Magical powers, alternative realities and ethnic history are a tripartite combination that rarely comes together. Yet that is exactly what Rite of Passage, a new independent movie, accomplishes. Blending “steampunk,” a traditionally niche genre, with African-American historical fiction, attempts to create an entirely new space of storytelling.
First premiered at the Black Science Fiction Film Festival on February 2014, Rite of Passage attempts to sew magic and history together. It is about a community of people who attempt to protect their sanctuary, the city of Nicodermus. The entire film draws upon steampunk, a genre focused around mixing science fiction with the Industrial Revolution. It is a world where steam is still the dominant source of power and the Victorian era is still a source of culture, especially fashion. The genre is generally well-represented in cinema with films such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Sherlock Holmes.
The story was primarily written and developed by Balogun Ojetade, who serves as screenwriter and director, and Milton Davis, who serves as writer and executive producer.
“My original interest was alternate history. It was Balogun who enlightened me to steampunk and inspired me to integrate it into my work,” Davis said.
Steampunk stories in the past have featured few characters of African descent, so the creators of this film are attempting to re-adapt the genre to their work. In doing so, they branched into the genre of steamfunk, so named because it combines steampunk with racial issues. They also created a literary anthology, Steamfunk!, to tackle issues such as the Diaspora, but with a steampunk focus.
“There’s never been anything done like Rite of Passage before. And this is not bragging,” Davis said.
The inspiration for the film began when author Milton Davis wrote a short story about a slave’s escape to freedom. In the course of his journey, the protagonist gains magical powers, which he uses to secure his freedom and later passes down for future generations to use.
In the original narrative, magic is actually a fairly small part of the story, which focuses more on the slave narrative, related historical struggles and character development.
The short story also differs in that the protagonist was changed to a woman, Dorothy, for the film. However, this has little impact on the actual story, and the character’s personality is largely kept the same.
“I’m a big fan of films. What drew me to the project was the opportunity to develop a film based on a story I’d written. I also wanted to see a steampunk movie based on aspects of African American history with black people at the forefront,” Davis said.
The short story lead to a promotional short film produced to raise funds for the full movie. The film itself is on YouTube and focuses primarily on Dorothy’s initiation through combat training by her teacher.
While more style than substance, the short film’s setting, choreography and outfits are all reminiscent of subversive, post-modern historical films, such as Django Unchained.
The production was done in partnership with Dr. Lisa Yasek, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in LMC. The project originally began at the State of Black Science Fiction Collective and further progressed with the Black Science Fiction Film Festival.
This is a film that could potentially lead to an entirely new genre that blends critical historical issues with a much more fantastical and entertaining style. Rite of Passage has the potential to be an innovative work that occupies multiple unique niches in storytelling.
“The film expands far beyond the initial concept of the story. It’s fuller and richer. We definitely see this as the first step to a series. That’s the plan. We hope the film is a jump off point for future films or a mini-series,” Davis said.