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Jemima + Johnny (1966)

Courtesy of the Lionel Ngakane Estate

Main image of Jemima + Johnny (1966)
DirectorLionel Ngakane
Production CompanyVukani Ventures
 Derrick Knight & Partners
ProducerRobert M. Angell
ScreenplayLionel Ngakane
Director of PhotographyBrian Probyn
EditorDavid Gladwell
Music/Music PerformerBill Bramwell

Cast: Nicolette Robinson (Jemima); Patrick Hatfield (Johnny); Thomas Baptiste (Jemima's father); Myrtle Robinson (Jemima's mother); Brian Phelan (Johnny's father)

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In a west London community divided by racism, a young white English boy befriends the young daughter of recent immigrants from the Caribbean.

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In 1958, Notting Hill in West London erupted in vicious race riots. In South Africa in 1963, Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader, was imprisoned for life. Lionel Ngakane, a fellow ANC member, was exiled from South Africa and came to Britain to be a film director. Ngakane's first fiction film, the short Jemima + Johnny (1966), is set in a Notting Hill still simmering with racial conflict.

Jemima + Johnny is shot in a gritty realist style, using hand-held cameras and 'non-sync' sound without narration, and pays homage to the 1950s Free Cinema documentary movement. The poor sound quality reflects the small budget, but might also evoke the confusion felt by an immigrant in an unfamiliar country.

5 year old Johnny is the son of a white nationalist, Jemima the daughter of a Caribbean family. In their childhood innocence they immediately form a bond which defies prejudice. London is new to Jemima, and as Johnny leads her through the streets, we are offered an insight into London life in the 60s, a world where children freely roam the streets, and where a rag and bone man still collects scraps with a horse and cart.

Johnny appears untouched by his father's racist views and helps a blind black man gently across the street. His mother gives Jemima a sandwich, suggesting there is an alternative view of race at home. Moreover, despite the prevalence of racist politics, the adults treat Jemima gently. Through the children, Ngakane constantly reminds us of the similarities of black and white people. The children do not speak to each other but share their feelings instinctively. When they encounter a dead pigeon in a field, they silently enact a Christian ritual, with Johnny digging a grave and Jemima making a cross.

Jemima's parents become distressed when they realise their daughter is missing. Johnny's father finds the children and rescues Jemima from a collapsed building as well as his own child. Ngakane suggests that our common humanity will prevail and people are capable of change.

Ngakane is conscious of the racial tensions in Britain and those he himself encountered in apartheid South Africa, yet Jemima + Johnny is a hopeful film. More than 35 years on, however, with riots in Oldham and the British National Party gaining seats in a council election in Burnley, how far has this optimism been borne out?

Inge Blackman

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Video Clips
1. First meeting (5:31)
2. Anxious parents (2:22)
3. Johnny's den (1:57)
4. Lost and found (1:54)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Sidney's Chair (1995)
Baptiste, Thomas (1936-)
Ngakane, Lionel (1928-2003)
Black Pioneers
Short Films