Scenes from a Hostile Environment
Ashley Clark explores a ghost canon of Black British protest film.
Black British filmmakers have for decades depicted and chronicled protest against racism and injustice. Sight & Sound's Ashley Clark uncovers a lineage of urgent work that has for too long been overlooked or actively suppressed
Documentary196944 minsDirector: Horace Ové
Horace Ové's striking portrait of the American writer James Baldwin at his sharp-witted best addressing a group of radical West Indian students in 1960s London.
Horace Ové's gripping vérité-style short shows writer James Baldwin addressing a group of students about the Black experience in relation to Britain and the Caribbean. The film is thrilling not just because it captures Baldwin at the peak of his rhetorical powers, but because it offers evidence that political discourse was thriving among young Black people in Britain.
Campaigning film197857 minsDirector: David Koff
British racism is discussed in the context of the class struggle in this powerful American documentary.
This riveting documentary, made by husband-and-wife team David Koff (white American) and Musindo Mwinyipembe (Black British), was cut and suppressed by its original US broadcaster. This brutally honest film indicts the nation’s ruling elite for its punitive treatment of Black citizens, whom it presents as lucid agents of change and resistance.
Biopic197944 minsDirector: Franco Rosso
Vibrant documentary portrait of dub poet and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson, fighting racism with the spoken word on the streets of 1970s Brixton.
Franco Rosso’s BBC documentary about dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson similarly had its broadcast delayed until after the 1979 election that brought Thatcher to power. The BBC feared that one of Johnson’s poems, including the line “Maggi Tatcha on di go/wid a racist show/but a she haffi go”, would sway viewers to vote against her, a perspective that only served to confirm its own bias.
Documentary198213 minsDirector: Menelik Shabazz and Imruh Caesar
This documentary by Menelik Shabazz (Burning an Illusion) about the response to the New Cross Fire in 1981 prefigures the widespread social unrest later that year.
In January 1981, a New Cross fire took the lives of 13 young Black people. The subsequent bungled police investigation sparked outrage and inspired the Black People’s Day of Action two months later. The protest was captured by filmmaker Menelik Shabazz in the this essential snapshot of resistance.
198134 minsDirector: Imruh Caesar
Radical resistance in the postwar British Caribbean community, from the 1948 Nationality Act to the 1958 Brixton riots.
Along with Menelik Shabazz, Imruh Bakari Caesar was a founder member of the Black film collective, Ceddo, which in the words of journalist Ann Ogidi, “operated like a guerrilla unit using film as a weapon”. Caesar’s 1981 film explores the history of Caribbean immigration to the UK and its rich oral histories.
Drama199594 minsDirector: Ngozi Onwurah
A ferocious dystopian nightmare, this was the first film directed by a Black British woman to receive a UK theatrical release.
Ngozi Onwurah’s furious dystopian thriller was famously derided upon its release, but it should be commended for its eyebrow-scorching passion. Moreover, it forges surprising links between near-mythical pasts and imagined futures to provoke prickly questions about contemporary race relations, police brutality and the limits of 'progress'.
Documentary201686 minsDirector: George Amponsah
The story of Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed in Tottenham in 2011, is brought to the screen in this humane, thought-provoking and topical documentary.
George Amponsah's documentary on the 2011 police killing of Mark Duggan is named after the aggressive enforecement manouevre, though the term also suggests the cataclysmic effect of the killing on Duggan’s friends and family. Amponsah follows two of Duggan’s best friends in the years following his death, underscoring their testimonies with shocking statistics about police brutality in the UK.
Documentary201672 minsDirector: Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless
This urgent, impassioned documentary follows a new generation of Black activists as they fight for social and political change in London and beyond.
The harrowing American summer of 2014 gave rise to the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement, which subsequently emanated around the world. Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis’s absorbing documentary records the palpable energy of young Black and Brown activists in London as they respond to its impetus.