Updated: Jan 4, 2021
Space is the Place (1974)
Directed by John Coney
Produced by Jim Newman
Written by Sun Ra, Joshua Smith
Cinematography by Seth Hill
Edited by Barbara Pokras
Music by Sun Ra
(1:22) Criterion Channel
Sun Ra, adorned with a shimmering, multi-colored cape and a gold-chained sequined headdress, teleports with his entourage (complete with Egyptian costumes and animal heads) inside an Oakland youth center to deliver a message:
“Greetings, black youth of planet Earth. I am Sun Ra, ambassador from the Intergalactic Regions of the Council of Outer Space.”
After much scorn and laughter from the young adults, Ra continues, “How do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as a reality. I come to you as the myth. That’s what black people are, myths. I came from a dream that the black men dreamed long ago. I’m a present sent to you by your ancestors. I’m going to be here until I pick certain ones of you to take with me.”
A young woman asks, “What if we won’t come?”
“Then I’m going to have to do like they did in Africa: chain you up and take you with me.”
This is not the film’s opening scene. If it had been, Space is the Place would risk coming off as a weird, goofy, and sometimes preachy low-budget ‘70s science fiction movie. Instead, this moment occurs at about the 15-minute mark after an introduction that is cosmic, comedic, and wildly ambitious. (More on that in a moment.)
In his recent book, Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film (Oxford University Press, 2020), Kevin Whitehead calls Sun Ra “the first jazz superhero,” but the film sets the portly, fifty-something Ra (born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama) as something of a prophet. He patiently speaks to these kids in a manner not too dissimilar from Jesus addressing the crowds in New Testament Israel. They recognize his words, but don’t grasp his meaning. There’s a truth he’s attempting to convey that his audience can’t quite accept, although you suspect several of them just might be weighing his words carefully.
But let’s jump back to the film’s opening, in which we hear the chanted words, “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” A spaceship, which looks like two Macy’s parade-sized carrots connected by a passageway, travels across the universe, carrying Sun Ra to a distant planet. There, accompanied by a strange figure in a hooded black robe with a mirror for a face, Ra walks through a colorful forest filled with what looks like floating wine glasses, each with a bubble at the top and a spine-like tail at the bottom.
“The music is different here,” Ra says. “The vibrations are different, not like planet Earth.” He wonders what black people could do on their own planet without any white people around. “The first thing to do is to consider time as officially ended… We’ll bring them here either through isotope teleportation, transmolecular, or better still, teleport the whole planet here.”
The opening strongly (and not too subtly) recalls Moses and his quest to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. This scene and the one at the youth center are just two moments that bring to mind biblical stories. The black Christian church has a long history of drawing parallels between the struggles of African Americans and scriptural narratives. (For an interesting look at this topic, consider Esau McCaulley’s 2020 book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.) But there’s much more going on here than a retelling of Bible stories.
Space is the Place is clearly a science fiction film, but it is also a blackspoitation picture (complete with pimps and hookers), a musical, a comedy, and an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with Ra playing a cosmic card game with a shady devil-like character called the Overseer (Ray Johnson), sort of an all-powerful metaphysical pimp. What are they playing for? The end of the world (which recalls the movie’s opening line).
If it seems that all these elements would make for a colossal mess, it doesn’t, but maybe it should. We travel back and forth in time, with a flashback set in a Chicago strip club in 1943, where Ra is the house pianist using the name Sonny Ray. (The implications going, perhaps, beyond simple name trickery.) The Overseer, a sharply dressed African American customer in a white suit, carrying a walking stick and accompanied by his own female entourage, tells the management to throw out the lousy piano player, which leads to more than a typical nightclub fight. It’s closer to armageddon. Could this be the first time Ra and the Overseer have fought, or just one of many conflicts that have already happened and will happen again? This circular aspect of the story runs throughout the film.
Thanks to various subplots and many interesting characters, we don’t have much time to examine the philosophical, theological, transmolecular, or other higher-level concepts going on. We’re too busy being entertained by the Overseer’s clueless henchman Jimmy Fey (Christopher Brooks), a local radio personality, two constantly arguing street kids (Clarence Brewer and Jack Baker), and a large young man called Tiny (Tiny Parker). Then there’s the two white government agents spying on Ra, and Ra himself as he interviews applicants at the Outer Space Employment Agency.
While Jimmy promotes Ra’s records and and an upcoming concert, we see several moments from actual Sun Ra concerts, which are oddly compelling. (Maybe Ra’s planet idea is a pretty good one after all.) The Overseer dismisses Ra’s records, accusing him of simply trying to make a fast buck and determines to ruin the big concert by having Ra kidnapped. (The large crowd awaiting Ra’s onstage appearance could have been the inspiration for a similar scene in the 1980 comedy The Blues Brothers.)
Although the writing credits belong to Sun Ra and Joshua Smith, other people were involved in developing the story. Film and television producer Jim Newman - a bebop fan who had previously produced an experimental series of programs called Dilexi, featuring artists such as Terry Riley, Frank Zappa, and Andy Warhol - tapped John Coney to direct the film. Coney then hired cinematographer Seth Hill, who filmed Ra’s concert footage and the loosely-scripted non-musical scenes. When asked to tie all these elements together, Hill called on Smith, who was fascinated with the world of pimps and prostitutes. Add to this the fact that Ra himself frequently went off-script, and Hill simply kept the camera running.
Now enter editor Barbara Pokras (credited as Barbara Progress), who was tasked with making sense of all these story elements. Pokras later worked on everything from episodes of the Lynda Carter TV show Wonder Woman to horror movies Fade to Black (1980) and C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (1989) to an ABC Afterschool Special. After working on Space is the Place, those other projects must’ve been cake.
It’s no secret that Sun Ra and this movie greatly influenced the 1975 Parliament album Mothership Connection, which inspired an enormous list of artists who continued to blend funk, jazz, and rock (and sometimes science fiction).
Space is the Place is one of those rare films that serves as entertainment and thoughtful high-concept art. Those who appreciate only one of those areas can enjoy the film without necessarily venturing into the world (no pun intended) of the other. The film exists in two versions: the full 82-minute cut and the “Sun Ra edit” of 64 minutes (which possibly cuts out the nudity and prostitute scenes for a wider VHS release back in the day, but this is speculation on my part). The film is rumored to be released on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection, so it is possible we might see both versions soon. I hope so. It’s a real trip.