From Sherlock Holmes to Tarzan to Harry Potter, movies and TV shows have long placed white heroes at the center of the universe and relegated black characters to the sidelines (when they first appeared). Mainstream science fiction, while supposedly defying the limits of human imagination, has rarely strayed from this formula.
That has started to change a bit over the past two decades, with Wesley Snipes in “Blade” and Avery Brooks in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and then even more in recent years with movies and shows like ” Black Panther, ”“ The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ”and“ A Wrinkle in Time. ”In these tales, the black protagonists save the world, or at least embody America.
The wonderful comedy “Timewasters” takes a different approach to subverting heroic white narratives in science fiction: it throws out the whole idea of bragging about the protagonists.
The British comedy, which first aired exclusively in the UK from 2017 to 2019 and is finally available on Amazon’s IMDb TV, has schlubby and life-small characters designed to poke fun at the very idea that some people – usually egocentric whites – are destined to fill the screen of existence or may change the world.
“Any time before the mid-1980s is not good for black people,” he warns.
“Timewasters” is the brainchild of comedian Daniel Lawrence Taylor, who also plays Nick; he is the lead trumpeter of a struggling jazz quartet practicing in a dilapidated London building. One of these sessions is interrupted by the amiable singer Horace (Samson Kayo), who announces that “Homeless Pete” (John Stoate) has discovered that a “piss-soaked elevator” in a dilapidated building is in fact a machine. to go back in time.
Saxophonist Jason (Kadiff Kirwan) is thrilled to have the chance to explore another era, or at least the chance to pursue women from another era. “People like us never time travel! That’s what white people do, like skiing or brunch, ”he enthuses.
Nick is much more nervous. “Any time before the mid-1980s is not good for black people,” he warns.
But soon enough, Nick, Horace, Jason and Lauren (Adelayo Adedayo), sister of Nick, the band’s drummer, find themselves first in the elevator and then trapped in 1920s London in the first season (available for review) and, in the second season, in the 1950s.
As Nick predicted, the first thing that happens when the elevator doors open to the past is a well-dressed white woman glances at an elevator full of blacks and screams in terror. .
Everyone they meet instantly knows they don’t belong – not because they’re from the future, but because the past (like the present) is racist and they’re black.
White time travelers, of course, can usually count on some level of acceptance in the past: The Connecticut Yankee was an oddity, but the people at King Arthur’s court at least recognized him as a human. In “Star Trek”, Spock, a Vulcan alien (albeit white), only had to cover his ears with a beanie to blend in with Depression-era America in the original show or tie a blindfold during their getaway to the 1980s in “Star Trek IV: The Journey Home”.
Nick and company, by comparison, are hyper-visible in 1920s London, even when they switch from “curious native pants and spongy-footed things” to period clothing. Everyone they meet instantly knows they don’t belong – not because they’re from the future, but because the past (like the present) is racist and they’re black.
Being looked down upon and marginalized makes it difficult for the trapped group to make any money or find a place to live – let alone affect the course of history. Still, Nick thinks they must have been sent to the past to save the world like Kirk and Spock or that time lord who travels in “Doctor Who”. At the very least, one would think that a jazz band armed with hits from Amy Winehouse and Outkast should be able to invent rock and roll, as Marty McFly did while stealing Chuck Berry’s riffs. (and returning them to him) in “Back to the Future.”
But Nick is not Spock or even Marty McFly. The group eventually gets a live gig for wealthy socialite Victoria (Liz Kingsman), who treats them like fun newcomers, adopts Jason as a boy’s toy, and lets the group stay in her house.
Their efforts at more substantial efforts are all aborted. This is hardly surprising; the 1920s were not a time when black musicians in London became overnight hits. The first time an all-black vaudeville show went from Harlem, New York, to London to perform, in 1923, it so outraged local unions of actors and musicians that they managed to appeal to the authorities and forced the theater to stage the show with an all – white cast throughout the first half.
“Timewaters” knows that the British past will not leave Nick a central place in its timeline if he can possibly help it.
A few years earlier, in 1919, white Britons engaged in an orgy of racist violence against blacks and other people of color for a month in a series of violent riots. In response, the government devised a “repatriation” program to send black Britons to its various colonial territories (and tightened its immigration laws) with the aim of making Britain whiter. The last thing the British wanted in 1920 was a sudden influx of blacks from the future.
“Timewaters” knows that the British past will not leave Nick a central place in its timeline if he can possibly help it. But if the joke is on Nick, it’s also more largely on Whites, who almost always think of themselves as the most special people at the center of history, whether they are time travelers or not.
Victoria, for example, is a tasteless vortex of cheerful narcissism. When Jason tries to tell her that he loves her, she can barely bother to listen. “Thank you precious,” she laughs, smiling maniacally. “In other news, I’m the main reason we’re all here!” Rich white Victoria has to do everything – and every image – of herself, the past, the present and the future.
“Timewasters” is superficially intended to take black people on a journey through time and (re) history. But it also suggests that maybe wasting time is better than convincing yourself that you own it.