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Space Is the Place

Entry updated 11 April 2022. Tagged: Film, Music.

US film (1974). North American Star System. Directed by John Coney. Written by Sun Ra and Joshua Smith. Cast includes Raymond Johnson and Sun Ra. 85 minutes. Colour.

Having found an idyllic planet "without the sound of anger, guns, frustration", Sun Ra decides to set up a colony for black people there (see Colonization of Other Worlds) and reflects on the possible transportation options, settling on Teleportation through Music. We then go to Chicago in 1943, where Sunny Ray's piano playing destroys the nightclub where he works: in the audience is the Overlord (Johnson), smartly dressed and satanic. Confronting each other – there is apparently a long standing hostility between them – Sun Ra (for it is he) and the Overlord agree to play a game of cards over black humanity's destiny

At which point we shift to the pair sitting at a card table in the desert: each takes a card from the pack. The Overlord pulls out "The World 1976"; Sun Ra – now in his pharaoh garb – selects "Judgement", which displays a Spaceship. The winner will be decided by what happens in 1976 (as the film was made in 1972, the Near Future). The game seems to take place outside of Time: we cut back to it throughout the rest of the film, which otherwise focuses on events in 1976.

That is the year Sun Ra's spaceship returned to Earth – he had gone missing in 1969 during a European tour – landing in Oakland, California. Declaring himself to be the "Ambassador from the Intergalactic Regions of the Council of Outer Space" whose mission is to persuade African-Americans to leave the Earth, he is met by disbelief. He responds, "How do you know I'm real? I'm not real – I'm just like you, you don't exist in this society ... so we're both myths." Asked what he will do if those he selects do not want to come, he replies: "[What] they did to you in Africa – chain you up, take you with me." Sun Ra sets up the Outer Space Employment Agency (motto: "Eternally Open – Space is the Place") to publicize his mission and choose colonists; however, the Overlord promotes the idea that this is all just a ploy to sell records, even getting Sun Ra's records played on local radio stations. Meanwhile, Sun Ra is abducted by a pair of racist NASA Scientists who want to learn about his spaceship: "How do you convert your harmonic progression synergy?" "There's an African space programme, isn't there?" He is tortured – forced to listen to a brass band arrangement of the song "Dixie". Fortunately three teenagers free him, taking him to the concert that will mark his departure – the scientists follow and attempt to assassinate him, but one of his rescuers takes the bullet. Sun Ra and his chosen colonists – some teleported to the ship – leave the Earth, just before it explodes (see Disaster). This was foreshadowed: there were earthquakes when Sun Ra returned, and later a headline, "Miami in ruins".

Made in 1972, but not released until 1974 – and even then not receiving a theatrical release – the film started as a concert documentary, with some fictional vignettes added later. Joshua Smith was then brought in to provide a story to bind the pieces together. The attempt to combine Sun Ra's Afrofuturistic musings with Smith's Blaxploitation storyline is not particularly successful – Sun Ra himself was unhappy with the nudity and violence, insisting they be cut from the 64-minute VHS release, though restored in the 2003 DVD version. Racism (see Race in SF) and social commentary are major themes, but there is also Humour, and music (see SF Music) – though the latter tends to be in too short bursts, as Sun Ra's music works best in the longer form; the soundtrack has titles such as "It's After The End Of The World", "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" and "Calling Planet Earth". One of the visual pleasures of the film is the impressive attire of Sun Ra and his band (at this time called the Intergalactic Solar Arkestra), inspired by ancient Egyptian Religion and culture.

Space Is the Place is a flawed but interesting work, clearly made with a tiny budget – nonetheless, the opening, set on the alien planet, is nice. The scenes centred on Sun Ra are the most memorable, as he delivers a suitably other-worldly feel to proceedings. [SP]

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