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Black Britain at BAM

Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981)

Programmed by our own curatorial director, Ashley Clark, Brooklyn Academy of Music’s weeklong series Uncharted Territories: Black Britain on Film, 1963–1986, opening on Friday, sets the stage for the theatrical release of Horace Ové’s newly restored Pressure (1975) on May 10. Pressure, the first British feature directed by a Black filmmaker, tracks the trials and tribulations of Tony (Herbert Norville), the first kid in his Trinidadian family to be born in the UK. He’s left school, can’t find a job, can’t quite pull off the gangster lifestyle of the band he’s fallen in with, and he’s catching heat from his older, Trinidad-born brother, Colin (Oscar James), for ignoring his heritage.

When Ové—who was also an accomplished writer, painter, and photographer—passed away last fall, Clark remembered him in Sight and Sound as a “natural radical and critic of the establishment.” With Pressure, Ové and cowriter Samuel Selvon “crafted a human prism through which to illuminate the plight of an emerging generational cohort that included my own father, who was born in London to parents who’d emigrated from Jamaica in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation. When I first saw Pressure, which features unvarnished depictions of police brutality and explores the profound effects of implicit and explicit racism, it felt like I was watching a raw articulation of truths that my father was never likely to volunteer himself.”

Uncharted Territories offers a documentary Ové made before Pressure and a feature he directed more than a decade later. In Baldwin’s Nigger (1968), James Baldwin and comedian and activist Dick Gregory speak to a group of West Indian students in London about civil rights movements in America and beyond. “This gripping vérité-style short,” wrote Clark for Sight and Sound in 2020, is “thrilling not just because it captures Baldwin, eyes ablaze, at the peak of his rhetorical powers, but because it offers evidence that political discourse was thriving among young Black people in Britain—Baldwin’s audience are not just passive listeners; they speak their minds, too.”

Here, we should take a brief detour to note that from Thursday through May 22, the Barbican in London will present The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin Through Film, a series exploring the Black experience in contemporary cinema. The title is lifted from Baldwin’s seventeenth book, a blend of memoir and film criticism published in 1976. Writing about the series and Baldwin’s cinephilia for the Guardian, Lanre Bakare notes that two directors approached the writer with serious offers to adapt his 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Horace Ové.

In Ové’s Playing Away (1987), a small English town invites a Black cricket team to play a charity game. “Racial integration, the nature of belonging, what we do with our unfulfilled hopes—it is a film that explores a lot of territory, and does so with impressive empathy,” wrote Emma John in the Guardian in 2021. Also, “funny as it is, almost every scene crackles with some kind of latent politics, be they of class, race or sex.” Ové’s son Zak told John: “Something about that film that’s neglected now and was very important to Horace was that Black filmmakers don’t get caught in the trap of only making films about their own kind. Horace’s philosophy was that as West Indians in Britain [we] had to know your world as well as you in order to survive it.”

Another director with three films in the program is Menelik Shabazz, a cofounder of the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, publisher of Black Filmmaker Magazine, and creator of the BFM International Film Festival. Born in Barbados, Shabazz was five when his family moved to the UK and in his early twenties when he completed his first project, Step Forward Youth (1977), a half-hour documentary about what it was like at the time to be young, Black, and British.

The twenty-minute Blood Ah Go Run (1981) documents the Black People’s Day of Action, a demonstration against British indifference to a fire that killed thirteen young Black people in South London. When Shabazz passed away in 2021, David Katz noted in the Guardian that his first feature, Burning an Illusion (1981), is “a nuanced portrait of a young Black woman’s personal and political awakening after societal pressures affect her feckless boyfriend.” Cassie McFarlane’s “naturalistic portrayal of its protagonist, Pat, won her the Evening Standard award for most promising new actress.”

In his overview of Uncharted Territories for 4Columns, Sukhdev Sandhu goes for the deeper cuts. “For decades, Death May Be Your Santa Claus (1969) was an unholy grail for devotees of underground cinema,” he writes. Frankie Dymon’s only directorial effort is “preening and earnest, erratically acted and shot, keen to alarm—a torrid stew. None of this is necessarily a criticism. Ken Gajadhar plays Raymond, a Black lecturer in a tangerine roll-neck and yellow underpants who sleeps under a poster of Che Guevara. He seems quite taken with an unnamed, blue-caped white woman (Donnah Dolce), with whom he makes extended and accomplished love scored to a soundtrack of increasingly manic synths, at the end of which she has turned black.”

In Lionel Ngakane’s Jemima and Johnny (1966), a Black girl and a white boy, both of them “barely five,” wander “pre-gentrified Notting Hill, whose streets are cratered and war-rubbled.” For Sandhu, Jemima and Johnny is a “quiet revelation.” Sandhu will introduce Tuesday’s screening of Anthony Simmons’s Black Joy (1977), a comedy about the friendship between a naïve Guyanese immigrant and a native of Brixton. “This is a street movie, cynical and wise,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1987.

On Saturday, Yasmina Price will introduce The Passion of Remembrance (1986), which the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calls “a knotty, complex, self-questioning piece of work: drama, essay movie, and video art crossover.” It’s directed by Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien, cofounders of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, whose early short films, Who Killed Colin Roach (1983) and Territories (1984), both directed by Julien, are in BAM’s program. Julien’s five-channel video installation Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die) (2022) is on view now at the Whitney Biennial.

Currently representing Britain at the Venice Biennale, John Akomfrah cofounded the Black Audio Film Collective and directed Handsworth Songs (1986), an essayistic documentation of the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London. A few weeks after the 2011 London riots, a screening of Handsworth Songs drew an enormous crowd to the Tate Modern, where the post-screening conversation lasted for three hours.

“Especially after having spent much of the last twenty years being told by apparatchiks that there’s no life in experimental film, it was shocking," Akomfrah told Sandhu in the Guardian a few months later. “These were inquisitive, intellectual magpies confronted by the same questions as we were in the 1980s: how much can we call political, given that the powers that be are saying it’s all criminal or without any basis in politics? They believed, like I do, that the moving image has a role to play in galvanizing these debates.”

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