Revisiting Claire Denis's films at the Gene Siskel Film Center's near-complete retrospective last month, I was impressed by how well the French director's body of work coheres. Not only do certain themes and stylistic devices recur across her films, but these patterns demonstrate a unity between form and content. Denis often deals with the legacy of European colonialism in Africa and with the African diaspora in postcolonial Europe, privileging the fleeting impressions of multiple characters over narrative coherence. Taken as a whole, her films represent an ongoing project to create a postcolonial cinema, wherein plot structure (which Denis, through allusions to American novels and films, associates with the Western tradition) is constantly undermined and complicated by foreign points of view.
The films of British artist and academic John Akomfrah advance a similar agenda. Active since the mid-1980s, Akomfrah is a collage artist whose essay films, with their dizzying combination of archival footage, re-creations, literary citations, and philosophical musings, bring together unrelated subjects and suggest a more holistic approach to world history. He's more overtly political than Denis, yet he shares her obsession with using film structure to communicate marginalized points of view. That obsession is the guiding force of the two medium-length documentaries screening at Black Cinema House this Sunday; Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) and The Last Angel of History (1996) are less interesting for their subjects than for the multifaceted perspective Akomfrah brings to bear upon them.
That perspective is heavily informed by Akomfrah's experience of radical politics in both Africa and the UK. His parents belonged to the anticolonialist party of Kwame Nkrumah, who oversaw Ghana's transition from colonial rule to independence in 1957 and advocated a philosophy of pan-Africanism. Akomfrah's father served in Nkrumah's cabinet and was killed during the turmoil of 1966, which culminated in a military coup. Akomfrah was nine when he and his mother fled to England, though Nkumrah would be an important influence on his work; images of him recur throughout The Last Angel of History, and Seven Songs for Malcolm X directly addresses the philosophy of pan-Africanism, which urges black Africans worldwide to unite for political change.
No less important to Akomfrah's development was his discovery of avant-garde cinema as a college student in the late 1970s and early '80s. In an interview with the Guardian early last year, the director described having his eyes opened by the boundary-pushing films of Fassbinder, Tarkovsky, and Derek Jarman. But when he tried to screen Jarman's homoerotic Sebastiane (1976) for the activist—and primarily black—film club at his university, the audience rebelled. "Black kids were throwing chairs everywhere," he recounted. "They were saying 'You can't show this.' So we stopped the film and had a discussion. . . . It was clear there were forms of propriety for black spectatorship. Rather than run back into the field, I thought, let's just accelerate it."
In 1982 this line of thought led Akomfrah to form Black Audio Film Collective, an arts group that made avant-garde works about the African diaspora for TV, cinema, and art galleries. The collective nature of the group, which Akomfrah was involved with until 1998, might explain why he isn't more widely recognized as an auteur. (Tellingly, in both Seven Songs and Last Angel, the collective receives the "film by" credit.) The openly intellectual bent of Akomfrah's films might also explain why they're barely known in the U.S. Rather than advance hard-and-fast arguments, Akomfrah delights in cerebral activity for its own sake, encouraging spectators to draw their own conclusions from the juxtaposition of ideas.
The Last Angel of History is particularly dense in its combinations. The movie begins with the unique proposition that the history of the African diaspora might be compared to a work of science fiction, then follows that idea in several radically different directions. For the first ten minutes, Last Angel proceeds as a documentary about three musical figures—Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Lee "Scratch" Perry—who favored outer-space imagery in their song titles and album art, then it moves on to present African-American astronaut Bernard A. Harris Jr., several pioneering figures in the Detroit techno scene, and a few black science-fiction writers. To connect the various subjects, Akomfrah introduces a futuristic character called the Data Thief, who arrives in our time searching for "a secret black technology" that might connect him to the whole of black experience. In the movie's web of ideas, the mysteries of the future (as represented by electronic music, space travel, and various sci-fi premises) parallel the traditions of African tribal society, a mysterious subject to many people of the diaspora.
Akomfrah organizes these elements so fluidly that the movie flows like a piece of music, yet ironically Last Angel contains no music by any of the musicians featured (except for a short snippet of acid jazz by Sun Ra). This encourages us to think about the subjects in the abstract, considering how they relate to black culture on the whole, and as a result we might be more inclined to leap from George Clinton to African-American astronauts in a single edit.
Similarly, Akomfrah moves freely between interview subjects in Seven Songs for Malcolm X, integrating both the social leader's contemporaries and present-day academics in order to emphasize the dialogue surrounding Malcolm rather than the facts of his biography. The director presents this conversation as global in nature; for him the key incidents in Malcolm's life were his visits to Africa between 1959 and '65 (Akomfrah's mother met him in Accra during one of these trips), which inspired him to shift his political philosophy from African-American separatism to international cooperation. The tragedy of his untimely death, Akomfrah posits, is that he didn't have enough time to act on this ideological breakthrough.
What makes Seven Songs so provocative is that Akomfrah doesn't present this argument as absolute. He shows respect for many different interpretations of Malcolm, suggesting that this revolutionary figure belongs to everybody. The movie underscores that attitude through tableau compositions in which an actor playing Malcolm appears in theatrical settings (whose bold symbolic imagery reveal the direct influence of Derek Jarman). Like the subjects of Last Angel, Malcolm registers as an idea rather than a person. Yet, as Akomfrah suggests, when it comes to transcending cultural barriers, ideas are often more successful than people.