Criterion’s Afrofuturism collection (finely curated by Ashley Clark) has been on my to-watch list for a while now. Though several titles have cycled out of the collection, I’ve finally taken time to watch the short films that are still streaming. (I’m saving the feature-length films I haven’t viewed for another time.)
I’ve shared impressions of my ten favorite shorts below (ordered chronologically):
Odds and Ends (dir. Michelle Parkerson, 1993)
Duration: ~28 minutes
Kitschy space-opera exposition informs viewers that this film is set in 2096, during an intergalactic war sparked by fascism, racism, and sexism. Lieutenant Loz Wayward (Latanya West) is the film’s lead character — a soldier who still finds her way to battle when her babylonmobile breaks down. Loz epitomizes 1990s black cool, with her swagger, her smooth voice, and her ever-swooped hair. There’s a significant chance I would’ve wanted to be like Loz as a kid, if I’d known this movie existed.
A grainy, stencil-like flashback, superimposed on a pink sunset, reveals that Loz is romantically involved with a somewhat older black woman, who outranks her. “God, I’m weak for a woman in uniform,” she remarks in the subsequent flashback scene, when she’s reluctant to leave her lover, Sephra (Cyndi James Gossett), in bed. Their rapport is sweet and poetic, even as sounds of war rage outside their apartment. Sephra tells her, “There’ve been a lot of lovers before you, Loz, but it’s the first time in a long time I knew I could count on love.” This is not only a queernorm world, but a world where black women are (almost) everything. Most of this film’s sentient beings (including Loz’s spaceship) are imbued with black womanness, and white people only appear to contextualize black women’s systemic oppression. This is not a post-racial, post-gender fantasy of the future. It’s a black feminist projection (and critique) of the future Western civilization aspires to. It’s also a consideration of the loving future black feminism could render.
The Changing Same (dir. Cauleen Smith, 2001)
Duration: ~9 minutes
This film begins with an electronic exchange of two voices, presumably belonging to people (or perhaps a single person) who would be coded as black men. The authoritative voice questions and the submissive voice answers. The submissive voice is also more distorted than the authoritative voice, reflecting the submissive’s disorientation after an extended mission on Earth. Through this introduction, we learn that the humanoid subjects of this film are partly electronic in nature, and the submissive communicant (an extraplanetary agent) cannot return home until he’s collected certain data.
Cut to the first action scene, and a person coded as a young black woman evades the submissive agent we heard before, retreating to her private lair. If the chase scene didn’t give it away, we viewers ascertain that this woman has the aforementioned “data” when she feeds a printed scroll into a slot on her abdomen.
The woman continues evading the agent as he follows her, but she learns that he may not be as inimical as she believed. The two of them may even have a lot in common. (Suspense!)
This is an intriguing short with artful editing overall — and the music was apparently composed by David Bowie.
The Becoming Box (dir. Monique Walton, 2011)
Duration: ~16 minutes
The first scene is stunning. Through wilting tropical plants, a fixed shot shows Mark (Jeremy Gaines) sawing a cylinder of wood by hand. When Renée (Donna Duplantier), Mark’s sister, runs down a flight of stairs (from the inside of the house to the outside), he immediately chases her across the yard. At first, you might think they were playing a childhood game, but this isn’t the case.
The close-up is troubling. Mark grabs Renée as she struggles against his arms. Her family wants her to stay, but she wants to leave. They pull a ring of keys from her hand.
Later scenes reveal that Renée came back to New Orleans from Washington D.C. when her mother went missing. Renée thinks their mother escaped into a locked, magical box in the yard of their family home (hence her desperation for the keys), but everyone else thinks her mother is dead. Renée’s insistence on getting into the box has life-altering effects on her.
This short is a compelling meditation on home, belonging, grief and identity — with suicidal allegory.
Hasaki Ya Suda (dir. Cédric Ido, 2011)
Duration: ~24 minutes
Hasaki Ya Suda is set in a near-future, multi-racial, climate-apocalyptic world — centered on exiles from the Global South. This short film follows Black African samurai and includes thrilling fight scenes with impressive choreography, acting, and special effects. As far as I can tell, it’s a one-of-a-kind, well-crafted film.
Twaaga (dir. Cédric Ido, 2013)
Duration: ~32 minutes
In this short film, bodies are resilient, sacred, and spirited, while also vulnerable to war and conflict. Set in Burkina Faso during 1987, Twaaga ponders pan-Africanism, revolution, and the life that’s lost in political struggles. Here, the director (Cédric Ido) extends his commitment to exploring Global South subjectivities, and portraying the wondrous capacities of black/African people amongst themselves, ourselves. Interpolations of comic-book animations are part of Twaaga’s coherence.
The domestic scenes in this film are so beautiful — serene slice-of-life sequences that remind viewers, in part, of the everyday love that’s undermined by war. It’s delightful, and eventually heartbreaking, to watch 8-year-old Manu (Sabourou Bamogo) assume his superhero alter-ego.
Afronauts (dir. Nuotama Bodomo, 2014)
Duration: ~14 minutes
Based on true events, this short follows a group of Zambian outcasts’ attempts to reach the moon before the United States does. An implicit question it poses is what space travel might be like if it wasn’t tied to nationalist, capitalist, and patriarchal aims.
Rendering the film in black and white made its careful use of light and texture even more visceral — the color-contrast heightening its sensory effects.
You and I and You (dir. Terence Nance, 2015)
Duration: ~8 minutes
Here, two adults and a toddler look behind themselves apprehensively as a trio of Africanist dancers follows them down a road. If we follow prevalent West African symbolism, the white chalk on their faces may signify spiritual rebirth and initiation.
The headdresses the principal dancers wear, constructed from ochered brillo pads and sponges, subtly overturn pejorative understandings of black hair textures — all while heightening the film’s speculative sensibilities. More dancers join the cast as the film continues, portending both revelation and danger. The couple is changed by their encounters with these dancers, perhaps hinting at a reconfiguration of what it means to be a “family.”
Terence Nance did his thing, as usual!
The Golden Chain (dir. Adebukola Bodunrin & Ezra Claytan Daniels, 2016)
Duration: ~13 minutes
In this animated short, a black scientist struggles with a common understanding in her world that not everything should be uncovered, and some matter is meant to be unknowable.
Dark ink blots that obscure the screen during the title sequence, accompanied by a rattling, liquid sound, suggest that parts of we viewers are also meant to be unknowable. We too are partially obscured, our interiors never fully in view.
The Golden Chain draws fascinating connections between our embodiments, our relationships, our technologies, and the fabric of the universe.
1968 < 2018 > 2068 (dir. Keisha Rae Witherspoon, 2018)
Duration: ~7 minutes
I’m excited by the theoretical work this film does — in concert with Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice, ed. Rasheedah Phillips. Contesting oppressive temporalities, this short film positions the linear “Western model of spacetime” as “a spell” that can be broken.
In 1968 < 2018 > 2068, Witherspoon splices together archival footage from a variety of sources (ranging from government programming to black community interviews) — interrupting and complementing them with overlays of text, sound and animation. This film conceptualizes feeling as an empirical, measurable practice.
Zombies (dir. Baloji, 2019)
Duration: ~16 minutes
This short considers how technology has, in some ways, alienated us from each other, and in other ways, unleashed our star potentials. In the beginning, a man in a barbershop sings lyrics from his phone such as: Light on face, oooh / Everybody shine, oooh […] People dance no more / Everybody got the spotlight.
The Boy (musician/actor Popaul Amisi) and The Girl (actress Gaëlle Kibikonda) then lead us through futuristic scenes in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — enlivened by a soundtrack of rhythmic drum beats. Along the way, we see people who are physically frozen as they pose for selfies (stark light emanating from their screens), and club-goers dancing in isolation, sometimes donning VR headgear.
This is a riveting film.
Other Shorts in the Collection (also worthy of attention!):
Dark Matters (dir. Monique Walton, 2010)
Robots of Brixton (dir. Kibwe Tavares, 2011)
Native Sun (dir. Terence Nance & Blitz Bazawule, 2011)
Jonah (dir. Kibwe Tavares, 2013)
Touch (dir. Shola Amoo, 2013)
T (dir. Keisha Rae Witherspoon, 2019)
I Snuck off the Slave Ship (dir. Lonnie Holley & Cyrus Moussavi, 2019)