Director Celia C. Peters on ‘Roxë15’ and feeding the hunger for Afrofuturist stories

Director Celia C. Peters on ‘Roxë15’ and feeding the hunger for Afrofuturist stories

“Roxë15” screens on ALL ARTS as part of the Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized festival, curated by Celia C. Peters.

Director and “Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized” curator Celia C. Peters talks making the sci-fi film “Roxë15” a reality.

When I created the story for “Roxë15,” I was fascinated with the idea of virtual reality. More to the point, I wanted to understand the threshold between virtual reality and physical reality. The idea of vast amounts of information — whole worlds, in fact — being contained in tiny processor chips was like a worm in my brain. And being the child of a doctor, the metaphorical lingo that gave us the term “computer virus” hit me differently.

As I developed “Roxë15,” which is now streaming as part of the “Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized” festival, I researched biological viruses and was quite disturbed by what I found. Viruses are organisms that are legion on Earth (according to National Geographic, there are over a quadrillion quadrillion viruses on the planet, each on their own mission); viruses technically are not alive, and apparently they exist to multiply. When my mind put all of that together, I came up with a concept that both creeped me out and terrified me: A biological virus somehow enters virtual space, pre-programmed with the will to live and to make copies of itself. How would such an organism show up in virtual reality? How would it execute its imperative to multiply?

Movie poster for "Roxë15."
Movie poster for “Roxë15.”

The stakes are high for my main character, Roxë Jones. The most important work she’s ever done as a virtual reality programmer is on the line; in fact, it’s her ticket out of the high-tech, resource-deprived, dystopian ghetto that New York City has become in the film. When I created the character of Roxë, there were plenty of films out about Black characters, mostly young men and women, who turned to crime to get out of the ‘hood. They made that choice because criminal means were a lot more accessible (and a lot less expensive) than a college education or venture capital. But that choice, both in film and in life, is the longest of shots and usually doesn’t have a happy ending. To say I was very unhappy with this image being on heavy rotation is a huge understatement; the implication was that crime is the only viable path forward for young Black people in hard circumstances. I’m very aware of the amount of intelligence and ingenuity in the Black community, so I knew this to be a false narrative. It felt wrong, harmful, toxic and ultimately dangerous, because as we know, life imitates art imitates life.

Roxë is based on a young woman that I saw (but never met) while I lived in New York City. I was writing in the main branch of the public library; she and her boyfriend were striking, stylish older teenagers who appeared to be playing hooky — in the library. They were reading and working on computers, but based on their ages and the day of the week, they should’ve been in school. I am a former social worker so the sight of them struck me hard — young Black people choosing an unexpected path. One that would enrich their minds instead of putting their bodies and their futures in harm’s way. I knew right away I had to bring them into my creative world by creating a story around them. After all, such Black characters weren’t often represented in film and definitely not in science fiction.

Still from “Roxë15.”
Still from “Roxë15.”

Fast forward to the story’s journey from page to screen. I found myself on the dividing line between invisibility and full visibility as a Black woman in science fiction film, a curious and jarring place to be. Thankfully, I was blessed to connect with an incredible cast and crew, especially the amazing April Matthis, who dove head (and heart) first into bringing the unprecedented character of Roxë to life.

I’m a lifelong lover of science fiction. I got it from my parents. For our family, loving science and science fiction was status quo. But as I worked to make my sci-fi film a reality, I realized that being a Black woman director of science-flavored science fiction was indeed taking me over a huge threshold, into new territory. From the land of what’s expected to the land of unicorns.

This short film was the start of a path I am still traveling, although now I’m moving differently. Some years ago, when I said that I was doing “Black sci-fi,” people’s eyes would glaze over. They looked at me as if I were speaking Saturnese. Today? Different story. I can honestly say that I am excited, proud and hopeful about the presence of Black characters in sci-fi film. There’s momentum gathering behind this movement now … and the change has everything to do with Afrofuturism. When Black writers, directors and actors working in science fiction began focusing on creating Black characters who had their own unique stories and their own self-directed pathways to the future, the game changed.

Sign up for our newsletter.

Curating the “Blackness Revisualized” film festival for ALL ARTS was a blessing and an honor. A blessing to be working with in the field that is my passion. An honor to shine a light on the growing number of fantastically talented and driven Black filmmakers, writers and artists working in this genre that I love so much. I’ve curated smaller Afrofuturist film programs in the past. This festival represents expansion, and I’m overjoyed about the growth happening right now, as more people are energized by seeing science fiction that departs from very narrow traditional perspectives of the past and instead reflects reality: There are Black people in the future — and we’re doing whatever we choose to when we get there.

“As myself and my fellow Afrofuturist filmmakers assemble the key ingredients, the emergence of a whole new breed of science fiction is inevitable.”

Is there still work to be done? Yes, there is; a lot of it, in fact. Particularly with regard to Black women leading science fiction stories in film, especially in an industry that still often seems intent on erasing us altogether if we’re not some version of Mammy, Sapphire or Jezebel stereotypes. In genre film, this issue is even more potent. If we’re honest, until very recently, all women were pretty much shut out of lead roles in cinematic sci-fi stories; Black women, even moreso.

However, unlike Hollywood, my colleagues and I understand the enormity of the hunger for Afrofuturist stories. Black people most definitely want to see ourselves in the future, on our own terms, in all kinds of stories. Indeed, the next threshold I’m crossing is into the realm of agency. A land where I, as a Black woman filmmaker, bring Roxë Jones and my other authentic, fully realized Black women protagonists to the screen in their full glory and full humanity within this genre that resonates for me so deeply. My love of science is stronger (and more obsessive) than ever; my love of being Black is encoded in my DNA; my love of filmmaking grows deeper by the moment. As myself and my fellow Afrofuturist filmmakers assemble the key ingredients, the emergence of a whole new breed of science fiction is inevitable. In fact, it’s being born right before our very eyes. Aṣẹ!

Top Image: Still from "Roxë15."