Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Destination: Planet Negro!

Destination: Planet Negro! is a low-budget American independent film from writer-director-actor Kevin Willmott. Out of the mainstream of commercial distribution, this satirical comedy is picking up some good reviews and festival commendations. It's politically incorrect in many places, but its social and political heart is in the right place: it uses an affectionate parody of early science fiction films to rapidly get to a smart but uncomfortable analysis of American politics of race.

The reason for this review on Bradburymedia? The premise of the film (but only the premise) coincides almost exactly with Ray Bradbury's assessment of "the Negro problem" (as it was then sometimes called) in his 1950 story "Way in the Middle of the Air", first published as a chapter of The Martian Chronicles.

In Bradbury's story, African-Americans have had enough, and spontaneously decide en masse that they are going to leave the Earth, and start again on Mars. Even at the time of publication, the story presented an unlikely scenario, but it allowed Bradbury to make some sharp points about the mistreatment of minorities, and some sections of the white population's inability to get over the idea of equality. Bradbury was aware of the difficult politics he was dealing with, and equally aware of the artificiality of the story. With the passage of time, and in particular the growth of the Civil Rights movement, "Way in the Middle of the Air" appeared dated, leading Bradbury to remove it from later reprintings of The Martian Chronicles. The story remained available as an isolated short story, but the author considered it no longer sustainable in a supposedly futuristic SF novel.

Destination: Mars. Turn left at the asteroid belt.

A similar logic motivates the black intelligentsia of the year 1939 at the start of Destination: Planet Negro! as they reluctantly agree that starting again elsewhere is the only solution to the "Negro problem". But where to go? Surely not to Africa, nor to the North or South Poles, nor to Europe. No, the solution is Mars. What convinces them is the expertise of Dr Warrington Avery (played by Willmott), backed up by a delightfully sprightly and potty-mouthed George Washington Carver. Carver's earlier liaison with Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard has led to the development of a super-rocket, built on technology derived from peanuts and sweet potatoes ("What that man can't do with peanuts", says one observer).

Intrepid heroes: Tosin Morohunfola, Danielle Cooper, Kevin Willmott.

And so begins a film which looks for all the world like a fairly mindless comedy. Shot in black and white to resemble a contemporary science-fiction film, with a spaceship crew made up of Dr Avery, his beautiful and highly intelligent astronomer daughter, and barnstorming pilot Race ("Call me Ace"), it has some good sight gags and verbal wit. Oh, and a robot which George Washington Carver has programmed to sound like his master from slavery days. Like I said, political correctness is not a concern of this film!

Of course, trouble arises, and the ship is accidentally propelled not to Mars, but to some mysterious other world. At this point, the film goes to full colour, Wizard of Oz style. As our heroes explore this world, they discover it has some remarkable similarities to Earth. Humanoids. Speaking English (and Spanish). And indications of slavery. They get their first clue about the slavery when they are forced to ride with some Spanish-speaking migrant workers. "On our planet," observes Dr Avery, "they would be considered... Mexicans."

Dr Avery's theorising takes a slightly Bradburyan turn - echoes of Fahrenheit 451 in this case - when he observes that some of the natives have little wires running to their ears, which cause them to vibrate and gyrate. The wires are connected to "little typewriters." Clearly, a mechanism by which their overseers control them. Most disturbing of all: some of the slaves are obviously malnourished, and barely have the strength to hold up their pants.

Enslaved by the wires and the little typewriter.

Of course, they're on present-day Earth. Far from having travelled to a distant place, they have travelled through time. And here, while the humour continues, the film shows its true, Jonathan Swift-like technique: this is a pointed political satire, dressed up as comic fantasy. Our heroes learn about the Civil Rights movement, and how it brought about change - ultimately, a black president, black heroes of popular culture - but somehow still made little difference. Temporarily locked in jail, Dr Avery observes that all of his fellow prisoners are non-white. Segregation has ended?

Dr Avery explores modern day Kansas - another Oz reference, but Willmott also hails from Kansas. Accompanying Karen Wilborn, a professor of black studies, he is able to sum up with sadness what she teaches him about segregation and integration:

"So we integrated with them, but they... didn't integrate with us."

Twenty-first-century malnutrition: not even the strength to pull up their pants.

The film confronts head-on the apparent paradox of twenty-first-century American race politics: the biggest American heroes of movies, music, sport and politics may be black; but at the same time, the prison population is predominantly black. It also, by way of a subplot, head-on addresses homophobia and its apparent persistence in American black culture, and indeed has a gay character ultimately saving the world through safe sex and a time-paradox plot to kill Hitler. (It's hard to explain. You'll have to watch the film.)

As a low-budget film, it occasionally struggles with technical problems, such as the odd quirk in the soundtrack, but surprisingly the SF stuff - rocketships, meteors, black holes - is done well, in its "Buster Crabbe, Flash in the pan" way, to paraphrase one of the characters.

To be honest, as a white Englishman, I can't imagine that I am the intended audience for this film, and I'm sure its true audience will appreciate it even more than I do. But whether you enjoy it for the SF spoofiness, the politics, George Washington Carver saying "motherf***er", or a 1930s barnstormer learning to do a twenty-first-century urban walk, enjoy it you probably will.

Learning to walk the walk.

I don't know when, or even if, you will get a chance to see this film, but you can follow it on its Facebook page, and perhaps catch a screening at a film festival some time. Don't be put off by its illusion of Flash Gordon or Conquest of Space datedness, or its slightly slow and talky opening. It's a witty and well constructed story, played by some excellent actors, just done on a low budget. I want to see more from Kevin Wilmott, evidently a clever satirist.

As we remember him today? George Washington Carver. What that man can't do with peanuts.

This is one of two films to come out this year with a premise that sounds like a Bradbury story (the other one is Gravity, whose premise sounds like the short story "Kaleidoscope"). Beyond the premise, though, I can safely say that this is not Bradbury. But it does have a satiric edge and a plea for diversity which Ray might approve of.


lrobhubbard said...

Willmott is also the writer/director of the satirical alternate history film C.S.A. - THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA, done a few years back and available from IFC Films.

Also worth looking for: THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN, with Wes Studi... it's a western, but there's just a touch of the horror element present.

THE BATTLE FOR BUNKER HILL also has hints of genre (neo-Western and the post-apocalypse) where a small community is isolated from the outside world due to an unknown event. With James McDaniel, Kevin Geer, Blake Robbins and Saeed Jaffrey, it's now available VOD and should go into larger markets in 2014.

His newest film, JAYHAWKERS, should be in festivals in 2014.

Phil said...

Thanks for the additional information. I already have some of these other films on my wishlist!