Four documentaries about activism and social change in Britain in the 1970s and 80s

Themes of gentrification, inequality and angry protest make these documentaries about political turbulence in 70s and 80s Britain as relevant to us now as when they were made.

Suyin Haynes

Tunde’s Film (1973)

Tunde’s Film (1973)

The 1970s and 80s signified massive change and upheaval in British social and cultural history. The Conservative party came to power in 1970, and, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher made history as the UK’s first female prime minister. Some of the outcomes during the decade under Thatcher’s leadership included extreme discord between the unions and the government, and an increase in poverty and inequality. The lady was certainly not for turning on several policies that came to negatively affect certain sectors of the British population.

Many artists take inspiration from the political and social climate that surrounds them, and the work of documentary filmmakers is no different. As much as celebrated documentary filmmakers such as Molly Dineen and Adam Curtis hone in on specific people and their circumstances, their work ties into a broader commentary on the social, cultural and political matters of the time. The tenacity of documentary filmmakers to alert us to pressing issues that may otherwise have been left undiscovered was as present in 70s and 80s Britain as it is today around the world. The following films sourced from the BFI’s Britain on Film collection are from this time, yet some of the themes that their creators confront us with are as relevant now as they were back then.

Do Something! (1970)

Director Ross Devenish

“If you get up and do something, instead of moaning and screaming and shouting your head off, do something!” One of the participants leaves us with this parting message in this wonderful film that gives us a snapshot of 70s life in north London. The narrator sets the scene by introducing the borough of Islington as the “part of London that has the most overcrowding and the least space to play”. And he’s right – what we now identify as gentrification is clearly at play in this film and interlinks with the ever-present tension over race relations.

Including personal interviews with members of the community, who both blame and defend each other for the housing problems the area faces, this film raises a number of questions that could be posed equally as well to several communities across the UK today. We are told that the middle class are buying up houses in the potentially fashionable areas and restricting property for the poorer people, but rather than the latter group putting on a united front, one’s neighbour of a different colour becomes a ready scapegoat for things that seem beyond one’s control. 

The action is centred on a children’s playground, where members of all races peacefully coexist in blissful unawareness of the simmering anger that lies beyond the fencing around the park. The fears that many of the people featured in the film show relate to their housing and security, and arguably much of this has not changed in the borough, which still suffers from spiralling inequality between the trendy elite and their working-class counterparts. British-Nigerian filmmaker Shola Amoo’s recent debut documentary feature A Moving Image (2016) explores many of the same themes as Do Something! – such as gentrification, class and race relations, but this time south of the river as the film highlights the changing character and composition of Brixton in south London.

Tunde’s Film (1973)

Directors Tunde Ikoli and Maggie Pinhorn

With their sweater vests, turtlenecks, bushy beards and flared trousers, the protagonists of Tunde’s Film could almost be mistaken for today’s east London hipsters. Yet co-director Tunde Ikoli and his friends are followed around London not just by the camera’s gaze, but by the police who seem to appear at every step they take. This authentic glimpse into the lives of a group of young black men takes us on a tour round the council estates of Tower Hamlets and to social settings like the pub or the local café –seemingly nondescript but serving as the backdrop to camaraderie and conversation between the characters. The film’s memorable soundtrack captures the very essence of the early 1970s and features none other than the inimitable Joan Armatrading, who lends her musical chops to this project showcasing a group of young men simply trying to navigate the difficulties of everyday life.

Riots and Rumours of Riots (1981)

Director Imruh Caesar

Riots and Rumours of Riots (1981)

Rioting across major British cities, including London, Liverpool and Manchester, broke out following the arrest of a local black man in Brixton, London in 1981. Sparked by long simmering tensions between predominantly black communities and the police, the Brixton race riots also inspired Imruh Caesar to make this film. Riots and Rumours of Riots takes a retrospective look at black political consciousness, organising and strategies in the UK since the Second World War in light of 1981’s events. The film cleverly layers scenes from life in 1981: as young people play bingo and while away time at the local dancehall, their lives are interspersed with oral testimonies and archival footage relating to the struggles that the first Caribbean migrants to the UK faced. Members of the older Windrush generation reflect on their experiences of British racism and fascism, as Caesar subtly highlights both the differences and similarities that they have with younger generations of the black British community. 

Blood Ah Go Run (1982)

Director Menelik Shabazz

Blood Ah Go Run (1982)

Blood Ah Go Run depicts the anger and frustration of the black British community after the 1981 New Cross massacre in which 13 teenagers died in a fire in south London, believed to have been started as part of a racist attack. Part documentary, part manifesto, the film follows the community in the aftermath of the tragedy and the protest carried out in London on 2 March 1981, deemed to be the first National Black People’s Day of Action.

With the British media treating the deaths as a minor incident and supporting the police story that the fire was not a racist crime, the film follows the protesters through the streets of London as the chant of “13 dead and nothing said” echoes throughout. As the march faces police resistance and violence, the narrator deems them the “brutes in blue”, giving us a sense of the anger that the black community felt at the injustice they had faced. “Important?” one woman on the march replies when asked. “It’s more than important, brother! This is the beginning, not the end.”

The grassroots action and unified spirit embodied in this film also has resonance today, as the recent documentary Generation Revolution (2016) also takes a look at the direct action of young black activists, responding to issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and austerity Britain.

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  • Britain on Film

    Britain on Film

    1,000s of films, beautifully preserved. 120 years of British life, unseen until now.

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