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Touch of the Tar Brush, A (1991)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Touch of the Tar Brush, A (1991)
For Think of England, Black Audio Film Collective for BBC2, tx. 12/11/1991
40 minutes, colour
Directed byJohn Akomfrah
ProducerLina Gopaul
Series ProducerSam Organ
Written byJohn Akomfrah
PhotographyDavid Scott

Presenter: John Akomfrah; Interviewees: the Quarless family, the Birch family, John Conteh, Gary Christian

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Black filmmaker John Akomfrah believes that, for too long, being English has meant being white. In an attempt to show Englishness from the point of view of mixed-race English people, he visits Liverpool, one of England's oldest multicultural communities.

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The Black Audio Film Collective's preoccupation with the transformation of imperial enclaves to multicultural societies was vividly expressed through the history of London's Docklands in 'Twilight City' (News from Home, Channel Four, tx. 20/11/1989). A Touch of the Tar Brush picks up this history but locates it in another of Britain's most iconic ports, Liverpool.

The documentary was intended to celebrate the life stories of mixed-race families who have been living in Liverpool since J.B. Priestley visited the city in 1933 and wrote about it in his English Journey. Some 60 years later, John Akomfrah retraces Priestley's steps to investigate what it's like to be both black and English. His journey is firmly rooted in direct testimony and oral histories. His interviews with the mixed-race families of George and Ann Quarless and Patsy and John Birch present a vivid historical narrative of Liverpool's multicultural population, a journey through time that emphasises endurance, hope and progress in the face of turbulent and difficult years.

Although memories of the 1981 Toxteth riots were still fresh in the early 1990s, no reference is made to 'race riots'. Akomfrah acknowledges the problem of racism in Liverpool and England - rubbing salt into old wounds by asking his interviewees about Enoch Powell - but he is more interested in their personal feelings. The result is rewarding: an archive of memories which are inevitably fragmentary but movingly spontaneous and humane.

The film is formally conventional by BAFC standards, with no pretensions to questioning the practice of social-realist filmmaking. Akomfrah was commissioned at the recommendation of Hanif Kureishi, who had been the BBC's initial choice. By the early 1990s workshop funding had dried up, and A Touch of the Tar Brush is the product of BAFC's effort to survive in the marketplace. But the recurring motifs of the BAFC's films are present here too: an engagement with connecting the past and the present, history and memory, the local and the global. Archival footage of 1950s and 1960s 'race relations' television documentaries intersect with images of Britain's contemporary culture and society, from Shara Nelson singing Massive Attack's 'Safe from Harm' to medal-winning black athletes waving the British flag. All of them together make clear one point: whatever meanings have been given to the word 'black' ('coloured', outcast, black as a political identity), it has become more and more difficult to 'keep the Black out of the Union Jack'.

Eleni Liarou

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Video Clips
1. Both Black and English (2:00)
2. A form of Apartheid (2:54)
3. White, black or half-and-half (3:10)
4. Thinking of Englishness (0:49)
Akomfrah, John (1957-)
Black Audio Film Collective (1982-98)