Akala Presents: The Ruins of Empires review

Akala, the writer-slash-rap­per-slash-activist, is hip hop’s answer to Shake­speare­an lit­er­a­ture. From his lyrics to his books to his the­atre com­pa­ny, the Lon­don­er fus­es togeth­er the elo­quent lan­guage of William Shake­speare with the often blunt real­i­ties of hip hop.

Ahead of the BBC2 broad­cast of Akala Presents: The Ruins of Empires — A Graph­ic Nov­el Poet­ry Film, Fringe Fre­quen­cy attend­ed a pri­vate screen­ing at Every­man Bak­er Street.

At first glance, we were shocked to see Akala’s his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal­ly charged graph­ic nov­el being adapt­ed for TV as a BBC-fund­ed pro­duc­tion. And the man him­self respond­ed, “Have they read it?” Before explain­ing that the BBC saw the time had come to expand. The nov­el obvi­ous­ly caught the inter­est of direc­tor, actor and cre­ative con­sul­tant Andy Serkis, too. His Imag­i­nar­i­um Stu­dios cre­at­ed the strik­ing dig­i­tal imagery for the production.

Start­ing the per­for­mance, the lights went down and Akala appeared bare­foot, dressed in orange. Whether the cos­tume choice was a con­scious deci­sion remains to be told, but it cer­tain­ly pays a poet­ic trib­ute to the infa­mous prison uni­form of today’s soci­ety; the mod­ern day slav­ery uni­form, key to the top­ic in hand.

Jump­ing through time using ani­ma­tion to nar­rate is genius. A com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed fig­ure is used to por­tray an ances­tor, com­plete with Medusa-like snake hair, who tells the grue­some tale of racism and makes it almost appear main­stream. Right down to the dark­er-skinned illus­tra­tions sub­ject­ed to slav­ery, matched by an off-screen voice telling us, “Don’t ques­tion what you’re told. Play your role”.

Then, look­ing at the oppo­site side of the spec­trum, the oppres­sors try to defend them­selves from fail­ing as lead­ers. It’s intrigu­ing that they man­age to cre­ate min­i­mal sym­pa­thy for them­selves, as we are forced to ques­tion how well would we per­form as leaders?

In mas­ter­ful moments of pause, Akala him­self ques­tions every­thing that has hap­pened up to the present day, enquir­ing if human­i­ty can change. The curios­i­ty in his tone is almost a reminder of our own opti­mism about life, hop­ing for bet­ter days we lost in child­hood, as we are dragged through adulthood.

Anoth­er ances­tor ani­ma­tion acts as a guid­ing light of opti­mism, insist­ing “the road is long, but all jour­neys have a start”. It almost teach­es us to aspire for an ami­ca­ble future now we know in explic­it detail what our ances­tors endured.

The big ques­tion through­out the poet­ic piece is can human­i­ty change? Akala goes on to doc­u­ment that as we can now see the world as it is, not blind­ed by fake news and divid­ed by pro­pa­gan­da, we can start again. The sug­ges­tion of the sun burn­ing all weapons and our exis­tence wiped clean from the Earth, so the plan­et can start again, is an intrigu­ing thought.

If any­thing, in the age of social media, where as a soci­ety we are more visu­al than ever before, The Ruins of Empires, is long over­due. Using ani­ma­tions to depict the hor­rif­ic sit­u­a­tions of the dis­tant past shares the his­to­ry to the youth of today in a way they will relate to. Com­bined with the close-up shots of Akala per­form­ing his words, this is a pow­er­ful and thought-pro­vok­ing piece of art, which can only make us ques­tion how we think and go forward.

Akala Presents: The Ruins of Empires is show­ing on BBC Two, April 28 at 10pm BST.