The Invisible Universe in Speculative Fiction Film (M. Asli Dukan)

Video description

This video essay opens with a question, “Why is the future always so white in speculative fiction films?” Over the next five minutes, filmmaker, M. Asli Dukan goes on to speculate on the history and future of Black speculative filmmaking.

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Creator bio

M. Asli Dukan is a director, producer, editor and media arts educator. She graduated from The City University of New York with an MFA in 1999, where she received the best editing award for her thesis film, Sleeping on a train in Motion. Her speculative fiction (SF) short films have screened at several film festivals around the country including in Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Seattle and in New York City. She has been awarded several media grants including most recently the Leeway Art and Change grant in 2014. In 2000, she founded Mizan Media Productions where she has produced and directed several music videos, including Boot for Tamar-kali and Do You Mind for Hanifah Walidah, which debuted on LOGO TV in 2008. She is currently in post-production on two feature length documentaries – Invisible Universe, about the history of representations of Black people in SF books and movies, and Songs for Nina, a music and travel documentary, in collaboration the Black Rock Coalition, and set in France. Her next project is the feature length anthology horror film, Skin Folk, based on the book by award winning SF writer, Nalo Hopkinson. She also hosts The Invisible Universe Vlog Series on Youtube, which is dedicated to topics related to the history of Black SF.


Transcript and description of the video: (Image descriptions written by the filmmaker.)

[The Invisible Universe logo ­ a grayscale drawing on a black background of a face of a person with West African features embedded in a planet shape and with a ray of light emitting from its surface appears in the lower center/right of the screen, along with the white video title ­ “IUVLOG #02, The Invisible Universe in Speculative Fiction Film” in the upper left of the screen. Both cut in together from a black screen.]

[The filmmaker, center screen, cuts in, replacing the title. The Invisible Universe logo will stay in the background of the entire video from this point on. The filmmaker asks a question.]
Filmmaker: Why is the future always so white in speculative fiction films?

[Cut to two back to back shots from the film, THX 1138 (1973). The first shot is tight pan across a series of old, white, male faces. On top of the image it says, “THE FUTURE IS COMING”. The next shot is two dozen, similarly white suited, seemingly white bodies sitting in the three communal rows of what looks like a lecture hall. On top of the image it says, “THE FUTURE IS COMING”. Ominous electronic sounds play underneath the images.]

[Cut back to the filmmaker, right of the screen, talking. To her upper left, a series of movie posters flash by on the screen. Posters: A Trip to the Moon (1902), First Men in the Moon (1919), Metropolis (1927), Flash Gordon (1936), Things to Come (1936), Buck Rogers (1939), Destination Moon (1950), Rocketship X­M (1950), Forbidden Planet (1956), The Time Machine (1960), The Last Man on Earth (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), THX 1138 (1971), Silent Running (1972), Logan’s Run (1976), Star Wars (1977), Outland (1981), Tron (1982), Dune (1984), Total Recall (1990), Stargate (1994), Gattaca (1997), Artificial Intelligence (2001), The Fountain (2006), Watchmen (2009), Inception (2010), Another Earth (2011), Limitless (2011), Europa Report (2013), Her (2013), The Purge (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). New Image: a drawing of a white, male director yelling through a bullhorn and a director’s chair next to him.]
Filmmaker: To put it simply, it’s primarily because in the 110 plus years of speculative fiction filmmaking, white people have been literally calling the shots.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, left of the screen, talking. To her upper right, four images. The first two, are side by side, one is the movie poster from The Birth of a Nation (1915), the other is a quote from President Woodrow Wilson commenting on the film; The third image is a movie poster from Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015); The fourth is a photo of the Hollywood sign]
Filmmaker: When it comes to the highly influential and often expensive medium of film, white creators have dominated the genres of speculative fiction as producers, writers and directors.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, right of the screen, talking. To her upper left, a series of images; First, two side by side photos of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells; Second, a clip from moon landing scene and scientist emerging from the ship from A Trip to the Moon (1902); The third clip from the water planet landing and the astronaut emerging from the ship from Interstellar (2014)]

Filmmaker: And like the speculative fiction literature produced by white writers, even before the invention of motion pictures, speculative fiction films have been guided by the white fantastic imagination, where the futuristic, fantastic, and/or extra­imaginative stories reflect a white supremacist perspective of the world.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: In fact, the idea of an all white future, which has been the status quo in speculative fiction literature and films, is not actually an unfamiliar concept in reality.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, right of the screen, talking. To her upper left, a series of images: First the book cover of “Sundown Towns”, then two real images of signs promoting “Whites Only” communities]
Filmmaker: In the United States, for instance, “sundown towns”, or intentional all­white communities, came into existence around the 1890’s and are estimated to have peaked at 10,000 by 1970.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, left of the screen, talking. To her upper right, a series of images: A warning headline, an old news headline referencing Black people, a drawing of a sundown town sign for Black people, another warning sign for Spanish and Mexicans, another warning sign for Japanese people, a photograph of Black people being run out of town, a news headline about racial violence against Black people, a photograph of a Black woman killed in a sundown town]
Filmmaker: These racially segregated towns were present in every state of the continental United States, from California to Maine. If you were a Native American, Mexican, Asian and especially a person of African descent, man or woman, and were found in a sundown town, after dark, you could be subject to harassment, violence or even death.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, right of the screen, talking. To her upper left, a series of clips: The first two clips are signs promoting “the suburbs” and a series of five shots of new suburban homes, all from the 1950s]
Filmmaker: These de facto and de jure practices essentially helped to lay the seeds to support the bustling, functional white neighborhoods, or artificial white futures, that exist around the country to this day.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: So if the future is bleak, but not Black, does that mean that Black filmmakers have never speculated in their own film work? The answer to this question, is unequivocally, no.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, left of the screen, talking. To her upper right, a series of movie clips: An angel appearing next to a bed from The Blood of Jesus (1941), an angel disappearing into the darkness from The Angel Levine (1970), Sun Ra on another planet from Space is the Place (1974), two sisters sharing visions from Eve’s Bayou (1997)]

Filmmaker: Since the 1940’s, Black filmmakers in the United States have delved into speculative, cinematic storytelling that not only envisioned worlds, where Black people actually existed, but worlds where Black people also had autonomy over their lives.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, right of the screen, talking. To her upper left, an image: Oscar Micheaux photo]
Filmmaker: One of the first independent Black filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux, has been quoted as saying,

[Cut to black screen with white text that says: “Your self image is so powerful, it unwittingly becomes your destiny.”]
Filmmaker: “Your self image is so powerful, it unwittingly becomes your destiny.”

[Cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: This prescient and indirect call for Black people to shape their own images, has seemingly set the tone for Black Speculation in film.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, left of the screen, talking. To her upper right, an image: Spencer Williams Jr photo, then a series of clips from Son of Ingagi (1940) including the title card, and three images of the Black woman scientist in the film]
Filmmaker: Spencer Williams Jr., a contemporary of Micheaux, wrote and starred in the first known all­Black cast horror film in 1940. Son of Ingagi, envisioned a world where a brilliant, Black woman scientist struggled to use her knowledge of science and medicine, to make the world a better place, even when she knew that, that world had not been so good to her.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, right of the screen, talking. To her upper left, an image: Harry Belafonte photo, then a series of clips from The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959) including the title card, and five clips of a Belafonte and the other two characters interacting in the film]
Filmmaker: In 1959, Harry Belafonte produced and starred in the film, The World, The Flesh and The Devil, a racially charged, dystopian view of the lives of three survivors of a worldwide catastrophe, where a Black man lives to fight another day.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, left of the screen, talking. To her upper right, an image: Bill Gunn photo, then a series of seven clips from Ganja & Hess (1973) including the title card, and six other images of the Black woman/vampire in the film]
Filmmaker: And in 1973, writer, director and actor, Bill Gunn, re­imagined the vampire genre and challenged the audience to accept a Black woman character who, having felt powerlessness her entire life, chooses to retain her new found power.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: However, it would be during the independent film boom of the 1990’s, that would prove to be the first decade where Black filmmakers would embrace the speculative and its possibilities in more than just a few films.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, right of the screen, talking. To her upper left, an image: a series of clips from To Sleep With Anger (1990), Sankofa (1993) and The Gifted (1993)]
Filmmaker: From the enigmatic folktale, To Sleep with Anger by Charles Burnett, to the time traveling, slavery themed drama, Sankofa by Haile Gerima, to the alien invasion, origin story, The Gifted by Audrey King Lewis,

[Cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: Black SF filmmakers have taken on the genre in ways that reflected not only Black film aesthetics, but Black perspectives of the world too.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, left of the screen, talking. To her upper right: a series of nine clips from Deep Space Nine/Far Beyond the Stars (1998) including the title card, and eight other images of the Black Captain/Black SF Writer in the television program]
Filmmaker: And even in the mainstream television show, Deep Space Nine, in the episode, Far Beyond the Stars, directed by Avery Brooks, the story is not only a clever, reality shifting, re­imagining of actual events from the Golden Age of SF literature, but also an astute commentary on Black Speculation.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: And now, since the dawning of the new millennium,

[Cut to the several poster images in the foreground. The first three are posters from the feature films, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), The Book of Eli (2010) and After Earth (2013); The next two are posters from the feature films The Inheritance (2011) and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014); And the last five are shown in a series and are center screened from the short films, M.O.M.M. (2011), Danger Word (2013), NOISE GATE (2013), Roxe15 (2013?) and Afronauts (2014)]

Filmmaker: Black Hollywood talent with box office appeal and Black independents embracing new technologies and social media have used SF to explore narratives rarely seen in the history of the cinema.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, right of the screen, talking. To her upper left, two images of stories about Black superheroes in movies from USA Today and BuzzFeed News, then the book cover from Passing and the rise of the African American Novel by Dr. M. Giulia Fabi]
Filmmaker: From Black superheroes to Black universes, Black creators of SF, to re­use a quote by African American literature scholar, Dr. M. Giulia Fabi,

[Cut to black screen with white text that says: “(African Americans) have adopted and adapted the genre” to suit their needs.”]
Filmmaker: in a sense “have adopted and adapted the genre” to suit their needs.

[Cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: So what will the future look like? Well, in my opinion, whether in the imaginary worlds of speculative fiction, or in the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore, the unbearable whiteness of the future most certainly will be contested.

[Jump cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: What do you think the future of SF films will look like?

[Jump cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: Like, share and subscribe, and then let us know what you think in the comments. Also, click this link, to support and learn more about the Invisible Universe documentary.

(Youtube link appears in the upper left, of the pointing finger of the filmmaker)

[Jump cut back to the filmmaker, center screen, talking.]

Filmmaker: See you next time!