Space is the Place (1974)

The 1970’s had some crazy films back in the day, so it’s no wonder why I’ve been focusing on films from that time all month, because I love 70’s cinema. Before the age of blockbuster cinema, you had films that were unburdened by committee thinking, works of pure artistic passion. This was the zeitgeist that fed the creation of some truly unique films. That said, not all 70’s films were created equal, and some films are rather jarring. Space is the Place is one of them, with a wildly surreal concept but somewhat lacklustre execution.

The film casts the famous jazz musician Sun Ra as a Pharaonic space-age jester/guru/philosopher, with his band the Arkestra following him around. Presumed lost for many years, he arrives in Oakland, California and spreads the word of his plans to take black people with him to outer space. Meanwhile, he duels with a mystical pimp named the Overseer with the future of the black race at stake.

All I can say is, well that was bizarre, though it did some thought process behind it, though I’d say that gets even weirder. Apparently the concept came from Sun Ra’s time as a lecturer in the University of California, Berkeley. He taught a course there called “The Black Man in the Cosmos” in 1971, and his lectures became the basis of the premise behind the film. At least we can confirm that bizarre courses have been a staple in universities for a while. The film itself is based in Afrofuturism, a cultural movement that melds sci-fi and fantasy with black-oriented social commentary, typically of the left-wing, social justice variety, and the rest of the film is surreal psychedelia.

My main problem with the film is that it sort of got carried away in its concept, and got itself mired in pacing and confusion. The plot itself seems like it could have been the plot of a short film, but there are musical interludes between parts of the film. The musical interludes aren’t bad, but they disrupt the flow of the film, along with butchering the narrative, which appears to be based in Afrocentric identitarianism.

The acting isn’t bad, and I think one of the film’s biggest strengths was the ability of Sun Ra to give himself presence in the film, albeit by making himself look godlike to the point of ridiculousness. The other characters aren’t bad, and the guy playing the Overseer does a fine job, but the rest of the cast tends to fall into the background, especially whenever Sun Ra shows up.

At the very least the film succeeds in the realm of style. The pharaonic aesthetic looks great on Sun Ra, and a number of the set pieces channel the style to good effect. The music played by Sun Ra’s band is also quite trippy, so even if the musical interludes do cut into the film’s narrative, the music itself compliments the film’s crazy atmosphere. All in all, it’s a fascinating film. Mediocre but certainly fascinating as a product of its time. Though more than anything else, it was basically an art project for Sun Ra, though its fans will undoubtedly remember it as a quintessential example of Afrofuturism.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C
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