What Modern Hollywood Can Learn From Britain's Black Film Movement of the 1980s
John Akomfrah, still from Handsworth Songs, 1986
Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery
In December 2016, the British film equivalent of the Oscars — BAFTA — effectively put our U.S. movie awards system on blast by declaring any films up for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut by a British writer will have to greatly improve their diversity efforts. From requiring that senior positions on cast and crew go to under-represented peoples to providing mentorship and training to those who need a leg up, the new rules aim to build an inclusive industry from the ground up.
When I read the news, I was shocked at how simple they’d made the initiative and how quickly it would change the game — we know all too well that people rarely do what’s best for themselves and the world unless there’s a new law (ahem, cigarettes and seat belts). But the issue had me wondering how British film and TV had addressed issues of diversity in its past. Had they always been trailblazers? Not necessarily. But in at least one very grand instance — the formation of Channel 4 in the 1980s — Brits exponentially increased the output of content from nonwhite filmmakers, and now the Hammer Museum is bringing an exhibition of rare, select works from this time to L.A. with "The Workshop Years: Black British Film and Video After 1981.”
“One of the ideas of Channel 4 was to provide innovative content that was outside of the mainstream outlets at the time but also it gave voice to groups marginalized in British society, predominantly putting a greater emphasis on the efforts of minority audiences,” curator Aram Moshayedi says. “It’s one of the first broadcasters to put its name on the intro and end of the program to signify it was involved in the production.”
Moshayedi, who’d become enamored with the Workshop films he’d seen at an exhibition at FACT in Liverpool, pulled from three collectives for the exhibition: Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video Collective and Ceddo Film and Video Workshop. He says the films of Black Audio Film Collective were his entry point into this rich cinematic world — specifically Handsworth Songs (1986), a riveting, poetic documentary covering the Handsworth Riots, from director John Akomfrah. In fact, images of civil unrest play a dominant, but not exclusive, role in the development of these films.
Milton Bryan's The People’s Account, 1986
Courtesy the artist and Menelik Shabazz
As Angelenos, we’re familiar with our own civil ruptures in Watts or after the Rodney King verdict. But the Brits have always led parallel lives to ours. In 1981, the Brixton Afro-Caribbean community was rocked by police violence and riots, which aired live on the BBC for three nights straight, confronting white viewers with a stark reality to which they’d turned a blind eye previously. Many, including Moshayedi, suspect it was these images that launched media initiatives such as Channel 4, in a similar fashion to how the UCLA film department fostered new nonwhite talents from the late ’60s to the late ’80s after televised civil unrest. As much as black American film born of the L.A. Rebellion artists (Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Julie Dash) and the ’90s Boyz n the Hood–era indie explosion delved into the disenfranchisement of nonwhite peoples, so too did the Workshop filmmakers of the U.K. In addition to their births in rebellion, these parallel movements were remarkably cooperative.
“A lot of these were first-time filmmakers. All the questions about identity and the individuals themselves, these collectives were formed to do away with those distinctions in a way,” Moshayedi says. “So in some cases, it may seem a film is attributed to an individual, when in reality it was a series of collective conversations and a collective production.”
Isaac Julien's Territories, 1984
Courtesy the artist
But as these films age, history doesn’t quite know how to remember cooperative works of art. At the British Film Institute, where all of these films and videos are now housed in the archive, they’re listed with a single director. Master copies of some lesser-known films simply weren’t preserved intact. Some artists only made a single film, while others like John Akomfrah and Maureen Blackwood have become luminaries in the art world, and films by the one-off makers that weren’t properly archived may never be seen again.
What was important to Moshayedi in curating the show, however, was featuring diverse voices within this collection of black filmmakers. Isaac Julien, who is gay, sees the world through a unique lens of someone who can be ostracized from his own community. At one time, the filmmaker said a black audience hissed at the suggestion that he might be the British Spike Lee, because of his sexual orientation. His earliest films, Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983) and Territories (1984), are present at the Hammer’s show and are experimental and revelatory, precursors to films like his celebration of the black gay identity, Looking for Langston (1989).
Then there’s The Passion of Remembrance, co-directed by Blackwood and Julien, a black-and-white opus on the intersectionality of gender, race and class. It was the first feature created from the Sankofa Collective, combining documentary footage with lyrical monologues and narrative fiction, and while watching it, I can’t help but think of the early, excellent films of Zora Neale Hurston during the Harlem Renaissance. The major difference is that Blackwood and Julien’s film had a kind of ally with Channel 4 — these films were produced to be seen by a wide audience and screened as such on TV.
What this Hammer show reminds me is that distribution and visibility are the final keys to any kind of cinematic activism. It’s that next step of action, like the BAFTA decision, that separates the Brits from Hollywood. The U.S. system would do well to look at the roots of Channel 4 and the publisher-broadcaster model presented at this compelling show.
"The Workshop Years: Black British Film and Video After 1981," Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood; through Jan. 25; free. hammer.ucla.edu.
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