Our story begins in 1939, presented in black and white as a throwback to cheesy classic sci-fi movies. Prominent black leaders meet to discuss a plan for dealing with the rampant racism and segregation that defined the African-American experience of the Jim Crow era. Their best scientists step forward with a solution. Back to Africa? Nope. We have to leave the damn planet.
And thus begins the adventure. With a revolutionary rocket fuel developed by George Washington Carver from peanuts and sweet potatoes, a small team consisting of father-daughter scientists Warrington and Beneatha Avery and ace pilot Captain Race Johnson set a course to Mars to begin the colonization process to change The Red Planet into a black planet.
Things go haywire and rather than landing on Mars, our heroes find themselves flung off into the future – the contemporary United States of America, in living color.
Destination: Planet Negro is a sci-fi spoof and social satire from Kevin Willmott, a filmmaker with a very specific voice, and whose works we’ve previously covered here at Cinapse. I’ve tried to shine some attention on Willmott, partially because he’s local, but mostly because his films incorporate important themes that need to be a part of our contemporary dialogue. Are his racial satires preachy? Yes, undeniably. But they’re frequently insightful and also pretty darned entertaining.
Once our heroes arrive at their unplanned destination the story takes a bold turn, no longer set in the racist past, but confronting our own contemporary attitudes as our explorers find themselves in modern Kansas City, though as far as they can tell they’ve crash-landed another planet or crossed into another dimension. It’s through their outsider observations that Willmott wrings humor but more importantly reanalyzes our culture. Some of these observations are savagely humorous – a sagging, do-ragged black man is mistaken for a malnourished field slave who can’t even keep his pants up. Conversely, another black man in a business suit must therefore be a house slave.
Faced with so many experiences and concepts – desegregation, smartphones, hip-hop music, the Internet, a black President, modern politics, new friends, and George Washington Carver’s picture on a peanut butter label – the travelers soak up as much as they can while deciding whether to stay or go back to their own time.
The plot gets tied up in some draggy parts where our protagonists get involved with modern student activists and get caught up to speed on US History. It’s here that the movie is most overtly preachy and loses a lot of steam, but things pick up when a racial profiling incident lands them in jail and Willmott once again flexes his wry wit.
Planet Negro is definitely a message movie, and the low budget is evident, but it’s also very funny. There’s a pretty broad mix of gags: a jive-talkin’ George Washington Carver, a redneck parody of Robby the Robot, and some good old-fashioned slapstick. And like most time-travel stories there’s plenty of fish-out-of-water type scenarios, but they feel smarter here as satire, as our three travelers try to figure out modern America, skewering contemporary culture – black culture included – in the process. Even our heroes aren’t off the hook – Race Johnson is forced to reassess his own sexism when he realizes how much he admires Beneatha, not to mention learning that the three men who try to help him adjust to the future are gay, and face their own challenges.
In February of 2013, I had the opportunity to view Destination: Planet Negro!’s premiere in Lawrence, KS, where Millmott teaches film studies at the University Of Kansas. A cast and crew Q&A followed the screening, and one of the things that Willmott discussed was the difficulty of finding distribution. Three years later, it’s only after his success as the co-writer of Chi-raq that the film finally gets a meaningful release.
When I watched the film in 2013, I enjoyed it but found the racial commentary too hyperbolic. After all, this was a new post-racist Millennium, or so I naively believed. Fast forward to 2014, and the fatal shooting of a black young man by a white police officer has not only engulfed the town of Ferguson, MO in civil unrest, but ultimately proved to be just one story among a wave of similar incidents across the country, once again putting the conversation on race in the forefront of the national conscience, and serving up a reminder that shouldn’t even be necessary – yes, black lives matter.
I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.
Moreover, there’s a hidden lesson when the movie’s presentation shifts from black and white to color. I don’t know if the analogy was intentional or not (it feels overreaching), but all the same, there’s a critical truth here about moving past our old ideas of “black” and “white” and progressing to a future where different colors work together in harmony.
Get it at Amazon:
Destination: Planet Negro! – [Instant]