Don't Talk Black!

There was a time when black British cinema was a mere derivative of Jamaican or African cinema. But that was then. Now film-makers in this country are thinking outside the box - black British cinema doesn't even have to be black any more. Kevin Le Gendre explores the long and complex story that has taken black Britons from 'Pressure' to 'A Way of Life'
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This is the image on the poster of Pressure, a 1975 film by the Trinidadian director Horace Ové - the film that is widely acknowledged to constitute the birth of black British cinema. This and other equally emblematic works, such as Menelik Shabazz'sBurning an Illusion, Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston and Saul Dibb's recent hit Bullet Boy, are all being shown at the National Film Theatre's ongoing Black World season. The season provides an opportunity to reflect on "Black British Cinema" - to consider what such a thing might be, where it came from, and what it has to say about Britain now. Because, over the last three decades, from Ové's Pressure to Amma Asante's A Way of Life, black British cinema has transformed the way it looks, the way it sounds and and the way it feels.

But where did it come from? A good starting point is Perry Henzell's iconic 1972 Jamaican movie The Harder They Come. Arguably, this fast-moving "rocksteady" cowboy caper provided the first meaningful cinema-going experience for Caribbean immigrants and their UK-born offspring, because it gave them a chance to see something of their culture on screen. Britons of African descent may point to the great Senegalese film-maker Sembene Ousmane as their talisman but his oeuvre has always been strictly art-house. The point about The Harder They Come is that it earned its popular-cultural resonance through its celebration of reggae, Jamaica's indigenous music and prime cultural export. The film's star was Jimmy Cliff, a man possibly cooler than Clint Eastwood (he's definitely a better singer). But Cliff was black Kingston, not black London - his story was a "back-home" narrative. Horace Ové tackled that very problem of identity head-on in Pressure (1975). A number of films - such as 1959's Sapphire (1959) A Taste of Honey (1961) and Leo the Last (1969) - had brought the troubled existence of black immigrants in Britain to the big screen, but Pressure showed that blacks were British.

And yet they were also foreign. The story of the struggles of Tony, a young black school-leaver, Pressure also illustrated that young Londoners of Trinidadian parentage such as Tony didn't belong. Racist employers and boot-camp coppers saw to that. Alongside Herbert Norville's Tony, Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road are the inanimate co-stars of Pressure. They are relentlessly dreary places, rainy and grey, as yet unreached by 21st-century Notting Hill chic. This erstwhile ghetto - the route of Carnival - was a major flashpoint in the Seventies because of the tension between the establishment and local black residents, an enmity that Pressure graphically captures.

Babylon took up the theme again in 1980, a film made by an Italian, Franco Rosso. Here once more the streets - those of Deptford this time - are a brooding presence of central importance, offering cold comfort for Blue, a local of Jamaican descent. This is his manor. His yard. His London. His night.

Babylon and Pressure articulated the mixture of hopelessness and defiance that was an inextricable part of the black British condition in the early Eighties - the riots, the New Cross massacre, Linton Kwesi Johnson's dub poetry, blues dances, skinheads, the stop-and-search or "sus" laws and the Special Police Group. The films also spoke about the transformation of mainstream Britain. Babylon highlights the pervasive cultural significance of reggae and can't be entirely separated from The Harder They Come and Rockers (another roots'n'culture caper movie emerging from Jamaica in the late Seventies).

Babylon's Blue is a member of the Ital Lion sound system, a rolling cargo of stack speakers, turntables, pre-release seven-inch singles, selector and "mic-man", keeping intact the umbilical connection between Jamaica and Britain in the Seventies and Eighties. The Lions have an English "crew" member, Ronnie. Ronnie has been weaned on ska. Ronnie loves Jamaica. Ronnie may be the first token white in British cinema. The Ital boys keep their equipment in a garage under a railway bridge. When the local fascists break in and smash up the sound system, discord replaces harmony in the multi-racial group.

There are swastikas all over the walls of the lock-up. "Them a deal in pure wickedness, man!" Ronnie exclaims to his "bredren". Beefy, the most volatile of the Lions, the one most traumatised by racism, blazes back: "Don't talk fucking black!" And smacks him. And in that very frame black British cinema isolates an important cultural phenomenon: the changing voice of the nation - the counter-colonisation of the Queen's English.

Today there are British kids of West Indian, European, African, Asian and Turkish descent running all over London using creolised English - "talking black", in Beefy's words. What was once abnormal - the Caribbean vernacular - is now normal, not to say desirable. This was clear at the "education" screening of Saul Dibb's recent Bullet Boy at the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn, London, in April - the film is the most commercially successful black British film to date. Local schools brought in pupils of every ethnic origin imaginable. The majority spoke just like Ashley Walters' Ricky, the movie's working-class black Londoner who finds himself caught up in a tragic cycle of gun-related violence. Some of the audience may not have seen themselves on screen, but nearly all of them heard themselves.

Is there, in the history of black British cinema, a moment that charts black language entering the mainstream? Yes, and it took place over 20 years before Bullet Boy was released. But it's not a film, a documentary or a short. It's a music video.

The promotional clip for The Specials' single "Ghost Town" was filmed among the tower blocks and underpasses of a nameless British metropolis in 1981. It could be London, Birmingham or Liverpool. It could be anywhere godforsaken. A car containing the multi-racial band cruises a desolate Thatcherite dystopia, the city streets as grim as those in Babylon. Unlike Ronnie and Beefy, the group's singers, white Terry Hall and black Neville Staples, are both in tune with Britain's evolving English language. (Actually, Terry was never in tune on any Specials songs, so his unflinching yet endearing monotone is perfect for the speaking part of "Ghost Town".)

At the song's bridge Terry asks brightly, "Do you remember the good old days inna de boom town?" and his patois takes us back to Ronnie's humiliation in Babylon. But where circumstances exposed Ronnie's inauthenticity, Terry's Jamaican language rings true here. The song simply won't work if "inna" is dropped for "in the" because it is in the vanguard of a new British culture that cannot resist the influence of the Caribbean. In Babylon racism made language a problem; in "Ghost Town" language is offering hope against racism. This is the birth of the Bullet Boy audience.

Did black Britons approve of the Staples-Hall JA-UK lingua franca? That's a tricky one. Some may have smiled, some may have sneered. My Trinidadian cousin rather fancied the exotic Terry. "Ghost Town" fits into a cultural continuum. It implicitly acknowledges the bond between the reggae and punk aesthetics of Seventies Britain. It consolidates the connection between Johnny Rotten and Don Letts, the Brit-Rasta director who made The Punk Rock Movie. Such racial harmony is also briefly sighted in Pressure but it is subordinated to the film's focus on the psyche of the tormented black Briton. Looking at Pressure, Babylon and Black Joy (the 1977 film starring the legendary Guyanese actor Norman Beaton), we can see recurrent themes and iconographies: black seniors under economic duress; black youth in emotional distress; National Front graffiti decorating walls; the city as harsh, forbidding backdrop; a speaker-shaking reggae soundtrack. We see, in other words, Britain being "blackenized".

These films, it should be said, were essentially about the black British male. Burning an Illusion (1981) by Menelik Shabazz, a Barbadian who came to London at the age of five, is thus of particular importance because it takes as it subject a black British woman. It's about her awakening, her self-discovery. We see her manor, her yard, her London. And as the tie to her environment is politically and socially conditioned, so is the tone of the film. In fact the strong political dimension of all of these films is a by-product of the times in which they were made. In the Eighties, Black Britain had pressing issues and it's inevitable that the films of the period would be big on ideology and rhetoric. The order of the day was pressure, not pleasure. A feel-good film would have felt bad.

The sunshine broke through in 1991 with Young Soul Rebels. Its director Isaac Julien, another black Londoner, is rightly eulogised for the beautiful surrealism of 1988's Looking for Langston, an abstract meditation on homosexual identity, but he changed tack with Young Soul Rebels. He had fun, he entertained. The brightness, the shininess, the sheer eye-popping sheen of the film is a revelation. It's so un-Pressure. So not like Babylon. It's as upliftingly glossy as Soul II Soul's "Back to Life" video had been in 1989.

Julien's script fails to entwine convincingly a buddy story about two black London DJs, an evocation of Seventies "soul boy" culture and a murder mystery. Nevertheless, Rebels succeeds in one essential aspect. It says: "Black Britons look good up on the silver screen." Sophie Okonedo, Mo Sesay, Valentine Nonyela, Eammon Walker - all of Julien's Rebels are glamorous, glitzy, gracious. And their entry into our consciousness moots the eventuality of the black-Brit film-star sex symbol: Thandie Newton, Adrian Lester or Colin Salmon.

While a student at Bristol University, I attended the premiere of Young Soul Rebels at the Watershed, the city's hippest arts venue. The audience included a sizeable number of black Londoners, black Bristolians and, me, a lone black Kent boy.

Things became very interesting in the question-and-answer session with Julien after the screening. One original soul boy questioned the validity of the film-maker's sources and asked him about the club scene he purported to depict. Within minutes, we had statement and counter-statement on the historical importance of The Lacy Lady, a nightclub in Essex. Afterwards, as we spilled out into the foyer the scene turned thrillingly territorial, totally tribal. People hailed their manor, their yard, their London. Eastside massive. Westside massive. Grove posse. This posse. That posse. Next to the black Londoners, we black provincials became redundant. It was all so clear: Young Soul Rebels is not just a black British film, it's a black London film. In fact, it's black east London. Pressure is west. Babylon is south. The point is that the cultural currency of black Britain is overwhelmingly brokered by the capital. Black Britain is too often shorthand for Black London.

Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy is a Black London film, the story of a particular manor, a particular yard. Yet its significance lies in the fact that it also transcends race. Bullet Boy's characters are not solely defined by blackness. We're dealing with a generations-old Britishness here too. Whether they eat chips or patties is now irrelevant (chips or patties was a monumental issue in Pressure).

One key scene reinforces the duality. Tragic hero Ricky and his troublesome friend Wisdom find themselves stuck for transport after the latter's car has been trashed by his nemesis. The unlikely lads fret. They moan. They sigh. They take the bus. In a split second, all of the cultural kudos, the "cool" that rightly or wrongly is associated with black youth, flies out of the window. We're now looking at the quintessential bumbling loser-clowns beloved of the nation as a whole: from Morecambe and Wise to Ant and Dec. Dibb's film successfully crosses the values of black British cinema with those of traditional British cinema, but the story still takes place within the same metropolitan framework as Pressure. It's just that the nature of the pressure has changed: it's economic and social in Bullet Boy, rather than specifically racial.

Watching Pressure, Burning an Illusion, Young Soul Rebels and Bullet Boy, you could be forgiven for thinking that black British cinema is a London-based, black character-led narrative pulsating with tough rhythms and dense patois. Amma Asante's A Way of Life (2004) asks you to think again. It's a brave extension of the canon (so brave it has a score by David Gray).

This is the story of a white teenage racist single mother in south Wales who, a victim of desperation and paranoia, eventually kills an Asian man. It's bleak beyond belief. It won Asante a Bafta for Best Director this year, the first black British woman to do so. What Asante is saying here is that she, as a creative film-maker, has the right to tackle any theme she chooses, regardless of how far from "home" it may be. Although she is a black Londoner, her subject matter does not have to exclusively be black London.

A Way of Life provides generous hope for a colour-neutral film. Its anti-hero Leigh-Anne is an underprivileged, uneducated woman-child warped by a lack of parental love and psychological claustrophobia - to understand her is to understand something about universal fallibility. In the penultimate scene of the film we see Leigh-Anne in the alien environment of a library, framed against a row of books. It's the "Black Interest" section. The tragedy is that she can't see how this subject could be of any relevance to her life. All it represents to her is threat. But Leigh-Anne and her victim Hassan - the allegorical Black Provincial, you might say - are bound together in so many ways. They are both social outcasts, both rejects, both blinded to their connection by the conditions of race.

If A Way of Life shows an extreme culture clash in front of the lens then it was built on cultural collaboration behind it. In this and many British films, the relationship between director and actor cuts across the racial divide: Asante's work with Stephanie James harks back to Franco Rosso's with Brinsley Forde, Saul Dibb's with Ashley Walters and Mike Leigh's with Marianne Jean-Baptiste. All of which prompts the question of whether black British Cinema is exclusively made by black Britons? Who's to say that Leigh's Secrets and Lies isn't a great black British film; after all, it cogently explores - through a brilliantly written and performed black character - a quest for identity.

But if we can broaden our putative definition of black British cinema to include Leigh, can we also broaden the canon of British cinema to include Owen Alik Shahadah'sFive Hundred Years Later (2005) or Leon Herbert's Emotional Backgammon (2003)? The former is a documentary on the state of contemporary post-colonial Africa, the latter a tale of romantic entanglement. Can these works stop being "black movies" and just be movies? Is Julien's Looking for Langston a black gay masterpiece, gay masterpiece or surrealist masterpiece? Is the minority film-maker as free to explore mainstream subjects as the mainstream film-maker is to explore minority subjects?

Many questions have to remain unanswered, then. What is certain, however, is that new thematic horizons must continue to open up in black British film so that the genre does not remain synonymous with one particular look or tone. While every film-maker has a right to be political or socially realist, he has no obligation to be so.

The black British experience is still a difficult entity to define but its plurality is undeniable. Consequently the films reflecting this wide range of experience could vary. They could feel good as well as feel bad. And their characters, language, stories and settings could also vary. The Black Provincial film can but enrich the Black Metropolitan film. As Amma Asante has courageously shown, black British Cinema doesn't always need a London address. Even if it's one as cool as Harrow Road, W9.

'Burning an Illusion' (BFI Video) and 'Bullet Boy' (Verve Pictures) are released on DVD on 29 Aug. The Black World season at the NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), continues until November

Cast & crew Who's who in black British cinema

ASHLEY WALTERS Leading Man

Possibly the most exciting new face in British cinema. A former So Solid Crew rapper, Walters has won acclaim for theatre performances such as Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads as well as Bullet Boy. Currently in Hollywood filming with 50 Cent.

SOPHIE OKONEDO Leading Lady

Back in the 1980s Josette Simon was the beautiful black

British actress who should have made it big. Okonedo could do just that as she has the looks, charisma, and versatility to do gloss as well as grit. She won acclaim for Dirty Pretty Things and was Oscar-nominated for Hotel Rwanda.

CATHERINE JOHNSON Screenwriter

Attended St Martin's School of Art with director Isaac Julien back in the 1980s but went into teenage-fiction writing. Brought intelligence and sensitivity to her co-scripting on Bullet Boy with director Saul Dibb. Currently finishing the story of a "feel-good" London film.

HORACE OVE Director

The godfather of black British film. Prolific photographer and film-maker, his features include The Skateboard Kings and The Equaliser as well as the seminal Pressure. His son Zak is finishing his first feature.

MARC BOOTHE Producer

The man behind the innovative B3 Media company, which has developed "Digital Diaspora" projects linking black communities around the world through on-line arts initiatives. Bullet Boy is the first of several projects in the pipeline.

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