Remember that episode of The Boondocks when Martin Luther King returned in modern times and fell in love with the McRib? Okay, that's not what the whole episode was about. It was about his confusion over the modern civil rights movement and the current state of black people after all of his hard work. Well, imagine that idea given greater context and tossed into a hilarious 1950s sci-fi spoof, and you'll have Kevin Willmott's Destination: Planet Negro!, one of the funniest movies of the year that you've probably never heard about.
Willmott, a filmmaking professor at the University of Kansas, wrote and directed the film in small chunks over the course of years, and it's clear what a labor of love it is for him. It HAD to be because nobody else could have dreamed up anything this crazy. The first half of the film is done in campy black and white style, looking like something out of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It's 1939 and all of the world's great black leaders have gathered to try and figure out the "Negro Problem" in America. The only solution they could come up with, and keep in mind this group contains minds such as W.E.B. Dubois and George Washington Carver (who is constantly worried about the credit he'll get for the peanut), is to put all of the world's black people in a spaceship and fly off to another planet, leaving white people alone since that's what they claim to want so much. But when white people catch wind of it, the plan is moved up and the exploratory team is sent to Mars to scout if it could be habitable.
These opening scenes are powered largely by the absurd premise. THIS is what the great black minds in America could come up with?? It'd be insulting if it wasn't so funny. The second half of the film is decidedly different, taking on an edge that fans of Dear White People will love. The trio commanding the rocket ship is the brilliant Dr. Warrington Avery (Willmott) and his astronomer daughter, Beneatha (Danielle Cooper). They're joined by top pilot Captain Race "Ace" Johnson (Tosin Morohunfolo), and Strom, a Slinky-armed robot that talks like a field slave from the antebellum South. Of course, the mission goes awry and the rocket goes through a wormhole that lands them not on Mars, but in modern day America.
Here is where the film really takes off, as the trio of brave explorers is befuddled by pretty much every aspect of current black culture. Expecting that things would be the same as it was in their time, they assume every black person walking around with their pants sagging below their butt is too malnourished to fit into proper clothes. Headphones are seen as devices to keep the slaves in line, and what are these convenience stores with giant ice boxes in them? But the biggest shock of all comes when they learn about President Barack Obama, with one member of the team promptly fainting at the news.
Willmott, who also co-wrote Spike Lee's recent gang violence comedy, Chi-Raq, uses humor to skillfully explore the rate of progress in the civil rights movement, and to question whether it has advanced as far as we think. What would blacks from that era think of how the word "nigger" has evolved? And why is "the shit" somehow better than shit? It's still shit, isn't it? Political justice, gun violence, and race relations are tackled with tongue firmly in cheek, aided by a trio of lead performances that get the silly tone just right. Credit should also go to Willmott for his direction, especially the tonal shift that comes with the contemporary setting. He switches gears to a more standard comedic format, including the use of full color and a less campy score.
Destination: Planet Negro! (Still chuckling) had its world premiere back in 2013, which is a lifetime ago in Hollywood terms. But the funny thing is that it's just as relevant now as it would have been back then, so be sure to check it out now that it's hitting VOD and home release.
Rating: 4 out of 5