A Cinematic Genius warns against the dangers of capitalism…
“We are done. I’m not speaking only about us here in Africa but of humanity, of man… The feeling I have is that we are done for if we have traded our souls for money.”
—Djibril Diop Mambéty, Director of “Touki Bouki” & “Hyenas,” 1945-1998
Most radical spirits and those who wished to “change the world” (a hollow term at this point) have left the arts, incredulous and overwhelmed that the “Arts” have devolved after having been wholly won over by corporate values and American imperialist hegemony. The bourgeois affectation of middle-brow cinema has destroyed us: “Movies should be intelligent, but not dangerous to the establishment,” they demand. Even worse, everyone from Oprah Winfrey to HBO are in collusion and so
There are very few people on this planet who see cinema as a liberation tool. Instead, it is fair to say as Mambety lamented, that we have sold ourselves out…and for nothing in return except the specter of shadows and awards from the spectacle. All that seek to keep one enslaved. In this Brave New World, we not only accept this- we want this!
And while these Visigoths have obviously won (knowing full well the impact cinema could have on future liberation politics) – it is the perversion of the mirror we look into that disturbs me. Warped surfaces reflect our obscene desires and most heartfelt delusions. As if Frantz Fanon had written The Portrait of Dorian Gray – the gross image of our soul that hangs in the closet must be revealed and it’s own mask removed. It’s the mask of the mask of the mask that must be removed.
Keep storming the barricades of your imagination. And for the love (or hate) of man – if you pick up a camera to make a movie have something to say other than “Action!”
*Djibril Diop Mambety, the darker side of Senegals’s coin (Ousmane Sembene reflecting the lighter side) is the director of masterworks such as Touki Bouki and Hyenas, the only features he ever made. His work is taut, unrelenting and shaded with funereal satire. A radical in every way, he never pretended that life was getting any better and he never looked away from the problems inherent in his own life, Senegal, colonialism and the world at large.
Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.
To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives.
The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee (originally “Dennis Leroy Moore“), who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.
The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.
We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.”
The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations.
Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.
Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.
These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has.
In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.
Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.
Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.
Bold and beautiful, “Akata” is a cool understated slice of revolutionary cinema.
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
– Franz Kafka
David Bowie iterated the same sentiment, differently, in his spooky lament Ashes to Ashes (1980) and interestingly enough this existential reclamation of breaking through in order to be recognized/released, in a quite different context, is the gestalt moment of Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah’s haunting short Akata.
Akata echoes Kafka’s maxim more literally, though no less poetically: his hero smashes the ice – or in this case glass – in order to be affirmed and to be freed. If only for a moment. The 13 minutes leading up to this Fanonian climax is from a world many of the metropolitan Black artists know well and it is a crippling, hypocritical, and insidious one. It is the professional ‘Art World’ – the nucleus of all that is wrong in our “progressive” culture, all that is wrong with White Liberalism, and all that is wrong with the west.
If you are looking for evidence and sources of our problems, evade the American politicians and stop looking for bombs and the creatures that make them. Look no further than the art institutions and the scenes they give birth to. So venal you’d think you’d slipped into either the boiler room of a hedge fund or the back alley of a Public Education fundraising meeting. Simply: they’re all out to get you. And your humanity. And the hero of Akata is no exception. He’s willingly offered himself to be taken and denigrated until it becomes too much for him. The hypocrisy, institutionalized racism, and slow-burn yearning in Yeboah’s film is wonderfully rendered in a tone both personal and communal. Shot on Super 16, the film is a strong synthesis of the French New Wave and the Classical African Militant filmmaking of Djibril Diop Mambety. But it is also wholly new and fresh and features an effective improvised jazz score by David Boykin, non-professional actors (imbuing this gently surreal film with dignified awkwardness) and an ending as arresting as proverb.
The theme of the Artist struggling to get home is both actual and symbolic and it rendezvous’ with the political realities of a Black man not being able to get a cab, an Artist reconciling that his work may be “worth more” than his life, and the everyday nightmares that often reveal insights in our neurosis.
Akata superbly captures the solitary inner life of a frustrated creative being, the matter of fact loneliness of the artist, and the tender side to wanting to connect and completely re-structure the world and one’s place in it through the use of hands (craft). The Artist paints, greets and accepts a business card, and smashes a window all with his hand. He is forced to give up the brush and make a fist. The artist as unwilling resister to the oppressive culture or even, dare I say it, literal revolutionary is a clear and inherent characteristic of our Revolutionary Black New Wave cinema or ‘Rebel Cinema’ as we sometimes refer to it. A symbiosis of Afro-bleakism and romantic challenge to nihilism and acceptance of unjust norms.
Like other films about the revolutionary plight of the artist (As an Act of Protest, Spit) the equation of the Black conscious artist struggling to go beyond his work and into a society where he can have an impact is implied rather than explored and there’s room for numerous interpretations…but an infinite amount of epiphanies.
Enduring one humiliation after the next just to get to his own art-show, the Artist is also the last to leave the exhibition and, despite the accolades, becomes another frighteningly common archetype: the artist who may be wanted for his work – but not for who he is. The White Art World in particular are fundamentalist believers of “I can experience you through your work (wow!) yet will deny your existence (in actual life).” I don’t want your humanity, just your art. The biblical trajectory of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a classic example.
In life, the budding artist is most vulnerable before he blooms and right after. The setting sun on possibility, the shadows that gather in late evening are enough to commit any struggling artist for the rest of his life. Assuming he lives past his Baptism of Fire.
Akata is perhaps the most delicate of all these rebel films because it’s the most poetic. Its subtleties are not only embedded in the technique of the film (and become more pronounced with each viewing) but because it comes across like a diary entry (read more about the personal inspiration in the Q & A). Unlike the theatrical nature of most narrative movies, Akata remains singular in that its style is severely synced with its director’s raw and sensitive approach to cinema: unfiltered and unacademic. Yeboah distills swiftly and doesn’t waste time getting heady when he shoots, he prefers to let the moment and the feeling of the mise-en-scene guide him. It is a jazz approach that has served him well. Director of Photography Marcin Szocinski gives a warm, painterly creamy look that at times goes soft and racks focus as we ourselves try to make out what is “happening.” Or rather, the themes develop as Jarcin finds what Yeboah has laid out of for us. Szocinksi’s sensual and wonderfully ‘nomadic’ approach to shooting is not only an approach that benefits Yeboah’s instincts it serves Akata well because of the stately roguish nature of the film.
What struck me about the Artist’s dilemma in the film is He hasn’t a friend in the world. Because no one who loves another would allow that person to be anxious about how they are going to get home. But in the concrete jungle, in the colonized wilderness People of Color have gotten lost in and rushed to be part of – there is no home to travel to, only one that can be possessed spiritually. Akata makes it clear to me: we can never go back home. We must create a new home, conceptually and literally. There can be no return or looking back. If one needs help getting home – then that means that person didn’t have a home to begin with. Like a stray feral creature sifting through the trees, constantly on the prowl. Is it going to or from?
And then it all comes together in some kind of cool post-colonialist afterthought: we arrive at the film’s revolutionary gestalt moment and what transpires is coolly transcendent and chilling.
Akata is a mesmerizing film and an important one that must be added to our arsenal.
A picture lives by companionship…It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling.”
– Mark Rothko
Born in Ghana, Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, Djibril Diop Mambèty and Fela Kuti. A trajectory marked with a poetics of refusals, the cinema is his weapon of choice.
That being said Yeboah has been very cautious as to who he shares his art with.
He will only share the film with audiences genuinely interested. He has given up on any notion of commercial success, being popular, or reaping the benefits of a system that routinely exploits and straight-up pimps Black actors and directors via Hollyweird. He does not care about the “foolishness and coonery” he feels has become the new American Norm for Black people – as viewers and creators. His only wish is to keep creating and making his own cinema, regardless of how long it will take. But he balks at the idea now of begging people to look at his work. And while he is a classical filmmaker (meaning he still believes in ‘pure cinema’ and the impact of projecting a motion picture on a large screen VS the TV or computer), he does not want to constantly humiliate himself by hoping someone will take an interest in seeing his films.
They don’t have to understand or even like his work, but they should possess and innate desire to be vulnerable and open to what the artist wants to give. In the 21st century, that is not only one of the biggest problems of cinema (people unable to know how to “view” a movie as the nature of the audience/viewer has changed not only due to the self-satisfied generation of young adults who feel there is nothing they don’t know since life for them is a google at the tip of their fingers) – it is also a general idea that pervades our times ever since Guy Debord’s nightmare of the spectacle became our everyday waking reality. In an age now where everything is up for sale and everything is a movie how does the average watcher of media, consumer of images – allow himself to metabolize a personal independent film in a genuine way? Do they even care?
When you view someone’s film – it is you who becomes Muhammad or Moses or whomever you wish to equate the eyes of a prophet; you are digesting a message from God. All the artist asks is that you respectfully broach the idea of even considering to look at his work.
Secular art is not merely earthly or “profane,” it is a deeply spiritual. It is not religious because it does not link itself to merely one religious belief, it is like Theater – the holiest of the holy: a glorious secular humanism. Without a God or a bible.
Below is an excerpt of a telephone interview I conducted over the phone with Yeboah upon my viewing of the final cut of Akata.
Q & A
My own last name “Kangalee” is a Bengali-Senegalese hybrid, a kind of Black-Indian mash-up. This is quite common in Trinidad but I’d assume the Siddi of India had probably carried the name. It means “wretched” or “the dispossessed.” Go figure! It’s haunted me ever since I accepted my name. And while I never see a word or name doesn’t connect to any given situation we are in – I am curious what the title of your film refers to. What does ‘Akata’ mean?
It denotes ‘a wild cat that does not live at home’.
Yes! That adds a whole other layer to the film…
…And some West Africans use of the term could denote ‘the wild ones’, which is how we perceive some of what appears very wild to us – with our brothers. Its origins could be traced to Fante (Ghana) and Yoruba (Nigeria) . The word ‘akata’ is me experiencing my wild cat self as I’m perceived.
When did you start writing and developing the film?
The film as an idea must have firmed between 2013-2014. Prior to that it was just a feeling. I could never hail a cab like anyone else who wasn’t black. One time I almost disappointed a client at the Race Center at the University of Chicago. It almost made me cry when she finally picked me up after a very embarrassing emotional call “… they won’t stop for me.” Tears came to my eyes when I said those words.
Reminds me of when he says, “I just want to go home.”
This is one of those moments you seek their attention by breaking the glass. The act is only intended to achieve visibility, they walk and drive right through you, till you break the glass and become visible. It’s to their shame that they would only acknowledge you when the tension in your muscles is released. I dress spiffy and all but, still a nigger. My friend Ade wears glasses and possesses an intellectual and harmless demeanor so he assists me in the dead of winter to stop a cab to move two suitcases to my new home, I would step back out of the picture so they may stop for what we both perceive as a less threatening figure than mine. Still not working…and these cabs are almost always driven by nonwhites…Racism is internalized by nonwhites who have bought into the dominant narrative.
When I first saw that moment – I had a knee-jerk reaction and thought “What is this fool doing? Why does he care about being acknowledged by this white man? When will we learn!?” But then just as fast – you have him enter the zone, he breaks through and enters demanding some kind of spiritual awakening. Not for the white man. But for himself. I’ve studied the ending several times to figure that out. It’s a beautiful moment…What’s your approach to actors and casting? I’m always curious how directors with a non-theatrical background execute this.
Well, as you know I prefer non-actors. They give me something new. As a director, I see my characters in people on the sidewalks, coffee shops and in everyday life. I randomly asked Reginald Eldridge (the Artist in the film) after encountering him a few times at events we kept bumping into each other. Met up with Cheryl Pope – who plays his lover in the film on the same day we met on social media. I declared to them: “You’re going to be in my film.” Both are practicing artist-teachers.
Their comfortability with each other was impressive especially as two people who just met and are playing lovers on-screen for the first time. Their ease put a lot of professionals to shame. But that’s also how you shot it – you didn’t direct their intimate scenes with one iota of fetishism. That’s a feat in itself because most bedroom scenes or sex scenes exist to simply titillate the viewer or expose the director’s own hang-ups. You learn a lot about someone by how they stage a sex scene. Tell me about your cinematographer, Marcin Szocinski.
Marcin is the sexiest Polish DP alive. Like me, we don’t appreciate Digital. This is how it started. We are about process and not just product. Grainy Super 16 feels like you are making a meal you care about to share with your loved ones and family. We used only available lights and shot really fast to avoid any trite trappings by overthinking any moment in the film. Just be! The idea that you can’t erase or have multiple takes of a scene is what I swear by film. You immortalize the mundane by making each moment rare and not repeated. Digital forces you to move towards a perfection that only makes the film comparable to host of TV type films.
Why did you refrain from letting us hear the Artist declare “I just want to go home.” Is it because you knew we already understood what he was saying and felt – tonally – that it was simply more effective without hearing him under the jazz score?
It was a beautiful mistake! I accidentally imported a version of the draft edit without the synched audio for the image. The other version had it. Depending which version you saw, you’re right, you deduced something different. You can read into or out of – a film.
See, that’s like jazz music itself. Charlie Parker said if you make a mistake, repeat it. Then do it again. And people will assume that’s what you intended all along and soon you’ll have created a whole new language. You find a lot when you edit, as it should be. One thing I did notice in the final cut was that you cut one of the best “pure cinema moments” – the great pan-back shot of the empty hall when the artist leaves the building. It’s gone! It gave the film a nice idiosyncratic edge. That I remember when I first saw it – I thought it was a brilliant touch. What made you want to cut it out?
I recut the entire film, I got him out of his apartment quicker than the earlier draft, cut a few more shots short. The film was made in a period when I moved house, between cities and just a lot of shifting elements in my life, sometimes I wasn’t sure which version I had. I may have actually edited the actual film just once, that’s who I am, don’t want to mess withthe cinematic spontaneity too much. I only came back to cut out stuff without moving around shots.
“Africa, help me to go home, carry me like an aged child in your arms. Undress me and wash me. Strip me of all of these garments, strip me as a man strips off dreams when the dawn comes. . “