Afrofuturism Now: less politics, more Usain Bolt

With the success of the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, Afrofuturism has entered the mainstream, even popping up in ads. But, Rob Turner asks, are its political roots being abandoned along the way?

“I can’t pay no doctor bill,” Gil Scott-Heron famously snapped, back in 1970, “but Whitey on the moon.” Setting the $25 billion cost of the space race against the struggle for basic civil rights, this line catches the moment that Afrofuturism kicked its way into the national consciousness. It was still a marginal scene, yet to find a name, but by the end of that decade you couldn’t miss it. George Clinton was airborne with his P-Funk Earth Tour, accompanied by a crew of “certified Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies”; Sun Ra was tripping through Ancient Egypt with the Intergalactic Solar Arkestra; and Marvel Comics had let a black superhero star in his own story, with Black Panther’s Jungle Action #5 (July 1973).

Now beam forward 50 years, give or take, to the present day. Fade in on a television set, tuned to ITV during an ad break. The camera zooms into a mountaintop hideout: Usain Bolt is hanging out, decked in metallic superhero gear, waited on by a scientist who appears to be a clone of Bond’s Q. Bolt’s mildly pissed off because his Bolt Signal isn’t working; Q points out a nifty solution – courtesy of Virgin Media – and the hero grins. His signal sparks to life, job done.

Still from BBH’s ad for Virgin Media

Cilesta Van Doorn, brand director at Virgin Media, has laid out the idea behind this BBH-created broadband commercial: “The ad is the next chapter in SuperBolt’s journey,” she points out, “and it sees him struck by connectivity conundrums before our Intelligent WiFi steps in and saves the day; just like it will for our customers.” Over at Virgin Media’s webpage, the campaign is fitted with a tagline: ‘Is your arch-enemy unreliable WiFi?’ Well, maybe. But what if your arch-enemy is police brutality, the rise of neo-fascism, or, say, still being unable to pay your doctor’s bill?


Milton Keynes