Year Released: 1995
Distributor: Icarus Films
Running Time: 45 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: The Last Angel of History is such an original work and I can’t think of other films like it. A safe bet would be to check out John Akromfrah’s other works especially his experimental documentaries and video installations.
-The Last Angel of History was directed by Accra-born, London-based film director, writer, theorist John Akomfrah. He was the founder of the Black Audio Film Collective and Smoking Dogs films. Some of Akomfrah’s other films he directed include Handsworth Songs (also his debut work), Seven Songs for Malcolm X, The Stuart Hall Project, and Purple.
-This is coincidentally the 2nd documentary featuring both electronic artists Derrick May and A Guy Called Gerald after Madchester: The Sound of the North which I’ve also reviewed. A Guy Called Gerald (real name: Gerald Simpson) is a Jamaican-British DJ and producer from Manchester. He was a former member of 808 State who were featured in the aforementioned Madchester documentary with him in different scenes. He has collaborated with the likes of System 7 and Herbie Hancock.
-Star Trek is name-dropped multiple times, so wouldn’t it be funny if a cast member from that series was in that documentary? Oh, wait! Nichelle Nichols makes a brief interview cameo to talk about diversity in NASA. That’s Lt. Uhura herself from the original series for those scoring at home, so it makes sense why she would be in a documentary revolving around Afrofuturism. Outside of her tenure in the Star Trek franchise, she has also appeared in The Supernaturals, Are We There Yet?, and was in 4 episodes of Gargoyles of all shows.
-Astronaut Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. is the first African-American in history to do an EVA spacewalk when he was on the Space Shuttle flight. He also has a medical background and has a middle school named after him in Harris’s home city of San Antonio, TX.
-Funk legend George Clinton of Parliament and Funkadelic fame is featured multiple times in The Last Angels of History. While most people can name at least one of his songs in his bands or as a solo artist, he has collaborated with multiple musicians in his decades-long career. Clinton has made songs with Snoop Dogg, Digital Underground (2Pac’s old band as one might know), Outkast, Prince, Wu-Tang Clan, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino. Also, he got to do some voice acting in Trolls World Tour as King Quincy who is the monarch of the Funk Trolls. Yes…George Clinton whom one can argue is the king of funk in real life was in a Dreamworks movie. You can’t make this up at all.
Iridium Eye has been an outlet that became an unlikely place where I learned a lot about cinema. For those who have read my reviews over the years, one may have noticed that I have a habit of saying why I didn’t know about this director or that director back then (especially during my university days given my academic background). This is another case of that happening and this time the spotlight is on Ghanian-British filmmaker John Akomfrah. Part of me feels ashamed for not knowing about this director, but then again, I was rarely exposed to directors of his complexion years ago. Even more so with me being into avant-garde stuff since his work can be very experimental even when it comes to his documentary portfolio. Akomfrah doesn’t get his flowers enough for his contributions. For those that read my last Top 7 list, you might remember me mentioning how an episode of Black Mirror and even Black Panther was inspired by one of his works. This is the big one over here as we delve into the world of Afrofuturism.
How will the past and future coalesce when it comes to technology and the culture embedded into it?
The Last Angel of History is an experimental sci-fi documentary that covers the concepts of Afrofuturism with two parallel narratives. The first narrative deals with real-life history with numerous interviews from musicians, authors, astronauts, and actors as they cover how that aesthetic affected music, technology, fiction, and academia. The second narrative is a fictional one involving a character known as the Data Thief (played by the researcher Edward George) who is a time-traveler from 200 years in the future who finds relics in Africa and America to find a key to unlocking the history of the African Diaspora. These parallels are interwoven throughout interviews and narrations as they chronicle the stark correlations between science-fiction and Black people all over the world with ties dating back to the Transatlantic slave trade to modern music (highlighting techno, jungle, blues, and hip-hop). How will these unlikely aspects of culture and technology intertwine and possibly hold a key to the future?
I’ve certainly seen and reviewed my fair share of documentaries, but this is hands down one of the most innovative documentaries I’ve ever seen. There have certainly been creative presentations that I’ve checked out and this even includes docufiction projects, but this is on a whole other level. Anyone else would have made this a giant mess with the two narratives, but they just flowed seamlessly with the interviews as well as the Data Thief footage mixed in to create a much larger story that blends fact and fiction simultaneously. There are correlations that worked together like the concept of the “crossroads” with the famous Robert Johnson story with the Data Thief finding a crossroads with various music and art. Another brilliant correlation that’s brought up in both narratives is how Black people could relate in sci-fi in ways no one would expect. The biggest examples are the common tropes of alien abduction and genetic modification. The African Diaspora might just (as the people on the internet would say) “hard relate” although for different reasons since the slave trade was literally a mass abduction and the cultures are rearranged with enforced names and languages while being “programmed” to forget about their cultures, native tongues, and music. Why WOULDN’T there be Black people who would be into sci-fi let alone have characters of that persuasion in the context of fiction? There’s even an argument that the diaspora (especially African-Americans) could feel like aliens as not belonging in society and no one believing them about their experiences such as racial profiling, police harassment/brutality, legal double standards, or discrimination to name a few. I could mention the low-hanging fruit that stemmed from the backlash Star Wars got for daring to have Finn to begin with, but that’s too obvious. Author Octavia Butler noticed these unspoken parallels when she noticed how there weren’t many Black sci-fi characters by writing her own stories as well as critiquing Ronald Reagan’s thoughts on nuclear war with her Xenogenesis series which shows how an alien force would react if they saw that kind of catastrophe after the fact. These connections between things such as technology, history, culture and a “digital diaspora” has been very fascinating. The argument about how technology is making it easier for people to create is a LOT stronger nowadays. This was made in 1995, so I could only imagine how the interviewees would’ve reacted at that time about smartphones, social media, even cheaper recording technology, or musicians making it without labels with places such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, or Tunecore for example. Besides the incredible stories and interviews, the production is highly creative as to be expected from John Akomfrah. There are some talking head interviews as something grounded, but there are various camera tricks such as clone shots, meshed archive photos/video, dystopian backgrounds while still looking natural, and color-correction techniques. One creative interviewing technique was Derrick May and A Guy Called Gerald seeming like they’re talking through each other in spliced footage while they’re in separate rooms. Anyone could’ve done a simple split screen, but the content and effects make it stand out more. The futurism used is surprisingly grounded even with the time-traveling glasses and images of spaceships or robots. This was brilliant seeing all of these elements mesh together. The music was great with a mix of low-key techno, blues, and jungle thrown in which worked very well given the topics here.
The Last Angel of History loses feathers here and there. While the presentation was brilliant, I felt the ending drops out a bit from out of nowhere. The Data Thief talks about producers being cyborgs of sorts which I found intriguing, but it then gets to the end credits after making that brief explanation. It felt like it just stopped instead of making a stronger transition. I thought there was a gender imbalance as it was mostly men being interviewed. There were only two female interviewees who were Octavia Butler and Nichelle Nichols. The former only had one brief interview scene. I thought it would’ve been better with female representation for this topic. The biggest flaw of The Last Angel of History is how obvious it was that it was made in the 90s with the technology on display. The CGI was on par with Playstation games at that time which was incredibly dated and the virtual reality goggles look archaic compared to today’s augmented reality. Some of those scenes oddly reminded me of how dated Beast Wars’ animation was in hindsight from modern eyes especially when you have CGI productions and even video game consoles that would have better graphics later that decade such as the N64 and Dreamcast. Of course, the computers used in some of the Data Thief B-roll were models I used or saw when I was in elementary school. I have a laptop that’s over a decade old that looks and is more advanced than the computers used in those scenes. I’m guilty of throwing the term Unintentional Period Piece Syndrome despite this work having timeless themes as well as meshing the past, present, and future, but it is hard when you can clearly tell which decade this was made in with the computers as well as the brief CGI animated scenes.
This short documentary from John Akromfrah was an impressive watch and deserves to be an influential work in Afrofuturism as well as other productions. The content was brilliant and the usage of the two parallel facets of real history as well as sci-fi is very commendable. Akomfrah’s penchant for the avant-garde is certainly there, but the presentation is something that a casual viewer can easily follow and it’s certainly a shorter watch for people to get the information. However, the dated technology and a gender imbalance in interviews are very noticeable. The Last Angel of History is still an immensely creative production and should be used for film classes, music appreciation, literature, and Black History. Strongly recommended.
Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you’re a fan of Afrofuturism.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you can’t stand outdated technology elements.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you prefer more traditional documentaries.
-Incredible coalescence of fact and science fiction
-Original concept and production
-Timeless themes and some aspects are stronger in hindsight
-Lack of female interviewees
-The ending is rushed
-Obsolete technology from the 90s on display as well as dated CGI
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Advisory: The Last Angel of History should be fine for teens and up. The discussion of slavery, systemic racism and colonization are brought up when the interviewees talk about the unintentional parallels of alien abduction, genetic reprogramming, and feeling like aliens. This would be a PG if the F-bomb wasn’t dropped four times in it’s run time or Goldie flipping the bird doing one interview. Samuel R. Delany is mentioned to be openly gay, but his sexual orientation is only mentioned in passing. Also, pot and LSD are mentioned very briefly in one interview. Some of the archived footage involves warfare, violent reactions to protests, and a pride of lions chomping at an animal carcass.
All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Last Angel of History is property of Icarus Films. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Icarus Films.