Unfinished Conversations

Leo Goldsmith on Black Audio Film Collective

John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs, 1987, 16 mm, color, sound, 61 minutes.

ABSENT AMONG LAST WEEK’S many tributes to cultural theorist Stuart Hall—who died February 10 following a long illness—was any mention of a letter he wrote to The Guardian in 1987 in response to Salman Rushdie’s negative review of a film called Handsworth Songs by a group of young black independent filmmakers known as Black Audio Film Collective. Rushdie accused the film, which concerned recent racially motivated unrest in the titular Birmingham neighborhood, of failing to give voice to the sorts of colorful, postcolonial narratives that were his own stock in trade. But Hall leaped to their defense: “What I don’t understand is how anyone watching the film could have missed the struggle which it represents, precisely, to find a new language.”

After all, this struggle for a new language—one frequently marginalized under what Hall termed the “authoritarian populism” of Thatcherism—was one in which the oft-labeled “godfather of multiculturalism” was deeply invested. Since the 1950s, Hall had been a highly visible fixture of political debate in the UK: He was founding editor of New Left Review, longtime director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, and professor of sociology at the Open University, and he appeared almost weekly on BBC television and radio programs to discuss Marx, race, and the media.

Hall identified in Black Audio’s work a form of cultural politics much like his own, one engaged in an active feedback loop with history—“complexly mediated and transformed by memory, fantasy and desire, [and] by the technologies and the identities of the present.” Add to this approach the radical poetics of the collective’s members—including Ghanaian-born director John Akomfrah, producer Lina Gopaul, and sound designer Trevor Mathison—and one finds in Handsworth Songs a style that approximates in cinematic form the “cut-and-mix” methods of Caribbean music then popular in London’s black neighborhoods, further echoed in the film’s dark, grungy footage of Jah Shaka and his sound system in an underground club. Of course, Hall’s defense of the collective in the letters pages of The Guardian was just one instance in a long informal collaboration that has culminated in a documentary portrait, The Stuart Hall Project, and a video installation, The Unfinished Conversation, currently on view at Tate Britain—both directed by Akomfrah with the collaboration of Gopaul, Mathison, and other former collective members.

Founded in Hackney, East London, in 1982, the Collective—which also included Edward George, Reece Auguiste, Avril Johnson, and David Lawson—arose amid a period marked by postindustrial austerity, strikes, and race riots on the one hand and increased support for independent media on the other: Channel 4 began broadcasting in November of that year, and the ACTT Workshop Declaration provided a funding structure that led directly to the founding of Black Audio, as well as other black and Asian collectives and workshops like Sankofa Film and Video (in which Isaac Julien produced some of his first films), Ceddo, and Retake. In the beginning, the collective organized screenings, workshops, and slide-tape lectures, before producing the experimental essay films for which they would become better known, an oeuvre marked by montage, hybrid aesthetics, and essayistic bricolage. The standout among these is Handsworth Songs, a kaleidoscopic work that interleaves archival imagery of West Indian migrants, interviews with representatives from Handsworth’s South Asian and West Indian immigrant populations, and vérité documentation of demonstrations, funerals, and arrests, all harmonized by Mathison’s intricate, patchwork sound design, which collages evocative poetic readings and eyewitness testimony, calypso and reggae, street sounds and ominous electronic noises into a sonic cityscape as complex, volatile, and intercultural as the community itself.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the collective continued to deploy their unique multivalent aesthetic in a body of work that seeks out the loose ends of black diasporic history: Who Needs a Heart (1991), a fictionalized scrapbook-like portrait of the Black Power movement in London told through a constellation of black and white revolutionaries, artists, friends, and lovers whose lives run in parallel to the downfall of the Trinidadian militant Michael de Freitas (aka Michael X, aka Michael Abdul Malik); Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1992), an amalgam of archival images, footage shot around Harlem and at the premiere of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and staged tableaux inspired by the films of Sergei Paradjanov and James Van der Zee’s photography in The Harlem Book of the Dead; and The Last Angel of History (1996), which explores the linkages between black culture and sci-fi with contributions from George Clinton, Octavia Butler, and DJ Spooky. (The latter film is currently on view as part of the Studio Museum’s excellent Afrofuturism exhibition, “The Shadows Took Shape.”) While the collective ceased to function as a contiguous entity in 1998—partly the result of the lack of arts subsidies in the changing media landscape of the ’90s—Akomfrah continued to collaborate with former collective members Gopaul, Lawson, and Mathison on his 2010 film The Nine Muses and last year’s The Stuart Hall Project. In 2007, the collective was the subject of a retrospective, “The Ghosts of Songs,” organized for FACT in Liverpool by Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group.

While The Stuart Hall Project would seem like the ideal occasion to tease out the connections between the theorist and the collective, or indeed between theory and practice, the film itself strangely lacks much of the radical energy of the earlier works. While no doubt heartfelt, the film functions better as an affectionate personal tribute to Hall’s life than as an evocation of his intellectual legacy, and leaves major threads largely untreated—including his activism on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, his critique of Thatcher, and indeed the whole period during which both Hall and the collective were most conspicuous. Instead, the film crafts an elegant if somewhat too placid account of Hall’s life and times, scored by Miles Davis and illustrated with a flow of family photos, BBC appearances, and archival images which function as historical backdrop in the manner of many a conventional feature documentary.

The installation The Unfinished Conversation rather more successfully conveys the complexity of Hall’s work—and this is perhaps because of its form, which manages to suggest a good deal more through its contrapuntal voices and comparative editing. As in the best of the collective’s work, there’s something unstable about the relations set up by this multichannel work: Where the film seeks the finality of the biopic, the installation takes a more appropriately fragmentary, polyphonic tack, placing Hall’s words into dialogue with those of Virginia Woolf, William Blake, and Mervyn Peake, and triangulating, rather than flattening, the personal, the cultural, and the political. If this makes the film somewhat more disappointing by contrast, both works nonetheless stand as heartfelt tributes to Hall and to a cultural exchange he helped foster.

“Black Audio Film Collective” runs February 24–27 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. The Unfinished Conversation is on view at Tate Britain through March 23, 2014.