Wright Museum film series looking black to the future

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

This Wednesday through Sunday, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History hosts the Afrotopia Film Series, a five-day event that challenges audiences to stretch their imaginations beyond the cosmos to imagine not just the future of Detroit, but of humanity at large.

Curator Ingrid Lafleur has assembled a globe-spanning collection of science fiction films carefully chosen to inspire radical new ways to approach social change.

Though artists ranging from jazz musician Sun Ra to author Octavia Butler have filtered the black experience through science fiction as far back as the 1960s, Afrofuturism didn't have a unified identity until cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future."

"From there it became used as a label for all things that reflected the black experience using science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and surrealism," LaFleur says. "And it combined African cosmology, mythology and legends and really looked at the effect of technology on race and ethnicity. It's a hodgepodge of different mythologies, ideas and disciplines coming together."

LaFleur, founder of the Afrotopia art project, says she first had the idea to work within the realm of Afrofuturism when she noticed the black population of Detroit was being lost in the shuffle of the city's rapid transformation.

"I left for college and came back about four years ago, and I just became really concerned about the fact that I was still a minority in a lot of the places I was visiting," she says. "The culture here within the black community was still kind of similar to when I was growing up. There's a very conservative idea of blackness."

Taking a cue from Dery, LaFleur started to imagine what the city might look like if citizens approached social issues from a more imaginative perspective.

"When I came back four years ago, everyone was obsessed, and probably still is, with the future of Detroit," she says. "What is it going to be? What will it look like? What should we do to make our vision come true? And I became concerned that we weren't really paying attention to this large black population in terms of envisioning the future of Detroit. And I wanted to make sure that those visions had new sources of inspiration."

Afrofuturism provides a new aesthetic language for those looking to re-envision black history and speculate about new possibilities for the future.

"Some people see it as a liberation movement because the definition of blackness has become so large and broad and expanded that it can no longer exist in this realm," LaFleur says. "It's a place where the black radical imagination can flourish."

The film series includes Sun Ra's cult classic feature "Space is the Place," as well as a wide range of indie sci-fi and experimental films from Africa, Europe and the U.S. Highlights include "Pumzi," a dystopian vision of Kenya's future, and the kid-friendly animated series "Black Panther," based on the Marvel superhero of the same name.

LaFleur encourages attendees to come to the screenings with an open mind and a willingness to transcend the everyday.

"When it comes specifically to Detroit, I want us to have visions of new ways of being that we might not have considered before," she says. "Our main goal is to encourage transcendence. I think that when you start looking at films where you're traveling through the cosmos or you hear people say that they're from Mars, that's a type of transcendence that we can move in and out of and that's fine. But in terms of knowing we can transcend all of these social constructs that may be harming us, I really want people to know that there is that option."

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Afrotopia Film Series

Wednesday - May 3

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

315 E. Warren, Detroit

Tickets $10 adults; $5 youth;

museum members $8; free for youth

(313) 494-5800