The story of man’s foray into space is a thrilling one, encompassing war, technological innovation and the power of imagination. The story of the Black man’s foray into space — the subject of the documentary “The Space Race” — comprises a different set of milestones. For African Americans who dreamed of traveling beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the barriers weren’t just physical or scientific, but also social and political.
Directed by Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, “The Space Race” offers an alternative history of American space travel through interviews with pioneering figures — including Ed Dwight, an Air Force captain who was the first Black trainee at the Aerospace Research Pilot School; and Guy Bluford, who became the first African American to go to space almost two decades later, in 1983.
But the film’s most fascinating revelation is that the Soviets beat the Americans in sending a Black person to space in 1980 with Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, a Cuban pilot — an achievement that never got its due during the Cold War.
This fact, mentioned only cursorily, reinforces the limitations of the movie (which also, it should be noted, features hardly any stories of Black women). A theme running through the interviews is that for the U.S. government, sending a Black astronaut to space was more a matter of propaganda than racial justice. Cortés and de Mendoza capture these contradictions through archival footage of Civil Rights leaders’ excoriating the nation for spending millions on space travel while poverty decimated communities on the ground.
But for the most part, “The Space Race” doesn’t quite interrogate these tokenizing narratives, leaving the central question unaddressed: Can the glorified achievements of a few result in change for the many?