Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi & Fantasy Culture as well as the science-fiction novel Rayla 2212, put her Afrofuturism-themed film Bar Star City into production last fall. The film looks at love, deception, memory and alienation among a group of bar regulars in Chicago. Midwest BSFA talked to Womack about her film, Afrofuturism, and being a black female creative in the ever-changing genre of sci-fi.
Midwest BSFA: How did you come up with the concept for Bar Star City?
Womack: I wanted to write a film that played off of the sci-fi isms in our day-to-day realities, particularly those in Chicago’s black communities. I wanted to show the surreal in our daily experiences.
Midwest BSFA: On your Indiegogo campaign page, you describe the film as “Cheers meets Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain meets the South side of Chicago.” Why did you want to set it in Chicago?
Womack: I’m from Chicago, for one, so I’m always excited to capture my hometown. Chicago is a dynamic place. Chicago has a robust culture. The South side has a robust culture and I don’t see that element of dynamism captured in stories and news coverage. So Bar Star City is very much my fantastic ode to the South side of the city.
Midwest BSFA: How is writing a film different from writing a book?
Womack: When writing a film I have to envision the film in my head and write the visuals as a guide of sorts. I’m writing what the viewer will see and hear. A screenplay is a skeleton of a story and it serves as a road map for the crew that will ultimately shoot it. The screenplay is not the final product whereas a book is. When writing a book, as a writer, I can completely stay in the character’s head. Characters, for example, can sit and muse about an idea in their head and never utter a word of dialogue until the end of the book. The entire book can be internal dialogue. That doesn’t work in film. Film pivots on action and discovery through visuals. Books can pivot on internal reflections.
Midwest BSFA: How did you get into Afrofuturism?
Womack: I discovered the term fairly recently. However, I was introduced to many of the concepts when I was a freshman at Clark Atlanta University. I grew up in the New Thought philosophy as a child in Chicago, where I was introduced to broader concepts of identity that very much match Sun Ra’s notions of a cosmic identity. Also, being a lover of house music, I experienced the transformations of Afrofuturism in dance as a teen, too. I was the kid who wanted to be an scientist, loved history and enjoyed dance. Who knew that was a pathway to understanding Afrofuturism?
Midwest BSFA: What do you think it can teach/show us (black people)?
Womack: Afrofuturism helps people to contemplate their futures and feel they have agency it it. It’s also an avenue for people to claim contributions of people of African descent to science and philosophy in the past while creating holistic spaces of existence today.
Midwest BSFA: What are your thoughts on the growing popularity of Afrofuturism in the mainstream?
Womack: I’m always excited to see discoveries in culture influencing new ways of thought.
Midwest BSFA: Who are your influences (film- and book-wise) and why?
Womack: My influences are all over the place. As a child I probably read every black history nonfiction biography in Woodson Regional Library’s children’s section and most of the science books they carried. I liked reading about geology and space. I liked reading about culture and people around the world and lost histories. I liked reading fables and was very preocuppied with questions like, “Is the kimono dragon a relic of the dragons in mythology” or “Is the Loch Ness Monster real?” I had a best friend in elementary school and we were seriously trying to find the answers to these questions. We would dig up rocks in playgrounds searching for fossils to prove our 4th grade theories. I wanted to see myself and cultures of African people in the past,too, especially the ancient past and was always on the hunt for it. I became an inspector gadget of ancient history. I loved dressing up for Halloween.
I always liked The Wiz, Star Wars and The Matrix. I’m a big Steven Spielberg fan. I like Toni Morrison. Ntozake Shange’s book Liliane helped shape by thoughts on remixing writing formats. bell hooks’ Wounds of Passion was a fascinating book about her evolution as a writer. The book Some Sing, Some Cry by Shange and her sister, Ifa Bayeda, is just masterful. I like Elizabeth Nunez, especially her book Discretion. But generally, I read a lot of nonfiction on world history, metaphysics, and speculative histories. I’ve probably read more nonfiction that fiction.
Midwest BSFA: You produced and directed romantic comedies (The Engagement, Love Shorts) in the past. How did you get into a different head space to tackle Bar Star City?
Womack: In writing Afrofuturism, I have to push beyond any questions I have about what’s conventional. When you’re writing a romantic comedy there’s a sphere of reality that one hovers in. In a romantic comedy either the characters get together or they don’t. Generally, they’re staying on earth and they’re pretty three-dimensional. In an Afrofuturist film or sci-fi, your characters can shapeshift or go world hopping and this challenges the creator to push beyond the norms of their own experience. Afrofuturism forces you to “go there” without second guessing how weird the plot line gets. But no matter how far out the story goes, as a creator, you still have to find a point of connectivity for your cast, crew and the audience. Regardless of the genre, every story still hones into a character overcoming a challenge and an exploration of their human relationships.
Midwest BSFA: Having read how you describe Bar Star City in previous interviews, underneath it all, is it still a love story?
Womack: Love plays a role. I don’t know if you can have a movie where love of one kind or another isn’t a factor.You can’t have gravity and no love.
Midwest BSFA: What’s it like being a black female creative type in this day and age? Do you feel more supported now than you might have even 10 years ago?
Womack: It’s always exciting to be a creative. Its always exciting to be a black female creative. I focus on the work, creating the work and getting it out to the audience. I always knew their were audiences for my work and that’s where I kept my focus. I think audiences are embracing variety in the work they consume and I think my take on stories provides other perspectives that capture the human and beyond human experience.