Stand up, Britain's Spike Lee

Black British film-makers struggle for backing. Minority audience, say distributors. But good writing is good writing, isn't it?
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The Independent Culture
Ngozi Onwurah is regaling a panel of five commissioning editors at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) with the tale of Utende, a young girl who flees war-torn Biafra and ends up in Newcastle. "And, as Ruud Gullit is going to find out," she adds wryly, "Newcastle in the winter is a very strange place for a black person to be."

Cold, miserable and bullied, Utende finally finds happiness through horses. At the moment, Utende's Gymkhana, is no more than a script idea; though, if Onwurah is lucky, it may one day be a film.

Black actors frequently complain that there are few parts for them and those there are tend to be stereotyped. The problem boils down to scripts. Ninety per cent, as one casting director put it, are written by white, middle-class men who write parts for white, middle-class men. Where are the black scriptwriters creating stories featuring complex and varied black characters? Where are the black sitcoms and the black feature films? Why do we not have a British Spike Lee or Denzel Washington? These were among the issues which Black Talent of the Future, a day long event at BAFTA recently, set out to confront.

Unlike America, where black people have been around as long as, if not longer, than most whites, Britain is just beginning to come to terms with the notion of being a multicultural society. Most of the budding scriptwriters at BAFTA today are first-generation British; their parents arrived as immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa or Asia. This means that there are no role models, nor an older generation of black scriptwriters for them to follow. Pioneers, breaking new ground, what most want is to claim their heritage as Britons - to be seen as film-makers, not black film- makers.

But so far, few have had the chance to show what they can do. While the first part of the event was talent-spotting (with a prize of pounds 1000 each for two winners, and the chance to have their script made into a film), the second was a showcase for completed films by black film-makers, most of which were shorts because of the difficulty encountered in getting funding.

Most were made on a shoestring, with the cast and crew giving their services for nothing. The Wedding, by Marcia Green, who is still at film school, is a witty look at the experience of feeling and being British while looking black. Velma's Drink Up, a very funny film about sex, lies and mobile phones, was made by 26-year-old Adrian Brown with a bank loan of pounds 4,000. Alrick Riley's first film, Money Talks, made while he was at film school, was shown at 17 international film festivals and won several prizes. He topped up his prize money to pounds 21,000 to make his second feature, Concrete Garden, a touching story about a Jamaican child who arrives in a cold corner of Britain to live with parents she has never known, and a little brother she didn't know existed.

But is it really more difficult for black film-makers than for any other young hopefuls to break through?

Says Riley: "One distributor told me to my face that if he hears of a black project, he quite simply says, `No way'. They can't gauge what kind of money it's going to make. It's very difficult for them to make what is, as far as they're concerned, the leap of faith into the unknown in order to bankroll a black movie. People have an expectation when they first see me that I'm only going to want to do black subjects."

The people with their hands on the purse strings - commissioners, distributors and producers - have to be sure that they are going to get a return on their investment. They assume that a black writer or director can only tell black stories, about black issues, featuring black actors, and fear that a film set in the black community will be of limited interest to anyone else. In a word, it will not make money.

Jan Oliver, assistant to Mark Thompson, controller of BBC2, is one of the organisers of the event: "It's the content, the kinds of stories black people want to tell - what happened to us, being born in this country and brought up in this country. Our problem in TV is that middle England is our main audience. If they never see black people, why should they want to watch programmes about them?"

There are plenty of films about the black-American experience. As Spike Lee and other directors have shown, if a film is good, audiences will go and see it, whether the actors are black, white or purple. No one disputes the fascination which black culture exerts; its tremendous influence on music, street culture and street language. So why should we not be interested in black films?

In any case, there is no reason why, just because a scriptwriter is black, he should restrict himself to black subjects. Alrick Riley is a case in point. Now 36, he has written a drama, Choices, about gang warfare in north London, and directed three episodes of The Cops (one of them transmitting tonight), a realistic look at the police with no black angle at all.

The first hurdle is money. But even when that is overcome, there is a second obstacle: distribution. The longest and most ambitious film of the BAFTA evening was Monument, directed by Patrick Robinson (Ash in Casualty). It's about a journalist and newscaster who discovers that the wreck of a slave ship has been found in the Bristol Channel.

Monument was broadcast on HTV but has yet to receive a wider showing. Turned down by the Edinburgh and London Film Festivals, it has little chance of being seen by a wide audience. Rather like the journalist in his film, Robinson feels that he is banging his head against a brick wall.

"There's so much talent out there that is not getting the opportunities," he says. "I can't help but think that it can only be because we're black and that they have only got a certain amount of allocated spaces for blacks... It gets put into a multi-cultural slot or a late-night slot, not prime time or mainstream. My film is not a black film, it's just a film. We're not talking about black writing, we're just talking about good writing."

Tonight sees the start of a new series of Return of the Ba Ba Zee, a showcase for films and documentaries by black film-makers, scheduled inevitably for 11 pm. It includes two films by the actor, Treva Etienne, who starred in the popular TV series, London's Burning, and the award-winning BBC2 drama, Holding On. Driving Miss Crazy and A Woman Scorned, both funny and very sophisticated looks inside the female psyche, were made for a total of pounds 8000 "plus a lot of favours" and have had no showing apart from at the BAFTA event.

Says Etienne: "America is a lot more open to the British ethnic voice - it's fresh, it's not something that they've seen before. In this country, we're still getting to grips with the idea that people from different ethnic backgrounds can make films. We haven't really had a commercial success with an ethnic film from this country. We need a Four Weddings ... or a Crying Game or a Full Monty to open the door in order to get people interested in the idea of investing more in films by black film-makers."

So who will be the British Spike Lee? Hopefully it can only be a matter of time before one of these ambitious young film-makers gets the opportunity to break into the mainstream and create the great black British movie.

Return of the Ba Ba Zee is on Channel 4 at 11pm tonight and on Monday nights for the next four weeks. Episodes 4, 5 and 6 of The Cops, directed by Alrick Riley, are currently showing on Monday nights at 9 pm on BBC2, repeated on Saturdays at 11.45pm; episode 5 is tonight