John Akomfrah’s films are dizzying, strange, and absolutely essential artworks that explore histories of displacement, people living in oppressive states, landscapes on the verge of alteration, and larger-than-life thinkers like Stuart Hall and Malcolm X. His considerations of any one of those alone would be enough to make Akomfrah one of today’s most thoughtful artists. All together, they have made the Ghanaian-born, British-based artist—with his legacy built among colleagues in the Black Audio Film Collective—a leading experimental figure and an inspiration to many younger artists at work right now. Below, a ranking of Akomfrah’s five best works. (Three of them can currently be streamed, with notes for each included.)
5. Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)
One could watch Seven Songs for Malcolm X and learn a lot about the civil rights leader’s life, but it’s more likely to come away with a better and more complex sense of how he has been represented through history. Some critics have seen that as a failing—after it aired on Channel 4 one year following Spike Lee’s biopic of Malcolm X, detractors wondered how necessary Akomfrah’s film really was. “Seven Songs will sing mostly to role-model-hungry black men with the staged images of stoical Fruit-of-Islam types standing dolefully by the dead man’s body veering close to unreflective canonization,” a critic for Variety wrote.
But unreflective canonization this is not. Instead, the film looks at how Malcolm X came to be canonized and features powerful interviews with figures like Lee, writer Greg Tate, and Betty Shabazz, the activist’s widow. Akomfrah’s point was less to offer an educational experience than it was to consider Malcolm X’s role in history, often through a stylized combination of archival material and newly shot footage. And that newly shot footage was crafted by a filmmaker who has since been embraced by the art world: Arthur Jafa.
Available for rental on Vimeo
4. The Unfinished Conversation (2012)
Stuart Hall, a pioneering figure in the field of cultural studies, has long been an idol for Akomfrah, who with The Unfinished Conversation crafted a sort of experimental biopic that engages Hall’s theorization that people’s identities have much to do with the culture around them. In tribute to that line of thinking, Akomfrah represents Hall’s upbringing in Jamaica, his rise to fame in the England (as the director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies), and his ongoing theoretical investigations. The work incisively links Hall’s life to various global happenings—World War II, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War—and positions them as being intimately related to the way Hall developed his own identity.
To make The Unfinished Conversation, Akomfrah combed through 800 hours of archival footage of Hall speaking and spread some of those clips across three screens. While the film is tightly edited, the work is still meant to be open-ended, as its title suggests. “It’s unfinished because one of the many compulsions taken up in collectives, and for being part of one, remains this question of naming, and of finding a space either within a society, state, or town—call it what you will—of autonomy in which one can become,” Akomfrah told Ocula in 2018, when the work was shown in his first major museum show in the United States (at the New Museum in New York).
3. The Last Angel of History (1996)
Many of Akomfrah’s works can classified as film essays in which unlike topics and differing historical strands are threaded together by a binding idea. The influence of Chris Marker, often regarded as the most important filmmaker who worked in the film-essay form, and The Last Angel of History bears the clearest signs that Akomfrah was working under the sway of films such as Sans Soleil and La Jetée (as well as work by others including by Jean-Luc Godard and Theodoros Angelopoulos).
Akomfrah’s ochre-toned quasi-futuristic film focuses on the role that science-fiction plays in Africa, where—through the filmmaker’s lens—years from the past, present, and future seem to coexist alongside one another. Dotted with references to Octavia Butler’s novels, Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist music, and experiments with launching African-Americans into space, the film also loosely revolves around Mothership Connection, a 1975 album by the funk band Parliament. (The album’s title bears the only two words given to a data thief commanded to pick through a series of images—“fragments, techno-fossils,” we’re told—that will lead him to his future.)
Available for rental on Vimeo
2. Vertigo Sea (2015)
Over the past decade, cultural institutions have begun commissioning Akomfrah for bigger, bolder projects that often involve images arrayed across multiple screens. The multichannel installation format has ushered in a more sumptuous, though no less rigorous, kind of filmmaking evocative of Romantic painting and postcolonial theory, along with a host of issues relevant to our current moment in the age known as the Anthropocene. This visually exquisite mode reached its height with Vertigo Sea, which first appeared in the main exhibition (organized by Okwui Enwezor) at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Like many of Akomfrah’s recent efforts, Vertigo Sea takes watery expanses as a metaphor for the intermingling of various historical tides. (The Atlantic Ocean, with its ugly history of the transatlantic slave trade, feels ever-present, even if Akomfrah never outright takes that as his subject.) Over the course of 43 entrancing minutes, Akomfrah draws parallels between environmental destruction and the pillaging and displacement of various peoples, with footage of atomic bomb test blasts and majestic images of whales from BBC documentaries.
1. Handsworth Songs (1986)
Handsworth Songs effectively changed film history when it was first shown in 1986—even if viewers at the time weren’t quite sure what to do with it. Lina Gopaul, one of the Black Audio Film Collective’s founding members, has described a sense of racist dismissal surrounding the idea of a group of Black filmmakers working together, and so, when Akomfrah and his collaborators set their cameras on Black protesters who rioted in London and Birmingham in 1985 against violent policing, some wondered whether their equipment was real. (This despite the fact that white film crews documenting the same happenings often went unquestioned by viewers watching news broadcasts at home.)
Handsworth Songs is more than a traditional documentary account of the riots. It’s also a powerful, formally audacious meditation on the way that moving images structure our sense of politics and vice-versa. Filled with appropriated footage from newsreels and scans of coverage of the riots in newspapers, Handsworth Songs aired on Channel 4 (in a major showcase rarely afforded to experimental filmmaking) and was initially divisive. Salman Rushdie published an infamous essay in the Guardian deriding the film, which he claimed was “no good” on account of its privileging of aesthetics over real-world politics. In the same publication, Stuart Hall, whose work formed a cornerstone for the Black Audio Film Collective’s activities, hit back at Rushdie, calling his review “lofty” and “disdainful”—and said the film helped usher in a new cinematic language.
Available to stream on Lisson Gallery’s website