Mothers, lovers and others: films by Black British female directors

For the October 1989 Monthly Film Bulletin, Karen Alexander traces the wayward paths leading to new films by four Black British women directors – Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Gurinder Chadha and Ngozi Onwurah.

Martina Attille’s Dreaming Rivers (1988)BFI National Archive

1. Unfinished business

With a few notable exceptions (Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground, Julie Dash’s Four Women, Ayoka Chenzira’s Hairpiece), cinema produced within the independent Black sector, whether documentary or narrative, has until recently kept closely to a realist aesthetic. These ‘advocacy’ or social issue films, aimed at redressing misrepresentations of Black history or Black politics, affirm ‘the Black experience’.

The problem with this first stage of Black cultural expression is that its reliance on a politics of unity renders invisible divisions of class, gender and sexual orientation within Black communities. The next stage must be the phase identified by Stuart Hall, in which “we actually begin to recognise the extraordinary complexity of ethnic and cultural differences”.

The emergence of Black women writers from the US in the late 60s and early 70s shifted the frame of reference of Black politics into precisely this area. Their work dealt with the ‘unfinished business’ of the 60s civil rights movement: that of giving voice to the victories, the hopes, fears, joy and pain of Black women’s existence, past and present. This work has redefined the past, opening up a terrain rich in Black women writers, healers, artists, teachers, politicians, actresses, mothers, lovers and daughters. In so doing, various contradictory journeys of exploration have been undertaken in an effort to unfold what it means to be a Black woman at this point in history, bringing into question the whole idea of a unified Black community.

Traditionally, film – even independent Black film – has been the cultural form which has most resisted Black women’s participation. International Black film festivals such as the GLC-financed Third Eye and Anti-Racist film seasons, and packages like the Arts Council’s ground-breaking Black Women and Invisibility, have enabled British audiences to see the work of Black women and women of colour who have ‘dared to dream’, but there have been no indigenous Black women filmmakers – until recently.

Over the last 18 months, the work of four Black women directors bears witness to an advance: Dreaming Rivers by Martina Attille, Coffee Coloured Children by Ngozi Onwurah, I’m British But… by Gurinder Chadha and Perfect Image? by Maureen Blackwood. And yet, the differences between these films, all short 16 mm productions made on small budgets, are as striking as their similarities.

2. Moving on

Maureen Blackwood’s Perfect Image? (1988)

Dreaming Rivers and Perfect Image? are both Sankofa workshop productions and solo debuts for their directors. Like the commercial feature successes of Black American filmmakers Robert Townsend and Spike Lee, both films were written by their directors, who were also active members of the companies that raised finance for development and production. It is the motivation behind each film that makes for their difference. For Martina Attille, the poetic style of Dreaming Rivers has a lot to do with her desire to communicate ideas visually: “The shadows are as important as everything else in the film”.

Maureen BlackwoodBFI National Archive

They represent “historical gaps” perceived as she grew up, in a time when Black people were contained and represented in images of crisis and conflict. Attille feels that through their upbringing Black people experience “blind spots” as to how and why they are here. The making of the film is like lifting the first of many layers to see what is underneath. The central character, Miss T., realises on her deathbed that she has given up everything for her husband and children, and is troubled by what she has lost. The director sees the film as a warning for women always to make space for their own desires.

Perfect Image? is an exploratory look at how Black women see themselves. Hair and skin colour, often taboo subjects for Black filmmakers, are confronted head-on. Maureen Blackwood considers that Black women have always been prisoners in their bodies: “By being Black and female a whole set of historical values come into play, imposed on us from the outside… Mothers and children have ended up living out colonial histories on each other.”

The film is an attempt to bring such past histories to light, while trying to encourage recognition that these aspects of experience are not all negative. Its fast-moving, satirical format, departing from the more confrontational style of The Passion of Remembrance, was a deliberate attempt to communicate with a large audience. For the director, humour can allow a greater honesty with the characters, putting over points which might otherwise be too painful or personal to talk about.

3. British images

Gurinder Chadha’s I’m British But… (1989)BFI National Archive

I’m British But… and Coffee Coloured Children were made on much smaller budgets than the Sankofa films. The former is a BFI-funded documentary which looks at contemporary Asian youth and how they have negotiated being Black and British. By exploring Britishness from racial and regional perspectives, Gurinder Chadha believes that I’m British But… points to the fact that, for Britain’s minority ethnic communities, “having a British identity is not as important as having a cultural identity.”

The upbeat approach neatly packages pop-promo-style images, super-8 home movies and direct-to-camera interviews, deliberately throwing stereotypical ideas of the ‘passive’ Asian community into question. The director hopes her film will make a direct intervention (time slots permitting) in usual prime-time portrayals of young Asians. “My work has always been about changing, informing and challenging preconceived ideas about my community.” I’m British But… is much more than a call for Asians to remember their past in terms of the present. It challenges white society to take responsibility for the Black presence in Britain.

Gurinder ChadhaBFI National Archive

Though it casts a wider cultural net, Gurinder Chadha’s film shares with the others a questioning of representation and culture, mapping out different positions for a Black, specifically Asian and British identity. The eponymous subject of Coffee Coloured Children are the children of mixed-race parents. Director Ngozi Onwurah made the film at St. Martin’s School of Art, where she graduated last year. Onwurah, whose mother is white, lived in Newcastle and grew up in an area where at the time there were no other Black people, except her sister and brother.

Making the film was very much an act of exorcism. It evolved over a period of a year, each new stage emerging from conversations with her sister and brother. In the process a great deal of “internalised racist baggage” came to the surface. Onwurah chooses to make films which are very personal, even when addressing so public an issue as apartheid, as in her most recent piece, Fruits of Fear, in which viewers are made to confront their own part in upholding the South African regime. But although her work deals with intensely personal issues, it cannot be accused of self-indulgence. For Onwurah, accessibility is essential: “There’s no point in making a film if other people can’t get something from it too.”

Following up a first piece of work is a problem that has plagued women filmmakers both mainstream and independent in the past, and still persists (witness award-winning director Euzhan Palcy’s five-year wait before being able to make the forthcoming A Dry White Season, after the success of Rue Cases Nègres).

For Martina Attille, filmmaking is only one form of communication to be explored. Other options include writing material for others to direct, and working with radio. She does not want to be blinkered by her cultural experience, and wants her work to “go beyond the visibility of colour and the insecurities of making connections”.

Maureen Blackwood sees her first two personal pieces of work as a necessary preliminary to her development as a writer-director, because “the first stories are always about ourselves”. The diversity of her declared influences (the understated depiction of Black American neighbourhoods in Charles Burnett, Jim Jarmusch’s characterisations, Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima, Martin Scorsese and American soaps) suggests that her future development will be towards wider cinematic and political concerns.

4. Breaking the mould

Ngozi Onwurah’s Coffee Coloured Children (1988)

I’m British But… was Gurinder Chadha’s way of ‘doing the right thing’ for the community from which she comes: “It was important to go back and pay my dues”. Her plans for the future include more personal work, a decision inspired in part by Isaac Julien’s sensual yet political meditation on Black gay identities, Looking for Langston. “It taught me you can be indulgent and make your point”. Her intention is to weave music, songs, images and sound together to examine what she calls the “transitional period” of the Asian presence in Britain, in the face of cultural dilution or integration.

Usually survival outside the protective funding of the workshops proves difficult if not impossible, especially for Black production companies. This makes the swift progress of Non-Aligned Productions, the company Ngozi Onwurah set up soon after leaving college, all the more remarkable. Onwurah feels that it is vital for the survival of Black filmmakers that they attempt to work independently of grants and subsidies. Only in this way can they gain at least relative freedom and control over what is produced, how it’s produced and where it’s exhibited.

Ngozi Onwurah directing Coffee-Coloured Children (1988)BFI National Archive

Among diverse future projects are an episode of South of the Border directed for the BBC and a documentary in the Soviet Union for the First Film Foundation. But more pertinent to her desire for independence are the development of her own feature film idea, Ytundi’s Gymkhana, for Tyne Tees Television, and the BFI’s funding of Body Beautiful, a script based on an early short film about her mother’s mastectomy. There is an irony in the fact that having received such recognition as a director she has now been given a place at the National Film School as a student of drama-direction, the first Black woman to achieve this.

These four powerful films both challenge existing representations and open up possibilities for changing them. Beyond this, however, their very existence points to the suppressed potential of Black women’s creativity and should provide an inspiration, both to those who have been excluded from the means of representation and to those educational and funding institutions responsible for that exclusion.

Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Gurinder Chadha and Ngozi Onwurah have in diverse ways and with divergent results shown how restrictive ideological moulds can be broken, and hopefully represent the vanguard of an onslaught of independent, creative Black women, making the films that ought to be seen.

Further reading