Destination: Planet Negro!
DIRECTED BY: Kevin Willmott
FEATURING: Kevin Willmott, Tosin Morohunfola, Danielle Cooper, Trai Byers
PLOT: In order to flee early-20th century racism and find a new home for African Americans, physicist Warrington Avery and a crack squad of Black adventurers attempt a trip to Mars, only to have their rocket ship sucked through a worm hole which transports them into the jarring reality of modern-day America.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “time-traveling fish-out-of-water” story is a cinematic trope with a long pedigree. That these time-travelers are Black luminaries from the 1930s is something a novelty, but Destination: Planet Negro plays by the rules in an expected, but not unpleasant, manner.
COMMENTS: Having another socially conscientious movie be next on my to-do list could be viewed as a punishment for me by those who may have taken issue with my diatribe about Arabian Nights. However, my dislike of that movie did not stem from its progressive agenda, but from its wanting for anything remotely approaching “entertainment.” It was no small relief that Kevin Willmott’s satirical piece, Destination: Planet Negro (DPN) proved to be quite amusing and watchable, in addition to proffering some salient observations about modern and historical race issues.
My lingering frustration put aside, let me dive into the movie at hand. DPN starts right off with a sense of place: crisp black and white film sets the tone, and after opening-credits over a cosmic montage, we jump to an assemblage of Black luminaries in 1939. These top African-Americans are gathered to discuss, as one describes it, “the Negro problem.” Not finding the United States welcoming, nor being keen on moving to Africa (too much poverty), Europe (risk of exotification), or the U.S.S.R. (these gents are no commies), Dr. Warrington Avery (Kevin Willmott) informs the august crowd that he has a plan to colonize the Red Planet for the Black Man. The skeptics are assuaged by none other than George Washington Carver. However, some of the attendees inform the local police, so Dr. Avery, his astronomer daughter Beneatha (Danielle Cooper), speed-demon Captain “Race” Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola), and a clumsy robot with a cracker personality are forced to take the trip on the fly.
At about the half-hour mark, the movie changes from black and white to color, as the space adventurers crash-land on a far off planet. The joke’s on them, though: it’s the same planet and same country, just 75 years later. And so DPN moves on from historical commentary to contemporary commentary. A run-in with Hispanic laborers in the back of a van suggests to them that slavery exists here. Observing a young black man making a purchase at a convenience store convinces them he’s a slave: no eye contact, no words from the black man to the white cashier. DPN continues in this vein, ably expounding on the many similarities of treatment, though occasionally veering into the realm of the silly. In particular, the montage involving “Race” Johnson learning how to “walk like a Black guy” shouldn’t have been included, much less gone on for as long as it did.
All told, DPN is a fun diversion for those seeking some observations about race relations. It didn’t surprise me upon researching DPN that Kevin Willmott was the driving force behind 2004’s speculative “documentary” C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America. There, too, he used the powers of humor and satire to make his point, all the while maintaining an appreciably light touch. Willmott seems aware that hitting people over the head with a blunt cinematic object can be counter-productive when making one’s point. While some more pruning could have helped it better maintain its momentum (after the crash-landing scene, the movie itself nearly crashes), that criticism could be laid against most movies. In brief: not weird, but not bad.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…highly recommended, provided you’re in the mood for a campy, low-budget sci-fi whose cheesy special effects are more than offset by a profusion of insightful social statements.”–Kam Williams, Baret News Network (contemporaneous)