Black Film, British Cinema 2017: from representation to radicalism

Questions about black identity and British culture that were raised in the 1980s seem just as urgent today, as a recent conference in London made clear.

Simran Hans

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The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

The Stuart Hall Project (2013)

“The crucial cultural struggle that we are engaged in is the definition of what we mean by ‘British’,” wrote then-BFI Head of Production Colin MacCabe in his paper Black Film in 80s’ Britain, presented as part of the Black Film, British Cinema Conference at London’s ICA in 1988. Almost 30 years later, this conundrum of how ‘Britishness’ should look seems just as difficult to solve.

To call a conference ‘historic’ is possibly to overstate its reach outside of academia, but this one (and the invaluable dossier that accompanied it, recently republished in digital form by the ICA) attracted interest, as scholar Erica Carter put it in her introductory address, “far beyond the restricted circles of film practitioners, theorists and critics”.

The Black Film British Cinema dossier

The Black Film British Cinema dossier

The original Black Film, British Cinema conference was an attempt to survey the output of independent black film in the 1980s – and a unique convergence point of activism, community action, film and academia during Thatcher’s Britain. It wrestled with the counterculture of black, radical Leftist filmmaking that was beginning to emerge as a response to the political mood – and following the 1981 race riots that erupted across London, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool. This included films being made via both institutional bodies such as Channel 4, which launched in 1982, and the independent workshop movement, comprising collectives like Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video Collective and Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, and addressed work by filmmakers such as John Akomfrah, Isaac Julien, Martina Attille, Ngozi Onwurah and Hanif Kureishi.

This year’s two-day anniversary event, organised by the University of Greenwich’s Clive Nwonka and Goldsmiths’ Anamik Saha in collaboration with the ICA, was both a reflection on the original conference and a consideration of the politics of race in contemporary British cinema.

Belle (2014)

Belle (2014)

Day One was held in Goldsmiths’ Professor Stuart Hall Building (of course) and styled as a traditional academic conference, featuring presentations from “scholars, early career researchers, postgraduate students, practitioners and industry stakeholders”. In her keynote address, Brunel’s Sarita Malk clarified her use of the word ‘black’ as a political umbrella term and not an ethnic group, “as it had been used during the original conference in 1988”, framing how this conference would be addressing the idea of ‘black film’. There were papers on its relationship to data and policy (Counting Black Women Working in British Film Production), genre and representation (Imperial Identities in Question: Amma Asante’s Belle and A United Kingdom) and exhibition, distribution and curatorship (An Invitation to Enchantment: Researching the Exhibition and Curation of Black British Cinema), as well as panels that focused on the workshop movement (Remembering Black Film British Cinema 1988; Rethinking John Akomfrah).

Day Two took place at the ICA, and featured a keynote from June Givanni, curator of London’s Pan African Cinema Archive, who skipped through a PowerPoint presentation featuring scans of the cultural artefacts housed in her archive, and spoke passionately about the activism being done in the 80s and early 90s by way of now-defunct festivals and publications such as Third Eye Film Festival, Black Film Bulletin and Black Film Review. Elsewhere a fascinating and thorough panel titled Understanding Steve McQueen asked questions about the British filmmaker’s formal conservatism, fascination with bodies and relationship to Hollywood (“McQueen isn’t making films about Black British life,” BFI Black Star programmer Ashley Clark opined). 

Steve McQueen on location for 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen on location for 12 Years a Slave

Still, I had hoped to hear more and more directly from filmmakers. Contemporary Approaches to Race in Film and Moving Images put two directing duos in dialogue: the Royal College of Art’s Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, whose experimental film Finding Fanon was made within the gaming system of Grand Theft Auto, and Cassie Quarless and Usayad Younis, directors of the 2016 documentary Generation Revolution. Though the work itself (screened in short clips) was mixed, it was interesting hear Quarless describe the films of Black Audio Film Collective as both “academic” and “didactic”. (Quarless described his own film, about London’s millennial activists, as “direct” – I’d point him to the late Stuart Hall’s New Ethnicities, which features in the dossier and argues that “the counter-posing of ‘experience’ to ‘politics’ is a false and dangerous dichotomy”.)

Generation Revolution (2016)

Generation Revolution (2016)

The loftily titled Post-Legacy: Moving Image and the Supremacy of Inclusion closed the event, but veered into the bizarre. Billing itself as a discussion that would explore “the impacts and potentials of moving image to challenge persistent, Western narratives around concepts of diversity and inclusion” and as a call for artists, curators, writers and filmmakers to “reject tired and lazy representations of ‘diversity’”, it played out as a stretched and unproductive conversation about cultural appropriation that centred around one particular car advert. Each of the five panellists spoke about their professional efforts to create a more inclusive cultural landscape, though of these, only writer and broadcaster Bidisha really stood out, offering a fiery, crowd-pleasing speech about negative images of black and brown people in TV and film.

During the second half of the panel, the voices allowed the most airtime were directors of business, not film – Faraz Osmon of production company Lemonade Money and the panel’s chair Clarence Bradley of advertising agency Creature of London. Still, a moment of relief was offered by way of the panel’s sole filmmaker, 27-year-old Raine Allen-Miller. Her music video for the track Storm by Brighton-based producer Salute was a genuine thrill; a witty, kinetic remix of traditional British iconography with West African dance.

Raine Allen-Miller’s promo for Salute’s Storm

In Black Art and the Burden of Representation, his reflection on the 1988 conference, published in 1990, Kobena Mercer writes: “There was an expectation that it would be totally ‘representative’ and would say all there was to be said about black filmmaking in Britain.” It would be unfair expect the same of the 2017 edition, and it’s exciting that the legacy of the 88 conference is still being discussed. However, I admit I left wondering if, by trying to both take on the mammoth task of both reappraising Black Film, British Cinema ’88 and recreate an event that hoped to match the original’s energy, something was lost.

In Recoding Narratives of Race and Nation, which appears in the Black Film British Cinema dossier, Mercer attempted to contextualise the cultural moment happening around him, interrogating “which parts of our ‘national’ audiovisual culture we want to preserve, defend and conserve” as a Thatcherite emphasis on market economics was starting to change – and, increasingly, define – how culture was produced. In the age of Trump, Brexit and Theresa May, and as arts funding dries up under a Conservative government that feels eerily familiar, a modern, politically radical approach to cinema feels urgent, and oddly absent from the ongoing conversation of ‘diversity’ and ‘representation’.

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