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Ngakane, Lionel (1928-2003)

Director, Actor

Main image of Ngakane, Lionel (1928-2003)

Lionel Ngakane was born in Pretoria in 1920. He became politically active from an early age, joining the ANC youth league with fellow rookies Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. From 1948-1950 he was one of the journalists who initiated and worked on the groundbreaking intellectual Black magazine Drum.

Ngakane came to Britain in 1950 to become a film director, but ended up working as an actor on many movies including Zoltan Korda's Cry The Beloved Country (1952). In addition to acting on this film he worked as Korda's assistant, choosing local actors in South Africa and helping with the locations. In 1989 he was again crucial as a technical consultant on the film A Dry White Season (US, d. Euzhan Palcy).

Ngakane was dogged in his pursuit of his ambition, but faced hurdles to gain credibility as a Black film director in London in the '50s. His frustrating experiences led him to reveal in an interview, "The trouble in this country is that people in theatre and films simply can't visualise a coloured man as a director. It is hard enough to get through to one of them, and when you do, you hear the secretary say to the boss - 'There's a coloured gentleman on the phone'..."

But Ngakane was determined, and in 1962 he bought a 16mm camera and filmed and directed the feature length documentary Vukani - Awake (UK/South Africa, 1965), about the struggle for South Africa's liberation. It was the first film on South Africa to be made by a Black African. His second film, the short drama Jemima + Johnny (1966), was awarded 1st prize at the Venice film festival. It was the first Black British film to win an award at an international film festival.

Although resident in Britain, he never forgot his African roots, and in the years that followed he directed documentaries dealing with issues from the continent. In 1986 his political biography of Nelson Mandela, Mandela, was screened by Channel 4.

In 1967 he originated the Pan-African Federation of Film Makers (FEPACI), a lobbying group for the support of African filmmakers, and on his return to South Africa lobbied for the organisation to include South African filmmakers.

In spite of winning prestigious film prizes and making critically acclaimed films, in Britain his filmmaking credentials were always in question, and he was not allowed to move beyond the label 'Black filmmaker'. He revealed, "None of them would let me have a say on drugs, fatherless children, mini-skirts... I am still considered incapable of handling British topics"

Ngakane returned to South Africa in 1994 and has worked hard to raise the international profile of African filmmaking in general and South African filmmakers in particular. He has been dubbed the father of South African film and divides his time between attending film festivals in an advisory role and serving on the board of directors of the Film Resource Unit in the University of Natal.

Lionel Ngakane died in South Africa on 26 November 2003.

Inge Blackman

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)

South African drama about a black man accused of killing a white one

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 Jemima + Johnny (1966)Jemima + Johnny (1966)

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

Thumbnail image of Last Rhino, The (1961)Last Rhino, The (1961)

Safari adventure in which two children save a rhino from hunters

Thumbnail image of Nor The Moon By Night (1958)Nor The Moon By Night (1958)

Africa-set drama about two brothers and a troublesome girlfriend

Thumbnail image of Painted Smile, The (1961)Painted Smile, The (1961)

Crime melodrama in which a young student narrowly escapes a murder rap

Thumbnail image of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

The scientist hero confronts an ancient alien evil

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Thumbnail image of Black PioneersBlack Pioneers

The early history of Black filmmaking in the UK

Thumbnail image of British African StoriesBritish African Stories

Stories of colonial and post-colonial Africa

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