Sun Ra is not only one of the key musicians of the 20th century, with echoes of his work heard in Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Coltrane, Sly & The Family Stone, Funkadelic, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and in almost any kind of music that involves some form of paroxysmal sonic experimentation, but is also an Afrodelic thinker who elaborated the radical concept of space as an otherness opposed to time. Sun Ra is an ever-expanding galaxy (his discography is still growing 15 years after his death), his soulful spaceship creating otherworldly musical visions, still (tele)communicating through music (the label ‘free jazz’ in this case couldn’t be more fitting) as he had intended, while inter-planetary mavericks of all times come on board.
Ra first came to Oakland in 1971, where besides playing he was also lecturing in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Berkeley, after being invited by Bobby Seale to stay with his Arkestra in a house provided by the Black Panther Party. That same year Ra was approached by Jim Newman, a producer at San Francisco’s public television station KQED, who suggested shooting a short fictionalised documentary about his music with the aid of director John Coney. Ra immediately saw the opportunity to share his experience visually with a film audience. Space is the Place was the result, and it is one of those wonderfully strange filmic adventures that now seem impossible.
John Coney’s film is as ineffable and mysterious as Sun Ra’s music. Deliberately conceived as an homage to the cheesy aesthetic of 50s and 60s science fiction (films like Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M), its visuals collide with Ra’s cosmogony in an explosively transcendental filmic experience. The idea behind the film was to create a cinematic vehicle for Ra’s mythology, linking the extra-terrestrial theme with the erudite Egyptian alchemy that played such an important role in the musician’s philosophy. Following mythical archetypes, Ra is challenged in the film by The Overseer (played by Ray Johnson, who appeared in Dirty Harry), a sort of superplaya halfway between Black Caesar and Iceberg Slim before his redemption, the epitome of everything keeping black Americans chained to the System’s gravity force, orbiting in the only positions open to them (pimps, drug dealers, etc.).
Landing in 1943 Chicago in his music-fuelled spaceship, Ra cacophonically disrupts The Overseer’s world, using his concept of alter-destiny to question the pimp’s vision of the black people’s future. The film’s set mutates into a dream-like desert where the fate of the black race is played out in a cartomancy duel between Ra and The Overseer. The duel is simultaneously performed on planet Earth where Ra’s Garveyite message faces The Overseer’s promise of easy money and commodified sex, at the expense of social progress for the black population.
Unlike the coeval Blaxploitation school (with the exception of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, The Spook Who Sat by the Door and a few others), Coney’s film shows the pimp for what he is, a degenerate power figure mirroring the decadence of the society he thinks he’s defying. Although aesthetically cognate to Blaxploitation films, Space is the Place explores racial issues by subverting established categories such as the black avenger and the good-hearted pimp and/or drug dealer, articulating a black cinematic popular discourse initiated by Van Peebles with Sweetback but never taken any further. After Martin Luther King’s failed efforts for peaceful integration and Malcom X’s more belligerent stances, taken up by the Black Panthers and drowned in blood by the FBI/CIA, Sun Ra takes the struggle for liberation to outer space; but just like on planet Earth, his work is undermined by two agents, allegedly working for NASA, but probably undercover FBI agents.
The film delivers a polyrhythmic optic experience that may now be reduced to mere aestheticism but back then was the sign of a subterranean social and cultural current willing to transform potentiality into opportunity in spite of the marginal position of black people in Nixon’s America. Filmed in 1972 in the same film studio as Behind the Green Door, with which it shares an actor (Johnny Keyes), but only released in 1974, this mytho-poetic celluloid manifesto demands to be seen and heard for its depiction of a conceptualized outer space where black people would finally be able to tune in with the universe.
Celluloid Liberation Front
The summer print issue of Electric Sheep is a jazz and cinema special to coincide with the re-release of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a heart-rending, soulful monochrome gem. To celebrate the belated recognition of one of American independent cinema’s greats, we look at the influence of jazz on film in the US with articles on Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch and Beat cinema among others. For more information on stockists and subscriptions, please contact amanda [at] wallflowerpress.co.uk.