Notes from the State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival 2013

State of Black Science Fiction Festival Poster
State of Black Science Fiction Festival Poster

Tonight, it was standing room only in Georgia Tech’s Hall Building Room 102 for the 2013 State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival. Co-presented by the School of Literature, Media, and Communication and the State of Black Science Fiction Collective, it presented a number of cutting edge and independent films and opened conversation between filmmakers, writers, and critics. Professor Lisa Yaszek introduced the festival and Georgia Tech’s long history with science fiction via her predecessor Bud Foote, and Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade organized the festival, introduced the films, and lead the post-screening panel discussion.

All of the films were exceptionally great! I have listed the films shown below with links to the video or more information where available.

Clayton Ziga’s “I am Designer” imagines a world where adoptive children can be surgically and technologically redesigned to meet the wants of their adoptive parents. It is available on vimeo here.

Matthew Savage’s dieselpunk, noirish short film “Reign of Death,” pits a gumshoe against an allegedly murderous robot. I really liked the integration of the CGI robot with the Sin City-esque visual feel of the moving picture. You can watch it here.

Tommy Bottoms showed off his webseries, “Eternal.” It was billed as “True Blood meets The Wire,” and it combines the gritty reality of life with action and humor. In the episodes that we saw, I have to say that my favorite line of the whole night came when the main character Josh Davis, not understanding how the vampires around him seemingly vanish in thin air, exclaims, “Fucking magic tricks!” You can watch it here.

We caught a glimpse of Teresa Dowell-Vest’s “Genesis: New American Superheroes,” which is about a couple who survived the Tuskeegee Experiment, went on to become scientists, and bestow science-derived gifts to their their five children: Tage/Power of Earth, Xavier/Power of Water, Xander/Power of Fire, Jordan/Power of Wind, and Quincey/Power of Technology and Knowledge. You can watch the sneak peak here, too.

Bree Newsome treated the audience to her Southern tale of horror titled, “Wake.” A woman gets more than she bargains for when she conjures a man to marry after ridding herself of her controlling father. Besides being creepy, disturbing, and occasionally funny, I enjoyed its playful use of language. You can watch it online here.

Balogun Ojetade showed the audience an excerpt from the larger steamfunk project titled, “Rite of Passage: Initiation.” In the scene, Harriet Tubman challenges her student Dorthy to a martial arts contest. You can watch it on Youtube here.

Finally, Donnie Leapheart presented two episodes of his action-packed webseries Osiris. This SF thriller is about a seemingly immortal man fighting back against corporate interests who want to commoditize and sell his ability to live forever. The two episodes that we saw were slick and clever. I was also impressed by the high production value of this series made for the web. Watch it online and learn more about the series here.

Audience and panelists at the State of Black SF Film Festival.
Audience and panelists at the State of Black SF Film Festival.

After the screening, Davis and Ojetade lead a panel discussion with Teresa Dowell-Vest, Donnie Leapheart, Tommy Bottoms, Bree Newsome, and Steve Barnes (writer, critic, and martial artist). What follows are my notes and paraphrasing from the conversation.

Question: What makes something black SF?

Bottoms: It can be the production side, actors, or story. However, anyone should be able to enjoy these films, not necessarily an exclusive black audience.

Dowell-Vest: She aims to create a body of work that transcends race and is enjoyable to a broad audience.

Leapheart: He embraces the idea of black SF, because he knows that there are black nerds, but they don’t get represented. Since SF is the biggest grossing genre for a broad audience, why are not more black filmmakers putting their voice out there in SF to reach that audience?

Barnes: He breaks down the definitions of SF, fantasy, and horror to help develop the terminology of the discussion. Broadly speaking, all fiction is fantasy, because fiction is not real. However, what we think of as fantasy involves a world that is unlike our own and operates by a set of rules significantly different than our own. SF is a subset of fantasy that must follow the rules of science, but it can be allowed to break one rule–such as time travel–to produce stories around: what if, if only, and if this goes on. Horror is another subset of fantasy in which the dominant mode is fear and it generates dread in the audience. There are many different kinds of horror: SF horror, fantasy horror, psychological horror, etc.

Question: How and why are black people portrayed negatively in the media?

Newsome: Where do we start!?

Bottoms: Right now, our culture embraces this as entertainment. At least in the past with Blaxploitation, social consciousness and positive endings were an integral part of the early wave of these films.

Newsome: We are fighting and combating stereotypes. Media is not separate from the social world.

Barnes: Negative portrayals are likely not something done with conscious intent, but are the way people actually thought. Put another way, they are not trying to make a group look negative. Instead, they are simply presenting their internalized beliefs. Furthermore, it has a lot to do with one group in a superior position defining itself against others.

Leapheart: We can blame the media, whites, etc., but if you look online there are many negative videos produced by blacks with loads of views and other positive videos with very few views. Is art imitating life or life imitating art? Should we give people what they want (or think that they want), or do we keep doing our own thing?

Dowell-Vest: She is concerned about the declining representation on television. At one point, we had a menu of options (e.g., Cosby, A Different World, In Living Color, etc.), but now it seems to be all on the shoulders of the character Olivia Pope in the show Scandal. If she were played by a white woman, would we be having this conversation? She sees a cycle of fight-struggle-complacency, and she worries that we are now in a period of complacency. True art and storytelling come from bucking the status quo.

Barnes: In the history of network television, there have only been four successful black-starring hour-long dramas. This is why so much rides on Olivia Pope and Scandal. He also mentioned the TV series Deception.

Newsome: Waits for a time when we don’t have to rely on only one show to represent all black people.

Question: What is the future of black film (while considering Quintin Tarantino’s Django Unchained)?

Bottoms: Don’t tell someone that they can’t make a film. If you think that you can do it better, then you go out and make it. He enjoyed Django Unchained despite the problems that some people had with its language–how else could you do it, he asked?

Barnes: Loved Django Unchained. He went to see it with one of Louis Farrakhan’s body guards, who laughed his ass off. Only five directors could have pulled off this film, and four didn’t want to do it. Taratino grew up around black people, and he represented what he knew from his perspective. Anyone can write about others’ experiences, and we have a right to disagree with their perspective. A good thing about Django Unchained is that it proved that a movie with central black characters can sell to an international audience. He asked the audience a pointed question: When was the last time that you saw a film with slaves? Amistad? No, it debated their freedom. Beloved? They were ex-slaves. This is the third rail of cinema, and Taratino is crazy enough to go there and he made people laugh doing it. The film is not a perfect thing, but it is a good thing.

Dowell-Vest: She is from Virginia, and for her, Nat Turner is very real history. There is something significant about that moment when the oppressed have their time or their revenge. It can be soul serving or spiritually serving. She felt that Taratino had given her what she needed.

Newsome: You can’t say he can’t make something because of his race, because then, you say that I can’t make a kind of film due to my race.

Leapheart: Concerned that despite the high a film like this might give us now, it is likely not the beginning of a new wave. Instead, its momentum will dissipate.

Barnes: Yet, a film like this sets the ground for the future: experience, learning, jobs. It is up to you guys (the filmmakers on the panel) to make the future.

Bottoms: There is this thing that I’ve heard about called the Internet, and it gives us new options, choices, and a chance for change. However, change takes time.

Unfortunately, at that point, we had to close it down for the evening. This was an exciting event that reminded me it was very good to be back in Atlanta at Georgia Tech.

The conversation continues at the State of Black Science Fiction group on Facebook here. See you there!

Complain If Your Digitally Projected 2D Movie is Dark

According to Ty Burr of the Boston Globe (and commented here and here), the big movie theater chains are sticking it to consumers by not enforcing the removal of a polarizing lens from digital projectors made by Sony. These lenses are what enable 3D projection technology–two lens, each projecting one polarized image in quick succession combined with the polarized lenses worn during 3D movies gives viewers the 3D effect. When 2D films are shown on the same 3D projectors and the polarizing lenses are not removed, you see a significantly dimmed image on the screen, because you are seeing only one polarity of light escaping the filter. This effectively dims the image so that even bright scenes appear dark. This problem is due to two factors: 1) Sony DRM will shut down a movie projector if certain passwords are not entered correctly when the polarizing lens is removed, and 2) no theater chain has an official policy to remove the lens when switching between showing a 3D film and a 2D film. Apparently, the fear of offending the Sony DRM-gods, time to remove the lens, and lost sales has prompted this customer-be-damned attitude by the theater chain executives. DRM sucks, but it is the job of the movie theater chain management to give customers the movie going experience that they are paying for. Last I checked, we shouldn’t pay full price for only half an image. Check for the tell-tale sign of two projectors during 2D films and the “D” for digital indicator next to 2D movie listings. If you go into a film that suffers excessive dimness, demand a refund. Read the full report here: Misuse of 3-D digital lens leaves 2-D movies in the dark – The Boston Globe.

Review of Battle: Los Angeles, Are the Marines Fighting Aliens or Corporate Raiders?

Last night, Y and I capped our Spring Break with a science fiction movie: Battle: Los Angeles (B:LA).

I imagine that the film was pitched as Black Hawk Down meets War of the Worlds. B:LA follows a platoon and its replacement Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz as they are called on to rescue civilians in Los Angeles during a worldwide alien invasion. The aliens, who appear to be cyborgs combining biology and technology, apparently attempt to wipe out Earth’s indigenous intelligent life in order to take the liquid water that makes our planet unique (at least in our solar system).

Overall, I enjoyed the film as an interesting what-if, adventure story. The characters have to display ingenuity and tenacity as they battle their way out of and then back into beachhead that the aliens establish.

The aliens are an interesting creation. They are tall and lanky like I would imagine Wells’ aliens from Mars. However, these aliens are likely from a much more distant world. The Marines in the film question the similarities between themselves and the alien grunts fighting them. However, they do not show any compassion towards the aliens. The overwhelming sight of human bodies strewn about in a majority of scenes establishes the single-mindedness of the production–this is war, these are soldiers, and they have a job to do. This is a refreshing, albeit macabre, story line that seems more real than a number of other science films that flirt with identification with the alien Other. These aliens are depicted as on the offensive, which leaves little room for questioning or identification on the part of the humans.

The first half of the film seemed more real and intense to me, because it is largely configured as a horror film. There is a slow, yet brief, introduction to the lives of the characters before the alien invasion (in flashback). Then, through the ubiquity of CNN on televisions surrounding the soldiers, the soldiers begin to catch glimpses of an enemy with only one goal in mind–annihilation of the human species. Yet these glimpses heighten our awareness of a powerful evil that hasn’t yet materialized. In the fighting that follows, the aliens skirmish with the soldiers, killing and wounding some, pulling others through the parse vegetation in the yards of deserted houses, but never clearly revealing themselves. Then, the soldiers and the audience get their first clear image of the alien invaders, followed by Nantz’s brutal dissection of a half-dead alien soldier, the aliens begin to lose their power over the narrative. This is the turning point, never quite acknowledged in the film, where the human Marines stand a fighting chance with the alien invaders, but the invaders have been castrated in a sense–they have lost their power over the humans despite a few remaining deaths in the episodic melees.

The plot to save the few civilians hiding inside a police station is not always convincing. The film, which overall takes its material seriously, seems to disintegrate into cliche with the triad of the Joe Rincon, his son Hector, and Nantz. Joe dies after picking up a fallen soldier’s weapon to defend the group against an alien soldier. Hector then bonds with Nantz. However, Nantz’s elaborate speeches to Hector (as well as his confrontation with Corporal Jason Lockett) derails the otherwise real feel for the film. Furthermore, these male relationships Hector-Nantz and Nantz-Lockett, sidelines the female characters in the film. TSgt. Elena Santos is the strongest female presence in the story, but I believe this derives from her Air Force role that increases the importance of the otherwise male-only platoon’s mission. Michelle (the veterinarian), Kirsten, and Amy (I believe these were the other rescued civilians’ names) appear to be McGuffins rather than actual characters. We see them scream and cry occasionally, but they give the soldiers a reason to be where they are and they heighten the drama when the group is under attack. Michelle, a veterinarian, helps Nantz with the alien dissection, but it is mostly through commentary rather than physical help–Nantz seems to treat the dissection as a fact-finding cathartic experience that really doesn’t serve to help the soldiers since they are engaged in skirmishes, usually at a distance, with machine guns rather than sniper rifles.

The film’s emphasis on water as a precious, natural resource is probably its most redeeming quality. Unless you think about water rights or have seen documentaries such as Water Wars, I believe the fundamental importance of the public controlling water rights is a largely overlooked issue. Perhaps the narrative could be read as corporations are otherworldly aliens seeking to colonize the world’s natural resources, and this invasion is taking place around the world.

From my own experience in rural Southeast Georgia, companies are given rights to pump vast amounts of water out of the ground for chemical processing and pulp processing. These actions have lowered the water table to the point that some natural artesian wells have gone dry and private water pumps (this is how most folks get their water outside of the limited city limits of Brunswick) need to be installed at lower depths to maintain access to water. Amazingly, Brunswick is right next to the Atlantic Ocean, but access to potable water is increasingly slipping away. The commoditization of water through privatization of public water works and water bottling companies is another concern.

If the film can be read in this way, as a challenge to a nation’s citizens’ rights to water, I do find it hopeful that the Marines are the ones who save us all. The Marines are a part of the United States military controlled by the public will via our representational government. We can maintain our rights of access to our natural resources by electing people to our government who respect the citizen over the corporation. In the developing era of globalization and transnational capital, citizens must take back our government to support our needs over that of corporate greed.

Star Trek 2009 is Troubling and Wonderful at the Same Time

Okay–I began writing this blog post on Thursday, May 7 after watching the new Star Trek film.  Since then, I’ve seen it a second time, and I’m probably going to see it a third when I have a chance.  Since I saw the film, I’ve been blitzed with SFRA scheduling, Pakistaniaat layout work for our first issue, grading, and I haven’t had a chance to begin evaluating The Postnational Fantasy book project submissions with Swaralipi and Professor Raja.  So, I wanted to go ahead and publish this post as it is, and I may return to these ideas in the future with something more coherent, methodical, and rigorous.  The following is as it is.

Yufang and I just got back home from seeing J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, and I had to put down my initial thoughts about the film.  If you haven’t seen it yet, go forth, watch it, and come back and let me know what you thought.  For those of you who have seen it, read on and comment below.

Visually, Star Trek (2009) has much more visual energy than any other Star Trek film or television series (and I’ve seen them all in toto).  Part of this energy comes from its borrowing a thing or two cinematically from the recently finished re-imagined SF series, Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica.  The cinematography sweeps, lunges, plays loose, and zooms and tracks.  Furthermore, the editing and pacing of the film overcomes one of the major detractions from the other Star Trek movies.  The new Star Trek artfully bridges the immediacy of television with the longer play format of film.

However, a significant difference between the two filming styles is the visual brilliance of the new Enterprise compared to the grit and dirt of the BSG.  The BSG definitely connects to earlier SF space craft such as the Nostromo from Alien, while the new Enterprise looks like something Jonathan Ive would cook up.  Additionally, recent space craft design and cinematographic aesthetics bleed between these firmly entrenched franchises–the new USS Enterprise and Cylon Basestars, and Nero’s Romulan mining vessel and the BSG.  It would be interesting to explore the implications and meaning behind spacecraft design in contemporary SF film and television–I will begin developing this into something longer.

Considering the cast–Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov–I believe that these actors have assumed these established roles with care and expertise.  I don’t get the sense that any of them are over playing or parodying what has come before.  Each brings something more to the table than merely mimicking the work of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei, and Walter Koenig.  The new Star Trek, working with a mythos and formula that goes back to the late 1960s, returns to the beginning instead of trying to reformulate that origin as we saw in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.  It is this point that, as much as my inner fan delights in it, is one problematic issue for bringing Star Trek into the 21st century.

Star Trek has long been lauded as the touchstone example of a progressive television show, or more exactly, a SF show that engages contemporary issues, including human equality and the Civil Rights movement, veiled in SF narrative.  Why then is the new Star Trek held up by its token antecendents?  It is impossible for Star Trek to be more progressive in the same way that the re-imagined BSG did where characters were remapped (though it is important to note that BSG transcended race, ethnicity, or gender in an overwhelmingly positive way). I acknowledge that the new Star Trek is meant to be a reboot and not a re-imagining, and as such, it facilitates this maneuver through the too-often-used technoscientific time travel narrative, which means that the characters remain essentially the same with slightly different histories and personal development. It is as if the past (TOS) is reaching forth from a syndicated grave to leave an indelible imprint on what could be a new and progressive vision of the future.  The hierarchy and friendships must remain the same between the members of the Enterprise crew.  

However, the relationship between Spock and Uhura caught me by surprise.  It is in a way more positive than Kirk finding his way into Uhura’s bunk, but despite Spock’s hybridity and green blood, he still resembles a white man.  Furthermore, he is Uhura’s instructor and superior.  The power structures are intact with Uhura on the bottom.  Even with her demand to Spock to put her on the Enterprise, how much of this is selfish acquiescence on the Vulcan’s part?  

Another problem that I encountered in the new Star Trek film has to do with the tragic hero, Nero (I assume that this was a pun by the screenplay writers).  As I have argued before regarding Joker being the true hero of The Dark Knight, I believe that Nero is the hero of the new Star Trek film.  He witnessed the annihilation of his family and the Romulan home world prior to the serendipitous time travel facilitating singularity created by the so-called “red matter.”  He reveals his pain and anger as something raw and single minded.  Nero does not accept the universe of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.”  Nero blames the Vulcans, the distant relatives from which the Romulans split, for the destruction of Romulus and the billions of lives lost.  Obviously, the history of politics and (possible) racism between the Romulans and the Federation (particularly the Vulcans) fed into Nero’s beliefs.  

There were attempts at unification and peace between the Romulus and Vulcan when we last left a future Enterprise crew on the NCC-1701-D and E iterations of the Federation’s flagship.  The Romulans had their “empire,” and the Federation of Planets was represented as a democratic body with representatives from the various member worlds.  However, were the Romulans really antagonistic to the Federation, or were they reacting to their being boxed in by the Federation behind the so-called Neutral Zone?  Why is the supposedly science and knowledge oriented Starfleet, the militaristic arm of the Federation, regimented, armed, and never willing to run from a good fight?  On one level, the new Star Trek film reveals that the real threat comes from an uncaring Universe, but the political sentiments, beliefs, and machinations are an equal threat to life.  

Nero takes the opportunity to save his planet by attempting to eliminate the peoples he feels are responsible for not preventing the dangerous supernova. Unlike Terminator 2, in which Sarah Connor attempts to prevent the Skynet orchestrated armageddon by killing Miles Dyson, Nero assumes a scorched Earth approach to protecting his and his people’s future.  Could he have traveled to Romulus with his technology and given it to the past?  Yes.  Could he have communicated with the Federation rather than fire the first volley at the USS Kelvin?  Yes.  But, I don’t think that any of us can really imagine what it would be like to witness that kind of loss and devastation.  The Vulcans apparently take it all in stride in the film when Vulcan is destroyed, but I do not believe that even a strictly logical Vulcans could overcome the hatred born of (real or believed) racial animosity and genocide.  Let me be clear that the Vulcans did not actually, as far as the story tells us, destroy Romulus, but how would an off-world Romulan miner see the destruction of Romulus with their history of a divided ancestral past?  And, in what way does “diaspora” (I’m thinking of the Jewish and African diasporas respectively) play in the imaginative annihilation of Romulus and Vulcan?  Are the Romulan and Vulcan representatives from another Star Trek mythos/timeline/alternate history sent forth into the void not in place, but in time?  Have we run out of place in the Trek universe, and all that is left is time?  When presented with the vastness of the physical universe, what does it mean for us, as an audience of Trek stories, to be bored with place and now only concerned with time?  

I can’t say that I adequately addressed all of the many ideas that the new Star Trek illuminated in my mind since I first saw it, but this post serves as a beginning for further work that I might endeavor on this new film.  As the most successful box office Star Trek film, I am confident that this film is connecting with people who would not otherwise watch a Star Trek film.  There is something new going on here that I am interested in discovering.  For my work, as in the film, time is the great arbiter.