Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized


Cinema of the Afrofuture (The Abandon & Roxë15)

Join “Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized” series curator Celia C. Peters for a discussion of two films from the festival: “The Abandon” and “Roxë15.” Presented as part of the ALL ARTS Talks series, the “Cinema of the Afrofuture” panel will discuss topics such as biotechnology and its capabilities as well as the realities of extra-terrestrial life and what visits to earth may look like.

AIRED: August 05, 2021 | 1:12:24

[upbeat music]

- Hello everyone, how are you?

This, welcome to the Filmmaker Conversation

as a part of Blackness Revisualized,

the Afrofuturist Film Festival that has been produced

by and WNET13 in New York.

I'm really excited to be here today.

Really excited about the guests that we have on deck.

I'm gonna go through and introduce everyone.

And then we're gonna dive into some questions

and we're gonna talk about the two films

that are kind of our focus for this one's conversation.

So, first up we have actor Morocco Omari,

who is currently starring on "P-Valley" correct?

And we have writer, director, Keith Josef Atkins,

who is also the film maker responsible for "The Abandon,"

one of the films that we're featuring today, this month.

We have Seth Shostak who's with SETI,

the Search for Extra Terrestrial, help me Seth.

- Intelligence. - Intelligence.

All right ET, right, SETI, S-E-T-I,

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

We have Jervaughn Hunter who is with UC San Diego.

He is a bioengineering, Sloan scholar.

We also have actor April Mathis,

who is the star of "Roxe15," which is the other film

that we're gonna be talking about today.

So, first of all, I'm gonna give a little brief overview

of the two films because they're both available

for streaming right now on

Keith's film "The Abandon" actually screened on WNET,

it's today, right?

It's tonight, actually didn't happen already, it's tonight.

So if you're in the New York metropolitan area,

please tune in to channel 13 and catch "The Abandon"

live on broadcast.

So "The Abandon" is a short film,

about five friends who, five guys who were friends

who go on an annual hiking trip and things take a turn

when they learn that a global event has changed the world.

So then they must navigate their inter personal dramas,

as well as trying to survive.

The other film that we're gonna talk about

is actually my film and it's called "Roxe15."

And "Roxe15" is about a prodigy, I guess she's,

some say she's a high strong prodigy

who bets her future on technology,

but when a virus infects her prized software

and comes after her, saving her life's work

also means saving herself.

So we have these themes that we're gonna deal with.

And we, luckily we have a couple of scientists

who are gonna weigh in on some of the themes

that are in the film, so sit back and enjoy.

And then at the end,

we're gonna have time for your questions.

So please, if things come up for you along the way,

throw your questions in the chat

and we'll get to as many as we can.

So, first of all, I'm gonna,

my first question is gonna be for Keith.

What was the catalyst for making "The Abandon?"

And how did you connect to your cast which is fantastic.

Can you talk a little bit about the cast as well?

- Oh, absolutely, yeah.

So, I'm one of those people who grew up watching

reruns of "Star Trek," "Lost in Space,"

all the sort of like, you know, outer worldly series.

Didn't really think I had any interest in it as an adult.

I just thought like something,

it was just like something that I liked and,

but then I, after seeing so many films

and so many series around sort of like alien invasions

and centering white folks, I was like,

"Why are there no black people

centered to global apocalypse?"

Like we are dealing with the world,

just like everybody else, if not even extra more, right.

So, I just had this idea to create this web series

about a group of friends, a group of black friends.

And ultimately there were, it started off with black men

and then ultimately the black women

sort of got folded into the storytelling.

And I pitched that to a couple of,

sort of high end studio folks.

And they all said it was impossible.

They said it's a great idea,

but it was impossible to have any success

with an apocalyptic story centering around people of color,

particularly black people,

'cause they said black people did not watch sci-fi.

And I'm like, "Why?"

I know at least 500 black people I could walk up to

right now in the streets of Harlem and they will say,

"All I do is watch sci-fi."

So anyway, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Something I like to do

and I pulled together some friends of mine.

So Morocco is someone I've known for, like you said earlier,

for quite some time.

We kind of came into the game at around the same time

Sterling as well, my friend Jordan Mahome.

Jaimie Lincoln Smith, Billy Eugene Jones,

all theater actors, all phenomenal theater actors,

phenomenal, right.

And then I asked them, I just called them up, texted them,

they were like, they all said yes within seconds.

Didn't really know really what I was trying to do,

but they were just game, which I so appreciated.

And that's how that all happened.

It was really important to me to have a story

that centered around black people in particular,

but black men even more specifically,

when it comes to an alien invasion, end of the world.

What is their POV?

How do they unpack their own lives?

How do they, what do they think about

the world as it's collapsing?

Does it matter as much as it did before?

All of those things right.

And, I'll say this last thing.

So initially it was supposed to be a web series.

I had a couple of producers throw all kind of money at me.

They fell apart, that all fell apart, which happens often.

And so I was left with the pilot,

which I just sort of like transformed,

reshaped into a singular short film.

- And thank goodness that you did.

I mean, I'm sorry that the pilot didn't go where you wanted,

but I still think, I mean, I've curated "The Abandon"

a few times now and I love the film and I also,

I think I told you, I use it when I'm teaching as well.

I think that it's such a, I mean, I really dig it.

I love it and it's fresh too,

because I think having this perspective

of focusing on black male friendship

is something that is highly missing.

And it's not just, it's a real portrayal of friendship,

the ups and downs and the ins and outs

and the emotions are there.

So with that, I'm gonna move to Morocco

and without spoiling okay,

'cause we want people to watch the film,

we're gonna talk about Dennis, your character.

Dennis is, I think it's fair to say,

a hyper masculine guy, but he has this Achilles heel.

And so I wonder if you could tell us,

first of all, how does Dennis feel

about having this Achilles heel

and how did you approach portraying this complex,

multi-dimensional guy?

- I mean, the beautiful thing about Keith's writing is he,

for any actor to just like,

"Oh, okay, it's really right there in the script."

So the backstory was easy to create

and every character that he wrote has a flaw.

So you take that flaw and you examine,

"Okay, what is it like to have this kind of ailment

or sickness or whatever?"

And then you break it down and then you just add it on

and layer the character that's already layered

and you just sprinkle it in.

And I like playing flawed characters,

because no one is perfect.

We're all working through something in our lives

at some point in our lives,

which makes you either root for the character,

either the character's gonna give up

or he's gonna keep on fighting until he overcomes

whatever obstacle that's in this place.

So for me, it's always good to have,

because like Keith said, you don't really,

when you see actors of color in certain types

of genres of films, you don't really see their life.

They come in, they deliver their lines

and they keep it moving.

You don't know what their life is like.

You don't see their families,

You don't know what they're dealing with.

So they don't have a whole lot that,

so for us as an actor, when you get that kind of meat,

you're like, "Oh, I'm glad to at this table

so I can just, chew it up."

So I enjoyed it and like I said,

we're all perfectly imperfect and we're fighting.

- Absolutely and I think you really like crushed it

because I feel like Dennis is one of those characters

that brings out a visceral reaction.

You know what I mean?

Like you feel like, he's a guy that you can hate,

but then at the same time, there is undeniable,

like his humanity is undeniable.

And that I think is the thing about villains.

If you wanna call him a villain,

but is that they have layers.

They do have dimensions just like, as you said,

human beings do, that's all of us.

So I'm gonna move on and ask Seth some questions,

because this global event happens in "The Abandon"

and it's something that I think people both imagine and fear

and really speculate about.

And I think as time goes on and we have more and more

thoughts around this.

So first of all Seth, can you talk about SETI

and tell us what the mission of SETI is?

- Well, the SETI Institute, which is all around me.

I'm here in California, but Northern California,

which is a good thing because the aliens

seem to preferentially want to destroy Southern California.

Which is okay by me.

I mean, I don't care if L.A. gets flattened, it's all right.

But yeah, the SETI Institute is a non-profit

research organization.

So we have about a hundred scientists here

and they're interested in life and space,

but almost all of them are looking for life in space

that isn't deep space.

It's just our own solar system, maybe on Mars,

some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

So that's what most of them do here.

They're, as I say, roughly a hundred.

There's a small group,

it's only small for reasons of finance

that's interested in the kind of aliens you see

on television or in Keith's films,

although you don't actually see them there,

but the kind of aliens that can hold up

their side of the conversation, right.

That the intelligent aliens that are here,

either for malevolent purposes or to rejuvenate folks

in an old folks home or whatever they've come here to do.

Yeah, so that's the group that I've been a part of,

which is to say Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

And by the way, intelligence means

you can build a radio transmitter.

That's all we ask.

They don't have to write poetry.

- So, in recent years, very recent years,

the U.S. military has taken the shocking step

of acknowledging and investigating contact

between military personnel and what they call UAPs,

Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

So, we've seen the release of tapes from the Navy

where there are these crafts we hear the military people

kind of wondering like what the F is this,

or what the blank is this?

Have these disclosures changed SETI's work at all?

Or influenced it at all?

Or is this what you were already doing?

- No, it's not what we were doing.

And it hasn't changed anything except for the fact that,

now people will come up to me at parties

and occasionally volunteer some conversation.

They never did that before.

So I guess there's that.

But Celia, I know this is gonna disappoint everybody,

but I don't think the aliens actually are visiting us.

One out of three Americans think that's true.

One out of three.

So a hundred million of your fellow Americans

think that we're being visited.

The aliens are here either to,

oh well, as I already suggested flatten L.A.

or go on to abduct you for experiments

your mom would never have approved of.

So that's the popular point of view.

The release of these videos, wasn't that they were secret,

actually, none of that was secret,

but the military is interested,

in anything that's flying around our airspace

for obvious reasons, so they're gonna look at it.

And they're very cagey about what they tell you

about their investigations because,

they involve the capabilities of our military aircraft,

the Navy fighter jets.

And so, they don't wanna sort of tip their hand

to potential adversaries by saying,

"Well, I had this kind of camera and that kind of camera."

So they're kind of cagey,

but honestly I think if we were being visited,

you would know it.

I mean, ask the people down in Mexico,

well, ask the the inkers down in Peru.

"Hey, do you think you're being visited by Europeans

in 1535?"

There was no doubt in their mind about that.

- I see, I see, I get you.

Well, we'll come back, we'll come back to that for sure.

So April, let's talk a little bit about "Roxe15."

And for the audience, I wanna sort of specify

that the kind of prodigy that Roxe is,

she is a virtual reality programmer.

So she's creating virtual reality that she's going

in and out of herself as she works on it.

So Roxe is, she's brilliant,

but she's also a very tough cookie.

And for you, what did Roxe want for herself

and in all the stuff that she was dealing with,

how does she keep her eyes on the prize?

- I think what you see about Roxe

is that she's really smart and quick.

And so a lot of times people like that

don't have a lot of time for the niceties and politeness.

Like, she shows up late to her meeting with the execs

or whatever, the people behind the desk.

And it's like, she, I think like a lot of programming,

like intellectual type folks would rather just be working

on their project.

And I think she is obsessed with the learning module.

And that's kind of like the most important thing

that she sees for herself.

She works in this bar and she used to deal

with like gross people, like the guy who harasses her

on the other side of the bar,

but you know, she can handle herself.

But, she doesn't wanna have to have a day job.

She wants to be able to do this work

that she knows that she's capable of doing.

Now, whether she can get it done in the timeframe

that is demanded of her, is mind exploding and frustrating

because I think she wants to get this right.

And that's where part of the frustration comes from.

But yeah, she's someone who is obsessed

with the possibilities of the mind.

And I think she just wants that direct connection

to be able to explore what this kind of program can do.

- That's so funny hearing you say that,

talk about her obsession and her relationships who,

her day job.

It's just sort of hitting me now

how much of a thing that is such familiar territory

to creatives living in New York.

I mean, that was all of us, right.

It's just like you have this day job to pay rent

and pay bills but you really just wanna do your thing.

That's really funny.

So I have another question for you then.

Is technology friend or foe?

And if you could immerse yourself in a virtual world,

would you do it?

Why or why not?

- I think technology is a fact.

And I've been thinking about this a lot,

especially now during the pandemic.

I mean, look at us but,

and this was supposed to be hot vax summer and look at us,

like it's still kinda like,

"Let's keep doing Zoom when we need to."

And it's great, 'cause it's,

can be national and international.

But I'm also a parent and we think a lot about screen time

and like are children too attached to technology.

But I think I can hold in my head that it is

a natural extension of human consciousness.

That being said, do I not need to go outside

and put my feet in the ocean?

No, of course I want like tangible things.

I miss traveling.

I got to travel to France this month and that was glorious.

And you know, it just makes the wanderlust,

like everything's still here.

I wanna go to it.

There are advantages to living in a virtual world.

Like I can kind of curate what you see and you know,

like, do I have pants?

No one knows now, no one's gonna find out.

But, yeah, I think it's a tool that has a purpose.

And then hopefully we don't destroy

the tangible world enough so we can enjoy it

'cause it's nice.

- Yeah, I guess it's like fire, right?

You can use it to heat yourself up and stay alive

or you can use it to burn everything down.

Hopefully, yeah, we make the right choice.

So, I wanna talk to Jervaughn.

We have Jervaughn Hunter who is a PhD candidate

and researcher at UC San Diego,

who is working in the area of bioengineering.

And Jervaughn in "Roxe15,"

we have this situation where, basically the software

that the main character is working on,

becomes infected with a virus.

And so that came from me being interested in virtual space

versus physical space.

And where is that interface?

Like where do they kind of come together

and overlap, et cetera.

And so, that's why I wanted to have a bioengineer

on board to talk to us, but first,

let's hear about your journey to this field.

How did you or why did you become a bioengineer?

What was the spark for you?

- Sure, thanks Celia.

Well, so bioengineering, I had no idea what it was.

So I'm a country boy, small town Mississippi.

So that's why I'm pretty hyped to be on here

with somebody who's starring in "P-Valley."

But yeah, I grew up in small town, Mississippi.

I was graduated from high school in 2012 actually.

So, I got a brochure

from the University of Alabama, Birmingham,

and I saw biomedical engineering as a degree choice.

So I was like, I don't know what that is.

I've heard of mechanical, I've heard of aerospace,

all the standard engineering that you'd hear of,

but you never heard of biomedical.

So I was like, what do I do with this?

How do you find out how to get into this?

I don't know any black people that do this,

but what, what is this about?

So when you think bioengineering, biomedical engineering,

I think I probably was in the same thought process

that you might've been in Celia thinking of things like

prosthetics or neuro interfaces and things like that,

where you are interfacing the body or anything biology

with technology.

So I thought that was really cool.

And I was like, "I don't know anybody who does this,

so why not take that leap to try to attempt it."

So finished up my studies in Birmingham and decided,

you know, "I'm really interested

in the healthcare side of this."

So again, biomedical engineering

and I wanted to work on things like heart failure.

So people, heart attacks are the number one killer

of people throughout the world, not even a nation.

So I was like, how do you actually go and engineer the body

such that it heals itself from these damages that happen,

or damage that happens to the heart

after some type of ischemic damage like heart attack.

So ended up working in tissue engineering.

So I'm a bioengineer with a focus on tissue engineering,

where you engineer the human body's tissues,

or you have a focus on regenerative medicine

to get the body to regenerate itself.

So currently I'm using a natural material

made out of pig hearts ironically.

And we can take that material that we take

from this pig heart and turn it into a hydro gel.

So think of something like jello,

inject that into the heart.

And we have some data that does show

that these patients were mitigating their heart failure.

So they were still progressing, but not as badly.

So you were prolonging,

giving people better qualities of life

or prolonging the progression into heart failure.

So of course we know the total cure for most heart failure

is heart transplant.

So if we can get some type of regenerative therapy

to kind of help us not be as reliant on heart transplants,

I think we can save a lot of lives.

So that's what got me interested in bioengineering,

biomedical engineering.

You asked another question,

if you mind repeating it one more time.

- I just asked what was the spark for you, but that,

your answer, wow, I'm sitting here like blown away.

That's amazing.

And I remember when you first told me

the specifics of what you were working on,

you gave me like this real quick sort of summary,

which was already amazing,

but this is just like kind of mind blowing actually.

So in your view then, I kind of asked you this before,

but in your view, how close is science

to creating a digital replication of human cells?

- So as far as a digital replication of human cells,

I don't think it's that far off.

We digitally replicate biology all the time.

Think about artificial intelligence as in such.

Even though to me, that's more on the computer scientist

side and I didn't spend much of my time

on that side of studies, but yeah, we definitely,

if you think of things like artificial intelligence,

if you wanna think about,

your DNA is practically computer code.

If you wanna think about it in a sense, your DNA programs,

well your DNA is the code for which your cells

create proteins, which in turn create the rest

of what's happening in your body.

So it's, if you're working with a code like DNA,

I'm almost certain that we're not too far off

from being able to digitally replicate human cells

or even, cells altogether.

- Wow, okay.

Hold that thought please.

And so I'm gonna go back to you Keith.

As, I mean, you work a lot and you do a lot of work

at a very, very high level,

as a black entertainment professional,

what do you prioritize right now?

- Whoa, okay.

That's a really good question.

Right now, as opposed to what five years ago, or?

- Yeah, or maybe at the beginning of your career.

- Got it.

Well, you know, I think at this point

what's really important for me, particularly,

'cause I've worked in television

and also for some film capacity,

but when I'm being interviewed,

for example for a television series and more often than not,

there is some sort of cultural element to that series

that I'm sort of set up to meet with these people

because I'm black or there's some element

of the storytelling that's gonna be a black person

or something like that, right.

So for me, it's very important that I enter that space,

knowing that the people involved in creating this show

have a real high regard and understanding

about the complex black experience.

Like it's really important to me that I'm not walking

into these spaces, having to be an educator,

having to be the person that they push the button and say,

"Okay Keith, now speak,

we're talking about the black storyline."

That to me is extremely important because it happens often.

And also with black story, like it's very important for me

if I'm being interviewed for a black story or black series,

that there's also a level of high regard

for complexity as well,

because often you also walk into black spaces

and it's sort of two dimensional.

We're only gonna focus on class.

We're only gonna vilify the rich, things like that.

And for me, it's very important that I'm gonna

be a part of something that humanizes people,

humanizes black people.

If we're not necessarily centered to the storytelling,

that when we are present that we are three dimensional,

we react to things, we have a POV that is potent,

which is what, sort of Rocc was talking about earlier,

as far as "The Abandon," like one are the reasons,

I even wanted to like put black men together in that film

was because there was a lack of three dimensionality

in sort of black character, in many, many things.

And they're usually killed in the first five seconds

or they're like holding the hand of the main character

to the very end and then they risk their own lives,

for the white cars or the white future.

And so for me, like it's really hyper important

that I step into any space or even in my own work,

and I'm doing three dimensional examination of our people

because we are here and we have been three dimensional

from day one and we gonna lead that way.

- Celia, do you mind if I comment on,

- Sure, go ahead.

- Yeah, I just wanted to commend Keith.

I really did enjoy the first few minutes of that film,

especially it just reminded me of riding around,

out with my homeboys and stuff like that.

Just like, the banter, the random it's like,

I felt like these are some dudes that I met,

like growing up or in college or something like that.

So, oh, I can relate, I feel comfortable.

And it didn't, they didn't have to be like, lower class,

middle class, upper class, you couldn't tell,

well you could hear what some of their professionals were,

but regardless of all of that, you could tell,

these were just like four number dudes in the car,

just shooting it with each other.

So I just wanted to comment and say thank you for that.

I really liked that part.

- Oh cool, I appreciate that.

- So, I'm gonna ask Morocco then,

we're gonna shift a little bit.

Can you tell us based on your observations

and your experiences,

how do you think that men's friendships

are different than women's friendships?

And then also, regardless of gender,

what does friendship mean to you?

- Wow, I don't know if I'm able to answer

the difference between men friendships

and women friendships, you know it's,

in regards to friendships, I believe that, they're like,

they're family members.

You collect, like I collect beautiful souls and spirits,

you know what I mean?

And if I vibe with you, then you're my family.

We argue, we debate, we hold our friends accountable

and we defend our friends in private.

No matter how wrong you are, I'ma tell you you're wrong,

because you're my brother, you're my sister.

You know what I'm saying?

So the dynamics for friendship, isn't really,

for me, a gender thing because I have beautiful friends

that are women as well as men and we can hang,

we can go, sit up and talk politics, traveling or whatever.

So it's not really like,

I think friendship goes beyond gender in my case.

And like I say, I just, your vibe attracts your tribe.

It's one of those things.

And sometimes we grow out of friendships.

The friends that I grew up in Chicago.

So there are friends that I grew up with that,

we barely speak, but when we do, it's like we catch up,

but we've grown differently.

But that's a chapter in your life.

And I mean, then there are friends that I grew up with

that are still my friends today.

Once, I went by my old neighborhood

and some friends jumped out and I was like,

"Oh, whoa," they were kinda hardened, hardened by life.

I saw the guns and I was like, "Hey, how y'all doing?"

But when you grow up, like growing up

on the west side of Chicago, that was my normal.

And luckily I kinda transitioned through life,

you take your path, we all have a path in life that we take.

And we, like I said, you collect different friends

along the way and you just,

some of us grow and some of us don't.

So, I can't really answer how male and female friendships

differentiate because I can only speak

from my point of view.

- Right on, I'm with you.

I mean, actually, and I love your truth telling

because you're right.

Some people grow, some people don't and it's just,

it is what it is. - Yeah.

- Thank you for that.

Hopefully a lot of people heard you

and will be thinking about that.

Their friendship, that connection is like chosen family.

April, I wanna ask you about craft and about acting.

I know that you do a lot, lot, lot of theater,

and I wanted to ask you, first of all,

how, why did you become an actor?

And how or have your feelings about the craft changed

since you first started?

And would you do another sci-fi film?

- Yes, I would do another sci-fi film.

Please can I do another, sci-fi film, please?

I'm also a country girl from Texarkana, Texas,

and it was kind of mind blowing to me

that you could do this as a living,

'cause I didn't grow up seeing that.

My mom was a nurse, I grew up in a family of teachers

and my grandfather was a chemist and a mathematician.

And I grew up in a church, black Southern Baptist church.

And so the only kind of performance I saw was really like,

gospel singing in church, which I didn't feel

like I had access to because that was about

some kind of like ecstatic expression

of a religious experience.

And if my performance didn't look like that,

then I guess I'm not a performer.

But you know, as a child, I was very creative.

I would make up stories.

I would record like TV shows, like made up TV shows,

made up sermons on like cassette tape

and do different voices and things.

And have really elaborate play with my Barbie

and Michael Jackson dolls and like soap operas.

So I was a generative kid, an improvisational kid.

And my family would improv with me.

We would like imitate racist cops and stuff,

but we didn't think of that as like,

"And this is called improv."

And so you need to join a sketch group,

like that wasn't the thing that we took seriously.

So it wasn't until I got into college

that I really started thinking about it

and started doing community theater,

'cause it was available to me.

And from there, made the move to New York

and started doing more theater

and then some television and film.

But, I guess how my thoughts have changed

is that I do have a bottom line.

I'm an adult, I'm not a, I think there's a misconception

that actors are like perpetual children and free spirits

and they would do it for free and they're not professionals

and they're not adults and they don't deserve a living wage

unless they are a famous person in Hollywood.

I don't think people have the concept really

of the yeoman actor who might not be a household name,

but they work and they're on this show for awhile.

Then they're not on a show.

Then they're on another show

or they're doing theater somewhere.

Like there's a way to make a living as an artist.

And you might never be a household name,

but you can put your kids through college.

You can like buy a home.

You can buy your mama a home.

And I, having been in this business for 20, some odd years,

I have a deep respect for the profession as a profession.

And for myself as a crafts person.

I was an English major in school,

'cause I didn't study this and I think

that has served me well.

I think the kind of actor I am is a generative,

interpreter of work.

I feel like my acting is kind of authorship in a way.

And I think, yeah, it's just, it's not this thing of like,

"Oh I just, I'm dramatic and that's why I'm an actor

'cause I love drama."

No, it's an intellectual pursuit of understanding

human experience and observing human behavior

and accessing it.

And so I just have like a lot more respect for that work.

I think that's the biggest change for me.

And so I wanna, the kind of work that attracts me

is work that acknowledges that intelligence

that we bring as artists.

- That's funny because April was in two of my short films,

one of which was kind of the first,

it wasn't the first short film that I did,

but it was the first like sort of what felt to me

like a real production.

And I didn't know you before that.

And I, but I had a sense even then,

I don't know if you were doing theater,

I guess you maybe were, you said you started in community,

but I didn't know that about you,

but I did get that feeling.

I totally had that vibe from you,

which is really interesting to hear you say this.

So speaking of acting Seth, I wanna ask you,

as you are an astronomer and as a scientist who works,

with the stars and the cosmos, first of all,

were you or are you familiar with Afrofuturism at all?

And then more broadly, what are your thoughts

on science fiction as it existed

and like the current state of science fiction

and what is some sci-fi that you like if any.

- All right, well first tonight, I guess just a confession,

I did not know anything about Afrofuturism.

And when I told people, including some who are in this room,

as I speak to you, that I was going to be on this panel,

their first question was, "Why you?"

And I have no good answer for that.

So, as far as science fiction goes, I mean,

you could say that I'm actually sitting here

because of science fiction, I was a great fan of it.

Every weekend, my parents would,

drive me down to the movie theater in Alexandria, Virginia,

and I would watch aliens land

and do whatever they were gonna do.

And in fact it was, to me very obvious

that they were all following the same basic script outline.

So by age 11, I, with another guy,

we started making science fiction films.

So I've actually done that.

Nothing shot in 35 millimeter, nothing shot in HD or 4K

or anything like that.

These were all eight millimeter

and eventually 16 millimeter.

And we'd make these sci-fi films.

And they were all parodies because we learned

right at the beginning that people are going to laugh

at the films no matter what we were trying to do.

So we figured if they were gonna laugh,

why don't we make comedy?

So we did that.

But, this is all personal stuff,

nobody cares about this stuff.

Even my brother doesn't care about this stuff.

But I will say that, eventually,

well, I think that sci-fi is very influential.

There is that.

And as far as what sci-fi is,

it's been said, in sci-fi the hero is the story.

It's the, really the idea,

because you can think back to the sci-fi films

that I saw as a kid, right,

this was just when they were still being made by Edison

in Northern New Jersey.

They would have a, some sort of storyline,

but it was always, it was always something clever

about the storyline.

Somebody makes a mistake and terrible things happen,

or they're just going for a weekend with their buddies

and suddenly the alien start making them disappear

for reasons that are never terribly clear.

So that's, it's the idea of what's happening.

And I, that's true.

I would see things like, there was a guy

by the name of George Pal who was making films

in the fifties and he was a puppeteer from Hungary

as a matter of fact.

And he was a puppeteer.

He was a performer there.

But he knew how to of course,

get scenes to work and stuff like that.

And he would take on the kind of classic sci-fi themes of,

what happens if earth goes bad?

Can we escape?

Can some people escape and other people don't fit

on the rocket ship and that kind of thing.

But mostly it was about indeed, aliens who come to earth

and have some interaction.

And almost always it was a malevolent interaction,

but not necessarily.

I mean, there were, some films where the agents

actually came down and helped,

and then there was one other category.

And that was, it was the atomic age.

There was a time when Adams were, the atomic physics

was going to be the future of us, right.

You remember that and Adams for society, Adams for peace,

Adams for this, that, Adams for whatever.

And so, but the movie industry saw

this kind of development is actually very malevolent

and they would start the film with some

adult atomic test in Nevada.

There was a guy, what's his name?

Arnold, think it was his first name.

Anyhow, he was the one who demonized the deserts.

You know, when I was a kid, the aliens were interested in,

destroying Manhattan, right.

Which, just makes more parking for people

who live in New Jersey, I suppose.

But they took on the city of the east coast, right.

But this guy moved all the action

to the deserts of the west.

And I think, Jack Arnold was his name.

And I think part of it was that,

it was cheap to shoot there, but there was something else.

And that was, the desert was kind of empty

and terrible things could happen there.

And if you had an atomic test, maybe would cause mutations

in ants that are running around the ground,

they turn out to be ants that are eight feet high

at the shoulder and of course, what do they do?

They immediately fly to Los Angeles,

invade the sewers and begin to ruin everybody's day.

These were the kind of stories that I grew up with

and they were very simple stories.

They were very simple stories,

but they explored a possibility

that you weren't likely to see in your life.

- So then can I ask you really quick, what is,

is there anything in sci-fi now that you like?

Any film, any TV series?

- Well, I still go to the site.

I haven't been to movies in more than a year now,

but I still try and go to all the sci-fi films I can.

Actually I even write reviews of them

for various publications.

And we saw the "Arrival" again,

or I think it's just "Arrival" without--

- "Arrival."

- "Arrival," yeah right, the England's come down of,

the characters try to teach them English

or something like that.

They look like giant squid actually.

In fact, I worked at, you could get 2000 servings of sushi

from each one of those aliens.

So I figured that the Japanese will start farming them

and then serving them up.

I figured that's where that was going,

but it was a different idea.

The aliens came down here to communicate with us

and they had this ability to travel on time and all that.

But the real point was that they came down

and they weren't gonna destroy things.

So that was new.

Also the one made in South Africa,

District 11 or 9 or, some district, right.

- I think it's "District 9," I believe.

- "District 9," yeah.

I remember, I happened to be in South Africa actually

just before the film came out

and everywhere were these ads for "District 9"

and they were very clever about it.

They didn't tell you what the film was gonna be about.

But anyhow, so these seafood creatures come down,

once again, seafood creatures

and there was a different take.

So I like it when they have a different take.

And I also have to say, again when I was a kid,

the scientists in these films were short,

little bald guys in a white lab coat,

always trying to save the creature.

Whereas, the sexy looking guy who was usually a reporter

or something like that, the guy who got the woman

at the end, he was always saying,

"No, we've got to destroy it because otherwise

it's gonna take on," I don't know Park Slope or something.

I mean, it's gonna do terrible things.

And so that's a refreshing change 'cause today,

often the scientists are actually the heroes.

- Right, this is true, this is true.

And to just, I'm sure that you did a little research,

but in essence, I mean Afrofuturism means

many things to many different people,

but it is essentially a genre of storytelling

and other dimensions as well.

But within the creative realm where black people

are not only present in the future,

but are determining their futures

and there are many, many different expressions

of Afrofuturism, depending on,

as many different expressions of sci-fi as there are.

I mean, there are many different sub-genres.

And so with Afrofuturism, depending on where someone lives,

what their culture is, perhaps their generation,

it means many different things.

But this idea of agency for black characters,

because for so long, particularly in the United States,

we can say for sure, when we see stories of the future,

black people and other people of color,

are not, have not been present traditionally.

And obviously "Star Trek" was a huge,

was a huge exception to that rule.

So with that, I mean, we're gonna soon go to questions

from the audience, but I do wanna go,

I do want to go around and ask everyone

a particular question.

So I'm gonna go back to Morocco,

what is your first memory of Afrofuturism or of sci-fi?

And or sci-fi?

- I mean, of course, like television.

But I was doing a play in Chicago

and this woman brought me this book

by Tananarive Due "My Soul to Keep."

She's like, "Oh, you can play this character,

play this character."

I'm like, "Ah, this woman's trying to flirt with me, men.

Thank you, sister."

You know what I'm saying?

Just that whole actory thing, like yeah,

"You know, I did my thing on stage."

But she kept like, she kept that, it's like,

"Did you read the book?

Did you?"

She came, she saw the play like three times

and she kept asking me, "Did you read the book?"

And I was like, "Nah, nah, haven't read the book.

I don't have time, I'm on this,

I'm still on this script, just studying the script."

So I finally opened the book and I was like,

oh, I was blown away.

And this had to be late nineties and I was blown away.

And I read about, 'cause she has Lalibela Ethiopian,

and I was like, "Oh, I gotta see this place."

It had me researching the stone churches of Ethiopia.

And I was like, "I gotta go see it."

I had and I was fortunate enough to go and see

the stone churches of Lalibela in like 2014.

But I was like, how she incorporated all this history

and this immortality and I was just blown away by it.

And, I think, Keith we need to kinda do this as a series

or something like that.

And just go, "It's out there--

- Yay, you heard it here first.

- I know Tananarive, we all know Tananarive,

most of [indistinct]

- Yeah and it's just, it was exceptional and you just,

you kind of fall down the rabbit hole of that and,

so that was my introduction to it.

- Okay and I'm gonna ask you really quickly,

what would you do if there were an alien invasion?

- Man, hopefully I have a great bottle of tequila

and I can offer shots.

What are you gonna do?

You know what I'm saying?

Like, what are you gonna do?

I mean what do people think they're gonna do?

So it's just like, I'm a ex Marine, I served in a war.

It's like, if they come down,

what are you gonna do, man, realistically?

We can say, "Oh, I'ma do this and that."

You're just like, "Yeah, all right cool," yeah.

- Good answer.

So I'm gonna go to Jervaughn and ask you

the same couple of questions.

One, what does Afrofuturism and, or sci-fi mean to you?

And what would you do if the aliens came to San Diego

right now?

- So well with Afrofuturism, as you mentioned before,

it's actually seeing people or black people in spaces,

in sci-fi realms and futuristic spaces period.

I mean, if you think of The Jetsons,

they thought we'd be in the sky or something

year 2000 blah, blah, blah.

But the future changes all the time.

So you have to think about how we as a people

end up changing too and guess what?

We're not just dying off, we'll be there.

So yeah, that's what Afrofuturism kind of means to me,

what we will be doing, how we'll be taking those spaces,

how we'll be influencing spaces in future realms.

So that's kind of what Afrofuturism means to me.

Obviously I like sci-fi, nerdy kid, I'm a scientist.

I think the first sci-fi films and things,

I can't remember of course "Jurassic Park"

or "Deep Blue Sea" is one of my favorites.

So yeah, I can remember a lot of creature centric

sci-fi films.

So yeah, I do definitely recall thinking of a lot,

a few of my favorite recently that kind of tie

into the whole Afrocentric theme or like Lovecraft Country

and the Watchman series that they did.

I really hate that both of those were canceled

'cause I've enjoyed both of them.

So yeah, as recent as those two have been my favorite.

As Morocco mentioned, - "The Abandon."

- Yeah, as Morocco mentioned, what are we gonna do?

Like, I would love to be in Mississippi

and ride it out for a little bit,

'cause you know, they're gonna hit us last.

And they're like, "Oh, I didn't even know there was a spot."

We might make it, they say,

"We forgot Mississippi was there."

But now since I'm here, I'll probably,

you know the ocean's right there.

Give me a shot of tequila,

pull up a lawn chair to allow them to.

- Right on.

So I'm gonna ask April the same couple of questions.

What does Afrofuturism mean to you and, or sci-fi?

And what would you do if the aliens land on New York City?

- Okay, been thinking about this.

Afrofuturism to me is just a way to think about

the black narrative without trauma

and without like the Western narrative of oppression.

And a lot of it does refer back to like

ancient African mysticism and things like cosmology

and those kinds of beliefs that a lot of us

and I mean, me, did not learn in school.

And don't really have a reference for.

And, I just think reasonably about people thinking like,

"Oh, the pyramids must have been built by aliens

because like Egyptians could never."

It's like, "Well, what do you know really?"

And where does that assumption come from?

But yeah, there's, it's something that feels

like an opportunity to rewrite what this means.

And that can be as broad as your imagination.

And it doesn't have to be into these Western tropes

of like an alien with a funny hat on and,

or a funny nose or funny skin.

And he's gonna try to get you.

It's like, what are you?

Like, what is consciousness?

What is the universe?

Like, it just explodes, thought about life

and the universe in a way that's just thrilling

and freeing and doesn't have the like codified rules

that we're interested, that we're used to.

And it doesn't have to be linear.

It can be any shape, it can be any direction.

It can be multi-directional

and Celia, you've actually introduced me to more of like

the short films in like screenings

and things that we've done.

And it's just, it really is mind blowing in the most,

I would almost say literal sense.

It's just not there, it can be anything.

And that's what's it's so freeing about it.

- Yeah, I think when you sort of take away

all of the assumptions that in the west,

that we have about otherness and what otherness is.

Because if we're talking about intelligence

from outside of this solar system,

outside of this planet even,

whatever this sense of otherness is,

is absolutely irrelevant, it's just absolutely [indistinct]

And I think that's a huge thing

because it's been so ingrained.

So tell us really quick, the invasion.

- Okay, I've learned in the last year and a half,

listen to scientists.

So I think we would get very interested in the person who,

if they're crustacean like, who were the crustacean experts?

Let's listen to them and it's real easy for me

to get existential.

So I would just be in my existential place with like,

what are we trying to learn?

And why do we assume malevolence?

Like what can this exchange be?

How can we be useful?

What makes us think that we're superior,

intellectually or otherwise?

Or like in the importance of the universe anyway,

like what is that about even?

Maybe this is like the universe taking care of itself.

But like now here's this other thing

that's gonna be defined in its own image.

So, I would just be really kind of open and listening

and maybe also become a bunker homesteader

and pray and get a large collection of wine.

- That sounds like a good plan, absolutely.

Keith, can you talk to us a little bit about

what Afrofuturism means to you

and also what you would do in the event

of this momentous arrival of extraterrestrials?

- I'm glad it's momentous.

Yeah, I mean, I have so many things to say, oh my God,

but I will say this, I will say that Afrofuturism,

which I think what April was sort of tapping into

has been around forever, right.

And I think in particular, for me, it's,

I'm looking at it through the lens of a new world,

black experience, being a descendants of enslaved people

in this country.

And even like earlier on, the mysticism that they brought

across that middle passage showed up in churches

where they were able to transport themselves

spiritually out of the trauma that was around them

and find this other place in the future,

or either in the past that sustain their complexity, right.

So to me, it's like, that's how I'm looking at it

and that's what I think about often.

And that's why I think for me,

like sort of new world storytelling

is about like returning to that original, pure mysticism,

that sort of place where we were complex,

where despite challenges, despite imperfections,

which Morocco was talking about earlier,

there was still a sense of paradise, right,

that we all sort of like informing the paradise

by our complexity.

So for me, like after futurism and I thank you too Celia,

because I think that you are one of the major custodians

right now that's keeping Afrofuturism in the minds

and on the screens, right.

Like, I so appreciate you for that.

And I think it's also important that,

Steven was mentioning sort of like the old sort of templates

of how sci-fi existed.

And I think that's another reason why Afrofuturism

is so important is because we were absent in those.

We weren't even thought about.

In fact, there's some theory and documented theory

that we, black people were alien.

We were the aliens in the imagination of whiteness

during that time, right.

I think Toni Morrison talks about that, other people.

And so for me, people like Tananarive Due

who was writing horror and sort of sci-fi,

N.K. Jemisin, who is the sort of new black sci-fi person.

And for example like I'm, lucky enough, thank God,

and I can't say too much about it,

but I am developing one of her novels for,

you know how they do outta here,

for a Hollywood system thing.

But anyway, in that novel, there is an alien invasion,

but the alien invasion in N.K. Jemisin's mind

and in the story is homogenization,

it's the same-in of the world, right.

Making everything the same.

That's the alien sort of mission,

is that we want the whole thing to be the same.

And anybody who's out here trying to penetrates

sameness by doing something original

or different is the enemy.

And so in this story that I'm adapting for television,

New York City is one of the last cities

that's holding on to different,

holding on to idiosyncrasy as a culture.

And so the aliens target them because they're like,

"No we can't have that happen, right."

So it's so great because like the voices of gender equity

and queer equity and black equity and Latinidad

all of that represents the things that the aliens hate.

So for me, like that's part of the Afrofuturism,

sort of like thing that's happening.

What's that, I wanna be a part of it.

I wanna be, I wanna see more of it, you know?

So I wanted to say all that, but also as far as like,

I'm a Capricorn, so I'm a task master, I'm a game,

I'm trying to like plan the game,

how we gon do it?

So if there was an alien innovation,

I also wanted to say this before I say that,

the last thing I wanna say about aliens,

there are some conversations in the spiritual,

intuitive community that the aliens are here,

that when you think about human behavior,

there's certain human behavior on the planet

that does things that are against the planet, right.

It's like in argument against what is natural to the system

of how this planet works.

And so some people call, whoever those people are, alien

or the people who are trying to sustain

the beauty of the earth are the aliens, right.

So there's a lot of different ways to think about

which is what Afrofuturism is.

But I think as a Capricorn of those aliens,

alien invasion went down, I would first try and figure out,

like April said, like who knows what's really going on?

Who's the specialist 'cause I really feel like

what they saying is accurate.

I would just go like, pack up my backpack, get my bike,

my 10 speed and just head to the Hills

and just see what happens, you know.

- Hilarious, that is hilarious.

But again, sounds like a very good plan.

And I think you make a very interesting point

about how we conceive of aliens because that's,

I mean, I know from my work,

that's something that I'm very interested in,

something far beyond this idea of a spaceship,

because I think that's probably the least likely way

that it will happen.

I'm sure it's one of the ways that it could happen,

but there are many, many other pathways

to this place in time and space.

And so I'm really curious about that.

And I also really appreciate that sort of overlap

or that interface between the scientific and the spiritual

and just, you know, when we start talking about

quantum theory and the fuzziness and the weirdness

and all of this stuff and then this things kind of,

you know the Venn diagram kind of closes in.

So before we close out, we do have a couple of questions.

This first one, I'm going to, oh Jervaughn I'm sorry,

you said you're gonna need to, okay,

if we lose you on camera,

then we'll still have you on audio.

And I wanna definitely, thank you for being here,

but please stick with us and let's see.

For the two actors, what does it feel like

to work on one of these films and immerse yourself

in the world of the film?

- Okay, I'll start.

Well, we shot this a while ago,

but what's great about it is,

it's nice to have the elements.

Like I remember when we got the prop for the like antivirus

and someone had made that and what was kind of cool

about our film was it was a little bit analog,

which to me actually feels more sci-fi than trying

to like super, super like VR, digitize it,

like making something that you could hold in your hands

was really nice.

And I think those kinds of things,

like there was one part in your draft Celia

that I always, always remember

because she lived with her mom at one point

and it was like Midtown Manhattan,

which is like where all the skyscrapers are,

had become kind of like a shantytown.

And that's where all those high rises were apartments

that didn't have running water all the time.

And I think about that all the time.

There's just something about,

acting is so much imagination anyway,

even as realistic, realistic as it is like you're here,

you're on location, you're actually on the street.

And you know, you're dealing with like this person

who is a real medical expert at this place,

but they're still like, "I'm not really in the situation.

None of these people, none of this is really happening."

And so it requires so much imagination.

So to be in a sci-fi situation where we're really

stretching the limits of what I see around me

versus what things actually are behind the camera.

It's just a really, it's fun.

It's fun to inhabit the situation where

and for me it's also about trying to make it

as quotidian as possible.

Like when she's, trying to work with tech support

about her virus on her program

and she has a mysterious kind of flu herself

at the same time.

There's like the boring, waiting to go through tech support

and talking to the person.

That helps ground the sci-finess of it.

If it's like, I'm still a person

and the sci-fi that I've seen and I like is the kind,

that's just like, "Yeah, it's kind of annoying

that these aliens are here."

That can just bring the everyday humanity

into this crazy situation, because that's how we would be.

Like this global pandemic brought on by a super virus

is kind of boring sometimes.

Who would have written that, but that is true.

And so that's what's fun about like,

yeah, the unreality reality of this kind of world.

- And really quick, I'm gonna say,

since you brought up being on the street,

just a little funny anecdote,

because this really speaks to,

beyond the experience for actors, as sort of storytellers,

the power of having representation.

For the scene, there's a scene where Roxe is going

to a huge meeting that has to do with her work,

her research and she's late for the meeting.

And we shot a scene on the street

where she's running to get to this high rise

that's in Harlem on 125th in Adam Clayton Powell,

it's the state building.

So she's running and there's a big Plaza

in front of this building.

And it was summertime I believe,

it was definitely warm outside

and we were shooting in the middle of Harlem

in the middle of the day,

so there were lots of people around,

and I remember people reacting to seeing her,

she had on this like leather jacket with these huge,

this huge pointed collar and her hair was amazing.

And it was, she had this huge, like natural hair

and there were these guys and they were like,

she looks like a superhero.

And it was just like, people were just like really stoked

and pumped just to see this.

I mean, they saw the camera, so they knew we were shooting,

but it was just like the sight of her in this way,

doing this thing, really moved people on the street.

And for me, you know, I love New York

and a barometer of a lot of things

to me is like the people on the street in New York,

because they will, if it's not good they will let you know.

It doesn't work and if it does work

they will let you know that as well.

So that was huge for me.

So Morocco, same question to you.

What does it feel like to work on one of these films

and immerse yourself in the world of the film?

- Well, the beautiful thing about Keith is,

he's very thorough.

If we the actors had questions, he had answers.

And luckily, we did do table work like we do in theater.

And we did some read-throughs

and if we had any questions about what was going on,

'cause I was like, "What the hell man?

What am I supposed, what's my?"

You know what I mean?

I'm like, "What's going on?"

And if I'm the smartest person in the room,

I'm in the wrong room.

So Keith had the answers and we asked the questions

and we had a great team of actors who we could work off of.

I'm watching how people were constructing that character

and then I was able to carve out my own character.

But yeah, it was, I the actor,

couldn't get in front of the story.

So like me watching "The Abandon" now, I'm still like,

"Well, what happens?"

You know, what happens next 'cause I don't know.

And Keith has that and we haven't done anything else,

so it's one of those things.

I couldn't get in front of the story.

So hopefully the audience couldn't get in front of the story

and that was the beautiful mystery of it all.

And you know, it's still mysterious to me

because I'm like, "Well, all right Keith,

well we need to finish this up, man."

So I see what's going on you know,

and it's one of those things that actors

never play the end.

We have to take that journey and figure this out.

We all trying to figure it out.

All the whole team of actors,

were trying to figure out this relationship,

what's going on, what happened to this guy?

What's gonna happen to that guy?

What happened to him?

So it was, even when we were on set,

it was just like this brotherhood,

'cause I had, I knew some of the actors

and then I was fans of the other actors.

So it was great to work with this team of actors

because they made you raise your game.

You're not gonna step on the set, you watch Sterling,

Sterling never stops working.

We can be on a break, drink and talking

and Sterling is still working it out.

You're just like,

"Man, this brother don't, he don't take a break."

So you're gonna have to raise your game

when you step on that set.

You can't just come in like,

"Oh man, well I learned my lines and I'ma hit my mark."

No, absolutely not.

You're gonna have to be in it every moment, every beat,

just staying in it and they're gonna give it to you

and you have to give it back.

So for me it was a beautiful team that Keith assembled

and hopefully we can revisit it soon.

- So, I'm getting the message

that we need to wrap really quick.

I wanna ask you Seth, really quickly,

what if things change and that invasion does happen?

What would you do?

- I think that Morocco, and then later Keith

hit it right on the head and that is, get out of the way.

Anybody that can come here right,

is way beyond our level technologically.

So whatever the, I mean, that's a conceit of the films

that we take them on, right.

The U.S. Air Force is scrambled or whatever.

And they eventually, thanks to human characteristics

like courage and daring and I don't know,

ignorance about what aliens could do,

they go in there and they beat these guys.

That's not, what's going to happen.

That's like Neanderthals taking on the U.S. Air Force.

They're not gonna win, right.

But that isn't a very good film for most people

but honestly, if they came here,

I have to say I was called by a journalist

just the other day from Britain and he said,

"Is there a secret Pentagon plan to defend ourselves?"

I said, "No, there's not.

It's totally hopeless."

And having that drink that Morocco was talking about,

or April or Keith also weighed in on this.

Yeah, yeah, just grab some frozen pizza,

your favorite girlfriend or boyfriend

and head for the hills, exactly that.

The only strategy that might have a chance,

maybe you can negotiate.

- Right on, thank you very much for that,

giving us some hope.

So I think, we unfortunately lost Jervaughn

because he had to change location and we do have to go now.

I'm sorry for the questions that we didn't get to,

but I wanna say a humongous thank you to our panelists.

We, I thoroughly enjoyed talking to all of you

and hearing what you had to say

as I'm sure the audience did as well.

You all brought something really tasty to the table.

So thank you very much for that.

And thank you for making time for us.

We really appreciate it.

Everyone have a fantastic weekend and take good care.

Stay safe and until next.


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