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