First film for 12 years by a black director confounds industry

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The Independent Culture

Britain's first feature film by a black director for 12 years will have its premiere next week in Leicester Square. Emotional Backgammon had a budget of just £6,000 and was filmed in 18 days, but it is the product of four years of tireless negotiation and hard graft by its director, Leon Herbert, and his brother and producer, John, a former Olympic triple jumper.

Odeon cinemas and the British Film Council have backed the project, the first by a black British director since Isaac Julien made Young Soul Rebels in 1991.

But other film industry executives told the brothers that black movies were "not commercially viable", even though the picture deals with male- female relationships and does not have a racial theme. Leon said: "We are not recognised as film makers; we are not seen as part of the film-making system. But here is the proof of the pudding - not only have we made the film but we have found the distribution."

The film is a personal triumph for Leon, 48, a London-born actor who has had roles in several films, including Batman in 1989 and Alien 3 in 1992. He also played Lucky Gordon in Scandal in 1989, which was the first Miramax production. "We can be the new Miramax," he said of his partnership with John, who also represented Great Britain in the bobsleigh at the Winter Olympics.

The scale of the task of making Emotional Backgammon, was captured three years ago in a Channel 4 programme, Movie Virgins. It contrasted Leon Herbert's desperate attempts to win backing for his film idea with the success of the London-based German director Alex Jovy, who made Sorted with a budget of about £3m, starring Matthew Rhys, Jason Donovan and Kelly Brook.

Leon said he was "totally broke" as an actor when he hatched the idea for Emotional Backgammon in 1998, which is based on the real-life advice he gave to a friend who was having relationship problems. The film, which was favourably reviewed by The Washington Post and other critics when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, questions whether women really want a "nice guy" in preference to a man who is less trustworthy but more exciting. The star is Wil Johnson, who has since appeared in the BBC series Babyfather and Waking The Dead, but was then a struggling actor, surviving by doing decorating work and driving a hearse.

Leon's first break came when the Star Trek director David Carson gave him a small role in the American television fantasy The 10th Kingdom. He used his wages to film Emotional Backgammon, which was shot around London.

John, 41, who is still a top athletics coach and trains the Great Britain long jumper Jade Johnson, said: "It seemed like chaos but the planning was quite military. We would start early in the morning and finish at 3 o'clock at night." With such a tiny budget, not everything went smoothly. A wedding scene, being filmed close to where the brothers grew up in Islington, was nearly wrecked when a party of extras failed to arrive. The Herberts found their "congregation" by going on to the streets and persuading passers-by to take part.

The role that was easiest to fill was the part of the hard man, Steve, which was played by Leon. The rest of the cast, which happens to be predominantly black, was selected by the co-writer, Matthew Hope, who happens to be white.

That was a fact not lost on the Herberts when their initial efforts to launch the film were rebuffed. Leon said: "The thing is that when a black audience goes to see a film that has a predominantly white cast, they don't go to see 'a white movie'. But a white audience, because it is told to look at it that way, automatically thinks it is going to see 'a black film'."

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