Musical prodigy, genius bandleader, prolific artist, and cosmic thinker Sun Ra was a person who felt called to liberate people, Black people in particular, by creating and sharing new mythologies through music and stagecraft. And so, in 1974, he gave the world “Space Is the Place,” an experimental kaleidoscope of an album and film that laid the blueprint for Afrofuturism.
In “Space Is the Place,” we follow Sun Ra on his quest to resettle Black people on a newly discovered Utopian planet, using music as the means of transportation. Along the way, he must battle The Overseer, a villain whose mission and pleasure is to profit off the misery of Black oppression. We follow these enemies through vignettes that cross space and time before landing in early ‘70s Oakland, CA. These scenarios are punctuated with footage of live avant-garde jazz from Sun Ra and the Arkestra, featuring Louisville’s own Marshall Allen, and other long time members, many who are still performing today. As he visits the locals, Sun Ra spreads a message of liberation and self-determination, culminating in a chance for escape from Earth before it succumbs to its doom rooted in racism.
This concept album film is more than an intergalactic musical odyssey, it’s also a coda to the man who became Sun Ra. Among the stranger biopics, “Space Is the Place” is the sci-fi backstory that Sun Ra imagined and choose to live, one that is full of Egyptian symbology and reflections on the NASA space program. Knowing his life’s geography deepens the enjoyment of this strange film. Born as Herman Blount in segregated Birmingham, AL, and schooled in the shadow of the space program in Huntsville, AL, his musical talent opened the doors for him in and around the South and Chicago where he became Sonny Blount. He then moved briefly to California, and that is where Sun Ra was fully born in all his cosmic wonder, before heading back east to NYC, and finally settling in Philadelphia. That background illuminates a lot of the scenes in the film, including the early scene where the Overseer and Sonny the piano player meet in a Chicago burlesque club. It is this meeting that sets the conflict of the film in motion, and subsequent scenes also include a certain bawdy element.
In the 49 years since “Space Is the Place” was released, it has become a classic music film in constant rotation. It is often cited as being the first example of Afrofuturism, and recognizing its influence on the look and ideas of artists like Madlib and Janelle Monáe is one of the joys of watching the film. But, it’s also a gateway film in many other respects too. You can see the influence of early experimental filmmakers like Maya Deren and Melvin Van Peebles, as well as more mainstream blaxploitation movies like “Super Fly.” It is a study of California mysticism and counter-culture, as well as a gauntlet thrown in reclaiming Egyptian symbology for Black culture, with spectacular costuming. This film about time and space is a wonderful time capsule of a specific space and time, with guerrilla filmed street scenes and non-actors filling up the screen with authentic voices, dusty street corners, and gorgeous cars.
And, perhaps most satisfying of all, “Space Is the Place” is a gateway to the music of the collective that Sun Ra brought together, and to the man himself. In a time where there is a guru on every other YouTube channel and Instagram Story, witnessing Sun Ra calmly express back-to-basics wisdom through his art is especially refreshing.
And it’s funny.
This film is being shown as part of the 1st Thursday program at the Speed Art Museum. Doors are open until 8 p.m. every first Thursday with special events and activities for an art-focused night after the 9-5 grind. •
“Space Is the Place”
2035 S. 3rd St.
Thursday, February 2, 6pm
Free with purchase of museum admission
FYI: The Black History Film Series also returns to the Main Library this month, with free screenings every Sunday at 1:30pm. Presented in partnership with UofL Health Sciences Center Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the series includes discussions with university professors and local experts. The lineup includes the documentaries”Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” Sundance Film Festival-winning “Aftershock,” and “My Name is Pauli Murray,” and the 2022 biographical drama “Till.” Information and registration at lfpl.org/bhfilms/