Black Star is a celebration of the range, versatility and power of black actors on film and TV, taking place in cinemas nationwide, on DVD and on BFI Player, October-December 2016
The world changes, but our need to take a break from it doesn’t. From H.G. Wells’s scientific fantasies to the popularity of the Marvel franchise and The Hunger Games, sci-fi has always been a preferred mode of escapism.
The reasons are numerous. One theory, by the 19th-century sociologist Max Weber, is that the west is in a state of disenchantment because of our society’s focus on rationality and bureaucracy over mysticism and wonder. This suggests that many people are leading predictable, stable lives and need an injection of fear and magic that seems completely removed from their own experiences. Or at least they used to feel that way.
2016 has been a fearful year. We’ve seen natural disasters, endless wars, the normalisation of far-right politics and a rise in white supremacy. Sometimes, sci-fi no longer feels like escapist fantasy. After the year we’ve all experienced it feels like we’re at the beginning of a film about a group of plucky teenagers who band together to take down the tyrant terrorising their world.
The real world has become more frightening, not least for black people living in societies that are flirting with white supremacy. History shows us that there’s a high chance of a downwards spiral from here. The first to get hit will be that most visible other: people of colour.
Credit: Public domain
Even though it feels like we can no longer escape as easily, this is actually a time when we need sci-fi more than ever. Cinematic depictions of black heroes, saviours and black visions of the future can offer us a guide to navigate our way through the maze of the real world.
If we are to believe the Weber theory, a dystopian future would come as something of a surprise to white westerners; it would be in opposition to what they believe they’ve experienced before. This doesn’t stand up for marginalised people. They have plenty of experience feeling, as cultural critic Mark Dery writes in his 1994 essay ‘Black to the Future’, like “a stranger in a strange land”.
Dery writes that black people “inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies”.
Dery explains that although much of western society will see the cruelty of dystopian futures as a new reality, black people – who have already experienced the humiliation of racism – will only see a slightly different world where they are still disenfranchised and it won’t come as a surprise.
This is most evidently seen in Joe Cornish’s cult British indie, Attack the Block (2011), which envisages a present day south London estate overrun by vengeful aliens. The film focuses on a seemingly unshockable multiracial gang of teenagers who are regarded as “fucking monsters” by their elderly neighbour and disregarded by society. Compared to this an alien invasion seems like nothing. As an unfazed gang member called Pest says: “Walking around expecting to get jumped feels like another day in the ends to me.”
No one tells the crew that the creatures are aliens, they just know. And they work it faster than others around them. Trainee nurse Samantha refuses to recognise the monsters for what they are, even after seeing them attack the group with their fluorescent blue teeth. A reaction we know all too well from this year’s recent US election. Look to Donald Trump for a real world parallel. He revealed himself to be the creature he warned us about, yet the benefit of the doubt has been given to him by so many in the media. Marginalised people haven’t taken this approach. We prefer to believe the wolf when he says he’ll blow our house down.
Attack the Block flips the script. It positions those often left at the margins as the central components of the story. This is also seen in the film adaptation of Children of Men (2006), where the future of humanity rests on the shoulders of a pregnant black woman (Kee) in a dying world where every other woman is infertile. Kee is a relatively passive character, relying on a white protagonist to lead her to safety, but she is also a rare depiction of black woman and a refugee as a key character in a sci-fi film. She’s the migrant we’re shown so rarely in parts of the British media: the hero, the saviour – the vital part of a developing new society.
Compared to Children of Men, black women in Lizzie Borden’s feminist indie classic Born in Flames (1983) take an active approach to saving the world and themselves. Born in Flames focuses on America a decade after a social democratic revolution when the country begins to lean towards the right. As a result, women and minorities are the first to be impacted by the fallout.
Fighting back are the Women’s Army led by Adelaide Norris; they are a majority black lesbian group who are regarded as terrorists by the government. Norris dies in police custody, but the group are not deterred from their mission to expose the government for who they are and restore order to the country through radical action.
The most arresting element of Born in Flames is its similarity to our reality. Governments that claim to be for the people but are anything but, police brutality and the targeting of activists, the divisions between white and black, men and women; these issues all exist in the film’s dystopia and our reality today. In the film, as in the real world, black women and LGBTQ people lead the fight against creeping authoritarianism.
Born in Flames represents an element of sci-fi that is no longer sci-fi; we’ve caught up to it and it has become our present rather than a potential future. Where we may go now depends on your reading of the past, but also on your knowledge of film culture. Follow the movies and your best options for surviving these tough times include facing the threat head on, calling out racism where you see it and – perhaps – joining a girl gang. Oh and if there’s a pregnant migrant woman in need, give her a hand. Our future might depend on it.