FANTASIA OBSCURA: Jazz legend Sun Ra Brings Black Power from Outer Space

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you just get fed up and want to fly away when you see how little’s been done…

Space is the Place (1974)

Distributed by: Rhapsody Films

Directed by: John Coney

When you mention Afrofuturism, the first thing to come to the mind of the modern audience is usually this film:

As significant as Black Panther is, as both representation for those who don’t get an equal say as well as for genre work in general, it is also the inheritor of a tradition started many years before with the jazz artist and visionary Sun Ra.

In 1971, Sun Ra’s journey, which included proclaimed trips to Saturn as well as documented long residences in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, during which time he formed the Arkestra and expanded the boundaries of bebop and big band jazz, led him to deliver a series of lectures at UC Berkeley. Entitled “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” he used his position as artist in residence on the campus to discuss in his class his worldview, which drew upon Rosicrucianism and Ancient Egyptian mythology to suggest that African Americans were better off disassociating with their current lot and starting on their own elsewhere, where they could expand their consciousness and be better attuned with the universe.

It’s out of these lectures that Jim Newman, a San Francisco gallery curator and jazz musician, built upon Ra’s discussions and ended up producing his first feature, which opens with the following declaration by Ra, who plays a version of himself in the film:

We next find ourselves in 1943 Chicago, where Ra is a piano player at a strip club, working under the name “Sonny Ray.” One night, in walks the Overseer (Raymond Johnson), a man with a stake in keeping African Americans from being awoken. He asks the club owner (Christopher Brooks in his last feature role) to fire Sonny, but before that can be carried out Ra makes his presence known, with a keyboard solo that literally shatters glass and hurls people down the stairs.

From there, after formal acknowledgements, Ra and the Overseer teleport away (as beings beyond our existence are wont to do) and sit at a table in the desert and play a game for the fate of African Americans. Ra hopes to be able to take them with him to the planet he discovered, while the Overseer would rather continue with making their lives one of pain and worthlessness.

As the game starts, we find ourselves in the present (1974), where Ra and his Arkestra have landed their spaceship in Oakland, CA. There to cover the event for the media is Jimmy Fay (Brooks), who as a person tied to the Overseer is predisposed to cover Ra’s adventures with a cynical take when he’s not in Ra’s presence. Even after meeting the man and starting to get Ra’s message, Fay has to try and compromise Ra’s mission on behalf of his boss.

A mission that Ra explains to Fay and to us soon after disembarking from his ship:

And it is further discussed by Ra when he visits a youth center in Oakland to discuss his plans with an audience that challenges him:

As he promises, Ra sets up his agency, where he interviews clients whom in HR speak are “not a good fit”:

For much of the film, the Overseer seems to be racking up points in his game with Ra; he seems comfortable watching things go as they do while his companions Candy (Barbara Deloney) and Tania (Erika Leder) suffer indignities at his hands. And when the two government agents (Walter Burns and Morgan Upton) who were doing surveillance on Ra decide to kidnap him, things seem desperate for the musician…

Although there is some debate whether the term “musician” is encompassing enough to describe Sun Ra. By the time of the film, having released over 40 recordings of studio and live work reinforcing his statements, Ra had a developed worldview, if not a full-on philosophy, that he presented to his audiences. It was a belief that trying to stay within the patterns and confines of what had passed before was just not working, and that the best response to the diaspora was to disengage and go elsewhere, preferably off Earth.

It’s a faith in humanity’s ability to pick themselves up and leave this planet that puts the film on the same plane as many of the other great space exploration films of the mid-20th Century. This “New Frontier”-inspired faith that in reaching for the stars we address all our problems is a major motif found in science fiction through this time. What separates this from its contemporaries is its willingness to address race relations head on in a radical and frank manner, one that gets in the face of the viewer and asks them on the spot for a gut check.

This is also the main theme of Ra’s work up to and including this film, the belief that there’s nothing here for African Americans, whether “here” is Earth or just the United States, and that it’s time to move on. The call to disengage and reject the status quo certainly would have shocked audiences then, whether the statement was embraced wholeheartedly or as a piece of performance art; either way, it’s a statement that carries a lot of heft the way Ra delivers it.

Cover of the album that was inspired by the film, which was released in addition to the soundtrack album

Indeed, the approach to this statement comes up in the film itself, when some of Ra’s followers question if his stark pronouncements are meant to just sell records. That these folks reach Ra just as he’s kidnapped by the government and requires their help seems to state pretty clearly where the film comes down on the issue; even the fact that for this section Space is the Place uses the “getting the act to the stage on time” trope found in other films starring musicians doesn’t diminish the call for leaving the planet and finding better elsewhere, which was likely distressing for some audiences back in the day.

The most distressing thing about the film in the present is that much of what prompted Sun Ra to state what he did is still with us; if anything, it’s worse than it was in 1974. This small movie, with its low budget effects and a story drawn from Ra’s classes after the fact, more a set of sketches to buttress a concert film than a screenplay, would on paper appear to be a very unlikely project of note. And yet it holds our attention because it speaks to very real issues regarding how we get along with each other, and how things have gotten so bad that there doesn’t seem to be a way forward together.

It speaks so well and straightforward, in fact, that it enables the film to be the very first serious work of Afrofuturism. Everything that comes after this point, from George Clinton pushing the release of Parliament’s Mothership Connection, through the film The Brother from Another Planet, right up to A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Space Program” and Black Panther, owes a major debt to this film and its philosophy. If nothing else, Sun Ra’s film allowed us to be aware that there are problems so great which may force us to take up radical solutions.

Thanks to this movie, audiences might not have known to ask for the “Pax Wakanda” had they not been told before that space is the place…

NEXT TIME: Yes, there is still magic to find in movies, from time to time…

About James Ryan 134 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…