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Black Pioneers

The early history of Black filmmaking in the UK

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Black filmmaking in Britain is often treated as a recent phenomenon, beginning around the 1980s. In fact, the roots go back deeper: Black people started making films in Britain as early as the 1960s, and immediately started to experiment with narrative and technique. This remains a characteristic of Black British filmmaking. Opportunities to break into the industry were slim, however, and budding filmmakers made a living as actors or extras, or worked in other, unrelated jobs.

Lionel Ngakane was born in South Africa and came to Britain in 1950 as an exile from the Apartheid regime. As an actor, he appeared in Zoltan Korda's anti-Apartheid Cry, The Beloved Country (1952), and also worked as Korda's assistant, choosing local actors in South Africa and helping with the locations. In 1962, he bought a 16mm camera and filmed and directed the feature length documentary Vukani - Awake, about the struggle for South Africa's liberation. It was the first film about South Africa to be made by a Black African. His second film, Jemima + Johnny was made in London in 1966. In Venice that year it became the first Black British film to win an award at an international film festival. A touching tale of two children from different racial backgrounds and cultures who become friends in spite their parents' prejudices, the film displays the influence of the Free Cinema movement, particularly Lorenza Mazzetti's Together (1956).

Lloyd Reckord, another actor turned director, chose to ignore the black/white dynamic of racial politics and to turn a critical eye on Black culture. A talented writer and performer in his native Jamaica, Reckord came to London to further his career in the theatre. He consolidated his career with appearances in the likes of Danger Man (ITV, 1960-61), and was still acting in the late 1990s. His experimental short Ten Bob in Winter (1963), made with a grant from the British Film Institute's Experimental Film Fund, explored the consequences of the loan of a ten-shilling note between two Caribbean men. Ten Bob in Winter concentrates on issues of colour, class and snobbishness among Caribbean people. This film was followed in 1965 by the homoerotic short Dream A40, which examined how self-oppression can damage a couple's relationship.

In the late 1960s, the Trinidadian-born Horace Ové made Baldwin's Nigger, a filmed lecture about race, racial separatism and the African Diaspora given by author and political commentator James Baldwin. Ové started out as an artist and photographer in Italy before coming to Britain. He diverted his talents to the moving image and in 1975 became the first Black filmmaker to direct a feature film in the UK. Written by author Sam Selvon and again funded by the BFI, Pressure dealt with issues that would still be familiar to contemporary audiences: the struggle of the children of immigrants to reconcile their culture of origin with the culture of the country of their birth. Ové is the only Black filmmaker to have sustained a career in Britain over four decades, encompassing feature films, television dramas and documentaries.

The early 1980s saw the rise of the independent workshop movement, made possible by the ACTT Workshop Declaration of 1984 which, along with new funding streams from the recently-established Channel 4 Television and the Greater London Council, created new structures and working methods to filmmakers outside the mainstream film and broadcasting industries. Black workshops Ceddo Film and Video, Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa Film and Video emerged from this environment, challenging the dominant ideologies of the (white) film and TV industries and fighting to produce alternative images of Black Britain.

This era produced the most politically and aesthetically uncompromising Black films, which challenged white racism, gender relations and homophobia at a time when increasing frustration and anger with racism and police brutality led to riots in Brixton, Birmingham and elsewhere. Menelik Shabazz's Burning an Illusion (1981) captured the growing militancy and the rise of Black consciousness, while later films like Handsworth Songs (d. John Akomfrah, 1986), The Passion of Remembrance (d. Maureen Blackwood/Isaac Julien, 1986) and Looking for Langston (d. Isaac Julien, 1988) offered a variety of perspectives on the contemporary Black experience.

Unfortunately, none of the workshops of the 1980s have survived into the 21st Century. Opportunities for Black filmmakers are as scarce as ever. The breakthrough experienced in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Asian British filmmakers like Gurinder Chadha (Bhaji on the Beach, 1993; Bend It Like Beckham, 2001), Asif Kapadia (The Warrior, 2001) and Metin Hüseyin (Anita and Me, 2002), has not so far been matched by any equivalent boom in Black British filmmaking. John Akomfrah's last film, Digitopia (2001), was made in Korea, while his contemporary Isaac Julien now makes his films in an art context, where he has enjoyed greater critical respect (he was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001). Julian Henriques, whose innovative musical Babymother (1998) was critically well-received, has yet to make his second feature.

Inge Blackman

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 Baldwin's Nigger (1969)Baldwin's Nigger (1969)

Record of a lecture by the great black novelist James Baldwin

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 Handsworth Songs (1986)Handsworth Songs (1986)

Experimental documentary exploring race and social unrest in '80s Britain

Thumbnail image of Jemima + Johnny (1966)Jemima + Johnny (1966)

Touching short about the friendship between a white boy and black girl

Thumbnail image of Pressure (1975)Pressure (1975)

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

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

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Black British FilmBlack British Film

Pride, pressure and rage

Thumbnail image of British African StoriesBritish African Stories

Stories of colonial and post-colonial Africa

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Akomfrah, John (1957-)Akomfrah, John (1957-)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Black Audio Film Collective (1982-98)Black Audio Film Collective (1982-98)

Film Collective

Thumbnail image of CeddoCeddo

Film Collective

Thumbnail image of Julien, Isaac (1960-)Julien, Isaac (1960-)


Thumbnail image of Ngakane, Lionel (1928-2003)Ngakane, Lionel (1928-2003)

Director, Actor

Thumbnail image of Ové, Horace (1939-)Ové, Horace (1939-)

Director, Producer, Writer

Thumbnail image of Reckord, Lloyd (1929)Reckord, Lloyd (1929)

Director, Actor