Last summer, I worked through a body of Black critical writings that would in various ways come to inform my forthcoming book on the emergence of Black British urban film.

Just days before the death of Menelik Shabazz in June 2021, I re-engaged with the landmark 1988 essay ‘New Ethnicities’ by the late British Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall, from which so much of our understanding of Black cinematic imagery, and Black culture and its accompanying politics, has been drawn. Hall’s central proposition, in the context of the mainstream media’s continued denial of Black people’s rights to cultural representation, was that the challenge – or to use a Hall(ian) phrase, the ‘contestation’ – over both access to the means of film production and the fetishised nature of Black images on screen, embodied a new phase of cultural politics he termed the “relations of representation”.

It is an essay I had always felt I had an accomplished understanding of but it seemed that Shabazz’s death, as well as the recirculation and appreciation of his work in countless obituaries and the sense of lamentation about his underappreciation within the mainstream of the film industry, prompted a further revisiting of Hall’s paper as a means of reflecting on my own engagement with Shabazz’s oeuvre.

Step Forward Youth (1977)

My introduction to Shabazz’s films, like so many of us who sought out the study of Black cinema (however one may choose to define this) as a means of identification, recognition and emotional sustenance, was through its visible absence at university. Black cultural studies, via Hall, Kobena Mercer, Paul Gilroy, Lola Young, Jim Pines and many other Black scholars, had established a critical framework for the multi-dimensional analysis of Black film and its embedding within the relations of representation.

Shabazz would assert his own reflections on the influence of writing on Black Power, pan-Africanism and the sociology of race that would inform his most notable work. Burning an Illusion (1981) was an engagement with the key writings on the cultural and institutional dimension of Black image-making, through which I was able to situate Shabazz’s film within the context of a reimagined idea of Black Britishness.

Burning an Illusion provoked a deeper exploration of the films that had helped to inform the aesthetic modes and themes encountered in his debut feature, which were to be located within Shabazz’s early documentary film practice. Films such as Step Forward Youth (1977), his counter-hegemonic challenge to the superficial framing of Black youths in London, presented the unfiltered perspectives of first-generation Black British youths on questions of cultural identity, national belonging and police harassment.

The role of police brutality would also be central to Breaking Point (1978), which features Hall throughout in its exploration of the impact of the discriminatory sus laws, a practice of official neo-segregation under the synthetic veil of crime prevention and law and order within London. Blood Ah Go Run (1982) captured the collective raw emotion and political energy displayed during the Black People’s Day of Action, the mass mobilisation of Britain’s Black communities in response to the death of 13 young Black people in the New Cross Fire in 1981.

Burning an Illusion displayed an interaction with the questions of access and Black cinematic image construction and meaning, the primary challenges within a phase of Black cultural politics that would constitute Hall’s relations of representation. It offered an examination of the impacts of racist Britain in a way that draws the film into dialogue with Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975) and Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980). The film also contested the idea of ‘Black Britishness’ as a cohesive term that could capture the divergent experiences and sensibilities of second-generation West Indians.

The three films present a more expansive representation of Black women than was common for the era, while also engaging with questions of Black relationality, love, family and the development of a critical Black consciousness against the thrust of racist police violence and the absurdities of the criminal justice system.

While Shabazz would go on to direct and produce a number of films through the decade, the relations of representation also encourage us to reflect on the conditions of production for Black creatives during the period. This aspect of the relations of representation is evident through Shabazz’s own reflections on the struggle to secure sustained funding for his film practice throughout the 80s and 90s. Indeed, it is precisely these vicissitudes that would lead him to launch Black Filmmaker Magazine, which created an affinity space for the sharing of experiences and modes of production that spoke directly to the Black and Asian independent film sector.

Menelik Shabazz filming Burning an Illusion (1981)

I spoke with Shabazz just once, during the early stages of my PhD research in 2011 that led me to the study of Black British film as a powerful form of Black political resistance. Like so many who have spoken of their encounters with him, I found him to be highly generous with both his time and his ideas; he was just as comfortable in reflecting on the making of Burning an Illusion as he was in offering insights on how Black filmmakers could navigate a new cultural and industrial terrain.

And it is perhaps this extensivity, so reflective of the integrated filmmaking practice he pursued throughout his career, that should be central to our remembrance. Shabazz advocated a participatory and politically charged practice, constructed upon older forms of Black cultural struggle, that has often been forgotten through the fragile but highly marketised climate of inclusivity within white cultural institutions, of which our film industry is central to, in the immediate post-George Floyd period.

Thus, if we are to think of Shabazz, Burning an Illusion and the politics his films embody as a barometer for where and who we are, as the prism through which we think about then and now, it may mean that we must actually think beyond the identification of themes that speak immediately to us within his cinematic language. In Shabazz’s work is the spirit of collectivism – the possibility of Black film in Britain representing something beyond the commodifiable space of ‘diversity politics’ and signifying a genuine community practice. It’s a legacy we need now more than ever.