The Last Angel of History

In the current issue of the Reader, Kathleen Sachs wrote an overview of this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival, which continues through Thursday at Facets. This annual event provides as good an excuse as any to explore the great cinema produced by Africa and the people from its widespread diasporas. Of this cinema, the titles made by African American filmmakers understandably receive the most attention stateside, in part because the U.S. has such a remarkable history of films made by Black men and women. This history spans from the silent era, with works written and/or directed by (among others) onetime Chicagoan Oscar Micheaux, to the first decades of sound cinema, with actor-turned-director Spencer Williams making some of the most important films of this period, to the independent movement of the 1970s and all the way to today. I strongly encourage readers interested in the first three decades of this history to pick up Kino Lorber’s exceptional box set Pioneers of African-American Cinema, which contains a veritable trove of riches.

The five movies spotlighted below were either made in Africa or consider the legacy of African traditions within the diaspora. I could have included Charles Burnett’s 1990 masterpiece To Sleep with Anger(which recently received a DVD release from the Criterion Collection), a film that transposes elements of African folklore to contemporary Los Angeles. I also could have included Souleymane Cissé’s 1987 masterpiece Yeelen (which recently screened at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema), a movie that the Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum once praised as conceivably the greatest African film. In short the cinema of Africa and its diasporas could fill many of these columns—consider these selections an all-too-brief introduction.

<i>Touki Bouki</i>
Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki This 1973 first feature by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety is one of the greatest of all African films and almost certainly the most experimental. Beautifully shot and strikingly conceived, it follows the comic misadventures of a young motorcyclist and former herdsman (Magaye Niang) who gets involved in petty crimes in Dakar during an attempt to escape to Paris with the woman he loves (Mareme Niang). The title translates as “Hyena’s Voyage,” and among the things that make this film so interesting stylistically are the fantasy sequences involving the couple’s projected images of themselves in Paris and elsewhere. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

<i>Camp Thiaroye</i>
Camp Thiaroye

Camp Thiaroye It’s possible that a good half of the greatest African movies ever made are the work of novelist-turned-filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (Black Girl, Xala, Ceddo). Camp Thiaroye (1987), cowritten and codirected by Thierno Faty Sow, recounts an incident that occurred in 1944. Returning from four years of European combat in the French army, Senegalese troops are sent to a transit camp, where they have to contend with substandard food and other indignities. An intellectual sergeant major (Ibrahima Sane) gets thrown out of a local bordello when he goes there for a drink; mistaken for an American soldier, he’s arrested and beaten by American MPs, which provokes his men into kidnapping an American GI. Then when the Senegalese troops discover that they’re about to be cheated out of half their back pay, they launch a revolt. Leisurely paced, this is a novelistic (and often witty) treatment of a complex subject in which all the characters get their due. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

<i>Daughters of the Dust</i>
Daughters of the Dust

Daughters of the Dust Julie Dash’s first feature (1991), set in the islands along the south Atlantic coast of the U.S. sometime around 1900. A group of Black women, carrying on ancient African traditions and beliefs as part of an extended family preparing to migrate north, confront the issue of what to bring with them and what to leave behind. Lyrically distended in its folkloric meditations, with striking use of slow and slurred motion in certain interludes, this doesn’t make much use of drama or narrative, and the musical score and performances occasionally seem at war with the period ambience. But the resources of the beautiful locations are exploited to the utmost, and Dash can be credited with an original, daring, and sincere conception. With Cora Lee Day, Alva Rogers, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore, and Barbara-O. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

The Last Angel of History I’ve never seen anything quite like this 1996 video by John Akomfrah, a 45-minute meditation on Black consciousness whose dense, almost chaotic weave of images and ideas offers space travel and science fiction as metaphors for the experience of the African diaspora. Interviews with musicians and writers alternate with an account of the fictional Data Thief, a time traveler who surfs past and present looking for information that will help him predict his own future. Akomfrah’s anti-Cartesian, postrational view of knowledge is a little frightening but accounts for much of the film’s power and originality: some speakers are melded together by slow dissolves, as if their ideas were being mixed into a stew, while other images are joined by rapid intercutting, the unpredictable rhythmic shifts and explosions of insight echoing the wildly inventive Sun Ra music included on the sound track. This is less a sociological study than an over-the-top fantasy, an improvisational riff on time and history asserting that, as the Data Thief puts it, the line between social reality and science fiction is an optical illusion. —Fred Camper


Bamako A large portion of this highly original 2006 feature from Mali by Abderrahmane Sissako (Life on Earth, Waiting for Happiness) consists of a hearing devoted to the operations of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Africa, with judge, Black and white lawyers, and witnesses all played by nonactors who’ve written their own speeches, many of them angry. All this is set outdoors, in a backyard in a poor section of Bamako, the capital of Mali, and the remainder of the film is devoted to glimpses of everyday African life taking place around this event. Sissako scrupulously avoids making any facile connections between his two blocks of material, and his cast, even when silent, are always eloquent. —Jonathan Rosenbaum  v