Past the White-Centric view of Futurism

This blog post will be structured by highlighting key arguments presented in Catherine S. Ramirez’s Afrofuturism/Chicanafuturism. The arguments will be discussed and compared to present conversations and social commentaries highlighted in this day and age whether it be through film, art, and/or design. As Chicanafuturism and Afrofuturism also take into account other representations that are not merely wester centric, I have also sought to identify the connections between the arguments presented and the similarities that have affected the people of the island of Puerto Rico, as a cultural exploration of colonial and postcolonial histories. As stated in Ramirez’s work, Chicanafuturism extends to other communities that have also questioned the promise of science, technology and humanism in the context of their own society. (Shall we say Puerto Rican Futurism? Maybe not.)

Catherine Ramirez introduces herself by unapologetically stating the Sci Fi nerd she was from a young age, and the beginnings of a disconnect as a young female, Mexican American in the 1970s with a deep interest in Sci Fi films and their commentaries. As a fellow young nerd myself (see “lightsaber” evidence below), there has always been the notion of the underrepresentation of hispanic, latinos, or african american actors and actresses in films.

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Ramirez mentions how the “African American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler pointed out, Star Wars featured ‘every kind of alien… but only one kind of human – white ones.” However, many believe this disparity to be broken by the emergence of roles such as as Poe Dameron in the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens played by Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac.  

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Although this particular role of Poe as a first class pilot of the rebellion seems to honor both character and actor, there have been many roles in Hollywood which have detracted from an actor or actresses’ potential and have instead placed an erroneous or narrow minded preconception of the artists’ racial background. On the other hand, Sci Fi roles have offered more opportunities than any other genre (particularly in Hollywood) for actors and actresses in order to be seen and accepted as beings in a different context and not just by their specific race. For example, actress Zoe Saldana, the daughter of Puerto Rican and Dominican parents has been casted in roles such as Neytiri in James Cameron’s Avatar, and as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. Saldana relates that her interest in taking Sci Fi roles stems from the reality that there are better parts for women in the context of “space.” As she states:

“I don’t have to subject myself to just being the love interest or playing a character that doesn’t feel relevant to the story or playing a woman that doesn’t feel like an actual depiction of a real woman” (Blastr).

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However, is it truly empowering that actresses such as Saldana have to find comfort by playing an alien race in space. Does this kind of behavior further fuel the fire and image of “aliens” entering a white centric Hollywood?

Currently, latinos represent only a 4.2% of speaking roles across the 100 top-grossing films of 2012 (Miles, Kathleen).  However, what is interesting about the Science Fiction genre, as stated by Ramirez is that “more than mere escapism, science fiction can prompt us to recognize and rethink the status quo by depicting an alternative world, be it parallel universe, distant future, or revised past.” Throughout our semester, we have discussed film as a means of escapism, but what I found incredibly rich from the Sci Fi genre, is its ability to create a new kind of commentary within a alternate representation of our social construct. However, while Sci fi allows more of casting of minorities, such as Saldana’s re-casting in many Sci Fi movies, you still see a lack of representation of these communities, and in various films, there are sometimes not showcased in the best light (Latin Post). For example, Star Trek depicts the Maquis, the 24th-century paramilitary organization/terrorist group (like the Spanish Maquis), as being comprised of latino and native american actors.

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This group was characterized as courageous but ultimately they were a terrorist group that had a bad reputation in the movie franchise, and interestingly was played by these minority actors and actresses ( Latin Post). In truth, although these communities have had more opportunities within this genre, there could still much more participation. To assume that the lack of latino presence in Science Fiction is due to “the assumption that Latinos are not interested in alternative realities or the ‘consequences of scientific innovations” is untrue (Latin Post). Ramirez understands this disconnect and presents the argument of how the genre as a whole has also become a fertile ground for other kind of artist commentaries.

Ramirez presents to us the specific terms of Afrofuturism and Chicanofuturism in order explain these constructs. Afrofuturism has been depicted in works of art and literature with artists such as Edgar Arceneaux, as Ramirez mentions, and his short film titled A Time To Break Silence, a combination of Martin Luther King’s last major speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” in which he decries U.S. involvement in the war as an “enemy of the poor.” King was killed exactly one year later in 1968, two days before Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in Washington, D.C.(“Edgar Arceneaux’s MLK, Sci-Fi Mash-up Film Screens with Live Score.”) 

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Arceneaux’s film aimed to depict technology in dual terms, as tool and weapon through the combination of both King and Kubrick’s work. On the other hand, Arceneaux’s work left me with some doubts of what Afrofuturism looks like today,  and so after further research, I developed a clearer depiction of what Afrofuturism entails and the connections that exist today. Afrofuturism is the:

“the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in, too. It can be expressed through film; it can be expressed through art, literature and music. It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of color” (Bakare, Lanre).

We see it by past examples of artist such as Jean Michel Basquiat, the American graffiti artist whose social commentary in his paintings have touch on topics of the ideals within race and the future of black communities. And presently, with artists who pay homage to him such as the famous Canadian singer, songwriter, and record producer known as “the Weeknd” whose hairstyle is a direct homage to Basquiat.

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Ramirez also presents the term of Chicanofuturism as “the ways that new and everyday technologies, including their detritus, transform Mexican American life and culture” and how it transcends not just those of Mexican descent but also embodies other people of color as well (p.187). With the example of Marion C. Martinez’s sculptures (seen below), these works comment on the impact science and technology has had on these communities. Ramirez applauds Martinez’s commentary instead of condemning it, of how New Mexican and Mexican communities have been used as dumping grounds for high-tech trash, including radioactive waste.

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Black communities, Chicanas and Chicanos, and latinos in general have suffered from colonial and post colonial injustices that have all had an impact in order to reach “whiter” futures. There are some artists that would use their art to condemn this history, however Martinez utilizes it as a play on strength and resilience of these communities. Similarly to this, in the island of Puerto Rico, the Festival of Loíza showcases an array of beautifully crafted masks worn by select groups in the town. These masks, and their characters labeled “Vejigantes,” were fearful images constructed by the Spaniards in order to execute their plan for progress over the indigenous people of the island. They began by converting the indigenous into catholicism, by casting fear among them with these masks and forcing them into church. Nowadays, the masks are worn not as reminders of this history, but as celebratory costumes.

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There are many other arguments within Ramirez’s work which reflect back on these connections with the island of Puerto Rico. As a last example, the smaller islands off the coast of Puerto Rico known as Vieques and Culebra, Naval Training Ranges. The taking of Vieques for these operations was met with large social unrest from many latino public figure and from the puerto rican community at large.

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The military installation ended operations in 2001. After operations ended, what was left was an ecological catastrophe in the surrounding waters and lands. Governor Sila Calderon stepped in and made the islands’ clean up be placed on the U.S. National Priority List. Nowadays, military tanks that were left in the surrounding waters have been a site for graffiti art and paintings as a sign of empowerment over modern colonial rule and as Puerto Rican resilience in the face of future struggles.

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Whether it be Afrofuturism, Chicanafuturism, or even “Puerto Rican Futurism,” will there ever be a time were Futurism can become an all encompassing term for all these communities?

 

Works Cited:

Ramirez, Catherine. “Chicanafuturism/Afrofuturism.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

“Why Does Zoe Saldana Make Sci-fi Flicks? Stronger Female Characters.” Blastr. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.

Miles, Kathleen. “Latinos Attend More Movies Than Anyone Else But Are The Least Represented On Screen.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.

“Latinos Presence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Film & Television.” Latin Post RSS. N.p., 2013. Web. 07 May 2016.

“Edgar Arceneaux’s MLK, Sci-Fi Mash-up Film Screens with Live Score.” 24700. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2016.

Bakare, Lanre. “Afrofuturism Takes Flight: From Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

“Nuestra Isla De Vieques, Puerto Rico.” Vieques. N.p., 2012. Web. 08 May 2016.

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3 thoughts on “Past the White-Centric view of Futurism

  1. Marina,
    I think you did a really great job with this post, making it both personal and informational. I wanted to discuss Saldana a little more, particularly the fact that she has been in two very prominent, powerful roles in which her skin is hidden (Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy). Saldana is absolutely right when she says there are more roles in “space” but it is sad that, even then, her skin is hidden. She is not free to be a black woman. Interestingly enough, there is simultaneously a different kind of racial issue brewing with Saldana. Saldana was cast as Nina Simone, but critics and viewers alike are upset because Saldana is light skinned, and Nina was dark skinned. Saldana is supposedly in blackface for the new biopic. Hollywood has a problem of only hiring (when they FINALLY hire someone who is black) lighter skinned women. The brilliant and beautiful Lupita Nyong’o was made into a completely CG character in the new Star Wars movie, what I consider a missed opportunity to actually show more representation. We are fortunate to have A-List directors like Ava DuVernay and J.J. Abrams fight for a more equal cinematic playground, and new-comers like Jennifer Phang getting their voice heard, but progress is slow. Very slow.

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  2. I think that your example of Zoe Saldana is really interesting. I’ve never seen her in anything other than sci-fi movies (Star Trek, Avatar, Gaurdians), and she always seems to play a similar role. Her quote about why she likes them does raise questions about the state of the genre. The idea of Science Fiction challenging the status quo by showing alternative worlds does seem like a good opportunity for this type of movie to question current conventions. Your final question of whether there will be a time were futurism can become an all encompassing term is really crucial, and I hope it’s something we continue to see pushed in new futurist works. I would really like to hear more about your examples of the different types of roles which minorities play, particularly Saldana’s roles and her views of the industry. Also, I love the picture of you with the lightsaber.

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  3. I think you made a lot of strong points within this post such as the bridge of past and future forms of culture from Basquiat to Abel Tesfaye. The film Pumzi, a science fiction short film centered within the afrofuturism genre, also builds that bridge of past post-apocalyptic films into the futuristic Kenyan landscape. It was directed by Wanuri Kahiu who wanted to disrupt the western binaries of technology and nature. Additionally, the perception of Chicanofuturism is also interesting with work being made in reaction to the use of dumping grounds. It creates a futuristic aesthetic of overconsumption in an immersive digital era. I think your idea on how sci-fi contains the ability to create a new representation of the past’s construct is absolutely correct and hopefully more afrofuturism and chicanafuturism films will be made within this aesthetic to create a more diverse genre narrative.

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