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Blacks Britannica

British Film Institute screened it on 28 January 2017 as part of its African Odysseys season to a full house and could easily have accommodated all those it turned away in a bigger space.

Est. read time: 3 min
The British Film Institute screened it on 28 January 2017 as part of its African Odysseys season to a full house and could easily have accommodated all those it turned away in a bigger space. Directed and produced by the late David Koff and Musindo Mwinyipembe for WGBH in Boston as part of their weekly series ‘World’, the one-hour documentary tells the story of the African Diaspora in Britain through the narratives and struggles of the black community in Manchester, Bradford and London. It features political/cultural/scholar activists such as Jessica Huntley, Kath Locke, Colin Prescod, Darcus Howe, Ron Phillips and John La Rose and groups of militant young Africans in those three cities. In the words of David Koff, ‘the film reflects the increasingly militant response within the black community to the continuing attacks upon it, both by the fascist elements on the street and by the state itself’.

Put another way, the film is a representation of the revolutionary potential of Africans in 1970s Britain in the struggle against racism and fascism and for equal rights and human liberation. No talk about community relations, race awareness and cultural diversity here. No attempt to join the British establishment in portraying the black presence and its difficulties in exercising social control over it as a clash between docile, conservative and conformist first generation elders and their rebellious, authority averse, rudderless offspring. The film addresses head on the issues which the state and those believing in its benign intentions see and describe through totally different lenses: the post-war racialisation of immigration and the trope that Britain cannot expect to have good race relations unless it is seen to be tough on immigration; police brutality and abuse of power as they wage a veritable war on black youth, through ‘Sus’, stop and search, planting of drugs, etc.; the displacement of settled communities, their carefully built systems of mutual support and the common cause they made with their white neighbours against the exploitation of class and race, shunting them instead into soulless housing estates on brown field sites; the structural and systemic production of disproportionate black youth unemployment; the wanton criminalisation of the visible black youth presence on the streets as a consequence of such high levels of unemployment; the targeting and harassment of black youths by the police as they go to and from youth clubs (remember them?) and leisure and sporting activities; the Courts’ unashamed expression of their default position, i.e., that the testimony of the police is always more credible than that of black defendants, especially unemployed black youths.

The film was scheduled to air on American public television on 13 July 1978, but the executive producer of the ‘World’ series, David Fanning, postponed the screening so that he could make changes to what David Koff and his team had produced. He told Newsweek some time later that he was ‘concerned with the film’s endorsement of a Marxist viewpoint’. Among the sequences Fanning removed was one where British police were shown using black figures in target practice during firearms training. An official of the British Information Service in Washington described the film as ‘dangerous’ and called on WGBH to give the BIS ‘equal time’, presumably to present alternative views of the British black presence.

The BFI screening was followed by a lively Q&A with panellists Colin Prescod, (Chair of the Institute of Race Relations), Ethel Tambudzai (Women’s Liberation Officer, NUS Westminster University), Professor Gus John (Scholar/activist and Director of All Africa Advisors); Saqib Deshmukh (Voice4Change England) and Kunle Olulode (Voice4Change England)

The film is accessible on BFI Player and will soon be available on DVD.

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