Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sci-Fi Slave Narratives

Derrick Bell’s short story “The Space Traders” and the film “The Brother from Another Planet” are both science fiction versions of traditional slave narratives, but they are very dissimilar in tone.

In Bell’s story, an alien race has come to America and promises solutions to all of the country’s economic and ecological problems in exchange for all of the black US citizens. In the story, America’s other races eagerly sell their black neighbors. The whites justify the trade by saying that the few must sacrifice for the many, and they ease their guilt by claiming that the other world may not be so bad. As The Secretary of the Interior claims; “Perhaps they have selected them to inhabit some interplanetary version of the biblical land of milk and honey.” The other minorities, the Hispanics, Asians, and Jews, are all unwilling to sell the blacks, but for the wrong reasons. “In the absence of blacks, Jews could become the scapegoats for a system so reliant on an identifiable group on whose heads less-well-off whites can discharge their hate and frustrations.” Each of those groups fears that with the blacks gone they will become the new scapegoat, the new target for racial oppression. In the end, the blacks are taken away in chains, and it becomes clear that the alien race are in fact slave traders, and that America has made no progress in the past 200 years.

The film “The Brother from Another Planet” seems to take a much more cheerful outlook on America’s race relations. The basic plot is that the brother is a runaway slave from another world, who is being pursued by two “men in black” types, who are presumably his slavers. The brother crash lands in Harlem, and makes a new life for himself there, eventually avoiding his slavers with a little help from a sort of intergalactic underground railroad. This narrative of the underground railroad is spelled out even more clearly through images of the New York City subway. The brother is mute, but despite this he is able to make friends easily, and finds many people who help him along his way including the white woman who takes him in as a border and the Hispanic man from work. In contrast to Bell’s story, this film shows America as a welcoming place, where there is some ethnic tension and discrimination, but where people are on the whole friendly and at least willing to help someone in need. True, there are some examples of white oppression in the film, for example the wealthy white drug lord the brother tracks down at the end of the film, but overall the outlook of this movie is much more hopeful that “Space Traders.” After all, none of the brother’s friends are willing to give him to his pursuers.

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