I watched Kevin Wilmott’s (co-writer of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq) Destination: Planet Negro (D:PN) twice. The first time I viewed it, I sat for fifteen or twenty minutes after it was over. I had no idea WTF I saw. Was it 21st century minstrelsy? Was it heavy-handed social commentary? Could it have possibly been that ever elusive (and also commonly misidentified) true satire? If it was satire, what was it satirizing? Was it riffing on 1950s science fiction and paranoia film tropes? Inter and intra-racial animus? The Black church and back to Africa movements? I needed to watch it again.
Upon my second viewing, I made up my mind. D:PN was one of the sharpest, most painful satires I’ve seen in a very long while. It’s not as violent as Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, nor was it as deliberate as Wilmott’s 2004 mockumentary, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. D:PN is like watching your grandmother fall, while dancing, at a family event. You know you shouldn’t laugh… you should be ashamed of yourself for laughing, but when she flailed her arms and half-running man/half moonwalked into the desert table, you couldn’t help but crack up. This film is that kind of funny.
Within the first thirteen minutes, we’re treated to George Washington Carver go on a tirade about “peanut butter and nothin’” — a joke that pays off so well later in the film — and him unveiling a rocket fuel that is made of peanut butter and sweet potatoes. Like I stated, this was just in the first 13 minutes.
This film falls firmly in the black science fiction/weirdness tradition of one of my favorite films of all time, Cosmic Slop.
You all know me, so you know I hate to spoil films for people, so I’ll give you a brief story synopsis:
A secret cabal of Negro leaders, who span the social and political spectrum of Negrodom (from back to Africa to sniveling sell out), plot to save the race. After bandying about several ideas Dr. Warrington Avery (played by director/writer Kevin Wilmott) suggests travelling off-world to Mars.
The counterarguments to this idea are hilarious. He’s already built a spaceship and has a crew ready to go: ace pilot Captain “Race” Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola), and the good doctor’s daughter, physicist Beneatha Avery (Danielle Cooper). To help them on their interstellar journey, Carver gives them a robot, Strom (voiced by the director), who is the robotic embodiment of the ‘awwww lawdy dey done got me’ character. Cringe worthy, but hilarious.
Narrowly escaping the sell out who wants to stop their mission, the trio and their robot lift off. Instead of landing on Mars, they traveled through converging black holes forward in time, landing in Obama-era Kansas City. This is when the film takes off. Basically there are jokes or sight gags every couple of minutes. Almost none of them fell flat. The entire time I was laughing, I questioned if I should be laughing. But I’m of the mind that a good joke, even at my expense, is deserves to be laughed at. There is a delightful cameo by Hollywood stalwart Wes Studi, and the film has the most “oh snap! They did that for real?” of an ending.
(Note: Relating to Black time travel, you should really read this.)
Destination: Planet Negro acts as a detailed overview of Black-cultural unease. It is Black private communication made public — Black Twitter’s more disciplined sibling. For the Black folks that see it, I can already guess the reactions: “This is nothing but an ode to respectability politics,” or “Why can’t we have films that uplift our people?” or “Was this supposed to be funny? That was mean.” The film is freaking funny. It is insightful… and at times, it can be pretty brutal. Kind of the kick in the ass American Black culture needs after years of trying to make people feel too comfortable. This is dangerous art. I’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time. Since, like, Hollywood Shuffle, Fear of a Black Hat, and yes, Bamboozled. Welcome back, Dangerous Black Art. I sure missed you.
If you aren’t Black, it is still a funny film. Most of the jokes, the nuances, and the code will be lost on you. And you should be okay with that. How do you think we feel when watching Friends, Seinfeld, Will Farrell, or the majority of the white default media offerings?
I got the opportunity to speak with the director. I needed to know some things. [The following was edited for clarity.]
Me: How in God’s name did you come up with this?
Kevin Wilmott: I’ve had the idea for a long time. I just didn’t want a fish out of water story. That was part of what was fun, but I wanted it to be more than that. I had the first half written a while back. When Obama got elected, I had the second half of the film. It was the rise of the Tea Party and they want us to go back in time. Me and my friends, growing up, would joke about a Black president being assassinated within minutes of getting into office. My father was born in 1898, in Mississippi. That was just 30 years after slavery. I wondered what he would have thought about the election.
Blackness has become a bit too precious. But this film goes in.
We were turned down by pretty much every film festival we entered. We didn’t get into any of the major contests. We aren’t really allowed to go there (mocking blackness/sharp critique) anymore. We did. It was important to have the conversation be as wide as possible. I want to be funny, but I always have to start from a serious place. These are serious subjects, but we need to talk about them.
You know our people. Folks may accuse you of homophobia and respectability politics. How will you address this?
I really don’t pay that any attention. I made a few jokes about this, especially with the Huck Finn joke. In our conversations about race, we need to be uncomfortable. Black folks need to be uncomfortable. White folks need to be uncomfortable. You’re censoring the “N-word” out of Huckleberry Finn? You’re censoring Blazing Saddles? You’re telling me Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor are racists? But this is the power of me not being a part of the [Hollywood] system. Being independent, I can kind of do and say what I want.
We can’t be afraid of getting punched in the face.
We can’t. We have to have real conversations about this stuff. We spend so much time lying to each other so we can shop together at Wal-Mart. We need to stop lying and being pleasant and have real conversations.
What’s next for you?
Well, there’s no Destination sequel. [A disappointed sigh escaped from me]. I have a dream film called The Association. It focuses on basketball player, Scott Pollard, and delves into the underbelly of college and professional sports and how these athletes go broke. I’m doing all these basketball things. I have a documentary about Coach John McLendon. He was the first Black head coach in any professional sport. He also came up with the fast break.
There was more, but I had to keep a few of the any jewels for myself. Best twenty-two minute conversation I’ve had.
Destination: Planet Negro is available on iTunes and Amazon Prime and VOD beginning today June 10, 2016.