Why this might not be so easy
Across both fiction and documentary, Menelik Shabazz used film as an act of resistance to racism and to interrupt the status quo by putting an important focus on Black British life. With a pioneering career spanning four decades, he was among the first Black British filmmakers to have significant cultural impact and influence. Yet despite his pioneering status, his films have not always been easy to see. He had to rely on raising money himself to fund his later films.
Born on 30 May 1954 in St John, Barbados, Shabazz moved to the UK at a young age and discovered filmmaking as a teenager, as technological advances were making the craft more accessible. He was briefly enrolled at the London International Film School, where he picked up the knowledge and confidence to move forward as a filmmaker.
In 1977 he directed Step Forward Youth, a short documentary about young Black people who were born in London yet still considered immigrants and treated as outcasts. News and TV coverage at the time tarred them as criminals and a problem generation. Step Forward Youth gave some of these young people an opportunity to speak about their experiences and their attitude to being British, presenting a rare and revealing insight into a forgotten generation.
Shabazz subsequently made Breaking Point (1978) for ATV, the first documentary directed by a Black director for mainstream British television. Shown in a primetime slot, it featured interviews with key figures such as Rudy Narayan, Stuart Hall and Paul Boateng, and contributed to the repeal of the ‘sus’ law, which was being used to criminalise Black youth.
In the early 80s, when he was making the move into feature films, Shabazz also produced for Channel 4 and co-founded Kuumba Productions with Imruh Bakari and Henry Martin to provide an outlet for independent film projects. Later he established Ceddo Film and Video Workshop with Bakari, Lazell Daley and Milton Bryan. He began Black Filmmaker Magazine (bfm) and, in 1999, set up the bfm International Film Festival, providing a significant platform for Black world cinema and British talent.
His final film before his death in 2021 was Pharaohs Unveiled (2019), a documentary about the rulers of ancient Egypt.
The best place to start – Burning an Illusion
Shabazz’s 1981 film Burning an Illusion was the second British feature film by a Black director, following Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), and the first to put the perspective of a Black woman at the centre.
Its protagonist, Pat Williams (played by Cassie McFarlane), seeks love against the backdrop of racism in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Yet, the drama comes from the characters’ drives and personal conflicts rather than socio-economic or political struggles, which had often been the case with other dramas about Black people at the time.
Pat is an ordinary young woman with a good job and her own flat in London. She dreams of settling down. At a party, she meets Del (Victor Romero Evans), a charming but vaguely dissatisfied toolmaker, and believes he’s the man she can live out her dream with. The film follows the start of their relationship, culminating in Del moving in, but Pat’s dream is quickly disrupted when Del loses his job, causing them both to challenge their assumptions about each other and their aspirations.
Shabazz later wrote that Burning an Illusion was “about the main character confronting her romantic notions that came from Mills and Boon books that had no relationship to her cultural reality. She has to burn this illusion in her mind to reclaim herself.” It’s this journey to emotional maturity, emancipation and political awakening that gives the film its enduring power. Cassie McFarlane won the Evening Standard award for ‘most promising new actress’, and Burning an Illusion won the Grand Prix at the Amiens Film Festival in France.
What to watch next
In his self-described fusion documentary, The Story of Lover’s Rock (2011), Shabazz pays tribute to the reggae subgenre ‘lovers rock’, which defined a generation in the late 1970s and 80s. The Story of Lover’s Rock combines comedy, interviews, live performance and archive footage to shed light on a musical phenomenon rooted in south London but with truly global appeal. The sound went on to influence acts including Sade, The Police and Culture Club, and came back into focus recently in Steve McQueen’s series Small Axe (2020) in an episode named after the style.
Lovers rock was crucial to the formation of a Black British identity during a politically and socially turbulent era, and Shabazz gave a platform to the generation of West Indians born in Britain who embraced the music and culture through intimate dance and sound systems at parties and clubs. “Lovers rock is a genre that Black Britons can claim as their own,” Shabazz said. “This music, which reached global proportions, yet was virtually unrecognised in the UK, was also a vehicle for a special kind of intimacy. It opened up our chakras, although we didn’t realise it at the time – this music about young males and females dealing with their emotions. And it was also a coping mechanism for what was happening in the streets.”
Alongside Shabazz’s early work for television capturing the Black community’s frustrations over institutional racism and police violence, his other major releases include Blood Ah Go Run (1982), which potently documents the response of the Black community to the New Cross fire, including the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ protest march across London.
His powerful 1996 drama-documentary Catch a Fire (1996), filmed for the BBC Education series Hidden Empire, tells the life of Jamaican activist Paul Bogle and the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion.
Where not to start
In Looking for Love (2015), Shabazz returned to the subject of love and healing in relationships across multiple generations in the Black community. This insightful documentary incorporates a mixture of interviews and group debate, covering the good, the bad and the in-between when it comes to Black love. But while it draws interesting reflections on intimacy and psychology, its focus is limited to the perspective of heterosexual relationships, thereby missing the intersectional voices of the Black LGBTQIA+ community, which would have made it a richer discussion on Black love in modern society.
It’s a rare omission in a small but vital body of work whose aim was always to amplify marginalised voices in the Black community. His legacy will continue to inspire coming generations to pick up a camera and document stories of Black British life.
Menelik Shabazz: For the People runs at BFI Southbank in June 2022.
Burning an Illusion will be released on Blu-ray in September.