Dr William ‘Lez’ Henry and Brother Hakim are a couple of heroes, doing their bit to raise self-awareness and situational awareness; and they do it through their own passionate love of film. I can relate!
Back in September, Madame TBB sent me an advert for an evening lecture south of the river (**shiver**). The inaugural ‘A Weh Dem a Gwaan Wid? Science Fiction vs Black Fact’ was to be an evening of interactive cinematic enlightenment, co-presented by the duo.
The ad implied they were promising to make you think again about the imagery and messages, both overt and subliminal, that we may have missed in our favourite science fiction movies – suggesting that X-Men (2000) is heavy with black history symbolism; He-Man (animation, 1983-85) is entwined with Marcus Garvey and far from there being no black people in old sci fi like Forbidden Planet (1956), we were very much present, and more!
As TBB’s Optical Illusions suggested, the sci fi genre in any form produces multi-billion dollar-spinning works of art, seen by millions, if not billions of people . I couldn’t resist! If we were all missing something, I wanted to be one of the first to be enlightened!
Then, as time went on, it just seemed serendipitous. So, coincident with the BFI’s Days of Fear and Wonder Science Fiction Season, I was able to catch up with the incredibly busy and in-demand Dr Lez at the start of the BFI’s Afrofuturism weekend to find out how on earth academia and community activism could produce so intriguing a premise.
I attended your Science Fiction vs Black Fact talk back in September, could you tell me what inspired the talk and what inspired you and Brother Hakim to bring your ideas together?
I’ve known Hakim for 10-11 years…our first conversation was about the X-men and the Civil Rights movement. I remember meeting with Hakim and thinking, ‘Wow, this goes a lot deeper than I thought’ … I didn’t really understand it in the way he was breaking it down. So from then, we’ve been close; collaborated on several projects. We use sci fi in our presentations and in our work with young people – we do a lot of work with especially gang-affiliated young people. So, we might use bit of sci fi to get them to think about things. If we’re talking about a surveillant society, you’re not going to say to them, ‘It’s a surveillant society, where the police are looking for patterns of behaviour and you continue to be a criminal.’ You show them a bit of Minority Report (2002) – you use those things to trigger recognition and then understanding. Years ago… we said we wanted to do something around sci fi. But, for some reason, we just never did it! Then, I spoke to Mark and Charmain (Simpson) from Black History Studies, who I do about 90% of my stuff with now. I was originally gonna do one of my ‘Ah Weh Dem a Gwaan Wid?’ talks that I’ve been doing for about 12 years, but changing the theme [to] ‘Black Assassination in the Media and on Tel-Lie-vision.’ But, instead, I phoned Hakim, we came up with the title ‘Science Fiction versus Black Fact’ and basically we just put the thing together.
When the presentation started, several things struck me – the first was that women, black people, in fact any ethnic minority are not supposed to be into sci fi. Yet more than half of the audience were women, most of the audience were black and there were children! This was like the London Screenwriter’s Festival ‘Writing Iconic British Sci Fi’ seminar in 2013, where, again, over half the audience were female, so this is one of those misconceptions that are out there that makes no sense…
Well, women are the ones who invariably support courses and lectures. I’m teaching a course now – 10 women, 3 men. On a course I taught last year of around 27 people – probably about 21 were women. When I give talks, my audiences are invariably about 80% women 20% men.
Also, I thought what was really interesting was that possibly the audience were only there because it had something to do with black people (as part of Black History Studies) and not necessarily sci fi itself, it was still an interactive talk. Was that a conscious decision?
All our talks are always interactive, otherwise I don’t do them. From day one, when you’re lecturing in University it’s generally boring. But, I spice things up…When I went to Goldsmith’s, I heard that Les Back (sociology) and Paul Gilroy were really good lecturers… They were entertaining and they made you think. So I have always tried to do my thing as interactively as possible. Because, to me, if you’re a teacher you have to be a good student… If you don’t know that you will learn as much from the audience as they will from you; you’re in trouble. That’s how we learn.
There is a powerful sequence from Deep Space 9 (1993-99) Far Beyond the Stars (S6, ep13, 1998) which they use in the talk. Captain Sisko becomes a science fiction writer in racist 1950’s America. Neither Henry nor Hakim knew anything about the episode up until the Saturday before the talk. They gratefully acknowledged the woman who suggested they use it…
I asked the Sister to send me the references and when I saw it, it just blew my head off, because I was oblivious to it… If it’s not interactive, how are you gonna get that information? My mother made me realise that whether it’s a good DJ, a good singer or a good preacher, their job is to move you with the words. So if you’re inviting people into the space, you have to make it conducive to not only mutual learning, but for mutual exchange. It has to be a dialogue. It has to be discursive. It can’t just be this monologue. Where is the antiphonic exchange, as we call it in anthropology (we know it as call and response)… Paul Gilroy said ‘African cultures dissolves the distinction between art and life.’ They’re a living bridge between art and life (I’ve probably paraphrased him terribly). I remember when I read that, it really resonated with me. Because, for me, that’s what it’s all about. If your art can’t live, what is the point? It’s like what you said, how can you watch performance art captured in a moment? It doesn’t make sense!
If we say that Science Fiction vs Black Fact is going to happen several times a year, is the key message – life imitates art imitates life imitates art…? And from any form of art, you shouldn’t build up walls or remove yourself too much because you can always find something of yourself within? I think that really comes across in the lecture; you take these films we know (The Forbidden Planet), films we’ve never heard of, like The World, The Devil and The Flesh (1959, starring Harry Belafonte), The Omega Man (1971) and you make the single audience member relate it directly to self. Because, as we know, there are a lot of our people who don’t know our own history or we understand a sanitised/filtered version…
To me it was summed up by a Brother who was there who said, “I’m a film maker… never been interested in sci fi, but now I’m gonna go and look at these films!” If you relegate and dismiss something as foolishness, unless something piques your interest, it will always remain so…For example, when people see The Omega Man, they might say, oh that’s just foolishness. Then they’ll see Will Smith’s version I Am Legend (2007), and say, “That’s a really good film – a really good critique of what’s going on now”. But it’s based on The Omega Man. Octavia Butler spoke in an interview of things that were very similar to themes in The Omega Man. So, if you don’t have a sci fi imagination, our conversations will be very limited. Because somewhere in the conversation, in my mind, I’m gonna slip to sci fi.
Both of these men have reputations for being quite inspirational public speakers. Henry has an impressive academic CV and an impressive sideline in music and poetry (as Lezlee Lyrix), but is also incredibly active in the community, delivering Equality & Diversity training/talks in the public and private sector (NHS included), delivering his ‘Goal Models: striving for self-excellence’ and ‘Guns, Gangs Families & Communities’ empowerment programmes for various Youth Offending Teams, secondary schools and colleges in London boroughs.
Hakim began in the internal exclusion unit of a Tower Hamlets school where he began to use films like The Matrix (1999) to engage in discussions on stereotypes and masculinity. He then developed a peer mentoring programme and, having become known as ‘the Film Doctor’, still pursued his own love in researching Hollywood films and presenting breakdowns on film history. So, put either of them in a small group, especially with kids, they have a way of connecting with them.
So, you had done things with other films, but this is science fiction. Is it that you find it’s just a more effective genre, or is it that you found relevant themes ran most commonly in it?
It’s a bit of both. I thank Stan Lee and Marvel comics for my vocabulary! I’ve been reading Marvel comics for as long as I can remember, when comics were imported… Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men… Superman and Batman are DC, obviously (obviously!). My mind was blown! This opened up a different world for me! Probably when I was about 11… I started to realise that a lot of these things were actually talking about the world. I’ve always been into music. I just listen to the lyrics and what I found was, Marvel comics oftentimes mirrored what was going on in records…I remember reading, I think it was a Daredevil comic… something to do with the American Indians… there was a tune [which] came out called ‘He’s gonna step on you again’ by John Kongos [1971, re-made by Happy Mondays as 'Step On' in 1990]. I remember linking those things together… seeing all these parallels in the comics. Then I started looking at the comics in a much deeper way!
So, though I love them for entertainment and the way they made me think and for the vocabulary they gave me, they have to be rigorous in what they do – if they mention a scientific formula, it has to be accurate… There was this rationale that what they (authors) were doing reflected reality… I think I picked up a lot of that rigour from there. So, I have always been into science fiction. Always! From George Orwell’s 1984 right through. Especially me as a black youth, sci fi gave me a way to speak about stuff in a way that maybe I wouldn’t be ridiculed, maybe I would be taken seriously in some circles, but more so later on as an academic. What sci fi does, especially through mediums like Marvel comics, is it gives you the tools to imagine. Then you can just go off on as many tangents as you want. It’s divergent thinking.
Yes, sci fi allows the viewer or the reader to be that bit more removed so that they don’t have the direct feelings of guilt, that what they’re reading about or seeing they’re not somehow responsible for, because it’s set in a different time place, species, planet or whatever…
OK, so you’re a kid, you’re a black youth in South London, you’ve discovered comics, you’ve discovered sci fi. Do you think that had any bearing on you choosing your academic field? Your PhD was social anthropology, right? Was that your undergraduate degree too?
My undergraduate degree was in anthropology and sociology… both disciplines.
Henry is a self-confessed pragmatist. He was expelled from school at 15 for fighting, then college at 16 for fighting, whilst his twin brother did all of his exams and got all his qualifications. He eventually owned the responsibility and began to take evening courses constantly. His wife was convinced he thought just like a sociologist, though prior to his BA, he’d never studied sociology. However, he found himself reading sociology or anthropology texts by authors like Guyanese-born associate professor of Africana Studies Ivan van Sertima, African-American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author and editor W. B. Dubois and, eventually, his greatest mentor – Professor Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe. They met when he took his course in African literature. When he did get his BA, he found out how long it would take to get a PhD and got straight down to it. Unexpectedly, his understanding and appreciation of comics and the sci fi genre just kept expanding.
What I realised was that comics are very sociological pieces of material, because they talk about society. They speak about society, they speak about the nuances of human relationships, they deal with race, gender, age… they’re cross-cultural, they deal with so-called incommensurable works of meaning, which is rubbish, because you can always make sense out of other worlds, if you take a step back, you look and think, ‘Well that is a bit similar to what I do,’ and that is what comics do. So, to me, there’s a tangible link between sci fi and sociology.
In fact, it turns out that every sociologist that Henry has a soft spot for is into science fiction. He recalls early conversations with American and English literature lecturer Paul Gilroy about what he was reading. The young Henry was proud of the range and eclecticism of his reading matter and was happy to say so. But then came the question, ‘Do you read Octavia Butler?’ Henry had never heard of her, to which Gilroy replied, ‘Go and buy Wild Seed,’ . Even in the mainstream it is considered an important piece of speculative fiction and, as we now know, a pivotal work in the Afrofuturist movement…
Blew. My. Mind! If you’ve seen that film with Denzel Washington Fallen (1998), with that touch-possession storyline, read Wild Seed. That film reminds me of that book!
For me, it was Robert A. Heinlein. I bought The Cat Who Walks Through Walls  – it introduced me to a recurring cyborg female character called Friday – amazing. He also wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers – both movies now. There were other influences in Henry’s formative years…
… Saturday morning pictures and the B movies, which I loved, would come on first The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, The Creature from Planet X – that is my favourite… Probably, in a lot of ways, they’re what have made me able to laugh at myself. I love B movies, because they’re supposed to be ridiculous and they gave me the freedom to be ridiculous… They don’t take themselves seriously and I think that, as human beings, it’s cathartic for us. We need that release. I can sit down and watch those all day! I can’t sit and watch Eastenders or Strictly, but I can watch the ridiculous.
It’s becoming clearer just how much of the personal journey has gone into the way Henry, and almost certainly Hakim, use the medium of film and the genres which they love and why in combination, they prove to be such powerful communication tools. It is also probably why they make such an effective team, their film appreciation coming from the same place.
I work closely with Hakim – closer than with anybody else, because there is a synchronicity between what we do. We’ll do our separate bits and when they’re put together, they’ll just blend. Now, I’ve been to film breakdowns where people will say, “Well, this is what Wesley Snipes meant,” or “This is what Tarantino meant.” But… if you understand the creative process, you can’t even guarantee what you meant when you wrote something!
But, isn’t that the meaning of art? You produce a work based on your experience, emotions and artistic talent, but you can never recreate that moment of creation. This is why I don’t understand pictures of performance art. If its performance art, surely you have to see the performance to understand anything about it!
The conversation swings around and we talk about impressions and how powerful artistic interpretation can be, especially when translating text or graphic novels into film. I didn’t like the 5th Harry Potter book, but I liked the film. Henry felt similarly about Guardians of the Galaxy…
I was never into the comics, but as a film, I think it’s one of the best out there… because it doesn’t take itself seriously. That’s why Marvel pulled its release forward a year and its kinda set the benchmark because it got everything in it – its darker than the other films as well. In many ways…. In my opinion, the film that made Marvel and DC fix up was Wesley Snipes’ Blade (1998). Blade was an adult film, no-holds barred, adult film based on how he was in the graphic novels – Blade would chop people up! He never had any time to be interrogating vampires – he’d chop them up, blow them up, shoot them up!
…And that was probably because Wesley Snipes’ production company produced it…
Yep, Amen Ra.
Exactly, so, it might not have been made that way had a ‘mainstream’ company attempted it. The white companies will produce by numbers which say comics and sci fi are a 15-22 year old demographic – children. White, male, children. So wrong.
…And for me, Blade, knocked all of that out of the water!
As we begin to wrap up our conversation, the aim of the Science Fiction vs Black Fact talk becomes clearer…
Blade for me just transcended vampire movies and we use it in our talks. It’s like The Matrix. People gravitate toward The Matrix and watch it without realising that Blade is the same. There’s an underground – two worlds. The world you think you know and the other, underneath that world, or parallel to it. So, now when we suggest that Europe has got us brainwashed into thinking certain things as African people. We can speculate that there’s another world where African people are doing all of the things they’re telling us that African people cannot do. But we’re not exposed to that world. That’s what Blade does! He’s Blade, but what is he? He’s an amalgamation of so many different cultures – Japanese (Samurai style and sword), African symbolism because of the way he dresses and what he represents. Because Blade was almost like a Black Panther! If you read the comics, that’s more or less what he was about! Two worlds – how do you cope with that? You bridge the two worlds. You’re a vampire, you can walk in the day, but you’re trying to do something about that nasty side, that feeds on people. That’s what blade is about.
That’s what sci fi does for me. It gives you a way to think beyond these little petty restraints like race or gender. It gives you a way to imagine different worlds with different people. Maybe aliens, or whatever. Because, if you think about it, what is an alien? An alien is someone who does things differently. “You ain’t from around here, are ya boy?” That’s an alien. But how alien is what they do? That’s what is interesting for me. And that’s why myself and Hakim and some other people love sci fi, we love it!
So, with this insight into one of the minds behind Science Fiction vs Black Fact, I would urge you, should they repeat the talk or expand their ideas, stay tuned. If this is the reasoning behind the inspiration, can you imagine the ride they take us on over two hours in South London (**shiver**)?
To find out more about Dr Lez Henry go to: http://www.drlez.co.uk/about-us
interview with Dr Lez Henry for the british blacklist by @DescantDeb