When Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek” series, decided to leave the show after the first season to pursue a career on Broadway, a very special fan persuaded her to stay. The self-proclaimed Trekkie — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — told her, “Do you not understand what God has given you? You have the first important non-traditional role, non-stereotypical role. You cannot abdicate your position. You are changing the minds of people across the world because, for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.”
Sadly, those depictions are few and far between. In far too many films and science-fiction novels, people of color and LGBTQ folks are not part of the imagined future. One way to counteract that void and add ourselves into the sci-fi realm is through sub genres such as speculative and utopian fiction.
In her film “Invisible Universe,” filmmaker and media-arts educator M. Asli Dukan found that, for centuries, black authors have used the genres not only as a natural way to express their hopes and desires of a better world for themselves and their people, but also as a way to include themselves in a genre that has overlooked them.
PGN: You write about things out of this world, but where are you originally from?
MD: I’m originally from Newark, N.J. I lived in New York for about 17 years but came to Philly over the years while working on my documentary and to attend the BlackStar Film Festival and got to know the city. I liked the neighborhood feel of the place and what was going on in the arts. Then I met my partner and that sealed the deal and I moved here.
PGN: Tell me a little about the fam.
MD: I’m the oldest of nine children. I’m in my early 40s and the youngest is 22. My mother is a remarkable woman: full of strength, intelligence and resilience. She has always been my source of inspiration, as well as being the person who created the space for me to grow into who I am today.
PGN: An early memory?
MD: When I was 10 years old I had an aunt who took my cousin and me to Times Square in New York to see a movie. There were two movies playing and she gave me the choice of which I wanted to see; it was between “Superman III” and “Return of the Jedi.” I was so excited to be able to pick and tried to imagine myself in each movie. I figured, in “Superman,” I’d probably be relegated to the sidelines watching him rescuing Lois Lane. In the Jedi film, Princess Leia came to mind but I didn’t really identify with her. I thought of Lando Calrissian but he didn’t seem to be really trusted by the others. I picked “Return of the Jedi,” but felt a little left out in the end. It was a bittersweet moment.
PGN: Was that the first sci-fi movie that you saw?
MD: No, I remember seeing films like “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” My mom took me to pretty much all the science-fictions films that came out in the late ’80s.
PGN: What were some of your other interests as a kid?
MD: I always felt like I was born with an interest in movies — of all kinds — as well as an interest in all the arts. I was always drawing and writing stories; I could be precocious but I liked to take time by myself and create my own world. When I was in high school, my mom bought me a video camera and I’d make films with my friends and family, inanimate objects, whatever was available.
PGN: What is utopian and speculative fiction, and how was/is it important to the black community throughout the years?
MD: African-American science fiction, fantasy and horror — all of which fall under speculative fiction — have been around for quite some time now. Science-fiction proper — as understood by Americans — is a mix of things, including what we call utopian fiction. That started in the 1500s with a book from England called “Utopi.” Its American history really started in the 1800s with people imagining future societies that were better or different than what they were living in and would usually describe higher technological advances. At that time, most of the mainstream authors (i.e., white) wrote utopian fiction that never included any black people at all. It was like we disappeared completely. In the late 1800s there were a number of black authors that started writing utopian fiction that was inclusive. I grew up a science-fiction fan, but most of the films I saw had the black character as the bad guy, or else he died off in the first part of the film. I was fortunate enough to discover Octavia Butler’s books at an early age, something I could identify with. It was in 2003 when I went to a panel on black science fiction with Octavia and Samuel Delany (who was the first renowned modern black sci-fi writer) that I discovered our history predates the people who I thought were the first black science-fiction writers. I was surprised to find such rich material dating back so far, people like Martin Delany, who published a book in 1859 called “Blake or the Huts of America,” and Sutton E. Griggs, who wrote “Imperium in Imperio.”
PGN: Explain a little of the contrast between what you were finding in spec fiction and real life.
MD: Sure. Since I started this in 2003, it’s been pieced together as I’ve been able to get to people for interviews, etc. We didn’t have funding so it’s been slow and steady. What I originally wanted to do was just document black science-fiction writers — who did what when — but over the years I’ve been expanding to other areas: films and comic books and academics and fans who are a part of the sci-fi movement. When I started, I’d encounter a ton of people who’d tell me, “Oh, I thought I was the only black person who was into this!” But now, there are large groups at the conventions or online dedicated to black speculative fiction. But at the same time, there’s a large contrast with what is going on in real life, where it can feel like we’re under siege. The fact that in 2015 we still have to remind people that black lives matter and still have the massive inequalities that we face and the growing prison industrial complex, etc., is startling.
PGN: One of the reasons I love your project is that the black community does tend to get painted with a singular brush and it’s nice to see a different aspect of the community. Rather than hearing about “thugs” in the news — a problematic term to start with — wouldn’t it be nice to hear about black science-fiction aficionados? The “invisible universe” indeed.
MD: Yes, and we’ve always been here. Black writers, artists and filmmakers of sci-fi have been creating works where black people not only exist in the future, but are powerful shapers of their own realities, whether in magical lands, dystopian settings or on distant worlds.
PGN: Someone wrote “For African Americans [in the 1800s], the voyage into a fantastical world held a special appeal coming out of a need to escape from residuals of slavery, Jim Crow and the daily oppression of second-class citizenry.”
MD: Yes, and utopian fiction especially provided a mechanism for envisioning a better future. If you can’t imagine a better future for yourself, you’re not going to go any place. And if you let other people do the imagining for you … I mean traditionally white creators of speculative or utopian fiction have not included us at all (other than the one or two people who get killed off) or they’ll have the one “remarkable” black guy who stands out, something known as black exceptionalism. When you only allow one black cream-of-the-crop character and that’s it, what happens to everyone else? What does it say about the community they come from? Where are all the other black people?
PGN: Like having Lando Calrissian, but no other black people exist?
MD: Yes, and science fiction is so important in envisioning the future. Look at the “Star Trek communicator,” which inspired the cell phone: It encourages people to think and explore. I was always into sci-fi but didn’t see myself represented. Perhaps if I’d learned about black speculative fiction earlier, I would have seen myself as an astronaut, or a captain of a space station. It wouldn’t have been so weird for me to say, “I want to do that.”
PGN: You have me jazzed up to check it out. This is the first time I’ve heard about the history of black utopian and speculative fiction.
MD: All cultures have mythical stories; black Americans had mythology too. We’re told stories about cosmology, shape-shifting, magic and alien abduction. It’s inspiring. They wrote about futures where black folks were treated equally, or they were free. It’s something that’s important now as we’re going through some real troubling times in my opinion. It’s important for all young people to use their imaginations and envision a better future because they’re the ones who will be living it. Just as a matter of learning resistance and survival, it’s important to conceptualize a future that includes all of us in a meaningful way.
PGN: I’d imagine with all that’s going on, it’s also good to just escape to another world for a moment. It must be terrifying being a young black kid today. You’re scared of what goes on in the world and even more afraid of the police who are supposed to protect you from it.
MD: It’s true. Will your school close so they can open a charter? Will you get sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline? Will there be a drought or a flood? It’s hard to imagine. Escaping is important but even more so is finding a way to figure out: OK, this is the world I live in, but this is the world I want. Not unlike what utopian fiction was all about decades ago.
PGN: I don’t see too many LGBT people in science fiction either.
MD: Right, where are the LGBT characters? Where are the strong women characters? It’s all connected. We’re still seeing the universe as dominated by straight white males. So, there’s a lot of work to do.
PGN: I have to admit, other than Octavia B. and Margaret Atwood, who both have included sexual orientation and/or gender fluidity in the books that I’ve read, I haven’t read much sci-fi. Where should I start?
MD: I’d recommend “Dark Matter.” It’s an anthology of black speculative fiction compiled by Sheree Renée Thomas. There are two volumes and they’re a nice mix of old and contemporary stories.
PGN: Fantastic! By the way, I saw a picture of you and Ms. Nichols. How exciting!
MD: Yes, she is one of the most intelligent, wonderful, gracious women I’ve ever met. She actually became a NASA ambassador and played a key role in getting a lot of people of color, especially African-Americans involved in the space program. And she just went to space!
PGN: That’s so cool! So, if you were to be launched into space, name three people (not loved ones) with whom you’d want to travel. And it drives on autopilot, so you don’t have to choose someone technical.
MD: Which means I’m going to be with them for a long time! That’s a hard one! Three of my sheroes exemplifying courage, organization and imagination for me are Harriet Tubman — I’d love to get to know her — Ella Baker and Octavia E. Butler.
PGN: Last sport I played?
MD: I haven’t done organized team sports since high school but I have done martial arts for the past 20 years or so. I’ve trained and competed in several different disciplines, including Karate and Tae Kwon Do, but for the past 16 years or so I’ve very seriously practiced the Afro-Brazilian martial art of Capoeira. I’ve traveled all over the world to train, compete in and teach it, including, of course, Brazil. It is one of the loves of my life.
PGN: The thing that I like most about myself is …
MD: The thing that I like most about myself is my commitment to what I think is important.
PGN: Single or partnered?
MD: I have a partner. Her name is Anissa and she’s a teacher and someone who’s very involved in the community she lives and works in. She’s an all-around amazing person
PGN: Where are you now with the film project?
MD: We’re in the post-production stage and looking for funding to complete it. You can please, please, please let people know that they can make a tax-deductible contribution through our website. Everything helps.
PGN: For sure! What movie could you watch over and over?
MD: This could be a few movies, but I find myself watching “Ganja & Hess” several times a year. It’s essentially a black vampire film from 1973, written and directed by Bill Gunn. Bill Gunn also starred in it along with Duane Jones from “Night of the Living Dead” and Marlene Clark, mainly a black film and TV actress who starred in several sci-fi films in the 1970s. It’s had a rough distribution history because it was produced to exploit the success of Blacula and have more of a pornographic appeal to it, but it ended up being something completely different. Bill Gunn had other ideas for it and it is actually is a wonderful work on different types of addiction, told from an African-American perspective.
PGN: Are you excited about the new “Star Wars” film?
MD: I’m a little on the fence. I’m more excited in the black filmmakers that are doing speculative films on their own that include people of color. As I mentioned, the “Star Wars” franchise definitely played a part in my childhood, but my feelings about it have been bittersweet because, though I loved seeing the imagination of all the different creatures and seeing all the different adventures, I really felt that depictions of people who looked like me were largely absent. I obviously haven’t seen it yet, so I’m excited for it and glad to see a black character in a prominent role, but there’s still that hesitation that it will just be another “exceptional” character and that the rest of us will once again be absent in the future in a galaxy far, far away.
To check out “Invisible Universe” or make a donation, visit www.Invisibleuniversedoc.com.