When “Utopia Falls” creator R.T. Thorne pitched a sci-fi hip-hop series about a group of teens living in a dystopian future and battling in a performing arts competition called the Exemplar, he knew the concept was an unusual one.
“People definitely looked at me weird when I first threw it out there a few years ago, just this idea of science fiction and hip-hop,” Thorne tells Variety. “[But] what was interesting to me, is that even though they didn’t know what to make of it, everybody wanted to understand more.”
And the Exemplar competition is just the beginning for Thorne’s story — which is now streaming on Hulu — as the series takes a pivotal turn when a couple of the teen contestants stumble upon a hidden warehouse called “The Archive” and discover the lost art of hip-hop music, introduced by none other than the voice of Snoop Dogg. While Thorne notes some critics have described the series as “’The Hunger Games’ meets ‘Step-Up’ meets ‘America’s Got Talent,’” he believes those descriptions miss the point.
“[They’re] choosing examples that are actually stripping the culture out of what we’re doing,” he explains. “This show is really about a cultural revolution in the future. It’s not just a simple political revolution.”
“Utopia Falls” is just one in a growing list of genre programming from black creatives. Others are Jordan Peele’s “genre-bending” dark fantasy, horror series “Lovecraft Country” (co-produced with J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot) launching later this year on HBO, and the upcoming “Dawn” adaptation from “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s” Victoria Mahoney, Ava DuVernay and Macro’s Charles D. King for Amazon.
Mahoney — who made history in 2019 when she became the first woman (and the first black woman) to direct a “Star Wars” film — chalks the boom of black creators making genre projects up to “good ole fashioned, supply and demand.”
“This is the first occasion in history where audiences have public platforms to vocalize their interests, and disinterests,” Mahoney says.
Mahoney adds that interest in material like “Dawn” — Octavia Butler’s 1987 science-fiction novel about an African-American woman who works with aliens to resurrect the human race 250 years after a nuclear war — hasn’t suddenly manifested.
“There’s been a long-standing, heartfelt desire to see Ms. Octavia Butler’s entire canon adapted to screen. Unfortunately, pre-existing measures utilized by the industry to quantify audience appeal, has largely excluded marginalized communities,” she says. “The only thing that’s shifted in film and television is an audience’s ability, to not only speak out and demand or reject content but also, to speak against who historically gets resourced to create big budget projects.”
Macro chief Charles D. King agrees, saying it is “the convergence of the cultural renaissance movement we’re in, coupled with the explosive growth of streaming platforms and a global audience thirsty for premium content [and] the resurgence of Afrofuturism — of people of color creating the world we want to inhabit and living in the future” that he feels has led to shifts in global culture and an increased appetite in content such as these shows.
King notes the box office success of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” and Peele’s “Get Out” as major turning points for the industry in terms of green-lighting genre projects from black creators.
“Studios and streaming platforms want to grow their subscriber base, increase market share and drive share-holder value,” he says. “The companies that have a content pipeline that better reflects this diverse audience that over-indexes on the consumption of content on all platforms will be the ones who continue to exist in the future.”
“It’s really inspiring to know that everything that they say about ‘our audiences’, as it being sort of one monolithic kind of an audience, is completely false. There are black nerds out there that love whatever they love,” Thorne says. “And it’s a beautiful time to be able to create in that space and know that it will find people or people will find it.”
Thorne considers himself one of those nerds, creating “Utopia Falls” as a mash-up of his love for the sci-fi, hip-hop and comic book genres.
“There’s this social commentary underneath it for all three of those things. Science fiction obviously has a great tradition of that, comic books as well, and then hip-hop is like the street version,” he says.
Ultimately, Thorne hopes his series will inspire the next generation of creators of color, as he was inspired by such filmmakers as DuVernay, Peele and Spike Lee, as well as his mother, who is the inspiration for Gaia, the leader who established his series’ post-apocalyptic society.
“I’m happy that I get to show that to other black kids walking around so they know that that is not out of our reach,” Thorne says. “That it’s a reality that a black woman can lead the world.”
“At the end of the day, [‘Utopia Falls’] might not be for everybody, I get that. It’s all good. I’m happy that we’re the first science-fiction hip-hop [show and] bring hip-hop into the future,” he continues. “There are black nerds out there that love whatever they love. I hope that it just inspires them now to be able to see that culture matters in a future scape.”