When Menelik Shabazz decided to create Black Filmmaker Magazine in 1998, it reflected his whole creative life and work as an activist in the Black London community. When I met him in 1974, before he had become a filmmaker, he was part of the Black Liberation Front and the Grassroots Storefront activist bookshop. From 1971, he was the publisher and editor of Grassroots newspaper, providing an alternative news source for a Black community clearly under racist attack. His first two films, Step Forward Youth (1977) and Breaking Point (1978), grew directly out of that community activism with a clear anti-racist agenda. Breaking Point won a political victory, playing a part in repealing the outdated ‘sus’ laws (born of the Vagrancy Act of 1824) that were used to criminalise Black youth.
Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981) was enthusiastically greeted by Black communities wherever it was screened in the UK and the US, yet received quite a few lukewarm reviews from critics. It was not the critics’ reviews he was concerned about; his mission was to redress the lack of a Black voice and a Black lens. There were few community-based film writers and a dearth of Black-produced vehicles to support and encourage the work of the Black filmmaker. Hence, the title became the focus. The vision he and his co-founders had with the Ceddo Black Film Workshop – “to empower Black film production, training and film screenings” – was pretty much the same for the magazine.
There had been periodic publications addressing Black film culture, like St Clair Bourne’s long-running newsletter Chamba Notes, started in 1972; David Nicholson’s Black Film Review in 1984; and of course the Black Film Bulletin in 1993. We talked about these a lot and shared the vision of creating a new Black film movement, referencing the French New Wave, looking at the lessons of Cahiers du cinéma and how a progressive Black film magazine could set the tone for a new Black film movement.
Menelik had come to the Blacklight Film Festival in Chicago to screen Burning an Illusion in 1982. In his time in the city, the home of US publishing, we talked about the idea of doing a globally based glossy colour Black filmmakers’ magazine. We had ongoing transatlantic conversations about how desktop publishing was impacting big publisher workflows. A lot of what we did and continued to do was based on our backgrounds in the Black liberation struggles, and as part of the Black Arts Movement. It was only natural to try to create vehicles to build and support a Black film movement that was truly independent and self-defined.
Menelik had come to rely on me for information and passionate debate about building this publication because I was working freelance for ad agencies and in desktop publishing for commercial magazines. I had also done work for a Black filmmakers’ newspaper in Los Angeles called In the Frame, which made its way to London for a few issues.
I think for Menelik, the magazine was an organising tool. Its presence momentarily crystallised the focus on the existence of an active Black international filmmaking community. With regards to his film work, he had become a bit despondent, unable to get any major financing for the work he wanted to do. Instead of griping, he said: “In the end, it was not so much about us as individuals, but about what we could do to energise, empower, sustain and support a Black film movement.” Black Filmmaker Magazine covered every aspect of filmmaking, especially the emerging digital tools for production, animation and special effects.
The market for bfm was people interested in cinema and television from the African and global diaspora. It was aimed at people who wanted to read Black cinema news, interviews with established and emerging talents, new media developments, equipment and reports on upcoming productions; featuring content created by and about people of African descent. The last conversation we had was about assembling more accurate demographics, doing surveys and starting to develop quantifiable information about the website.
One of the key things the magazine did was build the idea of a global Black film community, leading to the creation of the bfm International Film Festival, out of which came lots of new content, providing inspiration to new filmmakers. It also birthed the bfm Film and Television Awards and strengthened its foundations with robust fundraising and tight organisation – all essential to long-range efforts. We also created the blackfilmaker.com website and the bfm Actor’s Showcase, expanding into animation too. It was a challenge to sustain this level of work!
The bfm was an embodiment of Menelik’s pan-African passion. Fespaco, the biggest film festival in Africa and a showcase for the best African-focused cinema from Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas, provided an opportunity for conversations with – and features about – filmmakers from across the diaspora. People were always contributing stories to the magazine and Menelik and I travelled to festivals from Chicago to London to Burkina Faso, Kenya, Japan and beyond, building an inexhaustible network.
In 2020, Menelik decided to relaunch the bfm. I was chief technical officer, designer and programmer of the site itself and copublisher with Menelik. Moving forward is going to require some good funding, proposal writers, social media energy and more on both sides of the ocean, and hopefully the dedicated ones will step forward.
Menelik believed there was still a need for an independent voice – one that spoke outside the mainstream and reflected the realities of Black filmmakers’ journeys; creating a space where a filmmaker did not have to be a Hollywood success story to be noticed. There’s a large pool of developing and experienced filmmakers who need an outlet to talk about and expose people to their work. Bfmmag.com can be a resource beyond the mainstream. The internet has opened doors for independent distribution and there are successful models that have made it.