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Barbican Cinema: Journeys across Afro-Futurism

A close-up of a man wearing a metal headpiece

Journeys across Afro-Futurism
2-30 June

Barbican Cinema

Journeys across Afro-Futurism at Barbican Cinema throughout June, looks at the origins of Afro-Futurism, and explores how the traditions of the aesthetic - imagining a future cinema abundant with arts, science and technology, as seen through a Black lens – impact cinema today.

Matthew Barrington, Cinema Curator, says: “Afro Futurism for me, as an idea, is a wonderfully rich one which engages with the politics and experiences from the across the Black diaspora; and through a language incorporating science fiction, religion, African iconography and advanced technology it projects the Black figure into an uncertain, speculative future. The films in this programme are split across time and space, yet retain this underlying concern with looking into the past and the present to ask what possibilities the future holds.”

The Barbican season begins by looking at these very origins of Afro-Futurism in film and opens with John Coney’s cult-classic Space is the Place (USA 1974), an eccentric mixture of African iconography and space age technology, and follows the journey of the renowned jazz musician and Astro traveller Sun Ra, who leads an intergalactic movement to resettle the Black race on a utopian space colony.

Shirley Clarke’s Ornette: Made in America (USA 1985), is her impressionistic portrait of legendary free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman which captures this radical musician’s evolution over three decades, and includes some of the first ever music style segments ever made. Contributors include William S. Burroughs, Brian Gysin, Buckminster Fuller, Don Cherry, Yoko Ono, Charlie Haden, Robert Palmer, Jayne Cortez and John Rockwell.

The season expands to look at how Afro-Futurism has evolved and where it is now.

The UK debut of Ratnik (Nigeria 2020), a dystopian Nollywood action film produced, written and directed by the Lagos-based filmmaker Dimeji Adebola, who commenting about the paucity of sci-fi films made in Africa said, “I think sci-fi has no race. We all live in this world. We are all affected by technology”.

In 2016’s Kati Kati (Kenya/ Germany 2016, Dir Mbithi Masya) a Kenyan woman finds herself stuck in Kati Kati (Swahili for ‘in-between’) a sort of purgatory, in this poetic fantasy that offers a dark reflection on personal atonement in the shadow of Kenya’s violent past.

Black Brazilian Science Fiction (Dir various) is a programme of short sci-fi films from Afro-Brazilian filmmakers, showcasing the range of styles associated with imagining and re-imaging of Black futures.

Journeys across Afro-Futurism closes with Brown Girl Begins (Canada 2019, Dir Sharon Lewis), a post-apocalyptic tale about a young woman who is trapped in a world forced upon her, which is an adaptation of sorts of Brown Girl in the Ring is a 1998 novel written by Jamaican-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson.


Space Is the Place             
USA 1974, Dir John Coney, 85 min
Thu 2 Jun, 6.30 pm, Cinema 2

This cult classic captures, and in many ways establishes, the visual appearance of Afro-Futurism. The film is an eccentric mixture of African iconography and space age technology, structured around the persona of renowned jazz musician and Astro traveller Sun Ra.

The starting point both of the film, and of Sun Ra’s persona, is to transport the figure of the African American, into an unspecified future, informed by a Space Race obsessed 60’s United States and the desire for closer connection between African traditions and cultures. By doing so, the stereotypical, racist caricatures and attitudes created by White America during this period are subverted by presenting Blackness through this connection between African traditions and technology. Subsequently, creating an aesthetic that is both steeped in recognisably African emblems, icons, music and colours, and informed by space-age futuristic technology.

Coney’s becomes an origin myth of sorts for the character of Sun Ra, placing him directly into 1970’s Oakland, California, positioning him as directly opposed to out of the capitalist, white led status-quo and as a leader of change for the local Black community, underlining the social conscious, politic commentary that the figure of Sun Ra exists as.

Ornette: Made in America
USA 1985, Dir Shirley Clarke, 77 min
Tue 7 Jun, 6.30 pm, Cinema 2

Shirley Clarke’s portrait of jazz musician Ornette Coleman draws from his connection to the free-jazz movement and his reflections on time and space, to create a multi-layered, unconventional film.

Coleman’s soundscapes were jarring, built around opposing forces which threatened traditional conventions and approaches to jazz through a commitment to improvisation which he labelled “harmolodics.”

His connection to space-age technology is apparent through albums such as Tomorrow Is the Question!, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Science Fiction, to the point that NASA asked him to record compositions to beam into space. From here, Clarke jumps off to explore Coleman’s musings on space and his relationship to the cosmos, juxtaposing space missions scored by the musician with abstract visuals and performance footage. The combination of Coleman’s music and reflections on society, and Clarke’s impressionistic, free-wheeling editing, creates a connection between Coleman’s free-forming music, engagements with space-age technology common across Afro Futurism. 

Kati, Kati             
Kenya/ Germany 2016, Dir Mbithi Masya, 75 min
Sat 11 Jun, 3.30 pm, Cinema 2

This mystical film by Mbithi Masya travels across temporalities to tell the story of a Kenyan woman who is stuck in Kati Kati (Swahili for “in-between”) a kind of purgatory, following her death. Produced by celebrated German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, Kati, Kati, the film explores notions of the afterlife, a concept which emerged out of the director’s grief for a close friend where during their wake, Masya states that he “heard someone say that my friend was lucky because she had left all of the weight of the world behind. That got me thinking. What if that’s not true. What if some of this baggage follows us to the other side.”

The film focuses on the character of Kaleche as she encounters a series of strange residents in Kati Kati, a lodge that she has stumbled upon. The residents are marshalled by the charismatic Thoma, who provides a degree of companionship and friendship to Kaleche and serves as a guide to the layered, mysterious sercets of Kati Kati.

Nigeria 2020, Dir  Dimeji Ajibola, 104 min
Tue 14 Jun, 6.20 pm, Cinema 2

An action-packed dystopian film, coming out of Nollywood, (the first of its genre to emerge from Nigeria), Ratnik is set shortly after World War III, focuses on Sarah Bello, a battle-scarred warrior travelling back home, only to find a litany of issues plaguing her family.

Being a sci-fi movie set in an apocalyptic era, the film comes with several unique art directions that are totally different from the norms in Nollywood, ensuring that the film has one foot in the popular tradition of commercial Nigerian cinema, whilst also engaging with the visual language of video games, and from Hollywood genres of science fiction and action cinema.

Black Brazilian Science/Fiction
Sat 18 Jun, 3.30 pm
Dir various

The films in this programme engage with the meaning of Blackness within a Brazilian context, using the freedom granted by science fiction to tell stories which address social inequality, legacies of racial inequality and the politics of Black identity.

The Brazilian filmmakers in this programme use their cinema to place the Black body in the centre of their films, in doing so addressing a perceived lack of representation and visibility across popular Brazilian audio-visual culture. The programme of shorts, highlights the exciting visual language of Black science fiction coming out of Brazil, and a younger generation of emerging filmmakers.

Brown Girl Begins
Canada 2019, Dir Sharon Lewis, 95 min
Thu 30 Jun, 6.20 pm, Cinema 2

A Canadian science fiction film, imagining a future of continued oppression for the poor, centring on a female protagonist who must resurrect Caribbean spirits to assist with a revolution. Lewis actively constructs an Afro Futurist fable which follows Ti-Jeanne, who finds herself trapped in an unfamiliar, sinister world, against her will.

Ti-Jeanne, is reluctantly pressed into taking a stand, by using her powers as a priestess by resurrecting distant Caribbean spirits whilst attempting to survive the possession ritual that killed her mother, if she is unable to do so, her people will perish.

The film is an adaptation of sorts of Brown Girl in the Ring is a 1998 novel written by Jamaican-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson. The novel contains Afro-Caribbean culture with themes of folklore and magical realism, which are transposed into Brown Girl Begins, which becomes a prequel to the novel, re-imagining the novels reflections on seer traditions and obeah, a system of spiritual healing and justice-making practices developed among enslaved West African’s.