Afrofuturism in Danez Smith’s Black Movie

By Donna Maria Alexander

With Black Movie (2015), Danez Smith, a Black American, queer, poz, non-binary (they/them) spoken-word poet, pitches new ideas for the representation of blackness in Hollywood films, while critiquing the reality of being black off-screen in the US. Smith’s Black Movie is a collection of Afrofuturist poetry. The poet uses well-known sci-fi and fantasy films as source texts for poetry adaptations that explore of the reality of black experience and its relationship to stereotypes born on the silver screen. Smith is the author of four collections of poetry to date: Hands on Ya Knees (2013), [Insert Boy] (2014), Black Movie (2015), Don’t Call Us Dead (2017). According to Dan Chaisson, “Smith’s work is about [that] imagination—its role in repairing and sustaining communities, and in making the world more bearable” (n. pag).

In Black Movie Smith turns their reparative imagination to cinema. The collection is a series of what I term “script poems” [1] and “pitch poems”. Script poems adapt popular Hollywood blockbuster films, like Jurassic Park. Smith reimagines this 1990s cult classic in “Dinosaurs in the Hood” [text]. They also “pitch” ideas for new approaches to black representation in poems like “Dear White America” [text] where no particular film is adapted. Instead, the poet posits fresh approaches to extraterrestrial movies and outlines the shortcomings of Hollywood’s past attempts to include blacks on screen. Smith also reinscribes the words of early and mid-twentieth century black writers in their twenty-first century poems in order to demonstrate the urgency of adaptation. Smith’s “Dear White America” makes a case for societal adaptation in a world where myths and preconceptions are so often formed by what people see on screens.

This article focuses on the aforementioned two poems, demonstrating how Smith poetifies film scripts and elevator pitches to forge black spaces in locations predominantly reserved for white privilege. This article will give a brief introduction to the term Afrofuturism, particularly in relation to film, followed by close readings of “Dinosaurs in the Hood” and Dear White America”.

Blacks on screen are predominantly shown as morbid, apocalyptic, or silenced. Afrofuturist writers and artists seek to upend these diminutive representations and offer new possibilities. Womack states that “for those who adopt the Afrofuturist paradigm, the ideas can take you light-years away from the place you call home, only to return knowing you had everything you needed from the start” (1). The term Afrofuturism was coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay, “Black to the Future” to define the ways in which fantasy, sci-fi and techniculture are increasingly used as lenses through which black culture and representation can be framed. While the focus of this article is the adaptation of film into Afrofuturist poetry, its aesthetic and philosophy is evident across black literary and cultural arts. Popular examples include Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016), and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s primitivist graffiti art such as Untitled (History of the Black People, 1983). The term signals a shift away from representations in which black figures are pinioned against reductive and repressive stereotypes. Ytasha L. Womack notes the “dour fate” black characters faced in sci-fi movies in the latter half of the 20th century – that is if they were included at all:

The black man who saved the day in the original Night of the Living Dead was killed by trigger-happy cops. The black man who landed with Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes was quickly captured and stuffed in a museum. An overeager black scientist nearly triggered the end of the world in Terminator 2. (Womack 7)

Photo by Renaud Camus “Le Jour ni l’Heure 9403 : Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1960-1988, Dos Cabezas (double portrait d’Andy Warhol et de l’artiste), 1982” used under CC BY 2.0 License.

In Smith’s poetry adaptations the protagonists include an innocent black boy holding a toy dinosaur and raptor-hunting grandmothers in “Dinosaurs in the Hood”, and the poet blasting off into space in search of a new intergalactic home for black people in “Dear White America”.

“Dinosaurs in the Hood” rescripts the 1993 hit movie Jurassic Park. More specifically, Smith tells us that it is “Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness”. In other words, the poet seeks to blend the sci-fi imaginary of Jurassic Park with the positive representations of black culture and community in the 2005 hood film Friday, and the inspirational success story of the 2006 movie The Pursuit of Happyness. The title of Smith’s version plays on the iconic 1991 hood drama directed by John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood. Indeed, six of the thirteen script poems in Black Movie allude to this Oscar-nominated films in their titles, suggesting that Smith wants to take the essential elements of John Singleton’s work and “blackwash” white-dominated movies through the inclusion of the themes of loss of innocence, police brutality, and black masculinity. Smith’s Jurassic hood movie opens with a hopeful “scene where a little boy is playing / with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window / & sees the T-Rex, because there has to be a T-Rex” (39). The boy’s fantasy toy becomes a reality, foregrounding the dreams and imagination of a black child rather than those of the white brother and sister in Jurassic Park.

In the second stanza Smith urges potential filmmakers “Don’t let Tarantino direct this. In his version, the boy plays / with a gun, the metaphor: black boys toy with their own lives” (39). The poet joins a long line of critics who consider Quentin Tarantino’s representations of blackness and frequent use of the n-word in dialogues as problematic, given the director’s standpoint of white privilege. [2] Smith agrees with such criticisms in stating in “Dinosaurs in the Hood”, “Fuck that, the kid has a plastic brontosaurus or triceratops / and this is his proof of magic or God or Santa” (39). The poet rejects pretentious uses of weapons as film props to symbolise black mortality. They settle for a toy that fuels the boy’s belief in a higher power and retains his innocence. Smith imagines their black movie as a comedy, asking for “a scene / where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl” (39). However, the poet’s comedic sensibilities do not include the Wayans brothers, who they also request be excluded from the production citing their caricaturesque approaches to race and representation: “I don’t want any racist shit / about Asian people or overused Latino stereotypes” (Smith 39). Instead, Smith declares his cast to be populated by “a neighborhood of royal folks” (39), a black dynasty of underdogs and anti-heroes including “children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exile saving their own town from real ass Dinosaurs” (39). Smith confirms that “This is not a vehicle for Will Smith” (39), ejecting the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” from their black-buster monarchy.

Following these caveats and clauses, Smith outlines the mis-en-scène of “Dinosaurs in the Hood” in the fifth stanza:

I want grandmas on the front porch taking out

raptors with guns they hid in walls & mattresses. I want

those little spitty screamy dinosaurs, I want Cecily Tyson to make

a speech, maybe 2. I want Viola Davis to save the city in the last

scene with a black fist afro pick through the last dinosaur’s long,

cold-blood neck. (39)

As well as black boyhood, this film celebrates black women of all ages. Smith disrupts black mammyism, replacing the traditional image of a black grandmother passively sitting on front porches with a scene of gun-toting elderly defenders of the hood while Davis brings the battle to a climax by weaponising an everyday afro comb. The stock disaster movie scene of the rousing, unifying, inspirational speech is granted not to a black or white male, but to black actress, Cicely Tyson. Smith grants her two such scenes in a wry attempt to recompense black actors for the many inspirational speeches given to white performers.

Although the poem closes a collection titled Black Movie, Smith is adamant that it must not be considered one. According to Mary Austin Speaker,

Smith resists such relegation, but his placing it in the poem serves to articulate the double-bind of Black hope: the world is too white to sustain a flourishing Blackness, and yet the Black artist must pit himself against it anyhow, planting seed after seed in the form of new poems, new films, new ideas.  (n.pag.)

They explain in the sixth stanza of “Dinosaurs in the Hood” that “This movie can’t be dismissed because of its cast or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor for black people & extinction” (39). While Smith’s script poem describes a black movie in as much as it is set in a black neighbourhood and has a cast of black characters, their cinematic vision does not include the problematic stereotypes and tropes that often dominate the inclusion of black characters in film. The poet wants their movie to be enjoyed simply because it is about a neighborhood banding together to fight a dinosaur invasion. Thus, their Afrofuturist vision for “Dinosaurs in the Hood” is what could be termed a hood[wink] movie, in that it performs a new kind of movie magic by captivating audiences without relying on tired black caricatures and racist stereotypes, and tragic or violent demises of black characters.

Smith saves his most important caveat for the last lines of the script poem. They decree, with repetition for emphasis, that ‘no one kills the back boy. & no one kills/ the black boy. & no one kills the black boy (40). This signals a powerful shift away from the tragic results of Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. Smith’s boy in the hood is a beacon of innocence, life and possibility. What he holds in his hands foreshadows a sci-fi battle that unifies his hood rather than a blood-soaked gangland shooting that fragments a community and reinforces morbid stereotypes on screen.

Picture by Driver Photographer “Visitors at the Mir Space Station” used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 License.

“Dear White America” opens with Smith’s declaration that they “have left earth in search of darker planets, a solar system that / revolves too near a black hole” (34). What we understand about the mysteries of the universe is inverted; black holes, regions of space time with gravitational pulls so strong that nothing can escape them, are often locations of grave danger in popular films and television series about space travel. In “Dear White America” the black hole becomes a desired site of relocation, a new beginning, and an anchor for the “darker planets” that Smith seeks to call home. The blackness of this new cosmic topography is familiar and welcoming rather than being symbolic of impending doom. Smith orders White America to “Take your God back” (34), rejecting his “inconsistent” miracles (34). Smith states that

I want the fate of

Lazarus for Renisha, I want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean &

Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghosts re-gifted

Flesh & blood, their flesh & blood regifted their children. (34)

The poet rejects the Christian status quo in which the lives of figures like Lazarus and Jesus, who have been whitewashed in Western religious lore, are privileged above all others. Smith lists the names of victims of racial profiling and gun violence in the US, asking that their lives also be restored by White America’s God. Without waiting for a response, Smith restates that, “I have/ Left Earth, I am equal parts sick of your ‘go back to Africa’ & ‘I just/ don’t see color’. Neither did the poplar tree (34). Both the blatant racism and the veiled white privilege of Earth is enough to drive Smith’s blast off into Space, leaving behind them an echo of Billie Holiday’s “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” (n. pag.). In addition to this strain from Billie Holliday, Smith also invokes the voices of a number of other Black writers and poets.

Ventriloquizing Amiri Baraka, Smith tells their listeners that “Each night, I count my brothers. & in the morning, when / some do not survive to be counted, I count the holes they leave” (34). Smith adapts a stanza from Baraka’s poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”:

And now, each night I count the stars,

And each night I get the same number.

And when they will not come to be counted,

I count the holes they leave.

Like Smith, Baraka turns to the skies in an astrological search for hope, taking inventory of stars that represent glimmers of hope, even in their absence. Smith rewrites Baraka’s lines, counting their Black community instead. When any number of them are absent, Smith is not left with an ambiguous overcast sky to count, but the stark bullet holes that riddle the bodies of the dead. This repetition of “holes” links back to the opening lines in which Smith’s imagined destination is adjacent to a “black hole” (34). Gunshot wounds are transformed into wormholes that direct Smith to distant galaxies far away from the violent reality of life as a black person in “White America.”

In challenging the hypocrisy of White America, Smith subverts the superstitions, rituals and voodoo so often tacked onto black representation as a means of signalling primitiveness, and attaches it to their vision of whiteness. Smith describes how they

Reach for black folks & only touch air. Your master magic trick,

America. Now he’s breathing, now he don’t. Abra-cadaver. White

Bread voodoo. Sorcery you claim not to practice, but have no

Problem benefitting from. (34)

Smith calls out White America’s tendency to distance itself from practices it considers primitive and uncivilised, like voodoo. Indeed, Womack notes that in film blacks are often depicted as “the silent, mystical type, or maybe a scary witch doctor” (7). Turning this on its head, the poet likens the epidemic rate of murders and incarcerations of black people, as well as erasures in black history, to a kind of white sorcery. In Smith’s vision white magic is no longer the universal symbol of good, but indicative of racially-motivated murder by magicians wielding guns instead of wands. The incantation, “abra-cadaver” leaves Smith’s audience under no illusions as to what the outcome of this “white bread” magic trick is.

In the latter half of “Dear White America” Smith turns their attention to the question, “why does it always have to be about / race?” (34) declaring, “Because you made it that way” (34). “Because” is repeated no less than twelve times over the following lines as Smith catalogues the many ways in which race has been foregrounded as a monumental issue in the US due to the racist actions of White America. Among Smith’s reasons is that “Because black girls go missing without so much as a whisper / of where?! Because there is no Amber Alert for the Amber Skinned / Girls” (34). Here the poet points towards the media and law enforcement’s privileging of missing persons cases involving white girls over those wherein a black girl is the victim. Smith highlights the irony of the naming of America’s amber alert system when the systemic racism that underpins its deployment so often excludes those whose skin is amber or darker.

Furthermore, Smith informs their readers that race is an issue “Because Jordan boomed. Because Emmitt whistled. / Because Huey P. spoke. Because Martin preached. Because black / boys can always be too loud to live” (34-35). Smith reminds White America of black lives taken because the boys and men in question had the perceived audacity to exist and take up audiological space. 19 year old Jordan Davis was killed in 2012 after an argument over loud music being played by Davis and his friends; 14 year old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman; 47 year old Huey P. Newton was murdered in 1989 on the same streets he tried to protect as a founding member of the Black Panther Party; 39 year old Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 due to his leading role in the African American Civil Rights movement. Encompassing black lives from across two centuries, from the famous and Nobel prize-winning to the relatively unknown in life, grown men and young boys, these names represent a long line of black males murdered because they dared to be present, vocal, and seen. Indeed, Smith invokes the words of James Baldwin in the lines that follow this elegiac catalogue, stating, “Because it’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s & my sister’s time. . .  how much time do you want for your progress?” (35). Baldwin’s original quote remains unchanged aside from an ellipsis, which punctuates the passage of time between Baldwin’s first use of them in the mid-twentieth century and Smith’s in 2014.

Smith then reiterates their intention to no longer wait for White America and the rest of the planet to become more tolerant. They repeat, “I’ve left Earth to find a place where my kin / can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as / the good, wet earth” (35). This germane vision contrasts with Smith’s opening statement that they “have left a patch of dirt in my / place & many of you won’t know the difference” (34). Smith’s futurist vision celebrates black earthliness as extraterrestrial. Smith becomes Godlike in their space exploration, coming closer to all the things that White America tries to encounter through vast scientific and technological methods. Smith tells White America that, “I’ve left earth & I am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. I am giving the stars their right names” (35). Smith rockets beyond Baraka’s earlier counting of the stars into a position where they can rename them, informed with a knowledge that is truer than any that can be discerned via telescopes and other manmade lenses.

In her TED talk on “The Danger of a Single Story” Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche states that the method of distilling a diaspora down into a monolithic entity is employed to “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become” (Adichie). Smith’s “Dear White America”, exposes the ways in which that tactic is used to portray black people as subservient, dangerous, criminal, and inferior. Smith’s collection as a whole presents a new pop culture genre, the black movie, as a possible deprogramming strategy in a society that increasingly builds it understanding of identity through what it perceives via screens and airwaves. Smith’s poetry critiques this singular view of black identity, stating in “Dear White America” that they are looking for a

new story & history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard or

hang or beat or drown or own or redline or shot or shackle or

silence or impoverish or choke or lock up or cover up or bury or

ruin. (35)

The monotonous repetition of “or” emphasises that the singular story of Black people thus far in the history of the Americas is one of disenfranchisement and death. Moreover, given that “or” usually signifies a choice, Smith’s repeated use of it here reinforces the lack of choice in Black existence, moving from one act of violence and erasure to another. The poem closes with Smith affirming that “This, if only this one, is ours” (35). In the end, White America does not get a series of “ors” between impossible choices. It is simply not included in Smith’s Afrofuturist vision.

Picture by Jan Faborsky “To The Future From The Past – Atomium, Brussels” used under a CC BY 2.0 License.

In Black Movie, dinosaur attacks and black holes, typically markers of impending doom, pale in comparison to the actual dangers faced by black people. In fact, Hollywood disaster illusions offer hopeful, exciting spaces brimming with possibilities for blacks. Smith’s new movie genre offers black people of all ages opportunities for personal expression, fulfilment, and joy. Black kids see their rich imaginations come to life, black grandmas exist beyond rocking chairs on porches, black leading ladies take control of their narratives, and black men take giant leaps for the black community, taking back those aspects of blackness that have been appropriated, sterilised and stereotyped for white audiences. Through adapting anglocentric Hollywood movies into black script poems Smith does not simply transcribe blackness onto a white storyboard, but seeks to circumvent problematic representations of race by reinventing black stock characters and storylines.


[1] For further discussion of script poetry see: Donna Maria Alexander, “‘The Beautiful Game’ In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.Alluvium, 7.2 (2019): n. pag. Web. 30 April 2019. DOI:

[2] This debate was inflamed by the director himself when he claimed to be a victim of racism due to these criticisms following the release of Jackie Brown (1997). Indeed, in response to Tarantino’s gory spaghetti western slavery film, Django Unchained (2012), in which the n-word is used over 100 times, Spike Lee tweets that “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was a Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them” (cited in Child).


Donna Maria Alexander, “Afrofuturism in Danez Smith’s Black Movie,” Alluvium, Vol. 7, No. 4 (2019): n. pag. Web 22 August 2019. DOI:

About the Author:

Donna Maria Alexander is currently a postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork. Her research interests include contemporary poetry, adaptation studies, postcolonialism, electronic literature and digital pedagogy. Her forthcoming monograph, Weeder of Wreckage: Documentary and Death in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes (Peter Lang) was the recipient of the runner-up prize in the Peter Lang Young Scholar’s Competition in Women’s Studies, 2015. Donna was awarded a UCC President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2018 after being nominated by students.

She tweets @americasstudies and blogs at

Works Cited:

Adiche, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED, July 2009, Accessed 24 July 2019.

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1985.

Baraka, Amiri. 1961. “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.”  Poetry Foundation, Accessed 24 July 2019.

Chaisson, Dan. “Danez Smith’s Ecstatic Body Language.” The New Yorker. 25 Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 July 2019.

Child, Ben. “Django Unchained Wins Over Black Audience Despite Spike Lee Criticism.” The Guardian. 3 Jan 2013, Accessed 22 July 2019.

Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994, 179-222.

Singleton, John, director. Boyz n the Hood. Columbia Pictures, 1991.

Smith, Danez. [Insert Boy]. 2014. Portland: Yes Yes Books, 2016.

Smith, Danez. Black Movie. Button Poetry: Minneapolis, MN, 2015.

Smith, Danez. Don’t Call Us Dead. London: Chatto & Windus, 2017.

Smith, Danez. Hands on Ya Knees. New York: Penmanship Books, 2013.

Speaker, Mary Austin. “Black Movie | Danez Smith.” Rain Taxi Review of Books. Summer 2016, Accessed 6 August 2019.

Womack Ytasha L.. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.

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