Black Timescapes, Time Travel + Temporal Displacement

In recent years, afrofuturism and Black speculative themes in mainstream film and television have grown, and with them come a focus on social and racial justice and Black sociohistorical issues - Black Lightning, Black Panther, Watchmen, Raising Dion, episodes of Twilight Zone under the helm of Jordan Peele, are entertaining, thought and discussion-provoking, and are baby steps toward fulfilling a Black and Queer representation failure that has plagued ...well, everything since forever (and we still have forever to go … we need more differently- and disabled, transwomen, dark-skinned womxn and people, transmen, nonbinary and GNC folks, Black youth, mothers, sex worker narratives prioritized). Although independent and DIY Black creatives have been creating amazing experimental, afrofuturist, Black speculative and horror films and series for years that must be celebrated more, there is something incredibly fun and special about watching weekly episodes of shows like Black Lightning with Black Twitter, relishing in both the subtle and explicit cultural artifacts that the creators so lovingly weave into each episode. In addition to decentralizing the stereotypical, stale narratives of Hollywood yesterdays, these shows and films can do the work to help us actualize new times (or no-times) and new realities by giving us access to more visionary material to work from.


As an avid reader, writer, and watcher of time travel/temporal displacement fiction, I have been especially excited lately to see more films and shows focused on Black time travelers or Black people who have been displaced in time, or that depict Afrodiasporic and Black womanist temporal landscapes. I frequently use the concept of Black womanist temporalities and the Black Grandmother Paradox to create and analyze Afro Diasporan temporal landscapes in Black speculative literature and Black womxn created films (see: Kindred Temporal Library). Black womanist temporalities emphasize matrilineal or matri-curvature timelines that are feminine and communally-generated, and in which personal, familial, and communal space-times are enmeshed. These communally-generated, non-linear temporalities allow the future(s) to emerge into the past by way of dreams, omens, prophecies, and symbols. The past remains a space of open possibility, speculation, and active revision by matrilineal descendants of multiple generations of people. (I have also written extensively about the features of Afro Diasporan time in several other publications and books, so won’t go into those details here).


In contrast, traditional [Eurocentric] science fiction films, TV shows (and of course, books and short stories since the genre first emerged) that feature time travel or temporal displacement usually have one or more of the following features that I've observed (non-exhaustive list with exceptions that is not getting into issues of parallel timelines/universes):


  • Treats the past as “dead,” fixed, unalterable, and the future typically as deterministic, or as the result of a set of causes and effects that are easily pinpointed and measured. Even when the traveler(s) are changing the future, that future still typically needs to follow a pre-determined path or set of cause and effect factors in order to land on the “right” future


  • Treats temporal paradoxes, temporal queerness, or temporal conflicts as undesirable, and capable of ripping apart the fabric of space-time. Literally, queer and trans people rarely ever depicted as time travelers or time displaced. The universe must always be set right or balanced, which usually involves a linear trajectory centered around white patriarchal, cisgendered, heterosexual histories and timelines, and ensuring a future that maintains that status quo


  • Time traveler is typically white male, often a scientist or astrophysicist or other privileged white male (genetics); travel is centered around his wants or needs and his traveling is allowed to disrupt reality (for love or to manipulate love, to get that job he wanted, to keep starting over until he gets it right, to pick that particular point in history that he deems important enough to interfere with or alter)


  • Women time travelers are often traveling or are time-displaced involuntarily - they usually cannot control when and where it happens or where they go, or don’t choose to have it happen. Usually men are in control of when and/or where they travel to. Black women time travelers depicted in film are exceedingly rare.


  • Time travel is often enabled by a High tech Machine that only a privileged few can have access to. The time traveler(s) or inventors in possession of the machine are somehow endowed with the wisdom and moral righteousness to know when, how, and what to use it for (and while this is often a plot point that includes the lesson that they should not be tinkering with time travel for that exact reason, this lesson is often undermined by the happy endings where the guy gets the girl or gets the job or sets the universe back on course as he thinks it should have been, and no real or earth-shattering consequences -existential, moral, economic or otherwise - are suffered)


Some of the time travel shows and films that contain some of these descriptors include The Time Traveler’s Wife, Dark (Netflix), About Time, Terminator, Project Almanac, Looper, Butterfly Effect, Back to the Future, and the list goes on. While I find many (read: all) of these films/shows highly enjoyable and entertaining, I also hold the dual realities that they are often problematic, have dated notions of time and time travel, and their values around time travel are often steeped in white supremacy and Western cultural notions of time and space, including layered colonial, global, and capitalist times. Knowing what is operating within these time travel films actually makes it more fun to watch and analyze critically, and what makes it feel so good to witness Black-centered films on time travel and displacement that are refreshing and stepping the game up for the entire genre (I’ll also plug the Black womanist time travel short film Recurrence Plot: The Family Circle, available here and based on my book of short time travel stories of the same name).


In particular, I want to highlight and offer brief reflections on the following recent and upcoming films: Antebellum, Don't Let Go, See You Yesterday, In the Shadow of the Moon, Candyman 2020, Fast Color, and Tenet. While most but not *all* of these films have Black directors, producers, and/or writers, the compelling elements for me in reflecting on these films were the inclusion of Black protagonists, Black cultural artifacts, and events, storylines, or plots that include elements of Black temporalities, and landscapes that operate on Colored People’s Time, Black womanist time, or Afrodiasporic time (for the sake of brevity, those terms are used interchangeably throughout. For more in depth discussions on these concepts, please check out BQF books, zines, and guest articles).




*SPOILER ALERTS* Please stop reading NOW if you have not seen the already-released films yet (or the first Candyman - go watch that on Netflix now and come back to this blog after!) Critical plot points//heavy spoilers ahead for some of the films! You’ve been warned.

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Candyman 2020


“One of the means by which speech is guarded is indirect reference; some names belong to uncontrollable forces, and to utter the name calls to presence the force which then in its greatness destroys everything in its purview…the Dogon respect direct reference because uttering a name summons the subject, who is then compelled to appear because the breath of the speaker carries his own life force, which gives the summoned entity ‘ the best form and most suitable habitation to receive the life force being invoked.’ The form and habitation for the one named traps him, forcing him to ‘arise in answer to the call.” - Laura C. Jarmon


Evocative of Rumpelstiltskin, Bloody Mary, and Beetlejuice, Candyman is a modern mythic representation of the African-American proverb “Keep My Name Out Ya Mouth” and the powerful notion of reference in Black and Afrodiasporic narratives, as demonstrated by the quote above (interestingly, a tidbit on Wikipedia notes that the film’s unofficial title is ‘Say My Name,’ and of course you can hear a creeped out version of the Destiny’s Child track in the trailer). Although Candyman is not technically a time travel or time displacement film, it certainly could be read as one. Candyman is summoned from an atemporal space of a mirror, coming into the temporal space of the present of the summoner who dares say his name five times. As another writer points out, temporal linkages between the past, privileged history, the present, and the future are made as early as the opening sequences of the 1992 film:


“Bernard Rose's 1992 film, Candyman, opens with dual sequences of narration. The first consists of the eponymous villain/hero's voice-over preface; it presents the Candyman legend proleptically, beginning with the words "They will say," and establishes itself as a fantastical alternative to progressive linear history, as it is spoken against a scrolling aerial shot of traffic-filled Chicago freeways and the Chicago skyline. The longer, second sequence foregrounds itself as official history by occurring within an academic setting, a classroom where history is produced and reproduced. Nonetheless, it links itself to Candyman's narration through the use of narrative voice-over—this time, of a young woman who is being interviewed about urban legends—and the emphasis on oral history.” - Laura Wirick


Candyman is the spirit of Daniel Robataille, an artist and son of an enslaved African. In the 1890’s, Robataille was tortured and fed to bees for dating and fathering a child with a white woman, his ashes spread over the field that would later become the plot of land on which the former Cabrini Green projects in Chicago would come to be built. Unfortunately, the idea of structures and buildings,and in particular, housing projects literally being built on top of Black bodies belongs to reality as well as fiction. In Philadelphia, the Queens Lane Housing Projects were discovered to be buried on top of a potter’s field of hundreds of poor Black people, mulattoes, and other poor people who could not afford to be buried in a traditional cemetery, and another gravesite of 5,000 Black people was discovered under 18 inches of soil beneath a playground in a gentrified section of South Philly. These stories and the stories of time capsules found under housing projects are some of the subjects of BQF’s Project: Time Capsule writing, image, and performance series.


If you are not familiar with Cabrini Green, I encourage you to check out the documentary 70 Acres in Chicago to learn more and to give some necessary real-life context to the film. Among others, the original film prominently deals with issues of gentrification, displacement, poverty, housing inequity, and other forms of systemic violence with a lens on the “daily horrors” disproportionately haunting Black families.


Wirick goes on to say:


“.. that Robataille died at Cabrini Green (dubbed "Candyman country" by Purcell) connects his slave ancestry and death by a lynch mob to the social and economic disenfranchisement of Cabrini Green's current residents. The "daily horrors" suffered by these residents are thus inextricably tied to the past horrors of slavery and racialized violence. Helen ignores or elides the way the present extends unseen, tangled roots to a past repressed by middle-class, predominantly white society by naively assuming that white privilege and dressing like a cop will protect her during her Cabrini Green excursions.”


The 2020 sequel (which is actually the fourth film in the series - see Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and Candyman: Day of the Dead ) will be re-envisioned in the hands of Black woman director and co-writer Nia DaCosta and produced by Jordan Peele. Reviewing the trailer and online descriptions, the film will be returning to the now fully gentrified Chicago area where Cabrini-Green once stood, sending it along its circular path, ever-connecting the pasts-nows-futures.


Antebellum


"What if fate chose you to save us from our past?" - Antebellum tagline


Although little is known about this upcoming film starring multi-talented phenom Janelle Monae, Black femmes and fans have done some of the work to analyze the trailers, pointing out that it evokes tones and themes of Octavia Butler’s 1979 Black speculative novel Kindred, with the main character being a successful author, much like Kindred’s Dana. The initial trailer shows a number of inter-temporal penetrations and displacements of people and objects from the relative past/present/future, with an airplane appearing momentarily over a field of enslaved Africans, or a horse and buggy showing up out of the middle of nowhere as a group of friends presumably in present-day are stepping out into the street. A follow-up trailer gives us a bit more additional information. The film poster features a large red butterfly over Monae’s mouth, which could be a reference to time travel film Butterfly Effect or perhaps Ray Bradbury’s time travel classic A Sound of Thunder. The involvement of Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw productions is also exciting as it will mean layers of symbolism, reference, and meaning to the film, as we have come to expect from projects he is involved in.




As I have previously written and lectured about, Dana in the “grim fantasy” of Kindred is continuously put in a position to birth and ensure her own timeline by choosing to save, instead of kill her grandfather, undermining the classical trope of the Grandfather Paradox, if not defeating it altogether. The narrative eschews the traditional time machine that white men have been fascinated with since H.G. Wells wrote the Time Machine in 1895, opting, instead, to present her body’s own genetic highway as the road on which Dana travels backward into time. I look forward/backward to seeing how Antebellum interfaces with these concepts, though the film has unfortunately been postponed/undated/unmoored in time due to COVID-19.


TENƎꓕ


Like Antebellum, little is known about this film from Director Christopher Nolan beyond what is shown in the trailers, but with Nolan’s long and strong track record of brooding time and mind benders, it is very highly anticipated. Starring John David Washington, the progeny of Denzel Washington (who has starred in his own temporal displacement film a time or two - Deja Vu and Out of Time - which, while not sci-fi, was about skillful manipulation of real time by a Black man in the face of running out of “objective time”), it remains to be seen whether the time travel mechanisms utilized in the film will be classical or quantum, nor do we know from whose perspective the events are being told. If Washington is the main character, I hope he will bring in a nonlinear Afrodiasporic temporal perspective to the narrative, even if it is subconscious or readable only retrospectively. One voice in the trailer cautions that he has to ”start looking at the world in a new way,” while another says “don't try to understand it, feel it,” hinting, at the very least, of an affective time that must be felt to be experienced, as opposed to an objective time that can be reckoned merely by checking a clock or calendar.


Don’t Let Go


This film came out in 2019 and features an Uncle named Jack (played by David Oyelowo) and his niece Ashley (played by Storm Reid) communicating across time a few weeks after Ashley and her family are viciously murdered. Jack is a detective, and after a very brief period of disbelief, fully buys into the notion that his niece is calling him from beyond the grave, and begins using their calls to investigate the murders. (The premise is of course a strong nod to the movie Frequency and its TV adaptation).


Jack and Ashley's ability to communicate across time depends on memory, codes, relationship and emotional cues, things that only they both could know based on conversations that only they have had. Spray paint on a garage door, bubblegum stuck under the table of your favorite diner booth - everyday objects all become more reliable and accessible than a time travel machine that the two main characters can manipulate and utilize to solve the mystery of her death. The pair experiment and test out their ability to evade or transcend death and time to communicate with each other. Their emotional and familial bonds, interconnected memories constantly serve as anchorings while they continue to shift the timeline in as a means to get back to each other. One of the best lines of the film demonstrating their entanglement is when Jack says “The only way I can be OK is if you save yourself. If you save yourself you save me. If you save me, I will save you.” Their very existence, be-ingness in the world depends on each other, creating a circular temporality, or perhaps a parallel temporal world where they both have survived, even if they don't make it to the original timeline.


Part of the afrodiasporic temporal quality present in this film is the fluidity of facts and events, which largely depend on the passing of information between the two main characters, which of course depends on a narrative or retelling from one’s own perspective:


“Time-depth can be treated as a critical byproduct of folk narrative, for it impinges on the concept of narrative in its essence as reported matter - a narrative is a report in which a message of some sort is conveyed to an audience. Time influences the report by at least in part helping to establish the content of the message which the report conveys. Time-depth refers to the relation between the past and the present, indicating that information within a report may be about events that occurred long ago or about events occurring as recently as the immediate temporal environment in which the report is present. Time-depth thus refers to the temporal status of the events reported in narrative form.” - Laura C. Jarmon


It also depends largely on each character’s belief in each other - belief that his niece could be in fact communicating from her cell phone beyond the grave, belief that her Uncle was in fact communicating with her from two weeks in the future. What is reported to and from each other is taken as fact, again recalling specific African oral traditions and ontologies around facticity. Jarmon notes that “the temporal quality of a report taken as an oral tradition may be illustrated by the manner in which information acquires a specific status such as the status of fact, the status of invention, or some other status.”


Although the white male Director of the film has stated that it was written and casted from a “colorblind” perspective, there is no such thing as “colorblindness,” whether from the casting perspective or the perspective of the viewers and consumers. Despite the biological unreality of race, we see skin color whether we want to or not, and will read race and cultural cues into the media that we ingest. Although the issues presented as part of the plot - mental health, drug abuse, gun violence - are universal and experienced across lines of race, gender, and class - they are experienced differently and felt specifically by Black people in all the complexities of our own subjective, communal, individually, and cultural contexts. Despite the director’s intentions, the actors portrayal of the characters situated the events of the movie in cultural, racial, and ethnic temporal frameworks, exhibiting tangible features of Afrodiasporic time in attempting to repair what the protagonists perceive as a repairable fix in the timeline [or creation of a new one altogether]. Repair simply does not equate to reversibility or erasure of what has come before. Trigger warning that this film deals with issues of gun violence, drug abuse, declining mental health, mental illness, and alcoholism.


In the Shadow of the Moon


This film popped up on Netflix unexpectedly in 2019 and hit close to home for me and my Philly queer spec fic crew Metropolarity, literally, as the film is based in Philadelphia, taking place over several decades, in intervals of nine years. It also starkly addresses issues of racial violence and terrorism, and is reminiscent of The Watchmen series in focusing on themes of intergenerational trauma, retribution, and atonement. I will highlight just a few of the Black womanist/feminist temporal landscapes that the film invokes. Although there is a portion of it that is far future, the primary events of the film span 27 years in 9 year intervals (2015-1988) that track a blood moon or total lunar eclipse, which serve as feminine markers of time related to lunar cycles (and eclipses usually serving as omens of death, misfortune, disaster, etc). For all of the astrology buffs out there, the 27-year timespan also tracks closely with Saturn return cycles (I utilize similar time markers and cycles in my novel Recurrence Plot), while our time Black Woman time traveler is of course 27 years old, hopping back in time from the year 2042. Water also figures prominently in these films, and the time traveler’s transport device utilizes water and is womb-shaped or moon-faced.



Fast Color


This 2019 spec fic film centers three generations of Black women/girls, each with superpowers. Their powers differ in terms of level of intensity, ability to control it, energy output, but you can see the powers of each generation reflected in each other. Although this film is not explicitly about time/temporality in the ways that the other highlighted films are (although I can argue against myself on that one), there is a fluid womanist temporal landscape situated within the main apocalyptic one, and the narrative blends past and present. Domestic time, world time, environmental time, and life times are being disrupted and remade in this seeming post-apocalypse. The projected future appears at first to be fixed and deterministic - you believe it is firmly rooted in a post-apocalypse of "no-time" and with no forseeable end or solution in sight, but eventually it becomes clear the immense influence that this family of Black women with heightened senses and abilities have over the shape of things to come. The film ends with a future unknown, and in that unknowing, hope is able to spring forward. Water, drought, earthquakes, and natural elements serve as temporal markers over that of specific dates or years. As time-markers, the water and earth tremors are simultaneously gateways of trauma and technologies of healing for both the main characters and the world. Trigger/content warning that this film deals with trauma, misogynoir, environmental injustice, and medical experimentation. While it does not explicitly address some glaring issues of race, and is directed and written by a white woman, Julia Hart, it does speak to issues of environmental justice, postpartum depression, PTSD, and other themes that you rarely get to see being shown from the perspective of Black women (minus the Director's gaze). The events are beautifully and sensitively acted by its main characters, the always lovely Gugu Mbatha Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, and Saniyya Sidney, and is well-written and well-paced.


See You Yesterday


This Spike Lee-produced time travel film, co-written by a Black woman, Frederica Bailey and directed by a Black man, Stefon Bristol, features a time machine built by two brilliant Black teens from Brooklyn, crafted out of cell phones, book bags, and spare parts from a school lab (with a cute cameo by Michael J. Fox as their science teacher). The teen time traveling duo don dashikis and Black designers like New Orleans-based designer Denisio Truitt, while fixing laptops and selling electronics out of their garage lab to other neighborhood youth to earn money. After an incidence of police brutality claims the life of one of the teens’ siblings, the two set out to use their time machine to stop the incident from happening, while also dealing with relatively mundane, but no less challenging decision-making and pressures around choosing a college, working, dating, and family issues. In their experiences, you witness the two teens at points fighting the linear timeline as well as deciding how much they want or need to assimilate into the linear time, and having to assess whether that timeline offers a means of saving someone they love, plus the costs of all of those decisions. It’s a lot to deal with it. Though the time travel rules are a little inconsistent, it is inconsequential when you have two Black teens using quantum physics intervening in events that are of specific concern and have specific relevance to Black communities and Black space-time matters. See You Yesterday and the “Replay” episode of the Peele Twilight Zone reboot starring Sanaa Lathan share many themes in common. Trigger warning that this film deals with police brutality and murder, bullying, assault.



Have you seen any of these films? What other symbolism did you spot or what other kinds of interpretations or reads do you have? Do you know of other films or TV shows, time travel or otherwise, that contain elements of Afrodiasporan temporalities, Black Folks’ Time, or Black temporal displacement? What about books or other media? (It’s really easy to sign in and comment - just hit the login button with your email address and name and you’re in.)


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