Two Early Films From John Akomfrah
Two early films from the British-Ghanian documentarian John Akomfrah are on view at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, one eyeing black history, the other the future. Both are thought-provoking, and they coincide with the premiere of this director’s latest work, “The Nine Muses,” at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Seven Songs for Malcolm X” (1993) delineates that civil rights leader with contributions from his wife, Betty Shabazz; Spike Lee; the writer Thulani Davis; the lawyer William Kunstler; and Wilfred Little (Malcolm X’s brother), among others, often in Mr. Akomfrah’s signature diffuse lighting and tinted frames. Slow-moving staged tableaus of scenes from Malcolm X’s life add a formal solemnity.
Much of the biographical information here is familiar, but there is intriguing speculation. Ms. Davis reads from F.B.I. surveillance documents, while Kunstler says Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were planning to join forces shortly before Malcolm X was killed. A. Peter Bailey, a former aide and Ebony magazine editor, citing the F.B.I.’s infiltration of the Nation of Islam, says it must have known of his impending assassination. Most compelling is footage of the man himself, in all his focused, forceful, articulate and determined charisma.
Mr. Akomfrah’s more abstract “Last Angel of History” (1996) explores the intersection of African-American culture with technology and science fiction, pursuing, for example, alien abduction as a metaphor for the displacement of slaves, and music sampling as a form of digital race memory. The film suffers from dated computer graphics and some belabored hair-splitting over musical subgenres (say, techno versus jungle), but it offers an abundance of challenging ideas from the likes of the science-fiction author Samuel R. Delany, Bernard A. Harris Jr. (the first black astronaut to walk in space), DJ Spooky and the actress Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura of the original “Star Trek”).
SEVEN SONGS FOR MALCOLM X
Opens on Monday in Manhattan.
Directed by John Akomfrah; written by Mr. Akomfrah and Edward George; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Joy Chamberlain; production design by Susan Dowlatshahi; produced by Lina Gopaul; released by Icarus Films. Shown with “The Last Angel of History” at the Maysles Cinema, 343 Malcolm X Boulevard, between 127th and 128th Streets, Harlem. Running time: 52 minutes. This film is not rated.
THE LAST ANGEL OF HISTORY
Opens on Monday in Manhattan.
Directed by John Akomfrah; written by Edward George; edited by Justin Amsden; music by Trevor Mathison, with songs by Sun Ra and Kraftwerk; produced by Lina Gopaul and Avril Johnson; released by Icarus Films. Shown with “Seven Songs for Malcolm X” at the Maysles Cinema, 343 Malcolm X Boulevard, between 127th and 128th Streets, Harlem. Running time: 45 minutes. This film is not rated.
John Anderson is a writer specializing in films.