Speak easy: screen scenes

When the Black Film Bulletin emerged out of the BFI’s former African Caribbean Unit in spring 1993, its debut issues chronicled both the prolific new wave of Black cinema across the diaspora in the early 1990s and the timely openings of Europe’s first Black-owned film exhibition venues. Thirty years on, one of the UK’s leading Black cinema exhibition platforms, We Are Parable, marks its own ten-year anniversary. Cofounder Anthony Andrews reflects on its rise, the collectives that came before it and the evolving Black British screen scene.

10 May 2023

By Anthony Andrews

Coming to America (1988)
Sight and Sound

I don’t think I realised it at the time, but when we first conceived We Are Parable, it came from a place of wanting to ‘see ourselves’, before that term even became a thing. My wife – and WAP co-founder – Teanne Andrews and I were not in the best place with our careers in arts and marketing, so one night at home to destress, we revisited a film we had both loved growing up – Coming to America.

At one point, I turned to my wife, struck by the realisation that, as pre-teens at the time of its 1988 release, we’d never seen the film in a cinema: “Imagine experiencing this not just on a grainy VHS tape, but on the big screen… that feeling of being completely immersed?” Teanne felt the same way. This was a moment back in 2013 that would ultimately inspire our company’s launch event. We brought Coming to America back to the cinema, taking it a step further by creating experiences invoked in the film – complete with ‘rosebearers’ adorning the audience with petals as they walked into the foyer. The idea of creating a different vision of what it meant to go to the cinema was our motivation. That night, intended only as a one-off event, was a huge, sold-out success. “When’s the next one?” our audience asked. Those 300 people felt celebrated. They felt seen.

Despite the rising prevalence of streaming, I still believe that the cinema is the ultimate space to experience film. As WAP expands towards its tenth anniversary, the work we do both in the UK and the US echoes a broader cinematic community, committed to demonstrating the value and importance of both marketing and exhibiting Black film to the widest possible audience.

Having done this work for a significant amount of time makes me feel honoured to be part of the seasoned genealogy of creatives who innovatively produce spaces to showcase Black cinema: creatives like Nubian Tales, formed in 1991, who paved the way in promoting and marketing Black film culture to a multiethnic audience; and outfits like Kush Media, Screen Nation and others who have galvanised communities, producing and screening Black artistry. In WAP’s early years, we were incredibly supported by Priscilla Igwe, co-founder of The New Black Film Collective, who elevated our awareness of funding opportunities, enabling us to scale up and reach even more audiences across the nation and beyond.

Black Panther (2018)

As we’ve grown, giving our audiences a great experience, one not exclusively hinged on being well-versed in film history, has remained the mission. No one’s going to sneer at you if you haven’t watched Killer of Sheep (1978)! That said, our investment in the experience factor, in spotlighting unique culturally resonant elements, still serves as our brand’s USP. That vision definitely defined a landmark moment for us in 2018, showcasing the release of Marvel’s Black Panther. Gaylene Gould, the indomitable cultural leader and former head of BFI events, had approached us to collaborate on the UK premiere and we jumped at the chance. Working with the team, we curated an Afrofuturistic kingdom, complete with a vintage comic book and toy exhibition (provided by the late, great UK graphic artist Jon Daniel), music, fashion, and arts and craft-makers. Tickets sold out in minutes and that legendary night at BFI Southbank – attended by the film’s director and co-writer Ryan Coogler and producer Nate Moore – lives on as one of our career highs.

And so began our relationship with the BFI’s flagship venue, which to our audience signalled a shift in mindset when it came to accessible spaces. I vividly remember someone texting me about Black Panther at the BFI Southbank, asking if they had to wear a suit and tie. It may seem trivial – or not – but until very recently, this and other heritage venues around the UK have felt like places certain Black audiences didn’t believe were for them. We therefore used this event as a case study, highlighting what spaces could look like when resources for Black audiences are adequately funded, and began collaborating with venues including Glasgow Film Theatre, HOME in Manchester, Exeter Phoenix, Lewes Depot and Watershed in Bristol. Significantly, this manifested in our two-year BFI-backed project ‘Who We Are’, which travelled the country exhibiting Black cinema from around the world.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the last decade has been the access to public funding. With support from the BFI, British Council and Barbican (to name a few), we’ve been able to scale our work, not just nationwide, but now across continents. Exhibiting in Jamaica, Kenya and soon, in Colombia; we see the global differences and similarities of audiences and are hosting conversations on film and exhibition culture that we previously could only ever dream about.

2020 was undoubtedly a time of great upheaval for the film industry, and for us personally. We watched from home as a man cried for his mother for eight minutes as police slowly, brutally killed him. We read about Black people dying from the pandemic at a higher rate than other ethnicities. We were disgusted by emerging data on the lack of representation behind the camera in our industry. We saw it as our responsibility to not only screen what filmmakers made, but to go further in supporting the careers of these artists; leveraging any influence or power we had amassed to create greater opportunities. This evolved into MOMENTUM, our Channel 4-aligned partnership, designed to elevate Black British filmmakers via dedicated industry mentorship and mental health support. 

As we mark our 10th anniversary, reflecting on why we do what we do; seeing people that look like us on screen, and seeing people in the crowd who look like us — still feels like sanctuary; like an authentic space to explore our stories. Have our audiences changed? Well, I’m hopeful that more sections of the audience feel better reflected, in ways eerily similar to what Nubian Tales and Electric Cinema were doing in the nineties, and to what Kush, The New Black Film Collective, and peers like Birds Eye View, T A P E Collective, Bounce Cinema and many more in the present film exhibition landscape continue to do so inspiringly with laser-like focus and innovative programming.

Screen scenes, revisited

Hailed by many as the renaissance era that birthed a prolific new wave of Black cinematic content, symbolically, the early 1990s also ushered in groundbreaking cultural expansions in film exhibition and saw the dawn of Europe’s first Black-helmed film venues. The Black Film Bulletin’s first editions launched in the Spring of 1993 – its emergence from the BFI’s former African Caribbean Unit undoubtedly inspired by the zeitgeist. To commemorate the BFB’s 30th anniversary, founding editor Dr June Givanni revisits early 90s conversations around the evolution of Black cinema on British screens, with Nubian Tales founder Marc Boothe and The Electric Cinema consortium’s Kwesi Owusu.

By Dr June Givanni

Screen scenes, revisited