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Who Needs A Heart (1991)

Courtesy of Smoking Dogs Films

Main image of Who Needs A Heart (1991)
16mm, 80 min, colour
DirectorJohn Akomfrah
Production CompanyBlack Audio Film Collective
ProducerLina Gopaul
ScriptJohn Akomfrah
 Eddie George
CinematographyNancy Schiesari
EditorBrand Thumim
MusicTrevor Mathison

Cast: Caroline Burghard (Faith); Treva Etienne (Sidney); Ruth Gemmell (Abigail); Caroline Lee Johnson (Naomi); Kwabena Manso (Louis)

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Describes the turbulence of 'Black Power' in 1960s England through the life and times of 'Michael X', a Black Power leader, and a mixed group of friends and lovers whose social scene mirrors the fortunes of the Black Power movement.

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Black Audio Film Collective's distinctive approach to documentary filmmaking culminated in this film inspired by the story of 1960s black revolutionary leader Michael X. However, to call it a 'biopic', or anything resembling one, would be to miss the point. Who Needs A Heart is interested in the effect that the political spirit of the '60s, which threw up such a complex personality as Michael X, had on black/white relations on the one hand, and on the relationship between art and society on the other.

Narrative has been replaced by a collage of fragments. The soundtrack, which could fill a theatre by itself, has a hallucinatory relationship to the story. And the direction seems to have inhaled some of the experimental substances of the time it represents. Which isn't to say that Who Needs A Heart is a bad film. On the contrary, it is compelling, exhilarating and inexplicably moving, once the viewer realises that any attempt at a rational explanation is pointless.

The film reveals relatively little about Michael X, self-styled leader of the Black Muslims in London and president of the Racial Adjustment Action Society. It does, however, present a vivid description of the social scene through which such political movements flowed, and the emotional and psychological consequences for the young people caught up in it.

The connections between Michael X and the more famous revolutionary Malcolm X are investigated. As in Akomfrah's Handsworth Songs (1986) and Seven Songs For Malcolm X (1993), footage from Malcolm X's life punctuates the narrative. Interviewed by the Black Film Bulletin in 1993, Akomfrah revealed that his motivation was to reclaim the memories of Malcolm X for the black world instead of leaving him as just another American icon.

One effect common to all three films is a strange silence interlacing the narrative, as memory and history swim past each other. In Who Needs a Heart, this is taken quite literally: actors are silent for most of the film, acting out a story with elaborately stylised gestures, while dialogue is patchy and sometimes deliberately out of sync.

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. Broadcast news (3:00)
2. Unnecessary words (2:00)
3. Just playing a game (1:00)
4. Revolutionary suicide (6:18)
Akomfrah, John (1957-)
Black Audio Film Collective (1982-98)
Channel 4 and Film