Who We Are – Pandemic. Pause. Reset

“Take some wisdom from the past. Lessons of cultural reinvention.” It’s time for a cultural reset, says curator Jan Asante, and we can take inspiration from black filmmakers of the past, who have always defied the odds and symbolised the spirit of resilience.

14 July 2020

By Jan Asante

Welcome II the Terrordome (1995)

This is part of a series of articles for Who We Are., an online takeover exploring the artistry behind black British film.

Find many of the films mentioned in this article in the Who We Are. collection on BFI Player.

In the midst of seismic social shifts and a socially distanced global pandemic, envisioning a brighter future for film culture might feel like an impossible challenge. But take some wisdom from the past. There live lessons of cultural reinvention – above all, from storytellers of the global black diaspora, whose bold, critical cinematic interventions, from the margins to the centre, have always defied the odds and symbolised the spirit of resilience, rebirth and sheer ingenuity in the face of crisis.

Definitive moments and movements characterise the continuing evolution of black artists and filmmakers. As the present political mood pushes the world to reconcile the rallying cry of ‘Black Lives Matter’, it echoes memories of the recent past. Movements that have always challenged colonial histories, shifting the dial on the aesthetics of power and representation, and ultimately expanding the lens of modern western cinema.

Killer of Sheep (1978)

The backdrop of the civil rights movement in late 1960s America would inspire the making of the ‘LA Rebellion.’ Young African and African-American students emerged from UCLA Film School, and over two decades, they passed the torch: one generation mentoring the next, pioneering community-based, counter-cultural approaches to the art of filmmaking.

Among those LA Rebellion luminaries were directors Haïlé Gerima (Bush Mama) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), filmmakers now recognised as makers of some of the most culturally important works of the 1970s. Fellow LA Rebellion alumni Julie Dash made history with Daughters of the Dust in 1991, which became the first feature film by an African-American woman to gain a US theatrical release. Dash’s Daughters would later influence the aesthetics of Beyoncé’s 2016 audiovisual album Lemonade, thus inspiring pop-culture’s overdue reverence for this unsung masterpiece.

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Across the waters, exiles, émigrés and outliers were making uncharted waves to break the colour bar of 1960s British visual culture. Jamaican-born brothers Barry and Lloyd Reckord make history as the first siblings of the Windrush era to work collaboratively in British film, theatre and television, creating landmark moments including 1962’s You in Your Small Corner and the irreverent 1963 drama Ten Bob in Winter.

Exiled South African filmmaker Lionel Ngakane paints a poetic snapshot of 1966 London via Jemima & Johnny. An unlikely friendship blooms between Jemima, the daughter of a newly-arrived West Indian family, and five-year-old Johnny, the white son of a right-wing nationalist father staunchly opposed to immigration. The children’s friendship symbolically flies in the face of bigotry and segregation.

Pressure (1975)
Horace Ové

Trinidad-born artist Horace Ové arrives in 1960s England and gifts the canon of 1970s cinema with the monumental Pressure, a timeless feat of indie filmmaking, forever canonised in the Guinness World Records as “the first black British feature-length film”.

On the shoulders of those early innovators stood many of the artists who emerged from Britain’s Black Arts Movement, in full bloom by the early 1980s. The unveiling of Channel 4 as a daring new platform for radical young voices converged with a government pledge to support the UK independent film sector, and from this commitment came the dawn of the Black Film Workshops. Collective collaboration and making multicultural migration legacy was pivotal to the ethos of Workshop practice, and among its shining stars were Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video (symbolically deriving its name from a mythical Ghanaian bird who looks at the past to understand the present and future), ReTake, and Ceddo Film Workshop.

Blood Ah Go Run (1982)

Signature chapters from the Workshop era stand the test of time: Ceddo alumni Menelik Shabazz (director of Burning an Illusion, The Story of Lovers Rock and Looking for Love) chronicles key black cultural tipping points of 1981 in Blood Ah Go Run. The film crystallises memory: the Brixton uprisings, unaccounted-for black deaths in the New Cross fire, and the subsequent Black People’s Day of Action.

Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs, helmed by the acclaimed John Akomfrah (maker of The Nine Muses and The Stuart Hall Project) is yet another seminal work. Shot amid the Birmingham uprisings of 1985, Handsworth Songs remains as relevant today as it ever was, examining riots as a tragedy of broken social contract – a burden of the voiceless, suppressed and disenfranchised.

Sankofa alumni Isaac Julien’s 1984 film Territories critiques mainstream media’s distorted lens. The policing of blackness, sexuality and Notting Hill Carnival is its symbolic battleground. Equally intuitive is Julien’s 1991 feature Young Soul Rebels, a landmark of black, British and queer cinema. Alongside director Ngozi Onwurah’s scorching 1995 thriller, Welcome II the Terrordome (the first theatrically released feature by a black British woman), these provocative works exemplified the height of radical, experimental film production, signalling the peak of a prolific decade for black British artists. An ingenious era of black artistry, punctuated but never solely defined by unending repression and recession.

And so the entire world now finds itself collectively bound by crisis. In this unprecedented pause is an opportunity: a cultural reset. The past is a roadmap to the untapped promise of the future. And may that future finally deliver.

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