Wishful filming, revisited

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Black Film Bulletin – first launched at the BFI’s African Caribbean Unit in the Spring of 1993 – we revisit renowned British-Ghanaian director Sir John Akomfrah’s seminal reflections on Black aesthetics, British culture, and the diasporic potential of Black British cinema.

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
  • ‘Wishful Filming’ was originally published in the June 1993 edition of the BFB [Vol 1, Iss. 2]

John Akomfrah’s two part interview; of which the first part ‘Sneaking Ghosts Through the Back Door‘ was published in the inaugural issue of Black Film Bulletin, concludes here, taking a frank approach to the issue of audience demands and Black film aesthetics in the UK. Akomfrah argues that one can’t really make any sense of a Black British emergent cinema without placing it within British cinema and understanding the relationship British cinema has with American cinema, or has had historically.

British audiences / Black aesthetic

I feel there’s a kind of certainty that African-American film embodies and a lot of people want that to be duplicated here. It is increasingly seen that any Black film-maker who is interested in interrogating forms; finding fresh ways of saying things, is accused of being funded by white liberals. It’s the most bizarre argument! How are we going to learn how to make films unless we try to find ways of talking about it?

It seems to me that we were beginning to get to the point where a certain amount of cultural credibility was being gained by Black British filmmakers abroad and we didn’t have to completely betray everything that we represent in order to be taken seriously. But precisely at that moment, you have a crowd of people saying we don’t need experimental films because they’re all rubbish. I don’t understand why it is that people who feel they need to do other types of work need to attack experimentalism. I don’t understand why people who watch “Boyz N the Hood” and “Bladerunner” have a problem saying that experimental filmmaking is just one more strand of the filmmaking experience I want to open myself out to. I don’t feel the need to pander to anybody any more. They should go somewhere else to see the films they want.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

There has always been a kind of healthy disrespect for capacities for abstraction in this culture. So why should any intellectual defence of our difference be seen as an apology for white liberalism? The underlying assumption of that accusation is that there has been a willingness on the part of some institutions/financiers to fund mainstream Black films and we, the “Workshops”, haven’t been prepared to go along with it. That’s simply not true. The Workshops developed as a diverse practice and people, who from the beginning were pushing fiction synopsis and treatments of what would be described as mainstream pieces. On the whole, nobody in the British industry was interested in a ‘Black cinema’. The only time they started thinking about it was when they realised that a pornographic display of Black life was worth some money, and anybody who thinks that there was in the past a group of willing British producers who were stopped from making commercial Black film by ‘avant-garde’ “Uncle Toms” like myself is living in wacko land. Let’s get real here.

On the whole, nobody in the British industry was interested in a Black cinema. The only time they started thinking about it was when they realised that a pornographic display of Black life was worth some money.

I’m being really polemical, but I find what is going on really interesting. For one, when we started there were no people who wanted to talk about cinema. Now everybody wants to talk about cinema. That major moment when potentially all the things we talked about — the need for a Black constituency; a supportive base for Black filmmaking and for Black film ideas, is beginning to happen. But it’s just not happening in the way that some of us would like and that’s the nature of the beast! We can’t become too despondent about it; we have to carry on making inroads by informing people that there are different kinds of Black filmmaking. What I want is not what Ngozi Onwurah or Sankofa or Charles Burnett, Med Hondo, Spike Lee, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Isaac Julien or even other Black Audio Film Collective people might want to do, even though I love them all.

The great divide?

Most white filmmakers or movie goers make a clear distinction between what is British and what is American. Watching an American film is very much an exercise in visiting a foreign land for audiences — they know that there is a cultural difference. One of the things that I initially thought exciting about the Black British movie going audiences was the erasure of that difference in the name of something else — a Black international or Black diasporic culture. That excitement will remain for me as long as the whole thing doesn’t ossify into the usual boring, servile, conformist, British approach to American culture. We’ve a unique chance for dialogue and we should take it. Let’s not sheepishly take just what they offer us or start shamelessly mimicking them. Pointing to the U.S. experience without properly understanding it is a mistake. Spike [Lee] wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for “She’s Gotta Have It” — one of the most radical formal experiments in Black cinema made at the time. The reasons why he got his break are really important to understand, but people don’t want to talk about it.

This comparison of Black British and Black American film popularity is also happening at a time when most British film producers in the wider industry are busy re-selling their souls. Everybody is doing it! Not just young Blacks, but everybody. “We make awful films, the US is so much better!” they say, rather than just accepting the fact that we are a smaller culture and our contributions can be made in a smaller but very particular way. There are those who in the usual boring British filmmaking way since the 1940’s, are trying to resurrect this dead, putrid horse called Commercial British Cinema and you’ve got these young Blacks following them. It’s a completely dead horse and it’s not going to go anywhere – never has done, never will! Once you accept that, you can be quite comfortable. People are flogging a completely dead horse which hasn’t been alive for forty years. And the idea that by some miracle this fifth column called Black British commercial filmmaking is going to break through is baloney. It’s a massive exercise in wishful filming.