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How John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Collective Extended the Boundaries of Black Film Culture

In a new book coinciding with a major exhibition in New York, the British filmmaker's impact on black cinema gets a closer look.

Director John Akomfrah from the film "The Stuart Hall Project" poses for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on in Park City, Utah2013 Sundance Portrait - The Stuart Hall Project, Park City, USA - 20 Jan 2013

John Akomfrah

Victoria Will/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from “A Mysterious Time Traveler Returns,” an essay in the new book “John Akomfrah: Signs of an Empire,” published to coincide with a new exhibit on display at the New Museum in New York through September 2.

John Akomfrah’s directorial contributions throughout the ‘90s are linked to the six other names that formed the basis of Black Audio Film Collective: Lina Gopaul, Reece Auguiste, Avril Johnson, Trevor Mathison, David Lawson, and Edward George. Each contributed to the technical atmosphere surrounding the works for which BAFC is known today, taking part in various aspects of filmmaking and channels of distribution—photographs, posters, flyers, and artistic statements. Titles directed by Akomfrah in this period are also associated with the television broadcasting company Channel 4, a public-service channel that participated in the production of “Testament” (1988), “Who Needs a Heart” (1991), “Seven Songs for Malcolm X” (1993), and “The Last Angel of History” (1995).

Providing production support and a platform for films such as these, Channel 4—which debuted on British television in November 1982 with an emphasis on arts and culture programming—played a critical role in the early formation of BAFC and other filmmaking collectives and workshops throughout the UK.

Conceived, in part, in response to the narratives of black dissent that had played out in mainstream news outlets, Channel 4 sought to provide innovative content and give voice to those marginalized in British society, with a particular emphasis on the needs of minority audiences. The channel, along with the Greater London Council, dedicated production funds and helped establish workshops to facilitate the making of film and video in and by these communities. Bolstered by new avenues of institutional support and the formation of “publisher-broadcaster” stations like Channel 4, filmmaking collectives and workshops such as BAFC were founded in the early ’80s as alternatives to dominant representational modes in the UK.

These groups addressed conditions of race and class that had otherwise been told from an outside perspective, and the television station thus helped to facilitate a critical reassessment of what BAFC characterized at its inception as the “figuration of identity” in cinema, both through the presence of black bodies as so-called “self-evident truths” and making accessible the tools necessary for, in Akomfrah’s words, “extending the boundaries of black film culture.”

In “The Last Angel of History” (1995), a character called the Data Thief (portrayed by Edward George) serves up a series of clues for understanding how the fragments of the past might come together to assemble an as-yet-unrealized vision of the future. In many respects, his data-mining techniques foreshadow the conditions that shape the reception of Akomfrah’s work today. In the earliest moments of the film—a sort-of documentary tracing the legacies of the cultural aesthetic and philosophical framework of Afrofuturism—the Data Thief appears onscreen with hat and sunglasses.

He offers the following scenario as a starting point for the excavation that will unfold over forty-five minutes of frenzied digital sampling of sound and image: “If you can find the crossroads—a crossroads, this crossroads, if you can make an archeological dig into this crossroads—you’ll find fragments, techno fossils. And if you can put those elements—those fragments—together, you’ll find the code. Crack that code and you’ll have the keys to your future. You’ve got one clue, and it’s a phrase: Mothership Connection.”

John Akomfrah’s “Unfinished Conversation”

A mere five years into the history of the internet and only two years after the term Afrofuturism was coined, Akomfrah imagines an internet specifically linked to black technoculture. The Data Thief is a scavenger who sorts through a rapid-fire collage of uploads, downloads, file transfers, and bitstreams to locate Afrofuturism’s roots, exemplified as early as the 1950s by Sun Ra and popularized in critical circles at the time of the film’s production. His clue—“Mothership Connection,” a reference to Parliament’s influential album from 1975—indicates a starting point for this cultural journey through the experience of black music and the technologies that have taken part in its evolution. Produced within a British context, the film has an eye toward an American cultural condition; it is the embodiment of transatlantic cultural exchange and the dislocation of Afrofuturism as a lived experience inherited from the Middle Passage and its diasporic legacies.

“The Last Angel of History” experiments with the narrative approaches and forms of essayistic film that Akomfrah developed as early as “Handsworth Songs.” Offering a hyperstylized visual language cast in faux-nostalgic sepia tones, the film is largely focused on interviews with musicians, music critics, and cultural theorists, which provide the material for the Data Thief to navigate his exploration.

Amid an ominous soundtrack by BAFC member Trevor Mathison, we encounter British and American cultural figures including actress Nichelle Nichols, astronaut Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr., critic and artist Kodwo Eshun, writer and theorist Greg Tate, and musician Derrick May. It’s possible that the Data Thief prompts these talking heads with questions, though there is never a direct connection established between interviewer and interviewee. For the Data Thief, an interloper attempting to understand the historical trajectories of Afrofuturism and its paradoxical relationship to imagined futures, the filmic subjects—represented by their musical and theoretical output and their attempts at self-definition—are themselves consumable artifacts.

One of John Akomfrah’s installation pieces at the New Museum

Departing from the conventional documentary form, the film stitches quantifiable data together with an array of found images depicting everything from solar flares to performances by Lee “Scratch” Perry and the late Sun Ra (musicians who, alongside George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, embody the Afrofuturist impulse). Meanwhile, a flicker of images periodically cycles across the screen, reflecting back on the history of the Middle Passage and the cultural outgrowths of black estrangement that followed throughout Europe and North and South America.

Tate’s response: “Most science fiction tales dramatically deal with how the individual is going to contend with the alienating, dislocating societies and circumstances, and that pretty much sums up the mass experience of black people within the post-slavery twentieth-century world.”

Along with Eshun and others, Tate argues that narratives from science fiction—stories of abduction, alien encounters, and social estrangement—characterize the black experience in our allegedly postcolonial, post-abolition context. More recently, Arthur Jafa (who served as director of photography for “Seven Songs for Malcolm X”) echoed these sentiments when he asked, “Have you ever noticed that 2001’s monolith, Darth Vader’s uniform/flesh, and H.R. Giger’s alien are all composed of the same black substance?”

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