Saturday, January 20, 2018

Science Fiction, Liberation and the Soul of Black People in Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place”

The cultural changes of the 1960s were about liberation, shucking off the straight jacket of post-Depression and World War II conservatism for new, progressive attitudes about sexuality, race and society.  While some consider this movement to have failed (although it certainly didn’t reach its full fruition), the loosening of staid values led to greater freedoms for artists, thinkers and activists who could now see anything as possible.

Sun Ra
Sun Ra

While never a mainstream figure in jazz or pop culture, Sun Ra was a pianist, composer and band leader as well as an autodidactic philosopher whose futuristic vision of Afro-centrism inspired a fiercely loyal cult following over his long career.  In 1972, when producer Jim Newman approached Don Carney, a producer/director at San Francisco’s legendary public television station KQED, about doing a Ra concert film, the project morphed into a narrative named for one of Ra’s most famous composition’s “Space Is The Place.”

But while this film was another cult classic in Ra’s portfolio, it also represents a synthesis of some of the most important ’60s movements, summarizing the best parts to create a definitive statement of liberation.


Blowing Up Power, Music, and Satellites

Although many movements begged for attention in the 1960s, three were key to Ra’s ideas and the development of “Space Is The Place.”

Black Panther national chairman Bobby Seale, left, and defense minister Huey Newton, right (AP Photo/San Francisco Examiner)
Black Panther national chairman Bobby Seale, left,
and defense minister Huey Newton, right
(AP Photo/San Francisco Examiner)

While the broader Civil Rights movement succeeded on a legislation level, the Black Power subset fought for a more abstract goal: equality for African Americans, in the words of Malcolm X, “by any means necessary.” Groups like the Black Panther Party (BPP) saw the black race as being under attack: by the cops, by the government, by the white race in general.  They advocated arming themselves, but also provided school children free breakfast with a side of Marxist teaching.

Leaders like Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were “attempting to understand the poverty and violence that characterized their communities.”(Tyner) They were educated, unlike the people they wanted to free, and put the blame squarely on white society who, through the power of the police force or “pigs” in BPP’s newspaper writings, put an oppressive boot on the throat of poor black people.  They sought to fight back, giving power to the people, and re-segregate themselves to gain autonomy over their neighborhoods.

Ra himself was drawn to this idea of black separatism.  Critic Daniel Kriess notes in his review of an art show in Chicago dedicated to Ra and Afro-Futurism (sic), “[B]y 1955, the year of Emmett Till’s death, Sun Ra charted an alternative to the civil rights movement, handing out broadsides on biblical exegesis and language permutations on Chicago’s streets, and investigating land west of Chicago for the building of a utopian society.”  In the movie, that land would become a “planet of our own.”

While the Panthers fought to free the bodies of black people, Ornette Coleman was attempting to free its music.  By the ’50s, jazz had morphed from a homegrown New Orleans party music to a popular big-band dance style in the war years and finally to an intellectually elite sound for urban hipsters.

Ornette Coleman (image Courtesy Of Legacy Recordings)
Ornette Coleman
(image Courtesy Of Legacy Recordings)

But Coleman, a former blues saxophonist from Texas, developed a new ’60s philosophy (harmolodics) “to enlarge the content of jazz by allowing for a greater degree of improvisation.”(Rothman)  According to Time Magazine’s attempt to define his sound, there was still a great deal of confusion:

But some of Coleman’s critics feel that he has not only stretched jazz structure but has totally demolished it. Improvisation, to Coleman, means music not limited by standard rhythms, harmonies, or even tonality, but based instead on a kind of free association of sounds.

This meant stripping away everything normally associated with the genre: swinging beat, melody, key signatures and structured soloing.  Left behind was the pure improvisation of musicians playing what they wanted while still listening to the bandmates (a key component of bebop jazz that remained in Coleman’s aesthetic) to create aural chaos while still forming a cohesive musical statement.

Coleman himself never went completely free, unlike disciples like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Albert Ayler, but his destruction of jazz conventions opened the door for younger, angrier musicians to create furious works.

What Ornette Coleman did intellectually, Sun Ra did organically.  At the same time Coleman deconstructed bebop, Ra was combining elements of big band, 20th Century classical (especially the atonal sounds) and his personal mythology to synthesize his own version of free jazz.

Brian AldissBut it wasn’t just African Americans who were struggling to release themselves from a restrictive past.  The much-maligned but audience-pleasing literary genres of science fiction and fantasy had a rebellious group of high-minded writers who were ripping out the pulpy roots of their chosen style to create something more: more surreal, more well-written, more literary.

(As an aside, there is a small connection: Coleman would name one of his classic albums “Science Fiction” and anyone who talked music theory with him was convinced they were speaking to an alien.)

Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany

English writers like J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss and Americans such as Phillip Jose Farmer and Samuel R. Delany (one of the few African Americans making a living in science fiction, although many of his readers didn’t know his race) independently decided to change the voice of sci-fi, pushing the writing to match the fanciful plots.  Aldiss wrote:

Style–it implies a degree of self-consciousness which wasn’t there before, an element of outrageous showmanship, defiance, detachment, and just a touch of narcissism. Style–it is the heart of the science fiction controversy in the sixties. (The Trillion Year Spree)

Before the ’60s, most writers of speculative fiction held fast to that old chestnut about their audience: “The Golden Age of science fiction is 13.”  These works were also almost exclusively meant for boys.  The New Wave authors (as they came to be known, the moniker lifted from the similar French cinematic movement) invested their stories with carefully crafted modern language, but also stretched out what could be included as subject matter.  This meant adult themes such as sex (nothing more than a chaste kiss for the pulp fictioneers), realistic violence, and open or downbeat endings; in essence, they still wanted Hugo Gernsback-style futurism, but they also wanted to have the writing range of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway or even William S. Burroughs (whose own works, especially “Naked Lunch,” could be considered a huge influence on the movement).

But where does Sun Ra’s message fit with these writers?  He took their ideas to a new audience, adding a distinctly esoteric mysticism to their futuristic examinations.

“I am the living myth”

Sun Ra in "Space is the Place"
Sun Ra in “Space is the Place”

This phrase is how Sun Ra introduced himself in the movie “Space Is The Place.”  It’s the delta that joins the previously-mentioned three movements (Black Power, Free Jazz, New Wave sci-fi) into Sun Ra’s personal stream.  Through the lens of personal mythology, the audience sees how freedom, futurism and pure musical expression were Ra’s path to enlightenment.

In the film, he explains to a group of black teens how he isn’t real.

“I’m not real.  I’m just like you.  You don’t exist in this society.  If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights.  You’re not real.  If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world.  So we are both myths.”  At each critical moment in the film, the audience is reminded that Ra is an alien despite being ostensibly like those who surround him.

The story begins with a flashback, using a part of Sun Ra’s personal history.  In 1945, the piano player, then going by the name Sonny Ray, plays in a Cotton Club-style showroom in Chicago.  While a troupe of black dancers struts and hops for a mixed-race crowd, with only the piano as accompaniment, a white-suited black man, introduced as The Overseer (a name harkening back to slave times), wants the emcee to kick Sonny off the keys because he “sounds like shit.”  Sonny then dives into a kinetic atonal solo that creates a blowing storm within the club, clearing the place of all humans and ending with the instrument clanking across the stage.

Ray Johnson as the Overseer
Ray Johnson as the Overseer

The Overseer (played by Ray Johnson) then laughs, revealing himself to be a supernatural creature, transporting himself and Ra to the desert, where he challenges Ra to a card game.  The Overseer wants to play some traditional games, but Ra decides on “The End of the World,” played with a stylized deck similar to the Tarot.

The movie reveals here one of its biggest influences: Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”  But instead of a gloomy knight playing chess with Death to save his own soul, Ra competes for a higher goal: the soul of all black people.  The personal quest transforms into an enlightened movement.

The action switches to Oakland (the producer and director’s backyard, but more importantly the city where the Black Panther Party was founded) and a teen center there, where kids sing, dance, play pool and hang out.  The center itself shows the Panther influence, with posters of Angela Davis and other black radicals on the wall.

Ra talks with them, explaining how they are second or even third class citizens in America and lays out his plan to transport them to a far away paradise planet (seen in the film’s opening scenes) so they can have a place all their own (Marcus Garvey on a spaceship, if you will).  They dig the idea, but The Overseer convinces some the group’s leaders that Ra is only in it to sell records.

The ShowThe two antagonists trade jabs, Ra looking like he may lose the game, but then plays a double or nothing bet on a concert to see if this one last gasp will convince the kids and the community to follow his vision.

As movie-ending, “let’s put on a show” performances go, “Space Is The Place” is no Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney film.  In fact, it’s not even “The Blues Brothers.”  Ra’s Arkestra (sic) launches into one of their leader’s most crazy, didactic and fragmented numbers “I Am the Brother of the Wind,” part psychedelic spoken word, part free jazz rave.  And yet, it convinces the kids that Ra is the real deal, enough for one of the young men to sacrifice himself, saving Ra from an assassin’s bullet (the killer works for NASA in one of the film’s many complications).

Of Its Place, But Out Of Time

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a film by Melvin Van Peeples
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,
a film by Melvin Van Peeples

While this movie had all the trappings of the “blaxsploitation” films of the ’70s, including bell bottomed pants, giant hats, pimps and whores, drug dealers, and frequent use of the n-word, it had higher aspirations.  While most usually identify this time with slick thrillers like “Shaft” and “Superfly” or inept camp like “Dolemite” or “Black Belt Jones,”  “Space Is the Place” compares most closely to “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Melvin Van Peebles‘ genre-defining independent film whose great success showed Hollywood that black people would really like to see themselves on the silver screen and would pay to do so.

But unlike Peebles’ handmade feel (money was so tight he had to use creative effects to keep the film together), director John Carney’s film feels crafted, even if the budget wasn’t that much more than “Sweetback.”  Combining editing and camera play from the avant-garde and New Wave (odd framing, quick cutting, reverse motion), it separated itself from such cutting edge classics as Richard Lester’s “The Knack…and How To Get It” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot lewith the design, both of the set and the costumes.

exoticIn an interview on the DVD, Carney stated his biggest influence as “cheesy science fiction,” the type from the late ’50s where monsters stomped on innocent humans until military types saved them.  The green screen effects for space travel which look cheap and cheesy exemplifies this opinion, but the lush costumes and weird sets (especially on the far away planet for Ra’s new colony) made the film feel more stylized, like the psychedelic and intricate work from Roger Vadim’s “Barbarella” (with a much deeper message, of course).

Ra’s costumes (pulled straight from his and his band’s concert attire) included elaborate headdresses (long horns surrounding what look like planets), colorful dashikis and a heaping helping of Egyptological imagery. But these trapping couldn’t remain cheesy because of the underlying, and dead serious, message that black people are not welcome on Earth.

“It’s after the end of the world.  Don’t you know that yet?”

But it’s this mythology, coalesced in this movie, that shows his full vision.  His message, all black people are aliens, fit in with the Black Power movement, while his planet-centric compositions containing deeper meaning aligned him with science fiction’s New Wave.

Cover to Parliament's "Mothership Connection" album
Cover to Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” album

Ra wasn’t the only African American musician to explore interplanetary ideas.  In the few years after this movie, Charles Wright (“Express Yourself”) released his live-for-today science fiction song “Ninety Day Cycle People,” about an alternate world where life is significantly shorter and therefore more precious. But most important was Parliament’s “Mothership Connection,” a hugely popular and highly influential album of space funk which combined the intergalactic themes of Ra with the tight grooves of James Brown.

George Clinton, the leader and chief songwriter of Parliament and its parallel outfit Funkadelic, felt a direct affinity for Ra.  Kris Needs, in his book “George Clinton and the Cosmic Odyssey of the P-Funk Empire,” explains where these two men, a generation , intersected.  “They mutually used space imagery to refer to their African heritage and as a metaphor for overcoming the social marginalization experienced by African Americans in the last century.”  More important to Ra’s legacy, Clinton’s homage showed someone, specifically an artist who captured the zeitgeist of the ’70s, was listening to the weird old jazz man and wanted to spread his word.

When Ra died in 1993, there were many (some seriously, some artistically) who said he had been reclaimed by his alien ancestors.  But the ultimate truth was that, just as he told those Oakland kids in “Space Is the Place,” he had a planet of his own, just one that was constructed on Earth anywhere his material body went.

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  1. JazzLunatique 3 years ago

    There is much I can say about this very subject, but for the moment to quote George Clinton “Sun Ra? He’s out to lunch. Same place I eat at.”

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    1. CBrown 3 years ago

      I certainly had you in mind when I wrote this, David. I hope you got a kick out of some of my connections.

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  2. Zig Zag Claybourne 3 years ago

    Now I want to hunt down the movie and watch it!

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