25 June 2007

Sister from Another Planet

Sister from Another Planet
The Gay City News, Vol. 6 Iss. 24 | June 21-27, 2007

Throughout American history, it has been a comfort in times of discomfort to turn to fantasy or science fiction. A world much removed from your own where magic, an agent of the impossible, can exist might lend some hope for magic in this world. A sci-fi story might portray a complicated or imperiled version of the future, but in doing so, it implies that there is a future for us, giving us some comfort for posterity. These worlds of science fiction and fantasy are, or have within them, essentially utopias, places that embody peacefulness and perfection. And for the large part, they're a whites-only affair. And someone started asking why.

M. Asli Dukan is a filmmaker and a teacher at the City University of New York. "As a kid I saw a lot of movies, read a lot of science fiction," she told me. "It was just my interest. 'Blade Runner,' 'Alien,' stuff like that. But then I read the works of Octavia Butler and I realized that black people were just not being represented adequately in white science fiction."

Dukan, who is a black lesbian filmmaker, attempted to remedy the issue first by introducing her own works. As a film student at New Jersey City University and then the City College of New York, she made films from her own perspective, shorts that veered into the topics of a more representative future. But having made her personal films, she realized that there might be a larger problem at stake here. "There was a panel of African-American science fiction writers at Howard University and it blew my mind to think that other people were into this. So I contacted the professor organizing it and asked if I could film it."

The panel led Dukan to think more broadly about the state of science fiction and the segregation of utopias. "Essentially, white people were imagining better futures through science-fiction, futures that just didn't include black people. It was demeaning to our humanity," she said. Given the prompt of the panel, she decided to use her bent as a filmmaker to explore the place of African-Americans in the collective imagination of the future. She decided to call the film "Invisible Universe."

(left, filmmaker M. Asli Dukan with SF writer Samuel "Chip" Delany)

Her search for characters in mainstream science fiction, outside of black writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, turned up to be grim in its repercussions. "Most black characters in science-fiction tend to veer towards problematic portrayals," she explained. "Taking the example of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' you have Geordi, the blind prodigy, Worf, the animal-man, and Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who functions as the mystical black woman advisor. This is supposed to be the future, but the same stereotypes still apply." She stopped to consider for a moment. "Even the Orcs in 'The Lord of the Rings' represent a sort of darkness and savagery that is problematic in its implications.

Dukan thinks that some interesting portrayals exist within fiction, most outside what we might imagine. "Blade," the vampire hunter, is an interesting figure. The product of a mixed marriage, his story examines the dilemmas of being biracial in its own way. Also, Storm of 'X-Men,' written by Stan Lee, a white writer, is an unusually complex portrayal.

She is a powerful woman, a leader, with really, some of the strongest powers on the team." She smiled. "Obviously, though, there are some problems with her having blue eyes."

As M. Asli Dukan compiles interviews with writers, filmmakers, and actors for her documentary, she is getting to examine both a topic she grew up with and questions she has had throughout her life. "I think that all I wanted growing up, all I want for my generation is to leave hope for the future. There's hope inherent in science fiction, in fantasy. All I want is to find that part of it that includes the black community, that leaves an image with authority and posterity."

©GayCityNews 2007

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