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Black British Film

Pride, pressure and rage

Main image of Black British Film

The first British films to portray Black people were 'actuality' films and travelogues. Amateur filmmakers like diplomat Colonel R.E. Cheesman, (Abyssinia, 1929-30), explorers Rosita Forbes, (Red Sea To Blue Nile, 1926) and Angus Buchanan (Crossing The Great Sahara, 1924); and missionaries, (Salvation Army on Tour, 1905) collected footage about the people and landscapes of Africa. Savage South Africa - Savage Attack and Repulse (1899), described as a "vivid and realistic representation of life in the wilds of the Dark Continent", was actually a filmed reconstruction of a battle staged by a troupe of performers brought to England from South Africa for the Olympia Earls Court exhibition. This tradition of staging 'real events' for the camera or 'dramatic re-enactment' was typical of early filmmaking and is clearly demonstrated in fictional narratives such as the feature film Palaver (1926), in which the action habitually stops for set pieces of village life at work.

Africa was used from the early days of cinema as a location for adventure stories and melodramas. Love in the Wilderness (1920), White Cargo (1929) and The Lost Patrol (1929) presented an image of the continent created by the novels of Rider Haggard, Joyce Cary and Rudyard Kipling. These were very popular at the box office; however, there were also a few films set in Britain that featured Black actors. Earnest Trimmingham may have been the first Black screen-star, appearing in lead roles in Jack, Sam and Pete (1919) and Where The Rainbow Ends (1921). At the end of the 1920s, American actor Paul Robeson made his first British film, Borderline (1930), an extraordinary story about interracial and sexual jealousy.

With his magnificent bass voice and tremendous screen presence, Robeson was a natural for the age of musical cinema. He made six films for British production companies, three of which - Song Of Freedom (1936), Big Fella (1937) and The Proud Valley (1940) - portray a token representation of black communities in England. Like Earl Cameron, a star of the 1950s, black characters on screen were 'strange but familiar', often sailors stranded in the country. Robeson was the most successful of the African-American actors and musicians who came to Britain in the 1930s in search of better work. Two other films, Music Hall (1934) and Kentucky Minstrels (1934), featured African-American musical stars, respectively G. H. Elliott and the tap dancing minstrel duo Scott and Whaley. Scott's young son, Harry, later had an acting role in the Gainsborough melodrama Man In Grey (1943).

Besides the glamorous African-Americans, actors from Africa and the Caribbean also made an impression. Robert Adams, regularly cast as a film extra or a 'friendly native' on screen from the 1920s, was the lead actor in Men of Two Worlds (1946). The cross-cultural dilemma implied by the title was a recurring theme in films featuring Black people. The films of Earl Cameron, such as Pool of London (1951) and The Heart Within (1957), epitomised this struggle, with the significant difference that here the Black stranger is a heroic figure beset by the whimsical and dangerous forces of white prejudice, the law and an impossible dream of being accepted for who he is. By the end of the 1950s, a more explosive representation was emerging with Sapphire (1959). Here, an integrated Black community (in Shepherd's Bush) is taken for granted, but is nevertheless portrayed as unstable and dangerous.

In the 1960s, films like Flame In The Streets (1961), A Taste Of Honey (1962), The L-Shaped Room (1962) and To Sir With Love (1967) showed a London riven with social tensions around race and sex. This was also the decade when Black film pioneers Lionel Ngakane (Jemima + Johnny, 1966), Lloyd Reckord (Ten Bob In Winter, 1963) and Frankie Dymon (Death May Be Your Santa Claus, 1969) were making their first films about the experiences of Black people in the UK.

In the 1970s, Horace Ové directed Pressure (1975), the first Black British feature film. Written by Ové and Sam Selvon, author of the influential Lonely Londoners (1956), Pressure was less about the tribulations of surviving racism in the UK than the struggle between first- and second-generation Caribbean immigrants. It was a breakthrough film. Black Joy (1977) and Babylon (1980) continued the task of describing the realities of life for a British-born generation. Although these perspectives were significant, it was equally important to see large Black casts on the big screen, particularly against the backdrop of British television's obsessions with racial prejudice comedies, two of which, Love Thy Neighbour (ITV, 1972-76) and Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75), made it to the cinemas.

The 1980s saw a surge in activity for black production, encouraged by the arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 with its explicit remit to serve minority interests. Playing Away (1986), about a West Indian cricket team from Brixton on tour to a Suffolk village, was one of the first films fully funded by Channel 4. Companies such as Sankofa, Ceddo, Retake Film and Video and Black Audio Collective, emerging from the workshop movement, produced their first feature films, Passion of Remembrance (1986), Majdhar (1985), Testament (1988). In these films Black actresses were given lead roles for the first time, as were Cassie McFarlane in Burning an Illusion (1981), Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa (1985) and Angela Wynter in Elphida (1987). The female protagonists brought to the fore tensions around male-female relationships, politics, class and family. However, the controversial practice of importing African-American actors for lead roles in bigger budget films continued with Cry Freedom (1987) and For Queen and Country (1988), both starring Denzel Washington, and The Crying Game (1992), with Forest Whittaker.

The Kitchen Toto (1987) was notable for telling the story of the Mau Mau revolution in Kenya from the point of view of a young African caught in the middle, the same year that another film set in Kenya, White Mischief (1987) provided background roles for only two Masai warriors and one African policeman. Caribbean colonial history was explored in Water (1985), while Island Pictures, set up by music mogul Chris Blackwell, launched a UK production arm to foster Jamaican-UK collaborations with the film Countryman (1982).

Although some commentators have referred to a 'cycle of frustration' in maintaining and developing the Black British presence on the big screen, the 1990s built on some of the gains of the 1980s. Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels (1991), inspired by the success of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), set an interracial gay romance against the political turbulence of 1980s Britain. Marianne Jean-Baptiste received an Oscar nomination for her role in Secrets and Lies (1996), the first Black British person to be nominated in the awards' history. Ngozi Onwurah became the first Black British female director of a feature film with Welcome II the Terordome (1995), and Julien Henrique's musical feature Babymother (1998) told a story entirely within a closed Black British environment. Black films including Ama (1991), and Dog Eat Dog (2002) revealed a breadth of imagination and determination in pursuit of financing, but struggled to find distribution and audiences. Rage (2000) identified a new group of urban, interracial, male and female disaffected teenagers. The lead character is mixed-race, an increasingly prevalent theme explored in films ranging from the period The Girl With Brains in Her Feet (1997) to the contemporary identity struggles of Respect (1998), Paradise Grove (2002), A Room For Romeo Brass (1999) and Southwest Nine (2001). Filmmakers were belatedly reflecting the changing patterns of society in the everyday conflicts of a third generation of Black British who cannot be defined simply in terms of a colour divide.

As the 2000s continue, there are promising signs that the Black British presence on the film screen will thrive and adapt. Two big budget films have starred Black British talent - Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002) - breaking another unwritten rule. There is a confidence among new Black British writers and directors, who are finding crossover audiences with gritty realistic teenage dramas such as Bullet Boy (2004) and A Way of Life (2004).

Ann Ogidi

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Babylon (1980)Babylon (1980)

The trials and tribulations of a young West Indian rapper

Thumbnail image of Babymother (1998)Babymother (1998)

Black British film about a young mother with ambitions to become a reggae star

Thumbnail image of Black Joy (1977)Black Joy (1977)

Lively, idiosyncratic Black comedy, starring Norman Beaton

Thumbnail image of Borderline (1930)Borderline (1930)

Avant-garde feature exploring racial, sexual and psychological issues

Thumbnail image of Bullet Boy (2004)Bullet Boy (2004)

Gritty urban tragedy about two black brothers in north-east London

Thumbnail image of Burning an Illusion (1981)Burning an Illusion (1981)

Pioneering black feature film about a young woman questioning her life

Thumbnail image of Flame In The Streets (1961)Flame In The Streets (1961)

Melodrama dealing with race relations and mixed-race romance

Thumbnail image of Looking For Langston (1989)Looking For Langston (1989)

Isaac Julien's meditation on gay black poet Langston Hughes

Thumbnail image of Pool of London (1950)Pool of London (1950)

Two sailors on leave are caught up in a diamond smuggling racket

Thumbnail image of Pressure (1975)Pressure (1975)

Britain's first black feature: a powerful portrait of inter-generational tensions

Thumbnail image of Proud Valley, The (1940)Proud Valley, The (1940)

Paul Robeson's last British feature, set in a Welsh mining community

Thumbnail image of Rage (1999)Rage (1999)

An angry young man attempts burglary to finance a music career

Thumbnail image of Sapphire (1959)Sapphire (1959)

The murder of a black girl in London reveals widespread racial tension

Thumbnail image of Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)

The life and legacy of the assassinated African-American political leader

Thumbnail image of Ten Bob in Winter (1963)Ten Bob in Winter (1963)

Pioneering black short film set in early 1960s London

Thumbnail image of Territories (1984)Territories (1984)

Radical documentary exploring black culture and the media

Thumbnail image of Young Soul Rebels (1991)Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Isaac Julien's debut feature about two black DJs in London, 1977

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