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Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)

Courtesy of Smoking Dogs Films

Main image of Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)
DirectorJohn Akomfrah
Production CompanyBlack Audio Film Collective
ProducerLina Gopaul
ScreenplayJohn Akomfrah
 Edward George
CinematographyArthur Jafa
MusicTrevor Mathison

Cast: Darrick Harris (Malcolm X); Tricia Rose (Malcolm's mother); Theodore L. Cash (Malcolm's father); Olamide Faison (young Malcolm)

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The life and death of the American black activist Malcolm X recalled in interviews, dramatic reconstructions, archive film and a reading from his autobiography.

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With Seven Songs For Malcolm X, Black Audio Film Collective applied its distinctive style to the story of one of the most fiery and controversial figures of the 20th century. This story was always going to be an interesting challenge, given the status of Malcolm X (né Little), as an iconic black leader who has been recast by successive generations after their own image.

The opening of Spike Lee's Malcolm X (US, 1993) in the same year presents an opportunity to contrast the styles of two important black filmmakers. Where Lee's three-hour epic follows a familiar Hollywood biopic path, John Akomfrah unfurls the factual narrative in a landscape of thoughts, ideas and poetic interpretation. The result is a multi-stranded and surprisingly accessible artistic essay.

Seven Songs For Malcolm X experiments with form, technique and narrative. The number seven ("the number of vision" as Malcolm's mother Louise puts it) has both a literal significance - the documentary is divided into seven sections - and mythic aspirations - Malcolm X, a seventh son, was assassinated by another seventh son, Gabriel Prosser. The biographical form explores the world and the metaphysical connections to the world.

The documentary form here becomes as malleable as fiction, able to take on issues of social concern, while exploring the cultural and aesthetic context of filmmaking, expression and representation. Cinematographer Arthur Jafa, who worked with Spike Lee on Crooklyn (US, 1994), brings to the film his experience as a visual artist.

Rightly or wrongly, people look to the documentary for truth and evidence. But this is one area in which the film refuses to take responsibility. Nevertheless there are compensations in a gorgeously produced story with a complex moral dimension and an emotional range associated with fiction films.

Seven Songs for Malcolm X reprises themes - memory, location (and dislocation), poetry - explored in Akomfrah's previous documentaries Handsworth Songs (1986), Testament (1988) and Who Needs A Heart (1991). The work of Black Audio Film Collective and, for example, Sankofa (e.g. Passion of Remembrance, d. Maureen Blackwood, 1986; Looking For Langston, d. Isaac Julien, 1989), are related to a wider attempt to develop a black aesthetics for the screen more appropriate to the complex legacy of black history.

Ann Ogidi

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Handsworth Songs (1986)
Akomfrah, John (1957-)
Black Audio Film Collective (1982-98)
Black British Film