One of the weirdest cult music movies of all time, Space is the Place (1974) is a fictional film written by Joshua Smith and composer, poet, keyboardist and cosmic philosopher Sun Ra.
Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, Ra’s music ultimately found him following his muse all over the country from Chicago to Florida to Philadelphia, New York and beyond. In 1937, in a deep state of prayer, Ra claimed that he even took a trip to Saturn. According to the Wiki:
… my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.
Following his vision, Ra took to his music with a fanatical devotion. It was a commitment he shared with the various incarnations of his band the Arkestra. The group often lived together communally and grew to include as many as 30 musicians, singers and dancers.
In 1973, Ra was appointed Artist in Residence at the University of California, Berkeley where he taught a course entitled “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” The reading list for the class included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and assorted titles exploring Egyptian hieroglyphs, African-American folklore, and other topics. It was during his time at Berkeley that Ra met film producer Jim Newman who approached Ra about making a film based on his lectures at the university.
Space is the Place is a musical of sorts that mixes sci-fi time travel tropes with a Seventh Seal-esque struggle for the fate of the black race, pitting Ra against the evil Overseer in a winner-take-all card game. Of course, Ra is also chased by hapless, white government agents who try to kill him.
Featuring vintage performances of Ra and band in their heyday, the film’s Afro-Utopian themes provide an entertaining primer to both Ra’s cosmic poetry and his intergalactic world view.