Saturday, November 12, 2016

Destination Planet Negro (Kevin Willmott Productions, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that the showing included a couple of odd films about decidedly fictitious African-American space programs. One was an elaborate feature-length production called Destination: Planet Negro, which starts out in 1939 (and is shot in burnished black-and-white in a relatively if not completely credible attempt to look like a genuine black-and-white film from the period) in which Professor W. E. B. DuBois (Harvey A. Williams), Mary McLeod Bethune (Lynn King) and other members of the African-American intelligentsia of the period come together and decide that the only way to spare Black Americans the continuing horrors of racism, lynching and segregation is to invent a spaceship and fly African-Americans to Mars. (I wonder if Kevin Willmott, who wrote and directed the film as well as playing the key role of Professor Warrington Avery, the person in charge of the actual Mars mission, realized how close his plot premise was to the American Colonization Society’s plan from the 1820’s to end slavery by relocating the entire African-American population to Africa — they founded the colony of Liberia, with the result that for nearly all 200 years of Liberia’s existence the descendants of U.S. slaves have formed an elite that has lorded it over the native Liberians and enforced racist prejudices and virtual second-class citizenship on them.) Using a rocket powered by a radioactive peanut fuel invented by George Washington Carver (who, even though he was dead by 1939, appears as a live character, is played by George Forbes), the mission launches with Professor Avery, his daughter Beneatha (Danielle Cooper), and Captain Race Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola) as its crew. Along the way Race makes some crude passes at Beneatha, who responds by calling him on his sexism and insisting that their future republic be one in which there are equal rights for women and homosexuals (where on earth did she dig that one up? There were still women alive in 1939 who remembered the original feminist movement and the demands of its more radical members that went far beyond giving women the vote, but virtually no one in 1939 would have even acknowledged the existence of a Queer community, let alone one that was morally entitled to equality). Their spaceship lands in a world that’s in color — albeit a rather washed-out looking industrial-film color — and it soon becomes clear that instead of traveling through space, they went forwards in time to 2013, when this film was produced.

The Black astronauts find, much to their astonishment, that not only has legal segregation ended but there’s even a U.S. President that looks like them and self-identifies as an African-American even though his father was Kenyan but his mother was a white American woman from Kansas. They also encounter a Black rapper who calls himself B-12 (Trai Byers) and who leads a group called “Three Black Men,” though the gag is that the other two members are both white. Beneatha immediately falls hard for B-12, only to find that he’s actually Gay and one of his white bandmates is his partner. They also find that all is not well for Blacks in the new version of America — the astronauts get arrested along with B-12 when the car carrying them and Professor Karen Wilorn (Samra Teferra), a Black woman academic who had researched the fate of the 1939 African-American spaceship and tells the crew she’s “Googled” them — which Race immediately assumes means something sexual. They’re bailed out by Howard Horn (Walter Coppage), a Right-wing Black politician whose great-grandfather (also played by Coppage) tried to stop the rocket from launching back in 1939. They end up ambushed by mewriter-mbers of the Patriot Party, a sort of manic combination of the Tea Party and the Ku Klux Klan, but are saved when B-12 manages to get back to the future with a supply of cRodnondoms and ensure that Horn’s great-grandfather and the ancestors of the Patriot Party don’t have unprotected sex with opposite-sex partners and therefore none of the Patriot Party members ever exist. There’s also a rather unfunny comic-relief robot, obviously patterned on the ones in Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space but given the name Strong (after George Washington Carver’s owner in slavery days) and what Willmott seems to think is a white cracker’s voice but is perched midway between the white Southern vaudeville stereotype and the Black vaudeville stereotype (but then the current actor playing Col. Sanders in the Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials is almost as bad!). Destination: Planet Negro is one of those frustrating mediocre movies with a good movie inside it struggling to get out; it’s got some genuinely funny and nicely satirical comments to make about race relations and both the enduring and fleeting character of prejudices, but it misfires almost as many shots as it lands. Still, it’s quite well produced for its miniscule budget, and Willmott emerges as a genuinely talented filmmaker who given a bigger budget and a more coherent story could achieve much more.