Guest post by David Brent Johnson.
Sun Ra, the bandleader and cosmic traveler whose earthly name was Herman “Sonny” Blount, graced this planet with his presence for just over 79 years. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, he spent his most formative years in Chicago in the 1940s and ’50s, working as an arranger for swing-era icon Fletcher Henderson’s band, then starting his own ensemble that came to be known as the Arkestra. In a radio show that I did about Sun Ra’s Chicago years, I described him as a “musical wizard, staging shows with dancers, wild lighting, musicians dressed in space costumes, sermons on far-ranging topics, and music that drew on hardbop, big-band, and free jazz, with chanting, electronic keyboards, shrieking saxophones, and a wide array of unusual musical effects that resulted in what he called ‘cosmo dramas.’” I cannot think of a better term than “cosmo drama” to describe Sun Ra’s 1972 movie Space is the Place.
Described by Sun Ra biographer John Szwed as “part documentary, part science fiction, part blaxploitation, part revisionist biblical epic,” Space is the Place was filmed in Oakland, California, where the Arkestra had landed in 1971 at the invitation of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who let them stay for free in a house belonging to the Panthers. During their stay Sun Ra also taught a course at the University of California, Berkeley called “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” Film producer Jim Newman approached Sun Ra about doing a half-hour PBS program about the Arkestra; one early scenario involved the band sitting in San Francisco’s planetarium during a “cosmic light show.” The project, ultimately directed by John Coney (his sole full-length credit), evolved into something quite different, a somewhat surreal narrative and aesthetic approach that has been compared to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, which was made and distributed around the same time as Space is the Place.
It begins with Sun Ra, who has been “missing” from Earth for several years, investigating a pastoral planet that he believes provide a suitable home for his band and other African-Americans. He announces his return to Earth and comes to Oakland; at the same time, we see him in a 1940s nightclub (a scene most likely inspired by his musical stints as arranger and bandleader after moving to Chicago) in which he faces off against a diabolical black character called the Overseer, and in which we first see a demonstration of the power of Sun Ra’s music. (Music, throughout the film, operates as a transformative energy and an important source of Sun Ra’s power.)
The Overseer and Sun Ra engage in a battle for the fate of black humanity, playing a cosmic card game as they interact with the African-American community in Oakland. Sun Ra is also tracked and eventually taken captive by two NASA operatives who wish to gain access to his mysterious knowledge. Some Arkestra performances are interspersed as well, including a climactic performance in which an attempt to assassinate Sun Ra goes awry. Sun Ra, his band members, and others then leave in a spaceship rapture as the Earth apparently dissolves into apocalyptic destruction behind them.
So, not your typical Saturday afternoon at the cinema! earlier this month I talked with novelist John McCluskey, Professor Emeritus of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, and co-editor of Black Men Speaking and The Black Chicago Renaissance. McCluskey saw the film not long after its initial release (which puts him in limited company—according to John Szwed, Space is the Place had only a few showings in New York City and San Francisco) and shared his thoughts about it, both from an early-1970s perspective and a modern-day viewpoint.
DBJ: When and where did you first see Space is the Place?
JM: I saw it in a specialty-show, rented-out theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. It was around 1972, ’73. There was a promoter in town who’d moved to Cleveland, and he was one of the prime promoters of a jazz festival in France, possibly Montreux. We had become friends, and he called one night and said, “I’ve got the theater rented out and I’m calling over some friends to see this film.” And I asked him what it was about, and he was very secretive; he said, “Well, you’ll see.” So I went over, and I don’t know the season or the year or anything like that, but it was a late-night show, and I walked out of there as stunned as anybody else at that time. (Laughter)
DBJ: How familiar were you with Sun Ra when you went to see it?
JM: I was most familiar with Sun Ra’s reputation, as a person who was in complete command of his ensembles. I learned later—well, the year before, actually, Pharoah Sanders had visited Cleveland, the tenor sax man, and I got to know him fairly well. And he apparently played with Sun Ra at some point; he was saying how Sun Ra would sew and design the outfits that his ensemble would wear. And I said, “He’s in complete control!” (Laughter) And he said “Yes, if you’re in his ensemble, you don’t do anything without his permission.” So I only knew these sorts of anecdotes about him; I don’t think I’d heard a complete recording by him, and I had never seen him till he came to Bloomington, somewhere in the late ’70s.
DBJ: So that would have been a few years after you saw Space is the Place?
JM: Yes, uh-huh.
DBJ: What did you think of the film when you first saw it?
JM: Well, I didn’t know. I said “OK, these are… they don’t wish to be seasoned actors and actresses.” I saw the first part of the film in the nightclub as something like Superfly. As kind of a Blaxploitation film setting…and somehow Sun Ra had sort of parachuted into this setting to wipe away the illnesses of an urban environment. I got that part easily, but then I began to look at the subplots, and at that point I couldn’t put it all together. But since that time, I have listened to Pharoah Sanders, I have interviewed Sonny Rollins and Ahmad Jamal, and I can appreciate what they were trying to do at an early date.
DBJ: What were some of the subplots that you later came to have a clearer sense of?
JM: Well, there’s the sort of funny scene—and it may remind some viewers of Brother From Another Planet, where John Sayles himself plays one of the captors from the home planet who comes in to get the fugitive played by Joe Morton. In this instance, the two men from NASA, who are embarrassed and humiliated with the prostitutes, they want to capture his (Sun Ra’s) secrets, which are sort of anti-science, or a belief system that transcends science. It’s something they cannot understand, but it’s magic and they want its power. And so I see that sort of dialogue still going on between intuition and reason, and the age-old arguments about the source of knowledge.
DBJ: You mentioned that you immediately grasped the notion of Sun Ra parachuting into a sort of Blaxploitation setting, to solve, as you said, the ills of an urban environment, to be a sort of savior for the African-American race. Can you talk a little bit about the film in the cultural context of its times? It’s fascinating to me how it reflects 1972 in a lot of ways. You know, the Black Panthers were still a significant presence in Oakland, where the movie was made…
JM: Oh yeah.
DBJ: They are seen as icons in the background. This is, as you said, around the time of the rise of Blaxploitation cinema… how does Sun Ra fit into all of that?
JM: Sun Ra seems to have a—there was an interesting thing in the ’60s and ’70s among, if we can call them cultural nationalists, which has a different spin in today’s context—let’s say between the Panthers and, say, the Nation of Islam, or groups that were more spiritualized, more religious in nature—who refrained from voting. There were some groups who migrated to different parts of the world to find a spiritual base, to find a homeland. And so this search for a homeland, where people were safe and healthy, in Sun Ra’s sense, was space! (Laughter)
There were groups leaving Cleveland when we were living there that ended up in Guyana, at the same time as the Jim Jones group massacre down there. They were all over the planet, trying to find a place to hunker down and grow their gardens and raise their children—to do the same things that the counterculture in the States was doing—the so-called “hippie movement” where they had their communes, and they were going to distance themselves from city life, and the poverty, and the dirt and the crime and so forth. And so he had found a place at the beginning of the film that was idyllic, and therefore people could thrive and grow. And he wanted to bring this message to Oakland, which—you’re absolutely right—was the center of the Panther thinking. And he saw the iconic pictures of Angela Davis and Huey Newton and Leroi Jones, who later became Amiri Baraka, all around the wall in that one scene, when they come into that house after the young men have stolen the wino’s shoes.
DBJ: Right, in the youth center. There’s a — you see a very quick glimpse of a younger character reading Leroi Jones’ Black Music. I mean, it flies by, but I thought that was really cool… that was the book of essays that he followed up (his book) Blues People with. And it’s just a fleeting reference, but it’s one of those things that’s kind of tucked in there that I think is a really cool detail in the movie. I think you’re exactly right, that it ties into that sort of utopian message or theme that especially seems to emerge in the ’70s, after the ’60s are still smoldering, this tremendous upheaval that’s become very violent in some respects, and especially, I think it’s amplified even more in Sun Ra’s case, by the issue of race. It certainly seems if you’re African-American in the 1960s and early ’70s, all the more reason to think this whole place, this whole thing is screwed! And outer space is probably our best bet! (Laughter)
JM: Saturn! (Laughter) The interesting thing is that I wanted to look at Black Music before our conversation tonight because I’m sure Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka had mentioned him (Sun Ra) at some point in that collection of essays. But then again there was Pharoah Sanders and his music, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” from the LP Karma… there was A Love Supreme, with the Coltrane group, coming a little earlier. So there was always that sort of undercurrent, that sort of movement, that if you get your head right, your consciousness correct… yes, you can organize politically, but there’s a higher realm that ultimately you have to get in touch with as well. I didn’t recognize it then, back at that time, but seeing it again, that came through.
It’s almost a period piece in that sense. It’s a collage of so much that’s important in terms of American culture. It’s like the cowboy who comes to the town and sends the bad guys running, and the town is safe again. It’s like the detective who solves the crime, and everything goes back to a peaceful situation. It’s a sort of American story blended in with this urgency that was part of the African-American experience at that time.
DBJ: Yeah, what do you think of the politics of the movie? I thought it was very interesting.
JM: I thought the politics of the film was very, very, in some ways, in the positive sense of the word, nationalist. He was essentially talking to an African-American audience, and he was saying, he was pointing out what were the issues that brought his community to ruin, whether they (the characters propagating those issues) were black or white. And the black man — as I recall in the credits, he’s called the Overseer, correct?
DBJ: Yeah, and I wanted to ask you about that, too. What role does the Overseer play in the film?
JM: The Overseer plays a role of overseeing slaves, those who are captive, and of keeping the lid on the slaves, and taking some orders from the higher master in the plantation house. And that’s the other icon running through here… there’s a cowboy icon, but there’s also the slave narrative icon, where the slaves gain some agency to escape to a better place. And they can have a messiah who comes back, like Harriet Tubman, dressed as a man, or they can take it upon themselves to steal away. In this particular case Sun Ra gives them the music, which is the energy, and gives them the vehicle, to leave Oakland and go to Saturn! (Laughter) Somewhere Leroi Jones, I don’t think it’s in his essays, but he was saying somewhere that he had heard Sun Ra had said he’d been to Neptune. And when he was pressed on that particular issue, he said “No no no, it wasn’t really Neptune, it was Saturn.” (Laughter)
DBJ: (Laughter) That’s great! Yeah, the Overseer intrigued me, because he’s a black character, but he’s clearly — he’s kind of a Devil-type figure. He and Sun Ra are engaged in this contest, this card game, literally and metaphorically, throughout the film, as if they’re battling for the soul of the black race. That’s what I took away from it.
JM: Oh yes, that happened too. There were some individuals who thought they were blessed with the power from the master of the big house, whoever that happened to be, and could always stay on top as long as long as he repressed his fellow slaves. And that’s in any society. That’s not just here in America, it’s around the planet — that same sort of middle-layer group that keeps the sort of right-thinking or deeply-thinking group in check. So he captured that well. And that was true, for particular people who were dealing with drugs and dope and this sort of thing, as you see in the film Superfly. So I think he (Sun Ra) was ahead of his time in this particular way. There are faults with the film, in terms of its technology and so forth, but it was interesting to think about after I saw it for the second time.
DBJ: Yeah, it also has, in addition to this kind of Sun-Ra-as-potential-messiah-and-Overseer-as-a-Devil-type-figure paradigm, it has a very Biblical ending, in my opinion. It’s almost like there’s an apocalypse at the end. What was your take on the ending? Because my take on it—as the spaceship’s flying away, you’re seeing what appears to be fires erupting and things collapsing, and it almost seemed as if the earth was being destroyed as Sun Ra left, which would be a kind of Biblical ending.
JM: Well, my interpretation is very close to yours. I thought this was an ascension, ascending literally into this other world, leaving behind those who chose not to save themselves in specific ways. So I guess there was some of the Book of Revelations in some of this too. There would be this sort of fire and brimstone at the end, but there would be some special selected group that would be saved. And those who happened to be saved, I would guess, for the most part, would be the followers of Sun Ra! (Laughter)
DBJ: The last question I have for you is, how does this film take its place in what we’ve come to call Afro-Futurism and black science fiction? Does it kind of point the way for George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and the Mothership concept that became popular later in the ’70s?
JM: That’s a good one! I think that’s true! (Laughter) George Clinton may have been aware of Sun Ra — I don’t know. But there has been that edge in African-American cultural expression, of a sort of reaching out… In my interviews with Sonny Rollins and Ahmad Jamal, they both claimed that the world was in not-so-good shape. And that their art, their music, was something that, not in an apocalyptic way or religious way, or a spiritual way — their art was a service, was health-giving. And I found that to be intriguing from two very different men, two different instruments, two different lifestyles, and they came to the very same point — that they were very optimistic about the next generation being able to take control of this music, to take care of their art. Sonny’s giving fellowships and scholarships to students at Oberlin College. So they are reaching back…
But this Afro-Futuristic thing, I think, is a cause for applause. And it would be wonderful to see this film in the context of Black Panther, where you have a place that has special energies and special labors — where people are idyllic, and things break loose. So there’s something out there, that’s now coming forth — I mean it’s been in literature slightly, it’s been in music since at least Coltrane, and people older and more conscientious of this then I could probably bring it earlier — but it’s been there for awhile. There’s the secular, but there’s also, and it’s an overused word, the spiritual issue that takes us into the future. The future cannot exist without the spiritual.
DBJ: It’s interesting that you mention the movie Black Panther, because in that film, they go to Oakland! (Laughter) I wonder if that was in some way a nod to Space is the Place? But who would have thought in 1972 that that film would maybe point the way for something like Black Panther, 45 years later?
JM: Again, central to the vision are both the search and at least the efforts to transform places that can honor creativity, labor, and community.
(Note: there are two different versions of Space is the Place: an 82-minute version, and a 64-minute abridged version that was edited by Sun Ra, who wished to remove some of what he felt were the film’s more sensationalistic elements. IU Cinema is showing the 82-minute version.)
Space is the Place will screen at the IU Cinema on February 23, alongside the short films Afronauts and Polly One. This screening is part of the series Black Sun, White Moon: Exploring Black Cinematic Imaginations of Space. This series is sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and IU Cinema.
David Brent Johnson is the Jazz Director for WFIU, the NPR member station in Bloomington, Indiana, and host of the syndicated historical jazz program Night Lights. You can listen to his program about Sun Ra’s Chicago years here.