Shape Shifter

Photo: AP

Mos Def came to his latest role with only the most basic gloss on the character: He is, he was told, a journalist from outer space. “My first thought was Edward R. Murrow,” recalls the svelte, sparsely bearded actor, sitting in an airy restaurant in Dumbo. “A guy who’s studious and intellectual, but rugged enough that you can see him reporting from the front lines.” But this journalist, Ford Prefect from Douglas Adams’s cult novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is also, crucially, an alien: quirky, slightly aloof, flummoxed by many norms of human behavior. One must inevitably bring in some Dan Rather.

“Yeah!” says Def, laughing. “Ford’s definitely tweaky. He’s on this mission; there’s this focus to him. He experiences emotions—he feels terror and joy. He just processes them differently.” What Ford Prefect is not is black or white, a potentially insignificant fact that nonetheless makes Def’s latest role one more in a series of quiet coups the 31-year-old Brooklynite has pulled as an actor and as a rapper—gracefully dodging the stereotypes both careers place on humans, even when they’re aliens.

Such color-blind casting has traditionally signaled a breakthrough moment for a black actor’s career: the day the casting doors open to a whole starry universe of leading roles. And despite its nerd-chic aura, Hitchhiker’s Guide is a big summer movie, one that may prove to be the payoff for the savvy, subtle career decisions Def has made over the past few years, including forging a relationship with the Public Theater (indie acting cred), hosting the “Def Poetry Jam” (spoken-word black-art cred), and appearing on Chappelle’s Show (comedy cred). In his quiet way, Mos Def has managed to cross over without ever losing the career he started out with.

Born and raised in Bed-Stuy, Mos Def (né Dante Smith) actually started acting before rapping, performing in TV shows such as The Cosby Mysteries out of high school. By the mid-nineties, the amateur M.C. realized the relative pecuniary rewards in recording rhymes and began rapping on discs by progressive groups like De La Soul, then formed the erudite, socially conscious rap group Black Star with Talib Kweli, his co-owner in an African bookstore. A year later, Def released his acclaimed solo debut, Black on Both Sides, and then, on 2004’s The New Danger, set about fusing rock and rap with his avant-rock outfit, Black Jack Johnson.

But at the same time, Mos Def continued to develop his acting career with an unusually discerning artistic focus. After playing an Afro-revolutionary in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, he essayed a laconic southern mechanic in Monster’s Ball, a cardsharp in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Broadway play Topdog/Underdog, and an escaped convict in another Parks play, Fucking A, for which he won an Obie Award. And now, after being a munitions expert, heart surgeon, small-town cop, and big-band leader, Mos Def is leaving the planet entirely.

Historically, this move has often been a small step for a black man, a giant leap for Middle America. Scratch science fiction, and you’ll almost inevitably find a racial subtext, as far back as the cheesily groundbreaking forced makeout session between Kirk and Uhura. Elsewhere, sci-fi has provided some of pop culture’s most diligent investigations of modern racial attitudes—whether with the doomed black hero of Night of the Living Dead, the black-power-paranoia subtext of Planet of the Apes, the marooned-in-Harlem alien of Brother From Another Planet, or the radical explorations of African-American visionaries from Sun Ra to George Clinton to Samuel R. Delany. And between Will Smith, Hollywood’s go-to alien-hunter, and The Matrix—with its Pan-ethnic army united against Waspy cyberagents—Hollywood might seem to have made the future multicultural. (Then again, to see space in ethnic retrograde, look no further than Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, featuring shiftless West Indies–accented Jar Jar Binks and slanty-eyed villains.)

In contrast, Hitchhiker’s Guide is notable precisely because it lacks any such racial subtext—leaving that part to some of the book’s all-too-human fans. When news about the casting of Ford Prefect hit, postings on the Website included cries like: “Can’t we have ONE f***ing movie without a rapper??” and “As a proud and English Douglas Adams fan I think he would be turning in his grave.”

As Radiohead’s OK Computer (with its Hitchhiker’s reference “Paranoid Android”) plays on the restaurant stereo, Mos Def shrugs at the postings. “Clearly I’m black,” he says, smiling wanly and sipping a half-full iced tea. “I’m a black actor. I look different from everybody else. But Ford’s character transcends race. He transcends species. He’s not human. He’s a universal being. It’s a shame some people want to focus on that.”

At the film’s start, Def’s Ford sits his English friend Arthur down at the pub, buys him four pints, and breaks some difficult news: (1) that Ford is an alien, here to research a galactic Frommer’s, and (2) that the Earth will be destroyed in fifteen minutes. After Ford whisks Martin Freeman’s Arthur onto one of the celestial Earth-wreckers, the two begin a journey through space, their adventures posing a series of provocative questions about accepted reality. Like Douglas Adams’s book, the film strikes a rare tone of existential whimsy. And Def’s Ford Prefect helps provide a warm, nutty emotional center to the chilly universe.

“I think the biggest thing that helped me with Ford is he’s not sarcastic,” says Mos Def. “He wouldn’t get sarcasm. He never comes across jaded or cynical. There’s a sort of purity about him without him ever seeming like one of these … space children—like E.T. He’s very mature, and he’s also playful at the same time. He’s curious and open to whatever’s out there.”

In his quiet way, Mos Def has managed to cross over without ever losing the career he started out with.

It’s the kind of character, in other words, that veers perilously close to a whole new realm of career risk: the dreaded Magical Negro, that cloyingly beneficent “helper” figure that has clotted up the résumé of everyone from Scatman Crothers to Will Smith. Def avoids that pitfall largely by force of his own quirky, enigmatic personality. Stylish and action-ready in tan duster, cap, and that sole essential space accessory, a towel, Prefect scurries from one interstellar threat to another, making periodic gaffes like an attempted handshake with an oncoming automobile. Def sought inspiration for the mannerisms from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films, although he seems to have brought a fair amount of his own strange magnetism to the role.

“He’s got this odd quality about him,” director Garth Jennings says of the star. “A Zen-like presence that can be cool and weird and everything all at once. He’ll have hit records one moment, then doing some live jazz thing one evening, then doing furniture design, then appearing in terrific plays—he just struck me as this extraordinary bloke that doesn’t seem to be tied by anything. He’s just like, ‘Let’s get on with it.’ ”

A fitting outlook for any alien in a hurry. Shortly before the apocalypse, Def’s Ford Prefect turns before leaving the pub and makes a magnanimous gesture. “People of Earth,” he snaps to the locals. “A round of drinks on me!” Then, dropping the last of his pound notes, he’s gone.

“Yeah,” says Mos Def. “Anytime you say, ‘People of Earth—.’” He laughs. “Yeah, that’s fun.”

Shape Shifter