Afrofuturism, the infrahuman and recent Black-American CINEMA

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John Roberts Reviews

John Roberts argues that the “recent emergence of a thriving black film industry in the US in the millennium represents a decisive break with a past littered with underfunded and discarded projects.”

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The recent emergence of a thriving black film industry in the US in the millennium represents a decisive break with a past littered with underfunded and discarded projects. Films by black female and male directors get increasingly green-lighted; more black male actors have been able to step outside playing stereotypical support roles and pathologically “racialised” roles in big productions; black directors, writers, and actors, have far more leverage in negotiation with studios over intellectual and historical materials; black women actors have access to a far better range of roles, as more black women screenwriters emerge. Of course, this shift is no philanthropic or publicly minded move on the part of studios and film financiers; black-themed films with black actors appeal to (young) black and white audiences globally. In this regard US black film draws on the global reach and symbolic power of a US-centric mass street culture and its urban mythologies.

Indeed, the everyday experience, struggles and triumphs of African Americans, has vast appeal to a non-white (and white) global audience, attached to the image of a multicultural America. This is reflected recently in the global success of Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), with its incorporation of the Marvel comics superhero the Black Panther – and its corollary image of black power – into an inclusive history of American technological advance and public virtue. In these terms, the film represents a re-narrativization of black Afro-American experience through an imaginary ancestral, non-occidental elevation of black science to a position of pre-capitalist prominence – the technological achievements of the mythic African domain of Wakanda, where the magical ore vibranium, the material basis of their technological advance, is mined. 

As such, the film’s central sci-fi organizing device – time travel back and forth to the US present – reworks the anti-historicist time-travel of late 20th century black US feminist fiction. In the writing of Octavia E. Butler (Kindred, 1979) and Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987, A Mercy, 2008) both writers disrupt the racist occlusions and exclusions of occidental historical time, to produce an historical encounter with the past that is irreducible to black essentialism and immiseration; the creation of new black worlds; or as the Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho says, “futures released from the trauma of a cyclonic past”. Black Panther however, is disappointing; a noisy and clunky affair, that in part out-Michael Bay’s Michael Bay, as if black film makers in entering the world of the normative white American Mythic and “Marvel-ous”, are obliged to clatter around a lot and let off lots of gimcrack explosions in order to be heard and take their bearings the uplift of the white superhero action movie (although ironically the contemporary white superhero film has gone introspective, gray and morbid, by comparison). 

This is where the emergence of Afrofuturism in contemporary film, then, edges into affirmative historicizing (quite different from the complex interracial dynamics of Morrison and Butler), in a kind of heightened positive appropriation of post-enslavement black history as a severed or stolen modernity. This is based on a new historical space for black film making derived from recent histories of colonialism and imperialism and the slave trade: the increasing understanding of how the occidental, early capitalist capture of the slave trade in Africa, was a fundamental and traumatic rupture in black modernity.

Imperial history has always tried to make its task easier by diminishing the emerging modernity of 17th West Africa; the new historical writing has sought to restore this (conflictual) modernity. Indeed, Toby Green’s path-breaking de-parochialization of West African economy and culture at the origins of capitalism in the mid-17th century, reveals the relative integration of West African economy and culture into the beginnings of the global economy (A Fistful of Shells, 2019). For example, The Kongo court in the 1650s maintained diplomatic and economic ties with Portugal, Brazil and the Netherlands; West African kingdoms as a whole had close diplomatic and economic ties with the Arab world and North Africa. Black Panther, in this sense, produces a technologized projection of this nascent African modernity, a modernity untouched by occidental condescension. 

We also see this affirmative challenge to the obliteration of black modernity in the 2022 film The Woman King (Gina Prince Bythewood), a historical reconstruction of a decisive period in Dahomey history during the early 19th century – one of the many militarised but vulnerable kingdoms in West Africa in the 19th century – when the military function in a time of interethnic crisis was taken on by trained female warriors. Here a vision of black modernity is framed by issues of female autonomy, authority and embodied knowledge, Viola Davis playing the part of an aging warrior and counsel, General Nanisca. Both films ally positive historiography, with heroic (mythic) narrative, and the displacement of received occidental accounts of black history, as a way of releasing black bodies from the chains of a (filmic) slave imaginary.  

It is hard to say whether this will be a lasting trend in new US black cinema, but nevertheless the breakthrough of Afrofuturist and anti-historicist approaches to black film, opens out black experience to a mythic reparation of black history, in way that occidental history takes the assimilation of Greek myth into Western story forms for granted. And one can see why perhaps it is an attractive international commercial option for the studios: it loosens US black film making – in the pursuit of big money – from what has defined the political conditions of its radical realism for the last 40 years:  the lived reality of black experience as “infrahuman” (less than human) and “off-world” (the confinement of black people to race as a racialised form of exclusion and domination). This is an unrelenting black history in the “hold”, of the destruction of relation, of the confinement of blackness to accusations of moral ‘underdevelopment’, or conversely, to the notion of blackness as taking up ‘too much space’, of lives lived, as Christina Sharpe says, in constant proximity to actual and symbolic death; black lives lived in the terrified slip stream of white middle class fear and resentment as the carriers of death.  

Black film in the US from the 1970s, but particularly strikingly from the 1990s, has been involved in a massive internal resistance to these realities, and as such is indivisible as counter-symbolic practice from living in the wake of the violence of the slave-trade and white supremacist legacy as a quotidian insidiousness. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the breakthrough films of Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) and John Singleton’s  (Boyz in the Hood, 1991), the site of conflict was the street and the black project and the need for a new black cinema to bring to the screen an unprecedented range of youthful black voices and black working class self-assertion against the abject criminalisation of black lives. 

This was filmmaking also tied coextensively to the demands of a (non-self-mythologizing) counter-American history, in its infancy, as in Lee’s life of Malcolm X, Singleton’s later Rosewood (1997) – a reconstruction of the white pogrom in 1923 against the black population in the Florida town of Rosewood – and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), an innovative non-linear film about the Northern migration at the beginning of the 20th century of three Gullah women living on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, looking at black female ancestralism in the spirit of Toni Morrison – the first film directed by a black woman to have a theatrical distribution – and her The Rosa  Parks Story (2002) a reconstruction of Parks’ resistance to bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, and its aftermath. All of these films bring a historical black consciousness and social realist focus on the exigencies of daily struggle against the “infrahuman” and the “off-world” lives of black workers in the US; all acknowledge, implicitly at least, the significance of an earlier generation of realist black US filmmakers, who had to create a new language of black cinema from these abject racialised conditions, such as Charles Burnett and John Berry.

In some of the most interesting recent black US films the centrality of this “internal resistance” to the “infrahuman” and the “off-world” still holds as a condition of realist engagement with racialization and racial subjectification. Indeed, there is a clear gap between this earlier filmmaking and the new mythic affirmationist Afrofuturism. The younger filmmakers have little connection to the urban black insurgent realism of Lee and Singleton. Their commitment to “internal resistance” is mediated by a strong sense of exhaustion and stasis, quite different from the intractability of the color line experienced by earlier generations. 

This isn’t Afropessimism, exactly (a submission to the unending racialisation of of black bodies), but the work nevertheless is affected by a suffocating repetition of old histories and ideologies that shifts how the inhabitation of racialization today affects differently those who have grown up under neoliberalism and the rise of an identitarian race politics that black and white and people of color negotiate under the neoliberal state’s commitment to diversity. Thus, for the white new middle-class sensitivity to race becomes a way of dissolving the sharp edges of living under US racial capitalism; for many black people it continues to be a way of “holding on”, negotiating a fragile space of détente with the continuing legacies of racism. Thus, underlying this liberal process of negotiation lie old and remnant racialised realities, that continue to reinforce “off-world” facticity and therefore render stupefying the idea of liberal concord. 

Christina Sharpe quotes the striking words of the poet Claudia Rankine in In the Wake addressing what truly supervenes: “there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black; no hands in your pockets, no playing music; no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.” In this regard, the filmmakers, Melina Matsoukas, Jordan Peele, and Boots Riley, in Queen & Slim (2019), Get Out (2016) and Sorry to Bother You (2018), respectively, all configure the limits of this neoliberal settlement and the retrogressive ideology of “white presumption”  and as such the uncertainties of how far black people can escape “off world” confinement in the contemporary US, before violence intrudes.

Queen & Slim is perhaps the starkest, and the most conventional of the films. Ernest Hines (Daniel Kaluuya) and Angela Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) have been on a tinder date, and Slim (Hines) is driving Queen back to her house. They are flagged down in a classic predatory stop and search; nothing the pair can do and say (with Queen emphasizing she is an attorney, and that the stop is unjustified) can shift the white police officer’s determination to book them for something. After asking the officer who is searching the trunk to hurry up because it is freezing, the officer pulls his gun on Slim; Queen tries to intervene and is shot in the leg, Slim disarms the officer and shoots him dead. Herein their world changes; that is, as black slayers of a white cop the world immediately abandons them; there is no possibility of dialogue, of discussion or negotiation, so they flee. Slim naively thinks the police and the courts will heed his rightful defense of self-defense; Queen calls him a fool for thinking so: if you turn yourself in, you’ll never see your parents again. We have to “keep going,” she says, knowing that her life and career as she knows it are over. They make their way, via Georgia, to see her uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) who she once saved from jail, and he gives them another car and money and passes them onto a contact, who can get them out of the country to Cuba. 

On the final stage of the journey in Florida their black fixer betrays them for the bounty on their heads; the police arrive and the pair, standing in front of their small aeroplane ready to leave, are shot. The film is a standard, police chase narrative, with much jeopardy and personal anxiety, and the familiar transformation of the protagonists’ initial feelings for each other into their opposite: love and mutual commitment. Indeed, their decision to run and accept the killing as justifiable is key to the political dimension and emotional flux of the film. As the film unfolds Queen and Slim strengthen their decision to run as a resistance to the racialised violence of the infrahuman in the US; and this is reinforced for the audience by the occasional race and class solidarity the pair experience on their journey. One of the most vivid and affecting scenes is when they stop off to dance and drink in a black blues club outside Georgia; recognized, they are left to dance, enveloped by a silent, unacknowledged support from other black people in the club. 

However, the ending is a political and artistic stand-down. The execution of the lovers loops directly back into the fatalism of state violence and the infrahuman. It would have been more compelling if they had escaped to Cuba, perhaps through the efforts of an accomplice of the fixer, who betrays the betrayer to get them out. This does not mean that Cuba would thereby stand for an exit from racialisation; rather, that it would provide a symbolic break with the inevitability of state violence, particularly given Cuba’s pariah status in the US. It is unfortunate that Matsoukas is prepared to accept that there is higher pay off emotionally if they die.

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In Jordan Peele’s eerie Get Out, political problems arise around the inevitability of violence that are like those found in Queen & Slim. A working class and orphaned black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his middle class white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) visit her rich parents at their well-appointed and beautiful country house, which coincides with a big party.  Her father, and many of the guests at the party declare their liberal commitment to progressive “race relations” and to black empowerment. Taking Chris on a tour of the house before the party, the father (Bradley Whiteford) announces, picking up one of his tourist “trophies” he bought in Bali: “It’s such a privilege to be able to experience another person’s culture”; and, in the grounds of the houses says, blithely, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.” 

In addition, during the party, Chris meets several white guests who variously announce their sympathy for, and familiarity with, black lives and experience. One man says white skin has been in favour for hundreds of years, “now the pendulum has swung back”, “black is in fashion”, another, an aging golfer, is quick to reveal his friendship with Tiger Woods, and another, a blind photo gallery director (“progressively” race-blind?) knows Chris’s work on the basis of the descriptions of his assistants and would like to work with him. He is absolutely assured that Chris has the “eye”, something he didn’t have as a photographer himself when he could see. All the approbation and comments accumulate to produce a liberal white over-identification with the black body and spirit. Indeed, this over-identification takes on an oppressive and recidivist biologicalization as each guest fetishizes racial “difference”. 

Chris becomes increasingly unsettled by this, which is reinforced by the presence of two black house staff, Walter the gardener and Georgina the maid (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel) and a black guest Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield). They all seem hypnotized, and act in strange overpolite and solicitous ways, until that is Chris takes a flash photo of King on his phone which triggers King’s nose to bleed followed by King attacking Chris; an underlying violence that we also see at the beginning of the film in the stilted behavior of Walter and Georgina. Chris insists to Rose that they should leave; she’s reluctant. Whilst packing he finds a box of photographs in a closet that shows Rose with multiple black boyfriends, something she had denied. Chris now is determined to leave immediately, but Rose drags her feet and pretends not to be able to find her car keys. At the front door they are confronted by Rose’s parents and her brother. Rose’s mother Missy (Catherine Keener), a therapist, who earlier had hypnotised Chris to cure him of smoking, clinks a spoon in a teacup and Chris collapses. He wakes up in a games room strapped to a large chair facing a deer head trophy. 

Here the tone of the film flips. What until that point had been a sardonic drama on white US middle class racial manners and the cross-class jeopardies of entering the white bourgeois world as a black person, becomes a macabre comical encounter with the infrahuman as a predatory madness. Borrowing not so much from the horror genre as such, but from 1960s humorous or bizarre crime shows such as the UK series The Avengers (1961-69), in which the crime-solving heroes invariably face off against “international villains”, sinister organisations or megalomaniacal cults on country estates, Rose’s home turns into a racial laboratory for the bodily rejuvenation of the white middle class from the culling of black body parts, a kind of DIY bioengineering. About to be put under the knife by Rose’s father for his eyes – coveted by the gallery director – Chris escapes the games room and kills the brother, mother, and father (by stabbing him in the neck with the deer head’s antlers!). 

A final confrontation with Rose on the road outside the house leads to her being shot by the gardener Walter who turns the rifle on her after he awakens from trying to shoot Chris. Rose dies on the road, and a friend of Chris’s who has been in contact with him through the weekend ordeal, arrives in a car to pick him up. Essentially, white anti-racism is staged here as a hallucination, as a phantasmatic involution. What appears to be mere poor liberal judgement at the party based on a remnant ideology (biological racism), is in fact the rapacious cynicism of a cult that entraps and hypnotises black men and women, some who become servants for the cult, some who become sex slaves (such as the bewildered Logan King), and some the involuntary source of medical experimentation. But where does this leave Chris as the survivor of the phantasm? As in Queen & Slim the ending is unsatisfactory; Peele enacts a betrayal of Chris all the way down, that appears to reinstate the worst kind of Afropessimism, insofar as it cuts off all relationality. Unlike in Queen & Slim where a contingent act of black bad faith undermines solidarity, this is a world, where post-enslavement, black people were never meant to survive in the US, and will be ruthlessly punished for doing so. A world where white liberal sentiment hides its true and unending violence. 

Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You offers a different perspective on the infrahuman and class, largely because the film is set in the workplace, and is made by a director who locates his characters in the multiracial flux of the new capitalism. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a bit lost and a somewhat diffident young man looking for a job, manages to con his way into a telemarketing publishing company — RegalView — in Oakland, California. Speaking in his own (black) voice he initially fails to make any sales, but, encouraged by his older co-worker (Danny Glover) to “upgrade” his sales voice by “speaking white”, he finds he is remarkably successful at the job. The company notices and suggests he might like to become a Power Caller, working with selected clients for the subsidiary company WorryFree, located upstairs, that staff mysteriously access from a gold lift. But at this point he’s involved in a strike action in the call centre and is reluctant to break the strike. He weakens, though under management’s promise of a high salary, and takes the job. His girlfriend Detroit, artist and activist (Tessa Thompson) is appalled – “You abandoned your friends” – and distances herself from him.

Cassius crosses the picket line under police escort, and having settled into the job, finds his white voice is as successful for WorryFree as he was for RegalView. The white CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is very happy to have him on board and invites him to a party. At the party he is called into Lift’s office, where Lift is eager to make a proposal. Cassius, however, needs to immediately excuse himself to go to the toilet. He is given directions but enters the wrong room and hears a plaintive voice from behind a stall door; a distressed equine-humanoid falls out; other equine-humanoids appear. Panicked, Cassius drops his phone and unknowingly records the scene. He returns to Lift’s office, angry at and unbelieving of what he’s seen. But Lift is surprisingly relaxed about Cassius’s encounter for it makes the job of what he wants to talk about easier. He shows him an animation video – The New Miracle – outlining the exciting possibilities of interspecies transformation. Scientists have discovered ways of making “humans stronger, more obedient, more durable, and therefore more efficient and profitable,” through the ingestion of an equisapien “fusing catalyst”. “A new day in human productivity is dawning.” This is a neat construction by Riley in response to the global drop in the cost of labour power. By producing “post-humans” as a durable, strong, untiring, and essentially black chattel workforce, wage levels can be kept low, but at the same time the workday can be extended, and absolute surplus value increased. 

Lift offers him $100 million dollars over 5 years to be on the inside to oversee the programme’s implementation, as a kind of “Equisapien Martin Luther King, Jr.” – but he will have to go through the transformation. Back in his apartment Cassius realises he’s lost his phone at the party, but in conversation with his ex-girlfriend, she shows him that he mistakenly sent her the video of the Equisapiens early in the morning: “Help us. We’re hurting, we’re hurting.” Desperate now to publicize the nefarious actions of WorryFree, Cassius arranges to appear on a Japanese-style self-humiliation show, in which contestants are assaulted and dropped into a ‘shit tank’ for the chance of playing a video message to a huge audience. He willingly submits to this and as a result his equisapien video becomes a viral hit. 

On the strength of the publicity this creates for his campaign against WorryFree, he joins the RegalView picket line. But he gets caught up in the violence of the police and is knocked out, arrested, and placed in a police van. Through the portal of the van he hears the police action gradually being quelled and sees that the Equisapiens have arrived in numbers. They release him from the van. “Equisapiens! Let’s be out!” He returns with his girlfriend to the garage he was renting from his uncle before he got his job. There, however, he suffers extreme pains in his head, his nostrils now protrude like a horse; his own equisapien transformation has begun. The line of coke Lift offered Cassius in his office, was in fact the equisapien catalyst. 

A lot is going on in the film. Indeed, the film stands out for its complex intersection between character development, personal and romantic relationships, local political story line, and the adoption of wider metanarrative about racialised capitalism. In a defining sense Sorry to Bother You pushes a post-genre space that ambitious black film seems increasingly to want to occupy. It’s neither social realism nor Afrofuturism, but rather is an unstable meeting of the two, insofar, as in the kind of sci-fi realism that sees the present as prefiguring the future, the future has already arrived. Yet the film’s complexity covers a basic flaw: there are two movies here: a story of precarious labour, its cultural milieux, and the places and spaces of camaraderie it throws up; and the global racialisation of labour power and the infrahuman. Yet, the Equisapien is a fantastic device for exploring the latter, and it would have been good to see what Riley could have made of this by beginning the film with the discovery of the Equisapiens and allowing Cassius to become, in Lift’s fantasy, “Martin Luther King Jr.”

Finally, I want to draw attention to perhaps the most artistically ambitious, politically inventive, and formally engaging of all the films focussed on here: Saul Williams and Anisa Uzeyman’s musical Neptune Frost (2022). As with mythic Afrofuturism and the Afrofuturist social realism of Boots Riley, Williams and Uzeyman want a film that escapes the racial historicism that fixes past and present under the sign of the infrahuman. But the break with linear time and space that Afrofuturism affords, is here expressly directed towards the critique of technology, in sharp contrast to an affirmativist Afrofuturism. Indeed, affirmativist Afrofuturism exhibits many of the accommodationist tropes of Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist black capitalism; all technology needs are new enlightened masters. Neptune Frost in comparison, provides a utopic and heterogeneous landscape of counter-technologies; an African, subaltern, non-occidental response to a global technology in crisis, in which an American-led tech industry leads the conquest of computational reason into every interstice of everyday life. 

Set and filmed in the hilltops of Burundi, and sung and spoken in Kirundi, Kinyarwanda and Swahili languages, Neptune Frost focuses on group of escaped coltan miners, activists and drifters, and the extraordinary Neptune (Cheryl Isheja) an intersex runaway with special technokinetic powers, who form an oppositional hacker community. The community provides a different tech-story: a community as a “gateway” to a non-dominative dream of technology and relationality, facilitated by Neptune’s untraceable powers of psychic-digital diffusion and interference. The community then stands as another kind of black modernity, a modernity in the making, that offers not so much a critique of technology as such, but a place where new technical-technological attachments and relations, new interactions, might emerge from the intersections between Afrofuturist, feminist and queer perspectives and the critique of the value form and capital’s capture of computational reason. The community is eventually discovered and destroyed, but Neptune survives as a kind of a queer Hegelian spirit of futures past. 

What distinguishes the film, and gives it its formal innovativeness, is the very character of its musicality, establishing its distinctive qualities not only in opposition to affirmativist Afrofuturism, but the highly familiar attributes of the American musical (although one should not underestimate the singular and radical achievements of the American musical, which I’ll come to). If conventional musical film combines music, dance, and speech into an integrated form as an illusionistic “worlding” Neptune Frost, produces a naturalistic ‘dreamspace’, in which music, sound, dance and speech are integrated into a diurnal, everyday space. Thus, the film links communal songs (the film opens with drummers accompanying the miners digging in an open coltan mine), ambient sound, set-piece songs and dancing that drift in and out the diegesis, chants of resistance (“bullets in your guns/you know we paid for it all”) and traditional labour songs (“the miner is everything! Dig!”) into an unself-conscious flow-through of action and dialogue. This defines a possible new mythopoeic post-genre space for black film. Not a mythic dream world as such (as in some affirmativist Afrofuturism), but a ‘dreaming’ (or utopic projection) that emerges out of social conflict and division and the infrahuman redux. 

This is not to say that the future post-genre black film lies in the (heterodox) musical. That would be foolishly self-diminishing. Nevertheless, what Neptune Frost, points to is what was remarkable about the (Jewish-European-leftist) American film musical in the late 1940s and 1950s: its dismantling of a narrow auteurism in the name of new formal links between, dance, music and speech and a heightened scenic visuality, that allowed a heterodox anti-naturalism – a breaking of illusion through illusion – to flourish. It is a joyous vision of creativity made liveable and transformative in the interstices of the capitalist everyday. This is something that the makers of Neptune Frost clearly take seriously, and so they should.

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John Roberts is Professor of Art & Aesthetics at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. He is the author of  number of books, including, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill, Deskilling in Art After the Readymade (Verso 2007), The Necessity of Errors (Verso, 2011), Photography and Its Violations (Columbia University Press, 2014), Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde (Verso 2015), The Reasoning of Unreason: Universalism, Capitalism and Disenlightenment (Bloomsbury, 2018), Red Days: Popular Music & the English Counterculture 1965-1975 (Minor Compositions/Autonomedia, 2020), Capitalism and the Limits of Desire (Bloomsbury 2022) and Art, Misuse and Technology: Micheál O’Connell’s ‘System Interference’ (Uillinn, 2022). His Art and Emancipation has recently been published by Brill (2024).