The dilemma that comes with curating the film selections for Black History Month is choosing from an ever-growing pool of largely forgotten works of artistry and hidden histories of black culture. Looking through the lens of Black British cinema, race and class has always been at the forefront of its storytelling from Babylon (1980) to Belle (2013). With the arrival of Caribbean and Africans in post war Britain, film studios were for a short time at least progressive in their attempts to portray racial tensions on Britain’s streets. Earl Cameron starred in 2 major film releases Sapphire, (1959) and Flame in the Streets (1961). The baton was then taken up by Brit-Caribbean directors Horace Ove, Menelik Shabazz and Don Letts who documented the realities of Black British experience, Ove with Pressure (1976), Shabazz with Burning an Illusion (1981) and Letts with his documentation of punk and reggae from the 1970s onwards.
When considering the Black American contribution, the domain of popular culture film releases seems to belong to the films created by the disruptors, Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Melvin Van Peebles. Yet those existing in the underbelly of black cultures who document the culture with a more subtle narrative, say Julie Dash (Daughters of The Dust), Nelson George (A Ballerina’s Tale: Misty Copeland) and that said the filmmaker Charles Burnett are often overlooked.
Burnett’s film To Sleep with Anger (1990) is a masterpiece, and 27 years on from its release it was selected for preservation by the National Film Congress in 2017 for its cultural importance to cinema. What quickly emerges is that this particular African American family drama is filled with undertones of folklore mysticism masterfully played by Danny Glover as Harry. Glover delivers his finest on-screen performance alongside a superb cast that includes Sheryl Lee Ralph and Ralph Brooks. Burnett’s depiction of how cultural traditions conflict with the family structure is the reason that many class Burnett as one of the great masters of the cinema.
The documentation of black icons on film cannot be taken for granted, a myriad of great pieces of work still lie untouched in dust collecting film cans. Timely then that the work of James Baldwin is enjoying a renaissance. Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1971) is a remarkable step into his take on politics and culture at a significant period of world history.
Menelik Shabazz has directed films that have consistently captured generations of Black British culture both in documentary and fictional forms. Here is a rare opportunity to see Blood Ah Go Run (1982) a short reflecting on the march for justice following the horrific London New Cross fire in which 13 people lost their lives. Shot on film in 1981, Shabazz says that the newsreel style of the film was no accident as wanted the film to be “a throwback to 2nd World War propaganda films: Describing the process of creating the film as “agit-prop filmmaking.” This film was not seen by the underground community and social justice campaigners as Shabazz intended as the film was shot on 16mm film.
Words by Karen Gabay.
To find out more about Black History Month at HOME head here.