Last Angel of History

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Culture& Artistic Director Errol Francis reflects on Afrofuturism in Black Audio Film Collective’s 1996 film, ‘Last Angel of History’, originally given as an introductory talk for its screening at ‘Cyborgs’, our Friday Late event curated with the Wellcome Collection in March 2019.

‘Last Angel of History’ is a film that combines science fiction with documentary and deals with concepts of what has been called Afrofuturism, as a metaphor for the displacement of black culture and its historical roots. It is a fine example of the signature aesthetic that Black Audio Film Collective developed in using reframed archival and documentary material within an overarching fictional narrative.

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was first used in 1994, two years before this film was made, by Mark Dery in his book: ‘Flame wars: the discourse of cyberculture’.

Afrofuturism is a reference to a cultural aesthetic, and a philosophy of science and history that explores what, in the mid 1990s, was a developing dialogue between the politics arising from the displacement of African Diaspora culture and an engagement with emergent technologies – especially digital. So ‘Last Angel of History’ is a very early and important work in the film genre of Afrofuturism and its rationale is in direct contrast to Pan Africanism, which tends to look to the past and to an essentialism of the body.

In the film, we hear a series of interviews with an amazing stellar cast of cultural practitioners and commentators who were engaging with the politics and culture of the future as they saw it in the 1990s.

A primary cultural connection is made between music, outer space and the future. The fictional story line of the film follows the journey of the ‘data thief’ who must travel across time and space in search of a crossroads where he makes archaeological digs for fragments of history and technology in search of the code that holds the key to his future.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the digital-historical context of the film:

  • Only a few years before the film was made, in 1990, the first web page was served on the open internet
  • The Apple Macintosh OS operating system was launched in 1996, preinstalled on every Mac and we see one of those machines in the film a number of times
  • The then US President Ronald Reagan was dreaming of Star Wars and winnable nuclear war

More generally, we could say that these technological developments were the beginning of what we are now calling the Fourth Industrial Age. Yet the computer, starting out as part of the military industrial complex, is re-presented in the film as a counter cultural instrument through a soundtrack that signals sonic warfare to mark the end of the third industrial epoch.

This cultural strategy is reflected in some memorable quotes from the film:

“We perpetuate the technological revolution through music”

“Techno music emerges from Detroit out of the ruins of the old industrial age”

“We create sonic worlds, as a route to the cybernetic through a mutation of digital technology”

“The line between social reality and science fiction is an optical illusion”

These ideas are related to the ‘Mothership Connection’ as George Clinton’s symbol for AstroFunk – connecting with Africa as a lost continent of the past and Africa as an alien future. This is part of the fictional story-line in this film that is accessed through real-time cultural history.

In the film’s engagement with cultural politics of the future, the synthesiser is the musical instrument for its representation – explored amply in the lush sound design by Trevor Matheson.

In the recasting of American and, to a lesser extent, British history in terms of science fiction, an equivalence is drawn between alienation and alien abduction. What can be more alien than the experience and memory of chattel slavery in which there was a displacement of the original cultural code that the data thief in the film’s meta narrative is trying to retrieve?

So the data thief becomes an angel of history. “Science fiction is not a prediction of the future but a distortion of the present”, as Samuel R Delaney puts it.

This is a wonderful, special film and I hope you enjoy it.

‘Last Angel of History’ is available to view from the LUX Collection:

Image: Still from ‘Last Angel of History’, Courtesy of John Akomfrah/ Black Audio Film Collective and LUX, London.