From the depths of outer space — a ship appears amidst the stars — a vessel with a trajectory to a destination unknown. We are given a glimpse of our pilot, a young Black Woman navigating the star system who we discover is not alone but being avidly pursued. Whether the forces that pursue her are just in their motivation is unclear, but her ship has been knocked out of orbit and crash landed on a planet most hostile. A gargantuan creature closes in from behind; her motivation now is shelter and safety. She finds it via an underground bunker with a reinforced door, thankfully with supplies and possibly food. She walks towards the only discernible source of light, and we find that our pilot is inside of a Walmart Box looking out into a vastly different world. A bowl of popcorn rests nearby; she grabs a few bites to continue the adventure already in progress, but it looks like bedtime awaits our young space explorer. She pouts, “Space Captains don’t have bedtimes” and the gargantuan creature outside bellows in agreement. The forces that have pursued our young heroine also agree in tandem, “Evil commanders do most certainly not have bedtimes!” Our heroine has been given an ultimatum by her Mothers, and the clock is ticking. With her stuffed octopus under her arm and cape around her shoulders she relents and says this isn’t over while she marches to brush her teeth for bedtime. Both Mothers look at each other and laugh, young children can be trying and precious.
This short science fiction epic was created by the Black Female Director Dee Rees for the Walmart Box series of commercials that debuted during the 2018 Oscars. Her career has been very prolific with the various films that she’s created that explore various avenues of the Black experience, all thus far have been set in our Universe and grounded in reality. This commercial is her first foray into the science fiction genre and what a delight it is! Every face that we are shown throughout the entirety of its runtime is Black and Female, and completely reframes who consumes science fiction.
Dee Rees: So the challenge in doing this shoot is to craft a narrative with just a box as a main character….It’s an interesting challenge to take something as literal and do something unexpected with it….This spot comes on, you feel like you’re watching a sci-fi movie. My entire crew is made up of Women. It’s about choosing people that you respect. It’s about choosing people, who you know, share your vision.
The presence of two political and pop cultural icons, as pseudo protagonist and antagonist is also very significant. The young pilot of our space craft is the young and undefeated boxer Claressa Shields and the Hive Queen that pursues her is the inimitable Mary J. Blige. It was a very unique casting choice by Director Dee Rees to have these particular Black Women as our leads in this short story. Claressa Shields is new to the field of acting, but is familiar with theatrics as an athlete that in many ways puts on a show for the viewing public. Conversely, Mary J. Blige has appeared in various commercials, television shows, and movies alike. The significance of this commercial is about elevation: elevating Black Girls and Women into new frames of self-actualization, elevating beautiful Dark Skinned Women as heroes-villains and everything in between, elevating Black Motherhood as powerful and loving, and elevating Black Women who love Black Women by showing them in healthy loving relationships.
The realm of science fiction as of late has skyrocketed in popularity, like most things that ebb and flow in the pop cultural consciousness. In particular, science fiction has really blossomed from the perspectives of Black creators. Black helmed comic books are being cranked out en masse like never before. Black science fiction epics are being greenlit in rapid succession on the big and small screen. And, in the genre of music one artist has stood out because of their science fiction reimagining of the totality of oppression and how it manifests for Black Women.
That artist is of course Janelle Monáe, who is creating a musical series of work that references the 1927 science fiction film Metropolis and the work of Black Female science fiction author Octavia Butler. A quote from the author’s work: “the weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist. Persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary (Parable of the Sower, 1993).” Through music, Janelle Monáe is attempting that very thing — persistence, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The path for Black Women in music has always been fraught, with those who have achieved innumerable successes but died with limited notoriety or in abject poverty. Their voices have been wrung out for money and profit and in turn left hollow and dry for all consuming masses. This is not to say that all Black Female musicians’ stories are the same but there is always a thread of sadness or hardship that permeates throughout.
Janelle Monáe for the past few years has been attempting to parcel out that fraught relationship with various oppressive structures that exist in our reality and by way of science fiction in our imagination. The themes and imagery are open to interpretation in Janelle Monáe’s work, but the ever present specter of an oppressor and the oppressed is undeniable. By utilizing the bodies and voices of Black people in her work, Janelle Monáe is actively making a political statement that in any and all universes of time and space Black people exist, and that their very lives are being placed at risk by doing just that — existing. By crafting a series of ‘Emotion Pictures’ as Janelle aptly calls them, she examines the life of a Black android that dares to exist in various times and spaces. Using the power of voice, song, and dance the android actively eludes and combats her captors when necessary.
Janelle Monáe blurs the lines at times between imagination and reality by directly addressing the audience about the existence of oppressive forces that can be faceless or remove the mask and unflinchingly bear their visage to the masses that they oppress. A series of music videos and the debut of her grand Emotion Picture film ‘Dirty Computer’ bring all of her work into grander focus. By juxtaposing the reality of her life pre and post capture by the ruling class, Janelle Monáe wants to make the statement that it is beautiful to be Black — to be loved — and to be free. Even though oppressive forces try to pacify their subjects, a glimmer of resistance will always remain and deleting their original joy will only cause more glimmers of it to sprout and flourish.
In Part Two, we’ll delve into the Emotion Picture Masterpiece that is Dirty Computer…