All the heated discussion we had recently about black images in sci-fi movies bought to my mind recently the first time when a black man first appeared as an astronaut in a sci-fi movie. And you would be right in guessing that it wasn't in an American film.
The guy on the left is Archie Savage and anybody who knows the history of black dance in America should be familiar with him as one of its true pioneers. The Virgina-born Savage, who died in 2003, was one of real innovators of modern black dance, and for many years danced with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company as her partner.
He went on to appear uncredited in several American films as a dancer, with his biggest role in the Gary Cooper/Burt Lancaster Robert Aldrich directed western Vera Cruz. But like so many other black artists who felt they were under-appreciated, went to Europe for better opportunities. He settled in Italy and continued making more films, though they were mostly still no better than roles he had played in the U.S. But in 1960, he had a supporting role as an astronaut in the cheapo Italian sci-fi movie Space Men (Assignment: Outer Space) directed by Antonio Margheriti.
Now, that would have made him the first black actor ever to play an astronaut in a film if it wasn't for the fact that, in the very same year, 1960, the Nigerian actor Julius Ongewe, of whom practically nothing else is known, appeared as an astronaut as well, in the then Communist East German film First Spaceship on Venus.
Who was the first actor black to play an astronaut in a U.S. film? (I assume one has by now...Right???)
I've never seen Assignment Outer Space, but as you can see from the clip below, in which Savage appears very briefly at the beginning, it's a pretty chintzy movie with comical special effects. However it's pretty much on par with chepo sci-fi films of that period.
However, I have seen First Spaceship to Venus since the original, restored, widescreen uncut German language version of the film, under its original title, The Silent Star, was released on DVD a few years ago by First Run Features home video. Though there are DVDs of the edited, English dubbed, version around and the film as even been on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But no matter which version you see, just take a guess what happens to the brother?
That's right. You guessed it! HE DOESN'T MAKE IT! Goddamn Commie pinko bastards! All this talk about brotherhood, comradeship and singing The Internationale , and they STILL do a brother wrong! HYPOCRITES! Can't a brother get a break?
Here's the clip from Assignment Outer Space with Archie Savage: