Jon Soske, an African studies scholar, observes in his research on afro-pessimism “All evils are derived from something essential to Africa, invariably connected to the presence of tribalism. Africans, it is implied, remain forever cursed by their savage and uncivilized past.” Films such as Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland, or even Hotel Rwanda reinforce some of these afro-pessimist assumptions. Even a popular science fiction film such as District 9 (set in South Africa) still portrays some African characters as backward, superstitious cannibals mystified by technology (in this case, alien technology). However, a few other films emerging from the African continent have used afrofuturist aesthetics to counter afro-pessimist assumptions. By pitting local political realities against the conventions of film genres, the films question fixed perspectives on African realities.
Films, and more broadly stories, not only shape our perception of the world but also help establish practices used to engage and make sense of the realities that surround us. In the case of science fiction films, at their best, by focusing on imagined possible futures, such works can compel us to re-examine familiar “common sense” concepts by inviting audiences to imagine alternative ways of engaging the world. In other words, it is by enabling viewers to examine familiar traditions and worldviews from different unfamiliar perspectives and settings that some works of science fiction seek to critique the present while also expanding our vision of what is possible. Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s film, Pumzi, set in a dystopic future, questions the predetermined unchanging hopelessness of present African realities through dystopian politics. Artistic conventions made popular through afrofuturist art are the tools Kahiu uses to critique the present status quo and to imagine alternative futures. Her afrofuturist film places African bodies in futuristic landscapes in an attempt to reveal an essentializing afro-pessimism that sees African countries as existing outside of time, “progress,” and modernity.
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