More and more people are coming around to the idea that traveling back through time isn't really an idea that works all that well when it comes to black characters.
Travel too far back and what started off as the ultimate throwback Thursday quickly becomes an exercise in dealing with the sort of violent, life-threatening racism that could make a return to the future all but impossible.
Using a blend of campy, Lost In Space-esque visuals and deadpan humor, Kevin Willmott's Destination: Planet Negro unpacks the social implications of black time travel, but lays its plot out in the other direction. What if a team of black civil rights visionaries from the late '30s got sucked into a vortex that spat them out in the future? What if they were accompanied by a racially insensitive robot named "Strom?" What if they didn't have a way to get back home?
After attempting to pilot George Washington Carver's peanut and sweet potato-fueled rocket ship to Mars, Capt. Race Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola), Dr. Beneatha Avery (Danielle Cooper), and her Father Dr. Warrington Avery (Kevin Willmott) find themselves crash-landed in a strange world that's uncannily similar to their own.
At first, the group assumes that they've made it to Mars, which they'd hoped to colonize in a sci-fi extension of the "Back to Africa" movement, but they soon realize that they've actually ended up in modern-day Kansas City.
"It reminds me of a film I once saw with Dr. DuBois," Avery marvels to his companions as they gaze at the city skyline. "A German film: Metropolis."
As the trio wanders through the city, they learn that, after their disappearance in 1939, they became known as "The Space Age Three" and went down in history as icons of the early Civil Rights movement who were lynched for their beliefs. Like most stories involving time travel, much of Planet Negro's humor is built on the travelers being fish out of water.
Some things, like the three armed white men they encounter, are familiar, but others—like Google, bottled water, and Barack Obama—are foreign. Their confusion as to why people compare Obama to Hitler is played up for predictable laughs, but it's not until the heroes begin to contemplate what staying in the future might mean for them that Planet Negro really hits its stride.
What easily could have been an uncomplicated critique of the history of anti-blackness in the U.S. becomes a much more nuanced takedown of the way that respectability politics have become a problematic element in conversations about modern racism.
How can the future be objectively better for black people, the Averys ask B-12 (Trai Byers), if rappers still use the n-word in their songs and young black men let their pants sag below their waists? What space is there in a strong black community for "sissies" and other queer people?
Their joking incredulity comes across as retrograde and small-minded, but that's the point. Their dismissal of and insensitivity towards modern black identities highlight the fact that older generations weren't necessarily better at fighting for civil rights than today's activists, they just had different sensibilities and priorities.
Like any good B-movie send-up worth its salt, Planet Negro ends somewhat ambiguously. Some of the Space Age Three make it back into their ship and through the time vortex, but it's unclear just when they ended up and what they decided to do to change the course of history.
Ultimately, all time-travel fantasies circle back to that original question of "what if?" and do their best to unpack the complexities of what happens when that wish is fulfilled.
Planet Negro doesn't pretend that America's problems with racism can be course-corrected by altering a single moment in history. Instead, it posits that the fights for civil rights doesn't exist in a vacuum, but live on a continuum, growing and changing over time.
Destination: Planet Negro will be available via VOD and begin streaming on Netflix June 10th.