists’ cinema, embedded in struggle. 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 spectacles, Third World countries should aim to create an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggle. In addressing Space is the Place and some of the more radically inclined blaxploitation movies – Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles 1971), The Spook Who sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon 1973) – such standards and ideas might prove more appropriate.[i]
It is easy to deplore Hollywood’s destruction and depletion of other national cinemas. What is less obvious is the ways in, and extent to, which Hollywood has deprived the US of a national cinema, a tendency evident since the 1920s and currently foregrounded by the multinational ownership of the major Hollywood companies and their increasingly standard policy of treating the US as just one more territory in which they can sell movies. From this perspective, independent film can, depending on the degree and nature of its independence, be regarded as a national cinema manqué; and Space, Sweetback and Spook can be seen as efforts groping towards an indigenous Third Cinema.[ii] Their rawness and rough edges are products of the dialectics of perfect and imperfect cinema.
Space’s imperfections display the disjunctions of the era. Only a movie this marginal could:
- display pictures of Angela Davis, George Jackson, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and other black revolutionaries quite so proudly
- punish a villain by making his underlings, white and black alike, suddenly see him as a ‘nigger’ and treat him like one
- depict a race war in which whitey loses so comprehensively.[iii]
Only Space could present elements of Ra’s Astro Black Mythology, blending an outer space future with a black Egyptian past – rejecting centuries of Christian metaphorisation of Egypt as a place of bondage and claiming it instead as the Promised Land, as black civilisation.[iv]
And perhaps only such a marginal production could have displayed its misogyny so crudely. But to dismiss Space on this count would be problematic (and not just because many Hollywood productions of the period were just as bad, if more polished). Rather, it is another imperfection that opens up that particular historical conjuncture. This is not to exculpate – nor is it to damn with faint praise by reducing Space to the status of an interesting historical document. More accurate than Star Wars, it tries to offer a new hope, albeit an imperfect one.
Although as Mike Wayne argues in Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema (Pluto 2001) we should not regard these types of cinema as pigeonholes into which movies can be placed—instead, particular movies should be considered as embodying the dialectical interplay of these different cinemas.
The films of the LA Rebellion group, which mostly rejected blaxploitation, can be understood as another attempt.
Compare the wimped-out ending of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J Lee Thompson 1972).
See Graham Lock’s Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Duke 1999).