Sun Ra’s Cosmic Jazz Epic Space Is the Place Touches Down
As the hero of the 1974 underground classic Space Is the Place, the late, esoteric, and polarizing jazz legend Sun Ra elucidates new possibilities to a set of disbelieving black youth in Oakland, who remain dubious as to why some new-age galactic pharaoh has any interest in their collective future. One young man questions if what he sees and hears is authentic, to which the Afrofuturist icon, in kind, suggests himself as a grand parable. "I don't come to you as reality," the alien composer stoically claims. "I come to you as a myth, because that's what black people are – myths."
While drawing from Gnostic notions, Pan-African systems, Zen, and various mysticism sets, the bulk of Ra's evolving "equation," as he called it, included the black struggle for freedom that had been fought for with vigor through the Civil Rights era. However, this had changed by 1970. Per John F. Szwed's biography, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, the enigma (born Herman Poole Blount, in Birmingham, Ala.) didn't believe that black people could muster up the fortitude necessary for true freedom. "I couldn't approach black people with the truth because they like lies. ... At one time I felt that white people were to blame for everything, but then I found out that they were just puppets and pawns of some greater force, which has been using them. ... Some force is having a good time [manipulating black and white people] and looking, enjoying itself in a reserved seat, wondering, 'I wonder when they're going to wake up.'"
By the time the John Coney-directed film and its accompanying soundtrack were made in 1972, Ra believed enough in black/human salvation to star in and co-write the feature. The base plot sees Sun Ra, as an intergalactic traveler, matching wits with the Overseer (Ray Johnson) – a black overlord symbiote who functions as a symbolic establishment pimp-as-protector of white supremacy. The game? A multidimensional tarot card game for the souls of black folk. The hokeyness begins early: The free jazz cacophony from a mystery piano man's solo in a Chicago club causes broad pandemonium. However, it becomes the announcement of Sun Ra's arrival to Earth, as the black man's guiding light who's found a resettlement planet for future generations.
Though Ra's Arkestra is shown and heard throughout, there are grounded rhythms and rhymes everywhere. A black reporter (Christopher Brooks) has a proto-rap in his announcement of Ra's arrival via spaceship: "This is Jimmy Fey, Channel Five, stone jive, the all-black station for all black people, with all the news that grooves at noon." Perhaps the essential character in the film, Fey represents black entertainers and industry heads, co-opted by normalized white-led capitalism. Of course, all the while, two government agents plot to steal the hero's technology.
Like blaxploitation protagonists John Shaft and Sweetback before him, Sun Ra's aim remains racial equity, and the space-age camp and effects and cheesy B-movie sci-fi added considerably to the genre. The use of space, vis-à-vis music as a vehicle, as the future speaks volumes, as Sun Ra's movie image stands nihilistic about the world's chances, especially those of its black people. "If the planet takes hold of an alter-destiny, there's hope for anyone. But otherwise the death sentence upon this planet still stands – everyone must die."
Space Is the Place in 4K @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35 #3100. Jan. 11-12, 15. Fri., 9:30pm; Sat., 9pm; Tue., 7pm.