Two decades after it was made, why does Menelik Shabazz's first feature, a simple tale of a young girl's relationship, hold such attention? Firstly, because it foregrounds the experience of a young black British woman, breaking with the tradition of placing white males at the center of a story. Even today, that is highly unusual. Secondly, it focuses on her life as a young woman, not as a symbol of black experience.
Pat, an ordinary working-class London girl, has a caring family, a job she enjoys and her own flat. Like all drama, the film is about characters facing conflicts. But unlike most dramas about black people up till then, for most of the story it dramatises personal conflicts, not socio-economic or political ones. Pat's goal is to settle down. The most radical thing about Burning An Illusion is that it's about black people who aren't radical. It's about a male-female relationship.
Shabazz neatly avoids trapping his main characters inside the bubbles ('victim'/'noble savage') that suffocate most black figures in movies. This is the third reason for the film's longevity: designed as fallible people, his characters can breathe and grow. For the first forty minutes we're in a love story. We see the courtship between Pat and her suitor, Del, culminating when he moves in. Then Pat's 'mister right' turns wrong.
The second half of the film dramatises how social forces and character traits work to derail Pat's goal, the breakdown of their relationship and how she and Del react to the pressures they face. When they become politicised by the end of the film they've changed because of the experiences the plot has taken them through. We're shown how and why they change.
The final reason why the film still grips is that, more than twenty years on, nothing else quite like it has been made.
*This film is available on BFI DVD. Joel Karamath has written an introduction to the film, and a discussion of some of its themes.