An Immerse Response

I had a opportunity to write a short essay for Immerse, a website promoting creative discussions about emerging nonfiction storytelling. I met the editor, Jessica Clark at the National Black Programming Consortium’s 360 2.0 Bootcamp in September 2016 when I was an NBPC 360 fellow. Jessica came in to talk to us about developing a media engagement strategy for our projects.

Here is a description of Immerse:

Note from the editor
How are we telling stories about the world today — and why? Immerse will publish one in-depth article per month, along with responses to the piece, and roundups of relevant events and publications. With a critical eye, we’ll cover an array of topics: virtual reality, immersive installations, participatory storytelling experiments, nonfiction games, and more. We are concerned with serious questions about the ethics, impact, and implications of emerging forms. But also we hope to have fun, surprise you, and also surprise ourselves along the way. Immerse is an initiative of Tribeca Film Institute, MIT Open DocLab and The Fledgling Fund. It is supported by The Fledgling Fund and MacArthur Foundation.

Read more…

Speculations… The White Fantastic Imagination

Speculations poster draft 1 copy-2_CROP

In March of 2015, I presented at the conference called Speculative Humanities: Steampunk to Afrofuturism at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. The title of my audio-visual presentation was The White Fantastic Imagination and the Invisible Universe. In my 20 minute time slot, I talked primarily about the research I have been doing for my upcoming documentary, Invisible Universe, which explores the history of representations of Black people in speculative fiction books and movies. I focused on what I call the “White Fantastic Imagination” and “The Invisible Universe”. This talk is new for me, and I am still developing and extending it for future conferences, including SFRA 2015 and possibly Ferguson is the Future, but until then, below is an outline of it and the slide show I used for my presentation.

SLIDESHOW:

Here are the notes on the slides:

Slide 1: Title card.

Slide 2: I generally define speculative fiction, as a genre term for various types of literature/film/art/media that include elements of the futuristic, and/or the fantastic, and/or the extra-imaginative in its storytelling content.

Slide 3: My journey on this documentary began at a conference entitled, Blacks in Science Fiction: A New Frontier at Howard University in March 2003.

Slide 4: My research began with the anthology, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree Renee Thomas, 2000, which contained a variety of short SF stories, excerpts from SF novels and essays by Black SF writers, including one called, Racism and Science Fiction, by Samuel R. Delany. This essay essay became the foundation of my own research.

Slide 5: It is a term I have come up with to try to describe much of the SF work I had been reading and watching, to try to understand why it omitted authentic representations of Black people. I began to call it the White Fantastic Imagination, which to me is the ideology of white supremacy in speculative fiction. It is white supremacy literally claiming time, space, matter and energy as its own, in futuristic, fantastic, and/or extra-imaginative narratives. We see the White Fantastic Imagination at play, for example, when we don’t see Black people proportionally represented in narratives about the future (Flash Gordon or Star Wars or Gattaca), or when we see Black people as the Other, or as monsters or aliens (literally in Alien or Enemy Mine or Predator), or when we see Black Death as a regular phenomenon in SF books and movies and other media (Night of the Living Dead or Damnation Alley or The Shining).

Slide 6: What I have learned and realized is that The White Fantastic Imagination and its framework are inherent to speculative fiction, because it originates in the prototypical forms of speculative fiction, in genres like Utopian Fiction, Fantastic Voyages, Scientific Romances and Lost Race/Lost World narratives. These prototypical forms of speculative fiction developed within a world being defined by European imperialism, especially on the continent of Africa. For example, English reports of expeditions to Africa and their encounters with African people and their cultures often paralleled and/or mirrored the English fantastic tales of travels to unknown worlds, like to the moon or Mars – in language, attitude and form. Or Africa and Africans became major literary elements within the prototypical speculative fiction texts where Africans played servants and/or hostile natives in some of these fantastical worlds.

Slide 7: My definition of the Invisible Universe is, “Creators of African descent who use the genre(s) of speculative fiction to create futuristic, fantastic, or extra-imaginative narratives, from their own perspectives, that directly or indirectly critique and/or resist the White Fantastic Imagination.” The Invisible Universe is informed by African/African American culture and history, and is ultimately is about the agency, liberation, independence and better futures for Black people.

Slide 8: Between 1859 and 1916, but especially during the nadir of race relations in the United States, several African American writers delved into prototypical speculative fiction writing, most especially Utopian Fiction. Their stories imagined better future societies for Blacks, but also spoke to the realities of African American life in 19th and early 20th century America.

Slide 9: Separate from Utopian Fiction, there were several African American writers who worked primarily outside of the SF genre, but used the futuristic, the fantastic and the extra-imaginative in their work since around the end of the 19th century, as well as throughout the 20th century.

Slide 10: The first generation of African American writers of SF emerged over a 30 year period beginning in 1962. The first few were the result of a dynamic mix of African American migration out of the South, unique educational opportunities and compelling individual ambitions, but they also appeared at a moment in history that seemed to represent a backlash against the struggles of the Civil Rights and Black Power Eras, possibly akin to a second nadir in race relations in the United States.

Slide 11: African American filmmaking, with an emphasis on the strategy of creative control, either through writing, producing and/or directing films, has been the major way for Black filmmakers to shape their cinematic image, especially in response to the continuous racial stereotyping by Hollywood. In the genre of SF, creative control by African Americans has been rare in general, but a recognizable spurt of SF films by African American creators throughout the 1990’s has proven thus far to be the first generation of Black SF filmmaking.

Slide 12: The term, Afrofuturism was originally propelled by academics and cultural critics like Mark Dery, Alondra Nelson, Kali Tal, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose and Kodwo Eshun in the 1990s, and was concerned with the aesthetics and intersections of technology, Afrocentricity, science fiction, the African Diaspora, etc. In general, its existence and popularity in the consciousness of Black people, and to some extant the mainstream has grown in the 2000s and 2010s, partially assisted by technology and social media networks. However, could it also be that there is a critical mass of resistance developing again amongst Black creatives, academics, social justice activists and Black people in general, against increased white supremacist antagonism, staggering inequality and state terrorist violence (a third nadir?) Black folks are not only imagining and creating better futures in their art, but in their daily lives, too.

Slide 13: Social media links card

SAMPLE SNEAK PEEK:

Bonus Material: There were a few short rough cut clips from my documentary included with the presentation, one of which I include here. This is an early sample of a rough cut of an opening sequence. It will be updated in the documentary. Consider it a sneak peek!

Speculations… The Making of the BBC’s “Black Sci-Fi”

In July of 2013, three fascinating clips were posted to YouTube. The videos were entitled “Black Sci-Fi” and consisted of very stylized documentary footage of interviews with Mike Sargent, Steven Barnes, Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany and Nichelle Nichols. It was a fascinating look into the minds of, a very rare breed – the Black science fiction writer, as well as at the groundbreaking Star Trek actress. It was produced by the BBC in 1992. The clips eventually spread like wildfire around the internet and were eventually seen on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, on SF websites like SF Signal and TOR, on pop culture sites like The Absolute Mag and eventually on the Black film news site, Shadow and Act. My take on the overall reaction of people who commented on these clips, was of excitement and confirmation of the idea that Black people have a future that is feasible and hopeful.

As I move toward completion of my Black Sci-Fi documentary, Invisible Universe, which explores the history of representations of African Americans in speculative fiction books, movies and comics, I was excited and somewhat anxious to watch these early glimpses into their worlds. I was also curious as to how this documentary would compare and contrast to my own upcoming work. One similarity is that all of the personalities profiled in the existing “Black Sci-Fi” documentary are also interviewed in my project. One difference is that while I am interested in the works of the writers and their personal history, I am also interested in SF as an industry and how Black people have fit into it since its origins. I also wondered why the BBC would be interested in producing a program on African American science fiction writers and actors in the early 1990’s. This last interest led me to doing a little research to understand the story behind the documentary. And I soon discovered the man who researched the project and conducted the interviews. His name is Paul Coleman.

As Paul remembers it, to really begin telling the story of the making of “Black Sci-Fi”, we must begin in Brixton, England. Brixton, England, during the years of Margaret Thatchers’ premiership and in a London where at least five major Black rebellions occurred between 1981 and 1985. Rebellions ignited in the Black communities as a consequence of the repressive and brutal behaviors of the police and its racial profiling policies. Policies like the SUS Law, which allowed police officers to Stop and Search and possibly arrest people on suspicion of intent to commit an arrestable offense. And rebellions that were also a consequence of the inadequate housing in the Black districts of the UK and the high unemployment rates, which reached 50% in the Black communities in the early 1980’s. In my interview with Paul, he explained the connection between the numerous uprisings and the reluctant efforts in the early 1980’s by the British public television institutions to commission TV programming that focused on issues in the Black communities in Britain and would also create a system that would train and employ Black people as television industry workers.

“Commissioning in those days…an explanation requires some context.

Issues of race arose in the UK in the 1980s – chiefly fired up by racially charged policing of young black men in UK cities that provoked violent public disorder.

Pressurised public institutions reluctantly tried to find ways to offer young black people more skills and career opportunities.

The BBC and the newly constituted Channel 4 created such mechanisms.

The BBC set up two programme units – Ebony and Eastern Eye.

Ebony received a budget and set of offices to produce programmes aimed at younger black people of African-Caribbean origin.

Eastern Eye, similarly, for programmes aimed at Asian people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin.

Later, the BBC and Channel 4 set up a special commissioning ‘pathways’ for ‘ethnic minority’ films produced by independent film production companies…”

Some magazine programming aimed at Black (African and Asian) audiences in Britain in the 1980’s and 90’s:

1980: Skin (BBC)
1982: Ebony (Channel 4)
1982/87: Asian Magazine/Network East (BBC)
1982: Eastern Eye (Channel 4)
1983: Black on Black (Channel 4)
1985: Bandung File (Channel 4)
1991: Black Bag (Channel 4)

Moonlight Films was an independent production company that was commissioned by offices of the public television institutions to produce content for their new programming. Founded in 1989, by Terrence Francis and Kamscilla Naidoo, who worked for the BBC prior to the forming of their new company, Moonlight Films would go on to produce four films for the BBC and Channel 4, including “Black Sci-Fi.” Their first film in 1991 was called “Marked for Life?” and explored early multicultural education in the UK and how children dealt with issues of race at school. Their second film in 1991 was called “Europe 1992: Fortune or Fortress” and examined the lives of African and Bangladeshi migrants who lived, worked and/or traveled in France, Italy and the UK. This was the first film that Paul, who left the BBC to join Moonlight, worked on with the company. “Black Sci-Fi” was the third film. The last film they produced was called “Many Rivers to Cross” in 1992. It explored the experiences of refugees from Zaire, Somalia and Ethiopia as they attempted settle in the UK. A fifth and a sixth film, the first about the history of African American cowboys and the second about the experiences of African American veterans from the Vietnam War, both reached pre-production but were never produced. Paul worked extensively on the research and writing of the last two film projects, but Moonlight Films folded before they could go into production. The four films that were produced ran from 20 – 25 minutes.

Paul says that the BBC tried to source at least 25% of its programming from independent producers, which eventually became a way for Black producers (African and Asian) to get a foot in the British television industry door. “Black Sci-Fi” was specifically commissioned by the BBC’s Continuing Education department. The idea was originally pitched by the producer and director, Terrence Francis to the BBC, but Paul worked on extensive rewrites of it. Paul also noted that he did research for the possible inclusion of Black British SF characters from programs like UFO, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Doctor Who, but these angles were dropped before the beginning of production.

Initial contact with the personalities included in the actual documentary was made by Paul, himself, who travelled to the United States to pre-interview the possible subjects. He initially met with Nichelle Nichols, Steven Barnes, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler. He met with Octavia in her Pasadena home (before she moved to Seattle in 1999) and remarks:

“(I) was mightily impressed with Butler’s fierce single-minded focus as a writer.”

In 1992, Paul returned to the U.S. with Terrance, Kamscilla and a small crew, first to Los Angeles, to interview Butler, Nichols and Barnes, around the time the Rodney King verdict was announced. He remembers feeling a sort of tension in the air, that was reminiscent of the situation in Brixton, around a decade earlier. Initially they had a rough start, as their camera person had an accident that resulted in him breaking his ankle. After the L.A. shoots, they travelled to New York, where Delany and Sargent were located and where their new camera person refused to shoot in Harlem after dark. However, they persevered and eventually completed production in two weeks. On the way home to London, though, their film cans were mistakenly sent to Dusselfdorf, Germany. After much frustrated communication with the brass of British Airways, the film cans were later recovered and then safely delivered to the Moonlight Films offices in London.

Paul says of his experience with the production and post-production of the project:

“Personally, I had several reservations about the film’s production and post-production.

I thought the editing was quite slick and smooth…but some details were missed…including the horrendously incorrect spelling of Samuel R. Delany’s name on captions…Rightly, he was furious!”

He also mentions the time he pursued a follow up interview with Octavia after the documentary, for another project:

“Post-Moonlight, I tried to interview Butler for a written piece several years on…but she complained Moonlight didn’t pay her properly for Black Sci-Fi.

Unfortunately, the business side of Moonlight didn’t always match its creativity.”

Paul concludes by mentioning that the BBC was very pleased with the final project and that the media reviews for it were positive. As for the audience reaction, he wasn’t sure because he said in those days there was very little meaningful audience measurement, in general. On a personal level, though, he received quite a few positive acknowledgments, as people commented that the documentary really taught them something new about the world.

Paul, who considers himself to be a working-class, Londoner of mixed heritage (English-Irish-Scottish-Guyanese-East Indian-West Indian-Caribbean), has had an interest in science fiction since he was young and says that it “gripped his imagination” quite early. He rates Star Trek, UFO, Doctor Who, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 among his favorite programs. Paul has also had an interest in writing since he was a child and has previously worked as a journalist for the Caribbean Times, a weekly newspaper that serves the Black communities in Britain. He currently runs a blog called London Intelligence where he chronicles the lives of the “often overlooked, ignored or misrepresented” Londoners and the challenges they face in the 21st century. He also spoke about his early political influences:

“I was also heavily influenced in my 20s by Caribbean political events and figures – Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, Walter Rodney’s writing and Guyana politics, C.L.R James, and Manning Marable.

Also my uncle and influential mentor, Professor Mohammad Kazim Bacchus, who extensively researched and wrote about the history of education in the West Indies.

My uncle Arif Ali owned the publishing company. (Caribbean Times)

In the end, Paul reminisced about his fond memories of working on the Black Sci-Fi documentary.

“Octavia Butler’s work continues to inform and influence my own writing to this day.

I was very sad to learn of her passing.

Nichelle Nichols was totally charming…and remains one of the most professional and engaging people I’ve interviewed.”

Paul says he has hopes for the improvement of representations of Black people in SF for the future, citing the heroic roles played by Will Smith in I Am Legend, I, Robot and the Men in Black series and Denzel Washington in Deja Vu. He does however await the day when a more authentic or genuine Black perspective will appear in SF films.

In the end, I believe that my quest to understand why the BBC would produce a documentary project on African American SF writers and actors, reveals that it is not so much about the BBC, as it is other factors. From the personal interest in science fiction by the producers of the project, to the overall commitment of the producers to creating documentary projects that explored subjects relevant to Black people, to access to the financial opportunities to produce such a project, and to the historical conditions that would cause the British public television institutions to address the inequities in their television programming. If any of these are actually true, I am not sure, it would take more research than this brief blog post to really explore this subject. However I am grateful that the documentary exists. If it is anything, it is an important view into the creative minds of this rare breed who knew that Black people had a future and were determined to express it in their art. It is also a testament to the connections that exist amongst the African Diaspora around the world and the similar struggles we all face.

Finally, I wonder how many of the Black residents of Brixton (Toxteth, Lambeth, Tottenham and Handsworth), who no doubt lived with the memories of the uprisings were able to see it when it aired and how it affected them. I also wonder how many African American youth, who are moving to the forefront of the struggle today have seen it and how it may affect them too?

Note: Terrance Francis and Kamscilla Naidoo are a husband and wife team. Their company, Total Eclipse Films, founded in 1994, is an independent production company in South Africa that produces ground-breaking films and documentaries. I was unable to reach them in time for this blog post.

Speculations… Shadows… Brown Girl…

madmodsThe second book discussion at The Shadows Took Shape exhibition was focused on Brown Girl in the Ring, written by Nalo Hopkinson and published in 1998. The discussion was co-moderated by writer and artist, Rosamond King and by me, the producer and director of the up-coming, Invisible Universe documentary. I opened the discussion with an audio-visual presentation, which focused on the history of representations of Voodoo and Zombies in popular media like books and films, specifically in the United States. My presentation was then followed by a short discussion of the book with Ms. King and the audience.

I opened my talk with a slide presentation on the origins of the genre, which I stated had three major causes. The first cause was the military invasion and occupation of the Republic of Haiti by the United States between 1915 and 1934, which filled the white American imagination with stories of exotic locales and of the African derived customs and religious practices of the Caribbean. The second cause was the success of the travel book, The Magic Island, by William Seabrook, a world famous travel writer, who claimed to be the first non-practitioner, eyewitness of the rituals and practices of Haitian Voodoo, as well as an initiate into the religion. The third cause was the rise in popularity of the horror film in the United States during the 1930’s, where independent producers and Hollywood alike, competed to financially benefit from this early horror film wave and the success of films like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932).

These three elements led to the production of the first Voodoo/Zombie themed film, White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi and independently produced by the Halperin Brothers. The film, partly inspired by Seabrook’s book, told the story of a white sugarcane factory owner/Zombie master who is hired by a “West Indian” aristocrat to zombify a young American bride, but who instead double-crosses the aristocrat and plans to abduct the bride for himself. White Zombie would establish the tropes of future Voodoo/Zombie films, including the mechanisms of zombification, but most especially the idea that the practice of Voodoo and zombification were an inherently evil system to be feared and defeated by Westernized ideologies, science and heroes.

Over thirty years and dozens of films later, the Zombie film trope would experience a radical change that would alter its origin story and dramatically separate it from its religious and Caribbean, née, African roots. George A. Romero’s, Night of the Living Dead (1968) single-handedly transformed the Zombie figure from a mindless, voiceless being, or state of being, who has lost their autonomy through nefarious means (not unlike a slave or even the island nation of Haiti during the U.S. military invasion/occupation), and into a flesh, eating ghoul, whose sole purpose is over-consumption and superficial destruction. And though the fear of the Zombie was now separated from its original worldview system of Voodoo, the idea of fear and negativity surrounding the Zombie figure continued to persist in films.

After this short historical talk, I brought the presentation back to the subject of the discussion, the book, Brown Girl in the Ring. The novel, by the Jamaican born, Canadian raised writer Nalo Hopkinson explores a near future, dystopian Toronto, that has experienced economic collapse, where the rich have fled the city en masse, leaving the poor, mostly immigrant, communities of color behind and to fend for themselves and survive in an unforgiving urban environment and against a very real and a very powerful, albeit fantastic menace to their new society. On a story level, the fantastically convincing, award winning novel is filled with duppies, dieties, soucouyants and Zombies that maneuver in and out of the storyline in a believable manner. Also, in contrast to the completely negative imagery presented of Voodoo/Zombiism in popular media prior to the book’s publication, Brown Girl presents a story that authenticates the guiding religious system, as primarily for healing, communication and protection and secondarily as a method for negative power. Hopkinson’s Brown Girl establishes its protagonists as practitioners of a religion, that they call “serving the spirits”, that is used to bring cohesion and unity to their disturbed communities. Brown Girl says that this power is not inherently negative or evil, as Hollywood cinema ideology would sanction over the prior 50 years and that an individual or group has a choice in how this power is utilized.

I believe that Brown Girl in the Ring is a powerful story of dis-empowered individuals and communities, who, even with their different beliefs and understandings of the world, are ultimately bound together by a non-Westernized worldview that successfully sustains them. And in my estimation, here in lies the real value of the work done by Hopkinson. Brown Girl in the Ring is a historically thoughtful and imaginatively speculative reclamation of a powerful cultural system that has been bastardized by capitalistic and white supremacy value systems. It is my hope that with more exposure, Brown Girl in the Ring, the book and hopefully its upcoming movie version, will reappropriate the tropes of the Voodoo/Zombie film, and inspire others to utilize them in a way that is more conducive to the struggles of Black people around the world. In my opinion, this is one of the best uses of Black SF/Afrofuturism, as we as creators, critics and audiences shift paradigms and our realities with narratives that are more engaging and supportive of our existences.

Speculations… Samuel R. Delany on racism essay

Racism for me has always appeared to be first and foremost a system, largely supported by material and economic conditions at work in a field of social traditions. – Samuel R. Delany

One of the objectives of the Invisible Universe Documentary is to explore the particular ways in which the conventional world of SF literature (but also film and comics) – its writers, editors, publishers, researchers, fans, fan clubs, magazines with editorials, associations, societies, awards organizations, etc. have influenced the perception and participation of Black people in the genre. In light of the recent controversies (meaning January 2013 to today) and this, in the world of SF literature, surrounding the SFWA, of which I have only been an observer from afar and which apparently touches upon sexism, racism, homoantagonism and proclamations of freedom of speech, I have been reminded several times recently of an essential essay penned by Samuel R. Delany himself on a relevant topic in 1998, titled “Racism and Science Fiction” for the New York Review of Science Fiction. I first encountered the essay in 2003, in the equally essential anthology, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree Renee Thomas when I was doing research for the documentary.

In the essay, Mr. Delany, the first African American to comprehensively participate in the world of SF, in terms of, his publishing in SF magazines as well as with hard and soft cover books, to winning SF awards for his writing – four Nebulas and two Hugos, to being inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2002, to receiving the 2013 Damon Knight Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction And Fantasy Writers of America expounds on several issues. They include, racism as a systemic force, several Black writers who participated in the SF tradition in their works at least on one occasion prior to his inaugural publishing in 1962, several other Black writers who at the time of him writing the essay – the late 1990’s were garnering attention and praise for their work and several instances of racism that he had personally encountered in his career, from blatant prejudicial acts to the more subtle kind. He also suggests an admittedly arbitrary but arguably accurate summation that when there is a critical mass of Black participation in the SF world, they will not only encounter a pushback from the status quo but may also prove to be the numbers needed for a sturdy foundation in the field.

As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field. – Samuel R. Delany

It’s a diligent and crucial read and again, can be accessed in its entirety online here: “Racism and Science Fiction”.

And additionally, in reference to the aforementioned controversy, I will only add one link, from the blog of a writer that came up in a recent search, SL Huang (of whom I do not know personally), which is essentially an “An Incomplete, Admittedly Biased Timeline” of the controversy with links to its numerous events and online activities according to his knowledge. I think this post may be useful for getting a general outline of the situation. I encourage those with interest, to explore it more in depth, as I will be doing.

Samuel R. Delany, Grand Master of Science Fiction by Open Road Media

Speculations… Shadows… Kindred

IMG_3913The first book discussion at The Shadows Took Shape exhibition was focused on Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. Leading the discussion were Philadelphia native, Rasheedah Phillips, an attorney, writer and the founder of The Afrofuturist Affair and Mississippi native, John Jennings, a designer, curator, illustrator, cartoonist, graphic novelist and University of Buffalo professor. Their discussion focused on the story, characters, themes and subject matter of Butler’s 1979, time traveling, speculative slave narrative, Kindred.

Rasheedah introduced us to her thoughts on the book, talking about the mechanisms, agency and significance of time travel in Kindred. She spoke of how she considered the immaterial methods that pulled the protagonist Dana, from her reality and into the antebellum past, was like an act of abduction (kidnapping) and that the question of who controlled this life changing act (Dana or Rufus) was also significant, in both examples, alluding to the realities of the slave trade and the slave plantation system. She elaborated on the idea that Octavia Butler challenged and subverted the well-known “Grandfather Paradox” trope in science fiction. Rasheedah described how the paradox, which in its most base definition, negates the possibility of time travel and is often predicated as a way to prevent a future evil, is actually turned on its heels by Butler, because of the fact that Dana has to continuously save the life of her ancestor, in order for him to commit the evil act that will preserve her own existence. She spoke about how this technique actually returned agency to Dana, giving her a semblance of choice, as harsh as it may have seemed, of whether to live or die.

kindred_discussion_19

John then turned to his thoughts on Kindred, as not so much a science fiction text, but more an “ethno-gothic” story. He combined ideas of the American South as a “haunted space” in reference especially to the Black experience. He spoke of the symbolic reading of the Black body as a text, especially in reference to Dana, a modern Black woman who finds herself mis-read as a slave by her ancestors, and who eventually has to re-write her body text in order to survive in the past. This form of “stereotyping” of Dana by her ancestors, he describes as a continuous proliferation of an idea, which occurs through writing and publishing. He elaborates with the example of a palimpsest, where he speaks of the “KUNTOBY” process. In this example, he refers to the scene in the television series, Roots, where Kunta Kinte – the “African”, is literally beaten or re-written, into becoming Toby – the slave, by the overseer and the whip. This form of Black “body horror”, in this “gothic space” becomes the “ethno-gothic”.

The discussion also included wonderful commentary, questions and observances from participants in the audience, who came with books and notes in hand and enlightening thoughts in mind.

In the following clip, we see some of the artwork to the upcoming Kindred, graphic novel of which John Jennings is the artist.

Speculations… Cinematic Similarities


I recently noticed some similarities in a couple of scenes from two of my most favorite films, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Blade Runner (1982). Nothing wrong with being inspired by a classic film!

1. time – late into the night/early morning
2. location – victim’s bedroom, victim in canopy bed
3. action – victim reading/working
4. props – chess board, animal statues around bed
5. wardrobe – victim’s “big collared” styled robe (victim puts it on later in Blade Runner scene)
6. character – victim is a boss
7. shots – similarly composed shots (flipped)
8. lighting – candle or candle styled lights around bed
9. purpose – victim is going to be murdered (though the word “victim” might have been a clue)

Speculations… Behind the Mask: Black Actors as Aliens


James Earl Jones speaks about his voicing of the Darth Vader character.

Images of Black people in science fiction films have often mirrored the inadequacies of other film genres by under-representing, misrepresenting or deleting the Black body from the narrative. However it came as quite a surprise to me when I came upon this little tidbit of scifi geekery(?), that there are several major sci-fi movies with memorable alien characters, where the face or voice behind the mask, was that of a Black actor. It is an interesting phenomenon that I believe could be considered coincidence or even intentional on a certain level. A good bet though is that the next SF film you see without a Black character may be hiding a Black man or woman just below the latex surface.

Behind the Mask:

James Earl Jones in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), director: George Lucas

James Earl Jones became the voice behind the iconic symbol of evil in George Lucas’ genre changing space opera series after actor David Prowse’s pipes were deemed an insufficient fit for the menacing nature of the ultimate villain. However, Jones apparently declined to have his name appear in the credits because he felt that his vocal contribution did not merit inclusion. I am personally skeptical of this bit of Lucas lore as Jones also took a pittance of a contract for the film ($7000) because he was not working regularly and was self-proclaimed as broke at the time.

Bolaji Bodejo in Alien (1979), director: Ridley Scott

bolajibadejo1_252x400The story goes that Bolaji Bodejo, the 6’10”, well traveled, graphic design and commercial arts student from Nigeria was discovered by accident in a West End pub in London by Peter Archer, an agent from the casting department of Ridley Scott’s memorable scifi-horror film, Alien. Described in the video documentary, The Beast Within: The Making of Alien, the latex alien costume was made from a mold of Bodejo’s body, while the head was a separate part with the mechanisms within for the secondary mouth. It is also rumored that Bodejo took classes in mime and tai chi to enhance his alien movements. But it was ultimately Bodejo’s height, slender frame and long limbs that were thought to be perfect to add an element of “inhuman” proportions that would fit the alien character.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Louis Gossett Jr. in Enemy Mine (1985), director: Wolfgang Petersen

louisgossettjr_321x400Enemy Mine actually had Louis Gossett Jr. star as an alien twice in the same movie because after production problems with the original director, the whole film was shot again, with Wolfgang Petersen at the helm, in a different country and with Gossett’s alien make up being re-designed. Enemy Mine, a scifi re-make on the war drama, Hell in the Pacific (1968), is about a human soldier and a Drac alien soldier surviving together on a harsh alien planet, but with a twist. Gossett’s character, Jeriba “Jerry” Shigan gives birth to an alien child, through asexual reproduction. Gossett’s performance as an asexual reptilian alien, all in his alien costume, the result hours of make up, has been been described as “intricate” and without any “stock, silly or derivative” characterizations. Around the time of the Oscars, it was rumored that he may be nominated for his alien portrayal, three years after winning an Oscar for his Best Supporting Role in An Officer and a Gentlemen (1982). Alas, it did not happen…
 
 
 
 
 
Kevin Peter Hall in Predator (1987), director: John McTiernan

kevinpeterhall_300x400Kevin Peter Hall, the rumored 7’2″ to 7’6″ American actor, who bodied the costume for the title character in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action flick, Predator, in 1987, was a dancer and singer before his breakout role. Having played several monsters, aliens or just unusual characters in his short career including as Harry in Harry and the Hendersons, an alien in Star Trek:The Next Generation, Big John in Big Top Pee Wee and again as the hunter alien in Predator 2, of which he referred to as grunt roles, he always stayed positive about his career and its prospects. Hall’s story unfortunately ended abruptly and tragically though, as he contracted the AIDS virus after receiving a tainted blood transfusion during an emergency operation after being involved in a major traffic accident.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Honorable Mentions:

James Earl Jones in Stargate SG-1: Thor’s Hammer (1997), director: Brad Turner

Veteran man behind the mask, James Earl Jones returns to voice the character of Unas in this Season One episode from Stargate: SG-1. Link here.

Forest Whitaker in Battlefield Earth (2000), director: Roger Christian

Academy award winning actor, Forest Whitaker, dons the mask of Ker, the human siding, Psychlo assistant to John Travolta’s alien security chief on a human enslaved Earth, in this reportedly Scientology supported, propaganda, recruiting flick. Link here.

Addendum:

(Note: Doing some research for another article brought to my attention a major character that I originally missed. Silly me.)

Zoe Saldana in Avatar, (2009), director: James Cameron

What’s really amazing about Avatar to me is not so much its’ groundbreaking technology (the 3D camera, motion capture and virtual capture system), but its’ complacency in being so stereotypically Hollywood, in front of and behind the camera, especially with its use of Zoe Saldana, a dark skinned, American-born actor and dancer of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, playing the role of Neytiri, in my opinion, the blue colored alien version of “Pocahontas”. All to her credit, Zoe, who trained Wushu, learned a created language for the role and worked completely in a motion capture environment, did a fantastic job. Of previous Cameron films, she says she found inspiration in other assertive and tough women characters like Sarah Connor (The Terminator series) and Lt. Ellen Ripley (The Alien series). In a sense, I agree that her character Neytiri, was a fierce and committed Na’vi warrior and potential spiritual leader of her people, very Cameronesque. Then, as I watched the featurette above, I noticed that a majority of the actors playing the native Na’vi characters in rehearsal or on set were Black and it made me think again that first and foremost “people of color” will always be the other in the imaginations of Hollywood, before they can be anything else, especially in science fiction films.

Update:

(A new film called Storage 24 from Magnet Releasing)

Robert Freeman in Storage 24, (2013), director: Johannes Roberts

A fairly new horror film from Magnet Releasing, which is the “genre arm of Magnolia Pictures, specializing in films from the vanguard of horror, action, comedy and Asian cinema”. Btw, they are also responsible for the great I Saw the Devil and Hobo With A Shotgun. It stars Noel Clarke, the English actor, director and screenwriter, who has famously given some color to Dr. Who and who is starring in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness. Here’s the synopsis of Storage 24. “London is in chaos. A military cargo plane has crashed leaving its highly classified contents strewn across the city. Completely unaware London is in lockdown, Charlie (Noel Clarke) and Shelley (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), accompanied by best friends Mark (Colin O’Donoghue) and Nikki (Laura Haddock), are at Storage 24 dividing up their possessions after a recent break-up. Suddenly, the power goes off. Trapped in a dark maze of endless corridors, a mystery predator is hunting them one by one. In a place designed to keep things in, how do you get out?” I feel like at this point, this blog post could really go on indefinitely.

Speculations… Zambia’s Minister of Space

I’ve been obsessed with space flight since I was a child. I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since as far back as I can remember. A large part of my library consists of books about the history of NASA and the Russian Aviation and Space Agency/Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), the history of rocket technology and space flight vehicles. Admittedly, the United States and the former Soviet Union, the most well-funded and advanced space programs in history, have dominated my mind. However, recently, a short article from Wired magazine, has widened my perception of space flight history. It highlights the fictionalized photography of Spaniard, Cristina De Middel, who in her new project, Afronauts, has interpreted the work of the obscure Zambian science teacher, Edward Makuka Nkoloso and his efforts to bring Zambia, one step closer to the stars. From the little I have gathered together about Nkoloso and his space program in Zambia, his story just seems to explode with not just the excitement of the human imagination, but also with the sad reality of the agency of colonialism.

“I see Zambia of the future as a space-age Zambia, more advanced than Russia or America.” Nkoloso, Zambi’s self-appointed Minister of Space, wrote in an editorial piece in the New York Times in 1964. From the outset, Nkoloso’s plans were big. His first missions included the Moon and Mars, his trainees were made up of twelve astronauts-in-training, two cats and a missionary.

Training of the astronauts included rolling down a hill inside a 40 gallon oil drum, which Nkoloso concluded would prepare them for the disorientation of hurtling through space. It also included swinging from ropes of which Nkoloso would cut at their apex so that the trainees could experience the feeling of a free fall. The rocket for the mission was fashioned out of a ten foot drum made from aluminum and copper.

As short-sighted and unrealistic as this all sounds on the surface, Nkoloso’s work is reminiscent of the early pioneers of flight, rocket technology and eventually space flight, in that his dream was structured towards a complicated goal. His real role was as an advocate for the idea of a Zambian space flight program. His ideas about how to simulate the experience of traveling through space were crude and lacked the support of experts in various specializations, as well as lacked the advantage of funding to support his program, but he also worked towards alleviating that issue too. At one point he wrote to UNESCO, requesting a grant of L7,000,000 for his space program. His request was never answered.

In our minds, Nkoloso’s efforts may seem ridiculous, but I believe it was his circumstance that was ridiculous. His country had been under British rule since 1889 and by the time of independence, the country were seriously underdeveloped. In my opinion, Nkoloso had the courage to imagine a radically different, though speculative future for his country, with it freed from the constraints of colonialism. He connected his work to a new vision of Zambia, by citing that their real independence would begin with the blast of their first rocket into space, his astronaut team included men and women, with even a teenage girl, Matha Mwamba, being chosen as the first person to set foot on Mars, and he was an advocate of young people taking up careers in science by entering his academy. And though, some of his ideas are questionable like including missionaries on the Mars mission (while warning them against proselytizing their theology to the “Martians”) and some un-democratic, like indefinitely detaining without trial, what he called American and Soviet spies in his country, Nkoloso seemed to be a man whose thoughts were unrestrained.

Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s story strikes me as one of the ultimate dreamer.

Speculations… S. Torriano Berry interview

stberry_776Steven Torriano Berry is an American film producer, writer and director. He directed Noh Matta Wat!, the first Belizean dramatic television series, which first aired on 28 November 2005.

A native of Kansas City, Kansas, Berry was raised in Des Moines, Iowa. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, he entered the Master’s program at UCLA’s prestigious film school. While at UCLA, Berry worked on numerous film and video projects including an award-winning short, Rich, in which he wrote, produced and directed as well as starred.

Berry is currently an associate professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he directed the indie horror film, Embalmer in 1996. He is also the author of two books on black film. Embalmer is available for purchase here. The Embalmer trailer.

MAD: How and when did you become interested in film and filmmaking?

TOR: I started in still photography after my sophomore year in high school, motivated after my older sister set up a dark room in our garage. She put this plain white sheet of paper under this light and put it in some water looking stuff and when the image appeared I was hooked. This was before instant Polaroid photography when you still had to wait 60 seconds to pull the backing off, after the image had already formed, so I truly thought it was magic. I stayed in that darkroom all summer long and when I returned to school for my junior year I had a photography class on my schedule that to this day I do not remember signing up for. I figured it was destiny.

MAD: Talk about your experience at film school at UCLA, alma mater of many, future Hollywood talents?

TOR: Going to UCLA was like throwing gasoline on a smoldering flame. My dad used to take home movies with his 8mm camera when I was a kid and I always enjoyed seeing the excitement that watching them would bring to family and friends. I started playing around with making super-8mm movies while majoring in art & photography at Arizona State University and began to like it. I worked full time my senior year at the AiResearch Manufacturing plant photo lab in Phoenix and realized I was not ready to punch a time clock after graduation, so I started seriously considering graduate school in Film. I was so into lighting, camera angles, and plot lines that I would try to “talk film” with my friends and movie dates, but they would look at me like I was crazy. In film school, I found other people who thought and dreamed and talked about film like I did, so it was like a breath of fresh air.

MAD: Who are some of your influences, filmmaker or other that motivate you as a filmmaker?

TOR: I got to UCLA in 1981, pre-Spike, pre-Townsend, pre-Singleton, etc, so there was no one black that I knew of at that time doing what I wanted to do. But this was cool because I figured I would be the first. Of course, in time, I learned about Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, Jr., and that even Sidney Poitier had directed films. There were also the independents, St. Clair Bourne, Haile Gerima, and Charles Burnett. Still, in Hollywood, there were not many black folk being credited with doing anything behind the camera back then, which was very daunting. I wondered why this was so? Were we not good enough, lucky enough, talented enough? Or was it blatant racism…Duh?

I spent a great deal of my time trying to figure out how I was going to tell the stories I wanted to tell when it was obvious the system was not interested in my perspective. Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola were blowing up around that time and I envied them and what all they were doing, especially, at the box office. I decided to be as well-rounded as I could be to accept and excel at any opportunity that arose. I learned to write, produce, direct, light and shoot, edit, do sound, push a dolly, and even act in my own productions. I am also a musician so I often did my own music. I worked crew on as many other student productions as I could to learn and grow in the craft. You can learn so much from watching other people, what to do and what not to do.

UCLA had a two-year, MFA program with 72 credits, and I could have graduated in two years, but when the time came I felt I still had more to learn, so I took two extra years and came out with 143 credits and a lot more experience. That extra time, experience and additional classes taken has helped in my personal work because the more you can do yourself, the fewer people you have to pay, and there are fewer things holding you back.

MAD: You’ve made several short films throughout your career, a few in the SF genre. Would you talk a little about your short SF films, specifically “Deathly Realities” 1985, “The Connection” 1985, “The Coming of the Saturnites” 1986 and “Money’ll Eat You Up” 1992. What were the subject matters, themes, genre devices of these films?

TOR: A major breakthrough for me was discovering video. I had to pull the plug after one day of shooting on what was to be my thesis film project after I realized I could not raise the rest of the budget to do it. That was a crushing experience. It was a 16mm feature-length gospel musical titled “Light of the World,” and dealt with a new sound of contemporary gospel music, much like what Kirk Franklin and Donnie McClurkin are doing today…but this was back in the early 1980’s. I’ve been told I was before my time, maybe so…go figure. Anyway, one day I was complaining to a T.A. about my money troubles stopping me from making movies and he told me about shooting on video for much less.

My thesis project ended up being the pilot for a sci-fi anthology series shot on ¾ inch video called “The Black Beyond.” I had noticed that every year they would run a 24-hour “Twilight Zone” marathon that was quite popular. There were no anthology programs on TV at that time or anything dealing with science fiction at all, so I figured it was a fresh concept, especially, if I did it from a black perspective.

The show was to consist of two parts, a short 3-5 minute teaser project, followed by a longer 15-20 minute project. The pilot included “In the Hole,” as the short. It’s about a man’s first day in prison for killing his lover in a jealous rage. He soon learns his cellmate is incarcerated for a similar crime only the slain love of his life was another man. Now they must share the same jail cell, along with something the new guy had never anticipated. “Deathly Realities” is the feature, and co-starred Tommy Ford, who went on to costar in the TV series “Martin” with Martin Lawrence. It is about a serial killer who finally meets his match, ends up in the after life, and finds his previous victims waiting for him, armed and anxious to seek their revenge. I sent the finished pilot to several studios including Spielberg’s company, but they all turned it down. About a year or so later they came out with “Amazing Stories,” somebody else did “Monsters,” “The Dark Side,” and even a revamped “Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” After telling me “No,” they just lit up the TV with science fiction based anthology series…go figure.

Not to be out done, I kept on going on my own. Episode 2 of “The Black Beyond” was “The Connection” and “The Coming of the Saturnites.” I shot “The Connection” after graduation while I was home in Des Moines, Iowa working for MCTV (Multi-Cultural Television). The story is about a guy and girl that end up in bed one night after meeting at a nightclub. During a bit of pillow talk, they begin to argue over whether there is other intelligent life in the galaxy. She says there isn’t, he says there is and proves it. “The Coming of the Saturnites” was produced after I returned to Los Angeles to work as an Access Coordinator for Group W Cable in Gardenia, CA. While tracking the flight pattern of the Saturn 5 Satellite, an astrophysicist and his assistant transport a magnetic man from Saturn into their laboratory. He takes on human form and insists his visit is peaceful. He only needs to find the satellite that has recorded several thousand of his magnetic counterparts from the Rings of Saturn and return them to home. The smitten female lab assistant believes the spaceman, but the scientist fears a magnetic invasion of the earth.

I took on “Money’ll Eat You Up!!!” for Episode 3 of “The Black Beyond.” This was shortly after I came to Howard University to teach. It is about a wealthy man who proclaims that money is “the root of all evil,” then gives up his lavish lifestyle to live homeless in a park. He is arrested after people begin to disappear and claims that a $20 bill that has been blowing through his park has been eating people up. He says they see it, they pick it up, and they vanish. Anyway, that’s his story and it’s the truth. We later learn that aliens in a spaceship are fishing for food using money as bait.

I have storylines for 13 episodes and written scripts for the first seven. I sent the competed trilogy and a couple scripts to the “Outer Limits” people in Canada, thinking I might get the hook-up, or get hired onto something they were doing, but again, they were not interested.

MAD: Your first feature length project is a horror film entitled, Embalmer. It is a teen slasher film about four friends who encounter the “real life” urban legend of a maniacal embalmer looking to resuscitate his wife and daughter by using the body fluids of the living in an African American urban neighborhood. Talk a little about where the idea of this film originated and how long it took to complete?

TOR: For years I told myself I had to do a feature and shoot it in film. I had a nice body of work that had won festival awards and accolades, but I constantly received the comment from the industry that the work was done on video, which made It something less, as if my talents and skill could not be transferred to the more expensive medium of film. Anyway, I read an article somewhere that said there has never been a horror film produced that has not made money, no matter how bad it was.

With this in mind, I conceived “The House Where Nobody lived,” and the hook was going to be: “Nobody believed that something lived in the house where nobody lived.” I then had to figure out what was going to live there, and I came up with the Undertaker Zach character, quickly followed by four run away kids seeking someplace to hide. Eventually, the Undertaker Zach character over powered the house and it became EMBALMER.

I wanted to explore the concept that these kids were actually dealing with the real, everyday horrors of drugs, sexual abuse and neglect, and peer pressure without flinching, and yet, they were afraid of this neighborhood myth. We shot over a 3 month period with post-production and arranging for distribution lasting a couple years.

MAD: Embalmer appears to be truly a labor of love. You were the producer, director, writer, cinematographer, editor and composer. Technically how did you balance wearing so many hats on one project?

TOR: It was difficult, but I was used to working that way. I shed a tear or two at a couple of difficult times during the production because it is a lot of pressure to have the whole project resting on your shoulders alone, especially, during the times when you think you just might not make it work after all. You have the cast and crew that have committed their time and talents and you do not want to waste their efforts and fail. I had a core student crew of four of my best Howard students that were always there and about another half dozen or so that came and went. I had the creative vision and the production experience and the students were right there working with me. We usually shot weeknights, Tues. thru Thurs., 6:00-12:00am or later, which is not much time for production. The grad students had priority over the use of the cameras and equipment and they mostly shot weekends. We were in production from October thru December 1995, broke for X-mas break, and finished principle photography in January 1996. Post-production went on for the next couple years and went through several versions, with four or five additional scenes that I wrote and did pick-up shoots as needed to spruce up the story line and fill in the gaps.

MAD: The budget of Embalmer was reportedly $50,000. Is this true and if so how was the money was used, e.g., on talent, locations, production design, film stock and processing, post production, etc.? Also how did you finance the project, personal savings, credit cards, loans, etc.?

TOR: It was actually more like $25,000 or $30,000. The biggest expenses were film stock, processing and video transfers, and catering. I did not have a huge cast and crew, but I kept them well fed while on the set. I tell my students all the time, “A hungry cast and crew will revolt and kill you!” Not literally, but they will mutiny. For financing, I took out a home equity line of credit on my house for most of the budget, and had a bit saved up from a couple industrial projects I had done. I wrote the script to be shot on a low to no budget as well. The script only had 8 main characters and three main locations. I added a few scenes while in the editing process, such as the sacrificial bum that was actually suggested by a student after an early rough-cut screening. I was told I needed more blood, more sex and nudity, too.

MAD: Where did you find your actors and what was it like working with first time, non-professionals on a feature length genre film that included not only murder scenes, but sex scenes too?

TOR: I did an open casting call, but got most of the cast from Howard students. I initially wanted to cast Archie and Cindy as Caucasian, but none showed up. I also had another actor I had worked with before in another project in mind for Undertaker Zach, and had even cast him, but the night we shot his first scene something came up. There was a student on set that I had seen in a few student projects, so I asked if he wanted to play a killer? He said sure, and did a good job, but in retrospect, I probably should have held off because he really wasn’t old enough for the role. I figured since his face would be hidden behind the surgical mask we could make it work, but the eyes were important, and he didn’t have the mean and evil eyes that I originally had in mind. I’m often impatient like that. I’d rather get it done and try to make it work rather than wait and lose the momentum.

MAD: I love Embalmer’s theme song, “Undertaker Zach Rap” a rap song about the embalmer because it brought me into the mood and action of the story. Talk about the process of writing a rap song for the film. Where did you find the group to perform the song? Where did the rest of the music for the film originate?

TOR: I wrote the Undertaker Zach Rap hoping to bring in the Hip-Hop crowd, and I wanted the film to have a really hip soundtrack. I did a rough audiotape of how the rap went, and along with a few other songs I wrote for the film, including “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” and sent it to the music supervisor in Philadelphia. Music producer Andre Epps had heard about what I was doing with the film and expressed an interest in working with me on the soundtrack. He was representing several local Philly musicians and he produced the songs for me. He would also send me music that I would fit it in wherever I could, but a lot of it had beats that didn’t fit well with some of the more tense and scary scenes, so for a few creepy segments I actual scored them myself using a KORG 264 keyboard with 16 track sequencer. A few other musicians I knew also provided a few tracks.

MAD: Your directing style is very inspired. The camera angles and movements were fluid and transitional, the use of lighting was motivated and artistically used, your compositions were interestingly framed, etc. All in all, you consistently used the techniques available to you as a director in a genre work to lift the film from its meager budget into something that respected its art form. How did you plan out your directing style for the film? Do you storyboard, plan on the set or something in between?

TOR: I usually see the scenes in my head before I shoot and only storyboard if it’s a complicated scene or an action scene. The fight scene was story boarded and shot with two cameras. Everything else was shot single camera and 90% was purposely shot hand held. Setting up the tripod for each shot takes time and is cumbersome, plus I wanted the subtle, unsettling camera movement to help keep the audience a bit on edge. Composition is also important to me, especial, since I started out as a still photographer, and I like to try to tell the story visually. I went to FESPACO in Burkina Faso West Africa years ago and realized how important this is after watching films shot in Portuguese with French subtitles, or shot in Amharic with Spanish titles. Some such films I could still follow, while with others that I could not read or understand the language, I was totally lost. The ones that let the pictures tell the story were so much more universal.

MAD: What kind of response did you receive for Embalmer from audiences, festivals, other filmmakers, etc.? Where have you screened the film and what festivals did have you attended with it?

TOR: A 30 min version of EMBAMER was a finalist in the Showtime 1998 Black Short Film Showcase, which was very exciting. It was also very disappointing because they were never even interested in looking at the feature version for possible acquisition and distribution. In fact, finding distribution was a major headache that eventually turned into a pain in the ass. “The Blair Witch Project” came out while I was seeking distribution for EMBALMER, and when I went to see it, I was very disappointed. At the time, I didn’t feel it was any better than what I had done, but I guess $100 million at the box office says different. Eventually, Urban Entertainment picked up Cable and Internet rights for a small advance. They gave it a short pay-per-view run, but that was about it. Spectrum Films out of Mesa, Arizona picked up theatrical and home video rights for free with a 50/50 net split, which didn’t matter because they went out of business and stiffed me anyway. EMBALMER grossed over $100,000 in VHS and DVD sales and I never saw a dime. So, the article I read was right, my horror film did make a profit, but I didn’t.

MAD: Embalmer is a rare find, in a sense, a horror film from the perspective of African American culture. Would you say that your interest in the genre drove your work or the lack of “black SF films” drove you into the genre or is it something else entirely?

TOR: I had always been fascinated by science fiction and space movies as a kid and was always disappointed that nobody who looked like me was ever flying spaceships and exploring the stars. I mean, “This Island Earth,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and even “The Green Slime.” I recall while I was living in Philadelphia back in the late 1980’s, I got a call from Warrington Hudlin with the Black Film Foundation about doing a Black Horror, Fantasy, Sci-Fi program in New York. I said, “Sure,” and drove up for the event with my Black Beyond series, thinking there would be other black sci-fi projects screened as well. I got there to learn that I was the only black independent filmmaker working in science fiction at that time, which I found surprising. I thought it might give me an edge on my career, but it never did.

MAD: What SF genre projects do you plan on working on in the near or distant future?

TOR: I have actually made a conscious decision to back away from production and concentrate more on writing books and novels. I have two film resource books I’ve co-written with my sister, Venise Berry, who is a published fiction author as well. “The 50 Most Influential Black Films,” Citadel Press, 2001, and “Historical Dictionary of African American Cinema,” Scarecrow Press, 2007, is on bookshelves now, and available through Amazon.com. I have as completed two fiction novels that I am still trying to get out. TEARS, is based on a feature-length script I wrote about how racism is indoctrinated into children here in America, and THE HONEYMAN’S SON, is a period piece coming of age story about a young man who wants to do more with his life than taking over his father’s business emptying outhouses.

For a long time I wanted to do the Hollywood thing, but I don’t feel I have the energy anymore and I’m tired of bouncing off the walls. Hollywood is such a tightly secured industry that is difficult to penetrate it from the outside. However, for the past two years I’ve been involved as director and co-creator of the first dramatic TV series of Belize. “Noh Matta Wat!” is a dramatic series about the wants, dreams and desires of the Diegos, a Belizean family struggling to live, love and survive in the heart of Belize City. It’s been a great experience and we’ve completed three short seasons since August of 2005, but I couldn’t imagine doing something on that scale on my own anymore. Production work used to thrill me, such as when I was doing EMBALMER. I used to wake up ready to go, it now tires me out.

Denvor Fairweather of 13 Productions in Belize is producer and co-creator of “Noh Matta Wat” and we worked well together, along with the hardworking cast and skeleton crew. It’s had a major positive impact on the people of Belize and I am very proud to be a part of that history-making event. Still, I no longer have the desire to embark upon a major production of my own.

MAD: What advice would you give to a young filmmaker embarking on a career in film, and specifically in SF genre film?

TOR: Filmmaking is so difficult and often heartbreaking that I think you have to be bitten by the ‘film bug’ and really love it to maintain as a struggling independent. I can only assume that it is a bit easier for those who have ‘made it,’ but I’m sure that they have an everyday struggle on their hands as well. Film has the power to motivate, educate, inspire and influence the way people think, act and feel, which is an awesome challenge. I have learned that in many cases it’s not really about who you know, but it’s more about who in a position of power knows you. When you have a production problem, or are in need of something to help get you to the next level, and you can’t pick up the phone and get the help or resources you need, it’s hard to take that next step. If you don’t have the money, the contacts, or all that you need in your own hands, it all comes down to how well you are able to cajole, motivate, impress, convince, threaten or manipulate whoever has what you need to give it up. Some people are good at making a way out of no way, and I’ve done that too, just not on a large enough scale.

A lot of people who have made it say you should never give up, and that’s valid, but I say only a fool with a death wish would row his canoe under a sinking ship! That’s a bit convoluted, perhaps, but it’s a metaphor I often see when contemplating my future career moves. You constantly look, and think, and plan and try, and run and hit the wall and bounce off, and hurt and recover, and try again and again, with no one in power and control even noticing your efforts. People who can’t help pat you on the back and tell you how talented you are (which is good to hear), and might even offer friendly advice, but that’s as far as it goes. Those that can help you either don’t or just won’t.

MAD: What do you think is the future of “Black SF?”

TOR: We are now included in many of the mainstream science fiction films being made like “Aliens,” “The Matrix Trilogy,” and Sanaa Lathan as lead in that “Alien/Predator” movie was a major coup. We recently lost sci-fi author Octavia Butler a while ago, and there has been talk of doing one of her books as a movie for years, perhaps one day a Will Smith, Denzel, Halle or even Oprah might still do it, that would be a good thing. Who knows?

MAD: Thank you for your time, Mr. Berry. We look forward to your next film!