The layer of snow that's expected to blanket Seattle this weekend will render most plans useless. Even pre-pandemic, expecting a friend to traverse the city's icy hills for a drink or a stroll around a museum is foolish. If you can believe it, there's still fun to be had at home.
The Criterion Channel recently added more excellent films to their Afrofuturism collection. Chief among them being John Akomfrah's 1996 documentary/sci-fi parable The Last Angel of History exploring Afrofuturism. It's a good anecdote to these cold weather blues.
Incidentally, Akomfrah's Last Angel of History was part of the Seattle Art Museum's sweeping show of the video artist's work that opened almost a year ago before being shuttered due to COVID. It's a shame. The exhibition's curation featured giant screens and cushy chairs for visitors to bliss out in—an unimaginable thought now.
A founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective in the United Kingdom, Ghana-born Akomfrah's work is meaty, often composed of stitched-together video fragments and clips to create moving films about slavery and capitalism. At SAM, I witnessed one (white) woman walk out of a screening, upset over an archival video of two hunters killing a polar bear. The Last Angel of History is decidedly less shocking but a genuinely thrilling and informative watch.
The 1996 documentary follows a Black "data thief," a fictional character who is on a quest through time and space to find a code that will unlock the future. Really, this thief is a way for Akomfrah to thread images and music from the past and the present to weave together a vision of the future that's rooted in Black people and culture.
Narrating this journey are Black scholars, DJs, artists, astronauts, and musicians who lend their big brains to composing this portrait of Afrofuturism. Nichelle Nichols talks about recruiting Black people to become astronauts, George Clinton details how Black people came from space and are likely to return to the heavens, Octavia Butler connects her approach to science fiction and Reagan-era nuclear anxieties. Techno, funk, reggae, jungle, blues, and drum beats are presented as technologies key to unlocking what's next to come.
The most potent point of the short film is its emphasis on the sense of displacement and alienation experienced by the Black diaspora, who were abducted from Africa and roped into chattel slavery. It was an experience that fundamentally changed our culture, identity, and relationship to the world. If Black people were to "go back where we came from" where would that "where" be? Africa because of our African blood? Europe because of some of our European blood? Or somewhere else? Stranger philosopher-in-residence Charles Mudede put it this way in his contemporaneous review of the show:
But Akomfrah's philosophical works never search for an African purity, a black essence. He is well aware of the fact that black African culture has been transformed not only by its encounters with Western culture but also by cultures in South America and Asia. Blackness is more than just the double consciousness of W.E.B. Du Bois (black and white). It is instead a multitudinous mind, a mode of being in the world that has no clear borders and no defined beginning or end.
Indeed, The Last Angel of History makes a good case for Black people belonging among the stars. You can stream Akomfrah's The Last Angel of History here.