In 2012, during a TedX event in Nairobi, Kenyan Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu described Afrofuturism as “what speculative fiction, myths, legends, science fiction are to Africa, Africa of the diaspora, African Americans and Black People in general”. She should know. In 2008, her short film Pumzi premiered to wide acclaim winning prizes at the Carthage Film festival in Tunisia and at Cannes. The film is set in an Africa devastated by a water war and where nature is believed to be dead. In the first scene the main character, Asha, wakes up from a dream about a tree and is told, ominously, to take her ‘dream suppressants.’
I would be remiss to tell you anymore about the plot. The film is available below and is well worth your time. What I will say is that it came out in 2008 and seems to have barely aged at all in terms of aesthetic. The set design is gorgeously minimal and the uniforms just right. Asha’s entire environment feels timelessly lived in. I would also say that should all the actors be replaced by white westerners then you would have something that worked less well. Something that would need to be glossed up and slightly camp like Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood video. So though it might seem that Afrofuturism is all about gadgets and costumes it’s really about how all of that works together to create an idea. In Pumzi the Afrofuturist setting allows for a certain rustic earnestness that keeps its environmentalist message new and vital. Preserves it from time.
Any conversation on Afrofuturism, or imagined futuristic, technological African landscapes almost always circle back to the past; to what during the course of Kahiu’s talk is described as Africa’s ‘capricious history’. She herself concludes that Afrofuturism is often a necessity and that ‘because we can’t reclaim our own history we are now trying to project our own future.’
So take a continent, any continent, with over a billion people and a history that’s troubled, largely misunderstood, that’s blessed with swathes of awe-inspiringly mystical vistas and languages off all kinds, that loves technology and has a tradition of stories bigger and stranger than the everyday and you would expect a hotbed futuristic and fantastical stories. Yet strangely this has been far from true; to the extent that some have accused such stories as being un-African (and to any thinking but they are, I shall invoke Chimamanda—it’s people that make culture, not the other way around).
Thankfully such attitudes are more and more outdated. I’m convinced that had Pumzi been released in the wake of the major Afrofuturist output coming in the next year or two you would probably be paying for it instead of watching it free on YouTube.
The first and most obvious place to start is with Black Panther. With even the briefest glimpse of the trailer its clear the film is after much more than just giving black people superpowers. The costumes especially look positively steeped in Afrofuturism as lip plates exude intrigue rather than idiocy, badass means braids and face tattoos, while sexy is dresses threaded in green raffia. Director Ryan Coogler and costumer Ruth E Carter have certainly done their homework and big numbers in February of next year, when the film is released, are likely to push other Afrofuturist stories towards the front of production slates. Also released that same February is the God Particle, a sci fi film directed by Nigerian Julius Onah and starring two black leads, David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. It might not be set in Africa but the sight of two big budget fantasies directed and led black people out at the same time is all but unprecedented, and that is if you discount Ava Duvernay’s Wrinkle in Time, out that coming March.
Fast forward to that fall and Booker prize winning author Marlon James will be blessing us with a mythological epic based on African lore with the first of his Dark Star Trilogy books, which, though set in the past, will involve one of one of the great literary minds using a skill at the core of Afrofuturism; world building. And finally, not to be outdone, the first lady of Afrofuturism herself Nnedi Okorafor will see her novel Who Fears Death brought to life on HBO.
Should all these projects prove successful; should Afrofuturism find itself with a blockbuster book, television show and film within the span of a year then much of what is considered good and worthy about black storytelling is likely to shift and that can only be a good thing. And hopefully while the world waits for Black Panther 2, Who Fears Death season two and the second book of the Black Star trilogy creators on the continent will feel empowered to take bigger leaps, to jump higher and further in their stories, aim for the stratosphere, the moon, the galaxy and not come down again for a very long time.