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Black Joy (1977)

Courtesy of EuroLondon Films Ltd

Main image of Black Joy (1977)
35mm, colour, 98 mins
Directed byAnthony Simmons
Production CompaniesWest One Film Productions, Winkast Programming
Produced byMartin Campbell
Screenplay byAnthony Simmons
 Jamal Ali
PhotographyPhilip Meheux
Musical DirectorLou Reizner

Cast: Norman Beaton (Dave King); Trevor Thomas (Benjamin Jones); Floella Benjamin (Miriam); Dawn Hope (Saffra); Oscar James (Jomo); Paul Medford (Devon)

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A naïve Guyanese immigrant is conned by a streetwise crook.

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Black Joy sits uneasily in the linear history of black British cinema. Shot after the landmark film Pressure (d. Horace Ové, 1975) but released in the UK first, Black Joy's very existence raises pertinent questions about authenticity, prejudice and authorial depiction of ethnic minorities in the UK.

Directed by ex-barrister Anthony Simmons, the film adopts a comedic tone to tackle the issue of unemployed black Britons in a ghettoised Brixton. Its vivid characters, action-led narrative and vibrant soundtrack has led to comparisons with 1970s American Blaxploitation. Stylistically it certainly shares some of the genre's tropes with flamboyant costume designs; an extremely episodic narrative motivated by dramatic confrontation; exaggerated protagonists with sharp dialogue and a fetishism of the urban ghetto. But these stylistic features disguise a basic morality tale behind the play - Jamal Ali's 'Dark Days and Light Nights' - on which Black Joy is based. Where Blaxploitation's superheroes shine in their urban setting, Black Joy's characters are trying to survive it.

This 'Blaxploitation issue' - the borrowing of the icons of the genre but towards a more realist narrative - is Black Joy's fundamental problem and the issue against which charges of prejudice can be levelled. Dave, Saffra, Jomo and most of the ensemble cast are stereotyped as gregarious and lazy, foul-mouthed and short-tempered, hostile, ruthless and sexually predatory. The ghettoised setting - within a mostly black populated Brixton - creates a hermetically sealed world for the (larger, non-black) audience to peer into, delighting in their petty crime, fast insults and sexual titillation. Even Ben and Miriam, the most sympathetic characters, make decisions that, though justified in the world of the film, can be judged as yet more criminal or selfish behaviour. Single mother Miriam retains her independence but does so to the detriment of her delinquent ten-year-old son, and Ben's gradual maturity is marked by him beating Dave and Jomo at their own deceptive and bullying game.

However, Black Joy's unsentimental narrative verisimilitude offsets criticism against its prejudicial perspective. Much like Norman Beaton's portrayal of Dave King, Black Joy has charisma and is prepared to face the ugly side of life in the ghetto. Its brutal honesty about financial and social struggle in Brixton, coupled with a drama that remains light-hearted and refuses extreme violence, wins over its potentially judgemental audience. We laugh with the characters in Black Joy, not at them.

Dylan Cave

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Video Clips
1. The stolen wallet (4:28)
2. New job and home (4:50)
3. Miriam's abortion (2:24)
Beaton, Norman (1934-1994)
Benjamin, Floella (1953- )
Simmons, Anthony (1922- )
Black British Film