A Critique of Afrofuturism…and more

A critical response to Afrofuturism…

A good friend left the following response on my Facebook page where I had posted a link to my previous post on Afrofuturism, the Studio Museum etc. As I didn’t explicitly get his permission to repost his comment here I won’t name him but he raises some compelling points. While I might agree with some of them I think the main thing is that Afrofuturism is about fantasy, a fantasy of shedding a troublesome past as the two tweets by @StormSaulter indicate. By no means is it a substitute for investment in scientific research or a so-called scientific outlook. So I don’t think the existence of what we call Afrofuturism is at the expense of scientific inquiry or even a placeholder for it. In fact it’s the opposite, an artistic impulse that is futuristic in orientation. Anyway…what do YOU think? Is it a ‘timewank’ to borrow a phrase from Irvine Welsh or is there more to it?

Thanks for heads up on the show. It would be interesting to read whatever texts accompany it to see if at last anyone has finally put forward an articulate, intelligent thesis of what exactly they mean by Afrofuturism beyond inchoate mentions of computers, Octavia Butler, and Africa.
Of the tweet excerpts that you reproduced in the blog there’s only one seriously intelligent line, and it isn’t from the Afrofuturists. It is from Greg Tate where he asks: Well, what isn’t futurist about being Black in America? That’s the first brick of theory at long last, the first spark of serious philosophical thought. The rest is humdrum rehashes of anecdotes and George Clinton.
The fact is that futurism (as most Afrofuturists appear to still understand it) without a serious culture of scientific adventurism is like the proverbial faith without work: it’s meaningless and dead. And, the other fact is that African cultures, no matter where they are, have yet to embrace scientific inquiry let alone adventurism. So, the science fiction remains fiction without a chance of transforming into fact the way Western science fiction consistently transforms into fact, and the utopia is nothing but dystopia.
In my thinking only Tate’s twist in the tale promises to open up a meaningful philosophical platform for defining and understanding the idea of an Afro futurism: one that isn’t about “I’m interested in using gadgets and looking weird, so, I’m an Afrofuturist”, but broaches the comprehensive philosphere of a culture that survives on dreams.
It’s interesting to wear Fula robes and kaftans (not even Dogon) and plastic sunglasses and perform alien descendants of Dogon astronomers visiting Earth. It would be even more interesting for people to emerge from within the culture(s), that is, African cultures be it in the West or on the continent, who have the mindset to invent Google Glass. If you see what I mean. Otherwise, to me the futurism stuff remains mostly a pitiful, mannerist “our ancestors built the pyramids” give me a break, quite frankly.
(PS. Notice the peculiar dissonance between European Futurism–Russian, Italian–which was about dynamism, speed, ascension, the future, and streams of Afrofuturism that seem to be about the past, the Dogon, alienation, hurt memory, or at best, mere consumerism, and hardly about ascent or the future!)

Well, as I said, some cogently argued points there although the rage is perhaps misplaced. The following tweets  articulate some of the reasons for the fascination with Afrofuturism:

Storm Saulter @StormSaulter
–nowadays deep seated issues of race, class, slavery etc. are mashing up with modern life and expectations of what life should be

–it’s refreshing 2 imagine a future where Afro culture/style exists in highest beauty w out always connecting it to a painful past

Ytasha Womack @ytashawomack
–The imagination spurs creativity and  scientific inquiry alike #afrofuturism

–triggers the imagination & helps many see beyond convention.

Better CAN come: Interview with Storm Saulter

Interview with Storm Saulter

 

Storm do you plan to subtitle the film when it goes abroad or are you thinking primarily of a diaspora audience who are familiar w Patwa?

We will definitely subtitle the film. We have already done so in standard English. And are working on a Spanish version right now. Anywhere this film can go, we will do what’s necessary for it to be understood. Italian, German, Japanese. This has always been a project with international goals.

I loved when the camera panned to various creatures watching from the sidelines, the dog in the opening sequence, the lovely shot of lizard on banana leaf seen through the leaf, the ubiquitous rooster, I don’t remember all of them but there were several. Do you have a special relationship w animals? Only someone very sensitive to animals would have included their viewpoint…Also it suggests to me that you’re emphasizing the fact that the subjects of the film, i.e. human beings, are just another type of animal? Or maybe I’m reading too much into all this?

Your thoughts are correct. We are all animals living within a social jungle, which can be vicious and deadly, i.e.  Ras David’s brutal murder, or calm and still, i.e. the Lizard on the leaf.  These shots are cut together to illustrate that point. I do love animals, and the simplicity of their motives. They need food, shelter, security, just like humans, minus the ego.

Remarkable set of actors you found. Was it a deliberate move to use relatively unknown ones as opposed to the usual cast of characters we see in play after play and film after film?

It is always a joy for me as a creator, and a viewer, to discover fresh talent. These actors come with no lingering image of a previous performance. The audience will be committed to them that much more, and believe their screen characters to be more real. And of course, these actors were excellent; they all brought something unexpected to their roles. This was the first film for all of them. I am very proud to have worked with them. And I will continue to do so.

The music you used was brilliant, it complemented the film rather than attracted attention to itself. The flute music, was that native American music? it sounded like music I’ve heard by the Native Flute ensemble….you didn’t hesitate to use music from elsewhere right?

The flute was played by my father Bertram Saulter. So was the harmonica, which became a thematic sound in the film. The original Score was created by Wayne Armond and Marlon Stewart-Gaynor. Additional music from Earl “Chinna” Smith, and the internationally renowned Canadian producer Daniel Lanois (U2) blessed us with some experimental tracks. I never wanted in-your-face
Songs, but rather to create subtle soundscapes that would fill the air and build ambience to accompany the visual, rather than compete with it.

I noticed a special focus on Rastafari, btw I found the final scene incredibly poetic and haunting, when Ricky’s spirit swims away shaking his locks, it made a tragic moment, one of hope and optimism of a rebirth. I like the fact that the film wasn’t literal like many other Jamaican films have been. One can’t talk about the end too much because it would act as a spoiler, the film’s power lies in the build-up towards the climax, you really captured your audience and swept it along with you…so have you flirted with Rastafari yourself? Are you sympathetic?

I am sympathetic to the original ideals of Rastafari. The importance of self respect, and seeking knowledge of the true state of things. Though nowadays there are many criminals and degenerates within “Rastaman” ranks, who have completely diluted the potency of the message. My parents were Rastafari, and I believe still are in their hearts. I feel Rasta has had a positive impact worldwide but never truly discovered its potential coming out of the 70’s. There are many confused people claiming to be messengers of Rastafari nowadays. But I do recognize the ability of Rasta philosophy to have positive impact on at-risk youth.

That beautiful coastline the camera looks down on at the beginning and end, where is that? Is it Negril?

No, that is the rocky south coastline, very similar to the conditions in the area of the Green Bay Military Outpost.

Finally the film was shot in Sandy Park and even includes a resident who acted one of the key roles. How did the community fare in the recent rains? Are they ok?

Sandy Park is a very strong community, full of talented people. Typical of almost any Jamaican Community, but there is an undeniable creative spirit thriving in that place. They experienced a serious tragedy in the recent flooding, losing an entire family of 6, including 4 children, when the gully gave way on the morning of Wednesday, September 29th.  As they mourned their loss, they also finally had the opportunity to celebrate this film that we all worked on, and have been anticipating. With the range of emotion they have been going through, the people of Sandy Park are still truly smiling, and rejoicing life, in the face of sudden death, it is something you have to learn to do living in a ghetto reality. Too many Jamaicans have to master that skill. Sandy Park was the backbone of this production, and the young talent rising out of there, particularly Ricardo ‘Flames’ Orgill, and Dwayne ‘Dogheart’ Pusey, is the truly inspiring story in this whole movement.

One concern I have is that foreign audiences might not be familiar enough with events here to follow the story. For instance the trauma of Green Bay may only resonate w Jamaicans. Do you see that as something that might prevent the global success of BMC?

Better Mus’ Come is ultimately a human story, the story of a man faced with hard choices, in a hard time. This is a universal story, and I hope that this will resonate despite the specifics of that event. Millions of people all over the world are interested in Jamaica. For our cultural impact, our impact on sports etc. They all tuned in to follow the events of our recent State of Emergency. This film is the best description of the link between politics and gangs, as well as a study of the root causes of our instability, and the issues that influenced our most successful creative statements ( Bob Marley’s music amongst others). I believe there is ample reason for this film to be an international success.
BETTER MUS COME!

Look pon di life we living…Better Mus’ Come?

A response to the film Better Mus’ Come


The movie Better Mus’ Come (BMC from now on), which opens to the public in Jamaica on October 13,  is the most exciting development i’ve seen on the local scene for a long time. It signals the end of a long drought in Jamaican film-making and shatters the formula the few movies that have been made here have followed. The film premiered in Kingston on Thursday evening, a great end to an unsettling day when it rained for hours and the earth briefly shuddered. Incredibly on my way out of the Carib car park after the premiere Betta Mus Come by Buju was playing on Irie FM. I couldn’t help wondering if this too had been arranged by the resourceful director of the film, Storm Saulter.

It’s not often that locals get to see themselves on the big screen, especially in a full length feature film with such excellent production values as BMC.  The film is an imaginative depiction of the daily trauma that passes for life in the postcolony, the tough, internecine runnings of people caught between “implacably opposed” political parties (to quote my friend Antonym), and the complete lack of access to basic resources to improve their impoverished lives. This may sound too much like real life, too close to home, too harsh a subject, after all a movie is supposed to transport you to new worlds and new imaginaries…but BMC holds up the imperfect lives we lead for scrutiny without surrendering the lyricism and poetry present even in the meanest streets of Kingston.

BMC is the brainchild of Storm Saulter, who has been instrumental in revitalizing the local cine world with initiatives such as the film festival in Negril where his family are in the hospitality business; he’s also the producer of the New Caribbean Cinema series, an innovative collaborative of filmmakers. Where other film industry folk have balked at going, claiming lack of funding and subsidies from government, Saulter has stormed the ramparts, showing that nothing can stop sheer determination and creativity. As he said in a recent interview “This is not the only country where access to funding is limited. So the “filmmakers” need to stop using that as an excuse and find a way to tell their stories. Once you show potential investors that you know how to make a successful product then they will come. But don’t expect them to risk their money on something before its proven”.

And with BMC Storm has proven that he is a force to be reckoned with. Using an almost entirely local cast and crew (American actor Roger Guenveur Smith is the only foreigner) Saulter recreates the atmosphere of Jamaica in the seventies, the era of the Green Bay Killings, the extrajudicial killing of young men affiliated to the Jamaica Labour Party by the security forces, which remains a reference point in the country today. Dudley Thompson, the security minister of the day and the person Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke was reputedly nicknamed after, is reported to have argued that ‘no angels died at Green Bay’.

The eerie thing about BMC is its currency. Although supposedly set in the seventies, 25-30 years ago, the film could easily be about life in Kingston’s ghettoes today. And that is the abiding tragedy of postcolonial life, in Jamaica and elsewhere: democracy remains an illusion, a mirage behind which lurk unimaginable regimes of violence. It is this tenuousness of life today, of life thirty years ago that BMC captures so unforgettably. Too many people, Jamaicans included, have bought into the myth that Jamaicans are inherently violent, that there is a culture of violence here. In BMC Saulter tries to show that on the contrary violence is produced by the structured inequalities and dysfunctionality of postcolonial life in  societies such as Jamaica.

Saulter works his grim raw material with with finesse and sensitivity. Some of the finest touches in the film for me were the fleeting shots of animals observing the activities of the humans around them. Sleeping dogs woken by tanks turning the corner, a talkative rooster, a lizard perched lightly on a banana leaf seen through the translucent underside of the leaf and the lyrical scene where Kemala, the female lead, dances in and out of the washing hung out to dry. There are streaks of tenderness running through BMC, a foil to an otherwise unremittingly dark and menacing theme.

Perhaps the most poignant and poetic scene in the film is the one of Ricky swimming underwater, locks billowing around him. There is something powerful and symbolic about this shot of a Rasta cleaving his way through the blue green water of the Caribbean sea. Throughout the film Rastafari is portrayed sympathetically, as a force for change and progress. The teacher in BMC is a Rasta, and at one point Ricky attends a Nyabinghi and is clearly attracted to the faith.

The actor who plays the male lead, Sheldon Shepherd, is a remarkable find. The lead singer of the furiously inventive group NOMADZZ, Shepherd is a natural actor. His portrayal of Ricky, the single Dad trying to bring up a young boy in the inhospitable climate of the ghetto is masterful, senstively rendered and filled with grace. The female lead, Nicole Grey, is equally competent. Both deliver their roles with understated eloquence and lightness.

Incredibly in making this film Saulter had to negotiate the same hostile terrain he portrays in it, getting permission from local dons to shoot in their neighbourhoods. In an interview with Yardedge he described the process with matter-of-fact elan:

Jamaica is somewhat lawless, like the wild west of filmmaking. That is definitely true when it comes to local film production. This can be very liberating as a filmmaker, but also kinda tricky at times. For example, don’t bother getting permits to film at a specific location, cause at the end of the day, the “Big Man” has to give the go ahead. That said, when you reach an understanding with said “Big Man” all of a sudden you are able to move mountains, the entire community is involved, and that is often the only way to have genuine protection. This needs to ultimately change in Jamaica, but until that point we filmmakers have to use it to our advantage, and approach our productions as if we are in the wild west, trying to get the stagecoach across the desert in one piece, without losing any passengers to the marauding cowboys.

With BMC Saulter has truly broken the mould of Jamaican film-making. The sets were designed by artist Khalil Deane, a graduate of the Edna Manley School of Visual Art. BMC’s soundtrack is also outstanding and varied. The film references and deliberately recalls that earlier masterpiece of Jamaican film-making The Harder They Come although it is completely different in aim and strategy. In many ways BMC is the visual counterpart to some of what the best songs from the dancehall have been drawing attention for years. Vybz Kartel’s hit song Life We Living is an eloquent case in point (see below). How can we look the other way anymore? After this film we either make sure that Better Mus’ Come or forever admit the failure of life in this postcolony.

Di garrison need a betta way
And a betta life (fi we pickney dem)
Society,
Please don’t condemn di ghetto to hell
Just…

[Chorus:]
Look pon di life we living
Look pon di life we living
Look pon di life we living
Is a betta way we seekin
Look pon di life we living
Look pon di life we living

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