FILM / Hanging out with the homeboys: Marc Boothe runs a West End showcase for black cinema. Chris Salewicz discovered 'Nubian Tales'

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The Independent Culture
NINE O'CLOCK in Soho on a Friday night so muggy it feels tropical. On the steps of the Prince Charles cinema stands Marc Boothe, wearing a suit and his characteristic expression of bemused anxiety. He watches as a flow of fashionably dressed black Britons buy tickets for another evening of 'Nubian Tales' - the title Boothe has given to the nights of black cinema which he presents every week.

The street outside the Prince Charles, off Leicester Square, is packed: the cinema queue as street party. Passers-by look confused: 'This is a word-of-mouth thing,' smiles Boothe. 'I made a conscious decision that it should work like this, from the underground. That way you keep the egotistical thinking of big companies out, and you build bit by bit. 'Nubian Tales' will be able to grow from a really solid base.'

Last October, Boothe, 32, who has a masters in business studies from Durham University, promoted a season of black cinema at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill. The timing, in the slipstream of a wide awareness of new black directors, was perfect, and the four evenings were a hit; Boyz N the Hood and Hanging with the Homeboys had their first commercial British screenings.

Each night, the Electric was 'rammed' with an audience that was 80 per cent black. For Boothe, born and brought up in Norbury, south London, after his parents emigrated there from Jamaica in the late 1950s, one aim is to get a higher percentage of other races. 'Our remit,' he tells me in a tiny Oxford Street office, 'is to promote the best of black culture to multi-ethnic audiences. We want to make it accessible to anyone who is attracted to its various positive elements. It's almost by the by that we happen to be working with film.'

After the Electric season Boothe was contacted by the owners of the Prince Charles: would he be interested in presenting regular evenings there? The Prince Charles had proved bullish in battling the recession: following an American trend, it had established itself as a repertory house with a rapid turnover of recent releases. 'Nubian Tales' added films such as Def By Temptation, Caesar: Godfather of Harlem and The Five Heartbeats to the likes of Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise.

'Those black films don't have huge promotion budgets like Boomerang, the new Eddie Murphy film, and can easily become buried, particularly if they're not about crack or gangland warfare. Some of these films wouldn't have come out if we hadn't been there. All over the country Boyz N the Hood quietly disappeared. But at 'Nubian Tales' we had queues for it right round the block.'

In a different world, different strategies. Word of mouth is the very best publicity, believes Boothe, and his marketing is appropriately low-key. There is a mailing list, but mostly it comes down to the use of fliers: piles of them in barbers in Peckham, clubs in Harlesden and Hackney, and inner-city off-licences. Does this on its own account for the success at 'Nubian Tales' of a film like The Lunatic, a surreal comedy that was the first new movie made in Jamaica in a decade? Critically, The Lunatic was soundly 'dissed', as Boothe's audience might say. But it showed for 10 straight weeks at 'Nubian Tales'. 'The cultural reference points are very different,' Boothe explains. 'Critics tend to be over-educated and don't know how to switch off and begin to understand jokes about mangoes. But virtually all black journalists gave the thumbs-up to the film.'

The audience for The Lunatic was almost entirely black. For Time Will Tell, a documentary about Bob Marley, it was almost entirely white. 'Each of the films we show has its own identity, and you try and work with the film companies on bringing out these aspects.' But companies distributing black films have proved slow to respond, and have not always shown themselves especially co-operative. 'We can look at a campaign plan that a film company is putting forward, and sometimes see that they are doing it completely wrong. We provide an integrated service: we can monitor a campaign and get a noise from start to finish. We have a one-on-one conversation with the audience.'

The film being shown on this Friday evening is The Five Heartbeats by Robert Townsend who also directed the successful comedy Hollywood Shuffle. It is a biopic of a Sixties black vocal group whose history seems an amalgam of The Temptations and The Four Tops. How does the audience respond? It could be a concert at the Brixton Academy. 'Roof-roof-roof,' they hoot, between ceaseless comments on the plot's development. 'No muscles,' chants a trio of girls as a man peels off his shirt.

'We all know about black people and their affinity for music,' says Boothe. 'But it's important that people understand this is just one aspect of the arts that black people are good at. In other areas there are real artistic innovators who've taken a risk and are living right out on the cultural edge. Now, with so many first-generation black British, there are new values and attitudes and an understanding of how the system works. A lot of that is still bubbling on an underground level, though in the case of music you can see with an organisation like Soul II Soul how that can get through to the mainstream.'

Expanding his 'packaging and marketing of black culture', Boothe has a quarterly Nubian Tales magazine about to go to press, to be sent to members of the 'Nubian Tales' mailing list. Then there's the brave new world of multi-media: Boothe is involved in a collective that is developing a CD-I programme. 'Black culture is well-placed for multi-media: there's a wealth of musical and visual arts. It won't be long before people finally wake up to this.'

The next 'Nubian Tales' programme is at 9pm tomorrow: an evening of music with a special showing of 'White Men Can't Jump'. Prince Charles, Leicester Sq, London WC1 (Information: 071-437 8181).

(Photograph omitted)