The Black Film Movement in 1980s Britain: How Institutional Support Helped Diversity + Innovation

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In April 1981, growing tensions between police and London’s African-Caribbean population came to a head, resulting in a three-day riot in the streets of South London. The civil unrest, known as Brixton Rising, was a direct response to bureaucratic corruption and racist policies aimed at the city’s minority populations— it was also the first time the depiction of dissent, black identity, and confrontation of that scale was broadcast on the nightly news.

For three days straight, explosive images of protest were plastered across the screens of British living rooms via the BBC news channel. For many, the harsh reality of racial injustice within their communities became impossible to escape. Shortly after the riots’ mainstream media exposure, Channel 4 was born. The innovative platform sought to cultivate and give voice to underrepresented populations in British society— a context that, until then, had been riddled with systemic racial inequalities.

To meet the burgeoning demand for diverse content, Channel 4 joined forces with the Greater London Council to fund and establish workshops dedicated to the production of film and video by UK’s marginalized communities. It was this institutional support that lead to the unprecedented development of non-white perspectives, and consequently, a rise in black filmmaking.

The launch of film collectives such as the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, and the Black Audio Film Collective dramatically increased the output of non-white filmmakers during the 1980s. These collective efforts tackled racial, identity, and class circumstances that, up until then, had only been told through outsider perspectives.

Today, the Hammer’s latest three-week program of screenings The Workshop Years: Black British Film and Video After 1981 takes a closer look at the collective’s groundbreaking contributions in an effort to analyze the ways in which the institutionally-supported movement subverted the mainstream media. We sat down with the Hammer’s Curator Aram Moshayedi to discuss visibility, diversity, and the industry’s responsibility at the intersection of art and activism.

Kim Aldis/Wikimedia Commons via LA Weekly

cinemathread: How were you first introduced to the three collectives (Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video Collective, and Ceddo Film and Video Workshop) featured in The Workshop Years?

Aram Moshayedi: In 2007, FACT in Liverpool presented The Ghosts of Songs, the first exhibition devoted to Black Audio Film Collective. The exhibition and publication were organized by Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group. I wasn’t able to see the show at FACT, but I worked with the Otolith Group on the production of their film Medium Earth, which was presented at REDCAT in Los Angeles in 2013. The influence and importance of Black Audio and John Akomfrah, in particular, was certainly part of our conversations, and it was through Anjali and Kodwo that I really came to know about this history.

More recently, I came across a film program that Coco Fusco organized at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in 1988. Young, British and Black took place over two evenings in May of that year and was accompanied by a publication on the work of Black Audio and Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Prompted by the program at Hallwalls I came to learn of other filmmaking collectives that formed around the same time throughout the UK in the early 1980s. The three collectives included in The Workshop Years at the Hammer tell a story about the role that film and video played in the Black British experience, but this represents only a small part of the story. A number of other filmmaking collectives seem to have emerged around the same time. Along similar lines, these groups organized themselves around conditions of race and gender specific to their own experience and the rampant culture of suppression and marginalization that came with it.

 

CT: Can you speak a bit about the importance of film collectives, or more broadly, cooperative works of art, with regard to identity and diversity?

AM: The emergence of co-ops, collectives, and workshops is an interesting part of British filmmaking history, and it precedes the 1980s and the period of time addressed by the program at the Hammer. What interests me in your question is the issue of collectivity as it relates to representation and identity. In the British context, there is the sense that groups like those included in The Workshop Years formed as a way of asserting a certain kind of presence, of redressing negative depictions of Blackness in the wake of social unrest. Particularly in relation to the Brixton Rising, the images produced by the BBC’s nightly news were tied to disorder, lawlessness, and rage. The collective model afforded the most appropriate model for attempting to shift the focus, in part because those involved were coming from different educational backgrounds that were beyond art and film and more aligned with fields within critical studies and the social sciences. In some sense, Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien’s film The Passion of Remembrance (1986) gets at this by showing the ways in which the making of films at the time was inextricably linked to conversations around race, sexuality, and identity. The Passion of Remembrance shows these processes of debate and critique that are inherently a part of any group that is marginalized within a broader social or cultural sphere.

 

CT: In 1982, the creation of Channel 4 made an innovative lane that subverted the mainstream media after the Brixton Riots. Do you see signs of analogous “publisher-broadcaster” platforms or workshops here in the States?

AM: In all honesty, I’m not as familiar with this history in the U.S. It seems that the closest comparison would be something along the lines of public-access television, which served a function of distribution for many artists in the early years of video art. But I don’t know if that is an appropriate comparison because to me this carries associations of the fringe. Perhaps PBS offered something along similar lines, but I’m just not sure that it afforded the kind of experimentation with narrative and form that Channel 4 seemed to cultivate in its early years. When I think of an equivalent televisual form in the American context, I think of “arts and culture,” or highbrow notions of taste, which are almost exclusively tied to whiteness.

 

CT: Beyond the distribution of innovative content, Channel 4, along with the Greater London Council, provided production funds to establish workshops for many first-time filmmakers. Can you speak a bit about the importance of institutional support for underrepresented voices?

AM: This is something that is important now more than ever. Particularly in light of anticipated funding cuts and an all out assault on groups of all kinds. It’s the role of cultural institutions to support a diverse range of practices and perspectives not only because it’s essential to do so, but also because it would be boring and uninteresting not to do so.

It’s the role of cultural institutions to support a diverse range of practices and perspectives not only because it’s essential to do so, but also because it would be boring and uninteresting not to do so.

CT: Visibility is an undeniable ingredient of effective activism. What can Hollywood learn from Channel 4, and specifically, the films featured in The Workshop Years: Black and British Film and Video After 1981?

I’m only a passive observer when it comes to Hollywood—a film enthusiast at best—but from what I can tell, the industry has a lot to learn and its problems won’t be solved just by thinking it can dole out a handful of leading roles to Black actors. As evidenced by the formations of Ceddo, Sankofa and Black Audio, there is the potential to fundamentally restructure the consciousness of film by simply giving access to tools, access to resources.

I see this today in the films of Kahlil Joseph and Arthur Jafa. The two filmmakers are part of different generations, but to my mind seem united in their ability to negotiate the industry side of things to create the films they want to make. This is important because visibility seems to be at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, given that amateur reportage is key in documenting forms of police brutality and oppression that existed well before cellphone cameras made it possible to do so. There is a new formed relationship to the visible, to what it means to become visible, and to enter into the realm of visibility. This is about exposing forms of injustice and racism that are systemic, but it is also about using the camera for other means of exposure and other ideas and theories of looking, which are probably the most potent weapon against dominant modes and the entitlement they rely upon.

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