Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Old Negro Space Program (Andy Bobrow, 2014)

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

Also on the same theme was a screamingly funny 14-minute short called The Old Negro Space Program, which announces its satirical intent with an opening title that reads “Not a Film by Ken Burns.” The movie is obviously a parody of Burns’ treacly documentary style, particularly lampooning The Civil War as well as “Shadow Ball,” the episode of Baseball that dealt with the Negro Leagues. We get the usual trappings — scratchy violin solos for the musical score, sepulchral voices reading letters from now-dead people and a portentious narration delivered by Rodney Saulsberry, whom I suspect got the gig as a result of an audition conducted by writer-director Andy Bobrow to find someone who sounded as much like James Earl Jones as possible. The gist of the program is, locked out of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by racist prejudices (some grimly funny scenes show authentic photos of NASA spacecraft with lettering under the “UNITED STATES” nameplates with things like, “OF WHITE PEOPLE”), the would-be Black astronauts founded their own: the Negro-American Space Society of Astronauts (NASSA). They developed spaceships that were actually old abandoned cars with rocket engines attached to them, and while a few of them burned up on the launch pads some of them got into orbit (the letter from one of the astronauts to his girlfriend back home contains some pseudo-philosophical observations mixed in with more direct comments: “Hey! It’s fucking cold up here!”) and one NASSA mission even landed on the moon three years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of NASA. The film explains that we never heard about this because the government and the media conspired to impose a “white-out” on the Black astronauts’ achievements; there’s even a newspaper from 1966 that relegates to a small story on page A-14 (an anachronism because back then newspapers were page-numbered front-to-back instead of a separate letter prefix for each section) headlined, “Negroes Land on Moon.” The Old Negro Space Program was considerably shorter than Destination: Planet Negro but considerably more incisive and better as satire.