Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi & Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (Oct 2013) www.iafrofuturism.com
Kevin Wilmott is the director of the sci fi satire Destination: Planet Negro. The film follows scientist George Washington Carver and W.E.B. Dubois plotting to create a black settlement on Mars. The film was selected by the International Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago among others. I introduce the film for its second Chicago run on Tuesday, August 27 at the Gene Siskel Center, 164 N. State, 8:30 pm. (www.siskelfilmcenter.org)
Ytasha: Can you tell us a about the story?
Kevin: The character I play is Dr. Avery. He has a daughter and then there’s Race Johnson who is the pilot and captain of the ship. We take off to hopefully get to Mars and establish a new colony for black folks, but somehow they go through some kind of a black hole, time warp and wind up here in the US today. At first when they’re trying to escape it looks a lot like a 50s sci fi film. That part of the film I got to satirize. Those films were low budget and so were mine.
They are black professional educated folks who are hoping to solve the problems of the people and they wind up in a place that is literally another planet.
Ytasha: How do they respond to the new America?
Kevin: They find everything a little shocking. We make fun of the technology. When they land on the planet, they literally think they’ve landed on Mars but they are in a desolate area of Western Kansas. They are accidentally picked up by some people that are piloting undocumented workers and they think they are slaves. They think people of color are slaves on this planet. They see people on cell phones and texting and they think that’s how we’re controlled. Then they see a kid with sagging jeans, and they think he’s so malnourished that he can’t keep his pants up.
Kevin: Eventually they find out that President Obama is president and one of the astronauts faints. We have a lot of fun with all that. They hook up with three rappers. They try to help them navigate through today you see how black people are profiled. One has a little weed on them. They see how the jail is filled with black and Hispanic people. They thought that Jim Crow was over but they find out that it’s still going on.
We show how far we’ve come as a nation and we show how far we still need to go. In a funny and satirical way, but also a way that shows the difficulties of today.
Ytasha: The debate around progress is a common one among Black Americans. Why did you highlight this juxtaposition between progress and the challenges we wrestle with in the film?
Kevin: I think that’s the dilemma for Black Americans and America as a whole. We’ve come a great distance, but at the same time we can go a lot further. We’re trying to move forward and others are trying to go back. Some people think the old days were the good days and most black people think the old ways were bad for us. That was the overall conflict in the film and has been the conflict in the nation for quite a while.
Ytasha: How did you come up with the idea for the film?
Kevin: As a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, we watched all those sci fi movies: Lost in Space, Fantastic Voyage, and Fantastic Planet. I really liked science fiction that made a social point. Also, my parents were older. My father was 60 when I was born. I grew up with older people and hearing how things used to be. I can imagine what they would think about Obama being president today.. I wanted to make a film that illustrated that. I’ve always been interested in making a film about black folks in space. Also, I liked the idea of people trying to find a better place for themselves. In Kansas, we had black settlements and people who made films here.
Ytasha: Why did you include George Washington Carver and a school that resembled Tuskegee?
Kevin: At that time in the early 30s, late 30s, Tuskegee was the place for blacks trying to receive a better education. I probably would have used Tuskegee, but I didn’t know if they would give me permission, so I made it Booker T Washington University. George Washington Carver, created the rocket fuel. It shows black folks trying to solve their problems. The year 39 was important, it was right before WW2 and things got a little better after WW2. Before then black people were in a really difficult dilemma and there wasn’t hope that they would ever change.
Ytasha: Time travel is a popular device in sci-fi, but it’s also popular in Afrofuturism. What significance does time travel have?
Kevin: Time is a different concept when you come from an oppressed point of view. The time we’re in is not a perfect time. For an African American, to acknowledge the past is common. I look at how the past influences us today. The regressives don’t want to acknowledge the past at all. They don’t want to acknowledge that the past has any effect on us today. In time travel you can’t escape it. In the film it is 1939 and people are so desperate to get out of their conditions that they want to go to Mars. Today we have an African American president but you also have racial profiling. To me, time travel is a beautiful way to illustrate how far we’ve come from and how far we have to go. All of that is what leads to telling these kinds of stories.
Ytasha: What do you think about Afrofuturism?
Kevin: I think it’s interesting that this has always been a part of black music and literature. I didn’t realize I was doing this until I looked at the context and saw how my film Confederate States of America and Destination: Planet Negro is part of a larger genre of black people expressing themselves around ideas about the future.
For more information go to www.planetnegro.com