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An Introduction to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

12 Jun 2013

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Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song screens at 8pm on 12 June 2013 at the Crowley Theater in Marfa, Texas as part of Ballroom’s New Growth Film Program, co-curated by Rashid Johnson and Josh Siegel, MoMA. Admission is free and open to the public.

Note: For this screening, viewers under 17 will require an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is Melvin Van Peebles third movie, which he wrote, directed, produced, composed music for and starred in. Dedicated to “all the sisters and brothers who had enough of the man,” the film follows a young African American man on his flight from white authority. No studio would agree to fund the film, so Van Peebles financed it independently, shooting over a 19-day period, performing his own stunts and several unsimulated sex scenes. Sweet Sweetback is hailed as the beginning of blaxpoloitation as a genre and Van Peebles refused to submit the film to the all-white MPAA ratings board for approval. His opinion was that they were not a jury of his peers and they’d been approving crippling images of people of color for years, so why let them dictate his cinematic agenda? In the end, the film received an X-rating and Van Peebles made T-shirts that read “Rated X by an all white jury,” and incorporated it into his marketing campaign.

In the book Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: A Guerilla Filmmaking Manifesto, Van Peebles recounts that the idea for the film materialized during his first soul-searching and auto-erotic trip to the Mojave Desert. Looking out at the at an endless row of electric pylons sandwiched by sky and land, he thought it through:

An Introduction to The Brother from Another Planet

5 Jun 2013

The Brother from Another Planet screens at 8pm on 5 June 2013 at the Crowley Theater in Marfa, Texas as part of Ballroom’s New Growth Film Program, co-curated by Rashid Johnson and Josh Siegel, MoMA. Admission is free and open to the public.

An Introduction to John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet

Last week’s film, Space Is the Place, extolled the virtues of a transcendent science fiction aimed at elevating the black population beyond its earthbound social state to the forgotten and immortal path beyond the stars through music. This week’s film, The Brother from Another Planet, inverts Sun Ra’s Afro-futurist and escapist rhetoric, offering a parabolic albeit comedic exploration of life in Harlem in 1984.

Written, directed and edited by independent filmmaker John Sayles, The Brother from Another Planet stars Joe Morton as an escaped slave from outer space, who resembles a black human being everywhere except in his feet. He lands in the ocean off of Ellis Island and blankly makes his way to Harlem where he must quickly learn about an abstract monetary system, class struggle and racial divide without using language, as he cannot speak. Sayles’ choice to make him mute turns the brother into a sort of mirror for society and leads to nuanced satire on immigration and assimilation.

Like Shards From Some Vanished Civilization: An Introduction to Space Is the Place

29 May 2013

Space Is the Place screens at 8pm on 29 May 2013 at the Crowley Theater in Marfa, Texas as part of Ballroom’s New Growth Film Program, co-curated by Rashid Johnson and Josh Siegel, MoMA. Admission is free and open to the public.

Like Shards From Some Vanished Civilization: An Introduction to Space Is the Place

In the 1970s, Sun Ra wasn’t yet recognized as the eccentric genius that he is understood as today. He’d been leading bands for almost three decades, placing ecstatic chanting alongside percolating synthesizer pieces, using improvisational percussion and cosmic expansions of big band styles to create a voluminous if obscure repertoire that placed classic jazz and swing in an extraterrestrial timeline. This destabilized polyglot sound was too conspicuously wacky to fit in with the jazz establishment or its free jazz fringes, and though he’d already graced the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969, his music seemed as equally confusing for the Anglo psychedelic music scene.

His canonization as one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism would have to wait until later in his career, though of course his work now looks right at home next to similar explorations from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, and would help set the stage for Funkadelic’s Afro-cosmic psychedelia, MC5’s liberation rock, Sonic Youth’s deep noise grooves and the Boredoms’ melted drum ensembles.

One place where Sun Ra did find a home was as an artist-in-residence at the University of California at Berkeley, where he delivered a series of lectures in 1971 under the heading “The Black Man in the Cosmos, Hyperstition and Fast-Forward Theory.” The course’s now legendary syllabus included the King James Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, work from 19th century occultist Madame Blavatsky, poetry from Henry Dumas, as well as texts about the pagan roots of the Catholic Church, Egyptology and African American folklore.

Someone in the Berkeley AV department had the foresight to record one of these lectures — archived at ubu.com — wherein Sun Ra holds forth in such a way as to indicate that he’s both serious about his cosmological thinking, while at the same time deliberately provoking laughter from the gathered students as he tsk-task-tsks his chalk across the blackboard.