diasporan film-makers

diasporan film-makers
   Lionel Ngakane’s Jemima and Johnnie (1964), Frankie Lymon Jr’s Death May be Your Santa Claus (1969) and Baldwin’s Nigger (1968) are early examples of a still slow progress towards the expression of the black experience in film. The first black British director to complete a feature, and the first supported by a major funder (the British Film Institute), Horace Ove made a significant breakthrough with the important and still vibrant feature Pressure (1975), a coming-of-age drama set in the context of black radical politics in Notting Hill Gate. H.O. Nazareth, the leading documentarist whose Talking History (1983) brought together historians E.P. Thompson and C.L.R.James, Imruh Caesar, whose Riots and Rumours of Riots (1981) opened the door for a new documentary practice, and Menelik Shabazz, with his 1982 feature Burning an Illusion, gave important leads to younger film-makers beginning to train in the early 1980s. The arrival of Channel 4 in 1981, with a specific area of its remit devoted to ‘ethnic’ television, allowed directors like Colin Prescod to work in film for broadcast, and younger creatives to gain a foothold in the industry. The success of Franco Rosso’s dramatic feature Babylon (1980) demonstrated the box office potential of black themes, while the pressure for funding to kickstart black film-making in the UK was finally recognized in the aftermath of the urban uprisings of 1981. The workshops that launched at this stage— Ceddo, Sankofa, Retake and Black Audio Film Collective—worked variously to produce training, shorts, documentaries and features, and crucially to offer screenings of African, Asian and African- American films by directors like Julie Dash, Anand Patwardhan and Haile Gerima. Retake’s Majdhar (1984), Sankofa’s Territories (1985) and Passion of Remembrance (1986), and Black Audio’s Handsworth Songs (1986) defined a new, aggressively active and intelligent cinema, one that could move beyond the simple counter-propaganda model of positive images which had dominated earlier calls for black British film. This proved something of a bone of contention, notably when in January 1987, Salman Rushdie criticized Handsworth Songs in the pages of the Guardian for its complexity. That debate continues a decade later.
   The workshops formed an important Association of Black Workshops, which helped promote their work, and to enable new groups to form in Liverpool, Leicester and other regional centres. The work itself became the subject of a flurry of important public events and publications in the UK and the USA. Some films, like Star Films’ attempts to recreate the Hindi musical on shoestring budgets in London, received little critical support. Others, like the critically and commercially successful My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), scripted by novelist Hanif Kureishi, perhaps received more than they deserved. At the same time, both Kureishi’s film and the workshop products did begin to work through and challenge a state of affairs which had become entirely oppressive, and which is caught deftly in a scene from Passion of Remembrance in which the failure of a black couple on television to answer an easy quiz question causes one of the characters to complain that every black face on film has to stand for the whole race. In the films of the mid-1980s and subsequently, diasporan film-makers insisted on the diversity and even the conflicts within black communities, conflicts over sexualities and gender, class and allegiance. Ove’s 1986 Playing Away, about a cricket match between a thoroughly traditional English village and a laid-back, partying Brixton XI, in some respects a sentimental production, is able to undertake a more subtle analysis of attitudes within the Brixton team as result of this removal of the pressure for any black character to conform to idealized concepts of propriety and patience. Kureishi’s second major script, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, could portray its Indian protagonist as a villain. Nonetheless, one key problem remained, one which is common across the productions of the English independent cinema: the felt necessity of making every film as though it were your last. The result has been a number of films which suffer from being overburdened with themes and issues, perhaps the most disappointing of which was Isaac Julien’s much-anticipated Young Soul Rebels, which placed extraordinary demands on its audience to follow major themes of racism, anti-racism, gay sexuality and even a reappraisal of 1970s soul music through an already complex plot.
   In more recent years, the workshops have mostly broken up, as Channel 4 support for the workshop sector fell away in the late 1980s. Nonetheless, the networks still remain, and from them have arisen major directorial talents, not least among them women directors like Maureen Blackwood and Martine Attile, previously of Sankofa, and June Reid, previously of Ceddo. Meanwhile, new talents like Pratibha Parmar had emerged from the video scene, and a new wave of British Asian cineastes like Alnoor Dewshi and Alia Syed began to revivify the somewhat moribund avant-garde film tradition. The feature film area has been more difficult to work in, paradoxically, as costume dramas (in which the name of Ishmael Merchant is of course extremely prominent (see Merchant-Ivory Productions)) and other features have achieved remarkable success. Many of the 1980s generation now produce more work for gallery installations (see installation art), cinema shorts and television than for the features market. Notable exceptions have been the remarkably successful Bhaji on the Beach (1993), the first feature of director Gurinder Chadha, and Wild West (1992), David Attwood’s engaging and incisive story of an Asian country and western band, scripted by Harwant Bains. Only Hanif Kureishi’s clichéd and unstruc-tured directorial debut, London Kills Me (1991) disappointed.
   There seems to be a major decline in the production of British Afro-Caribbean films in the 1990s, and a weakening of the excitement generated by new British Asian directors since the gains of the first years of the decade. Despite the importance of diasporan cultures to the formation of youth cultures in general in the UK, the cinema has failed to seize on this rich vein of talent in the years since ‘riot money’ flowed into the funding institutions and made black Britain a hot property.
   SEAN CUBITT

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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