October 20, 2015, by Michael Jennings

A Time to Break Silence – Martin Luther King and 2001: A Space Odyssey

Patrick Henderson is a first-year PhD student in the Department of American and Canadian Studies and a research associate with the Centre for Research in Race and Rights. He is currently researching the influence of American popular culture on Jamaican communities in New York City, having recently completed his MA thesis on Underground Resistance, Afrofuturism and the second wave of Detroit Techno.

On April 4th 1968, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. Shot in the neck as he stood on his hotel balcony ahead of a planned march against the low wages and unacceptable working conditions of sanitation workers, the death of the prominent civil rights activist sent shockwaves through America. Just two days later, a seemingly unrelated event would take place, the release of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whilst blood was still being spilt in civil rights era America, Kubrick’s narrative of sentient artificial intelligence and inter-dimensional travel was, quite literally, worlds apart.

However, despite a lack of connection between these two disparate moments in history, Edgar Arceneaux’s 2013 film A Time To Break Silence seeks to explore apparently inextricable links that may not be immediately apparent. Whilst the troublesome HAL 9000 wreaking havoc within a futuristic space station may seem like a forewarning of the dangers of rapidly advancing technology, the oppositionality between technology and humanity had been a cold reality for black American society for centuries. Indeed, according to Anthony Walton, “the history of African Americans since the discovery of the New World is the story of their encounter with technology, an encounter that has proved perhaps irremediably devastating to their hopes, dreams, and possibilities.” From the logistical implementation of the Middle Passage to the lack of inclusion within modern cyberculture, dominant Western discourse has consistently placed ‘primitive’ blackness in opposition to ‘progressive’ white technonarratives.

Within A Time To Break Silence, Arceneaux’s amalgamation of extracts from King’s last speech and visual symbolism strongly redolent of Kubrick’s masterpiece vividly juxtaposes “the past with visions of the future [to] offer us a chance to fantasize critically of our own present moment.” Indeed, the choice of Detroit as the film’s location is representative of a microcosm of historic conflict between African Americans and technology. With the city in perpetual decline since the mechanisation of the motor industry in the mid-20th century, Detroit’s predominantly black community continues to be torn apart by job losses instigated by the arrival of technologically advanced automated robots. The story of the city’s decline is yet another example in the seemingly endless narrative of black America’s subjugation by technological progress.

Edgar Arceneaux’s A Time To Break Silence is being screened by the Centre for Research in Race and Rights as part of Alien Radio, an evening of art, music, and film inspired by the city of Detroit. The event will also feature the UK premiere of Portrait of an Electronic Band, a documentary following prominent Detroit Techno Act Aux88, as well as live performances from DJ K-1, DJ Stingray, and Disabled Avant Garde. Alien Radio is taking place on Saturday 24 October (5pm-2am) at Nottingham Contemporary, Weekday Cross, NG1 2GB. Please book tickets here.

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