In 1919, George Bernard Shaw was interviewed for the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly about the emergence of black actors on screen in the United Kingdom: “Mr Bernard Shaw does express any particular opinion as to the merits of negroes as film stars. But he is very emphatic in his views as to the probability of their success in the legitimate. He thinks negroes act very well and that their powers of physical expression are very effective on the stage.” W11, Winter 2011. The floorboards in the street-level flat are wormholed and dull, and the light is warm. Ishmahil Blagrove is building a long, oddly marijuana-less joint, sat astride a low chair. His friend, a guy in his fifties with greying vermicelli dreads, is sitting on a caved-in leather sofa, the smell of which spreads out across the room. It’s almost dark. We are three streets west of the Portobello road, and getting going on the subject of that old Notting Hill manor, of the way the area is depicted in black film of the Thatcher years. I light a Silk Cut of my own and sit back, out of the light. Suddenly Ishmahil tenses up and cracks a mad little laugh. “Why you asking me that maan? Too many questions like that. You asking me that makes me wonder who you working for man..” I remember the siren going past earlier, and how they had both looked up, the wary reflex. I had asked how many people worked for his film company, Rice N Peas. Soon after Ishmahil grinds the session to a halt and asks me to leave. Ishmahil is part of a tight clique of British film-makers, who have been making black-led films since 1975. That was the date of the first black feature film on UK shores. That film was Pressure, directed by Horace Ové for a budget of £10,000, a small amount in those days even. Earlier on the day mentioned above, Ishmahil and I walk through Powys Square, a few minutes east from the bustle of Eurotrash Notting Hill. Ish is in his element. He jokes with a mother wheeling past with a pram, smiling. “What’s happenin’ Whitty?” he shouts across at a guy behind the railing of the Tabernacle theatre. “He (Whitty Vialva Forde) played Reefer in Pressure. He works at the Tabernacle now.” He tells me, bowling into the off license to buy Gold Leaf on tic. Black presence in film in the UK began with colonial adventure stories in the 1920s and 1930s, with films like King Solomon’s Mines and Men of Two Worlds. These films generally featured white leads, with the first UK black film star being Paul Robeson, an African American, who featured in the 1930 classic Borderline (1930). This film is a surreal-feeling classic, which portrays life in a guesthouse where a black man has come to stay. The shots are cut tightly and patter along to the scattering drums and brass of Courtney Pine jazz score (the film is silent). Further along the timeline, we saw the films of the pre-Swinging Sixties, which are paranoid echoes of the bomb that detonated in the UK following the Race Riots of Notting Hill in 1958. Sapphire (1959) depicts an unstable, dangerous black community in Shepherd’s Bush. The first Black UK documentaries-films began to be made around the start of the 1970s, including Reggae(Horace Ové, 1970) The Mangrove Nine (Franco Rosso, 1973) and Baldwin’s Nigger (Horace Ové, 1968). These films had a nakedly political and racial angle, and the trend continued. The first black feature film (which meant black directed) came in 1975 with Pressure, directed again by Horace Ové. Pressure is the story of a British-born boy with Trinidadian parents in 1975. Tony grows up in Notting Hill, eats eggs and bacon for breakfast, and has to run the gauntlet of his brother’s contempt – he eats avocado instead. The film contrasts the ‘white’ Christian, photo-of-the Queen-above-the-woodburner ethics of Tony and his immigrant parents, and Tony’s radical, Black Power brother, who pamphleteers down the (very recognizable) north end of Portobello. It all comes to a climax when Tony’s parents house is raided and smashed up by police after a Black Power meeting their two sons are at is busted. In a crowning scene, Tony rips his mothers sleek black wig off to reveal a grey messy afro. Tony runs out, and the father explodes at his wife: “…All that time and money wasted on you and your kiss-me-arse dream. You don’t know what you want to be – In Trinidad you used to come out with all that middle-class shit. No it wasn’t good enough. We had to come to England to be whiter than everyone else!”  A mini-avalanche followed. Babylon was in 1980, a film about sound systems in south London. The story was tight – murders, dub reggae dances with Jah Shaka, racism – and the critics loved it. Time Out ran a cover in November 1980 calling it the ‘Great Black Hope’. Franco Rosso, a son of Italian immigrants from south London, directed. 1981 saw the release of Burning an Illuson, this time by black British filmmaker Menelik Shabazz. Isaac Julien, another major black film director, later added to the catalogue of polished black features in his Young Soul Rebels (1991). This film won Semaine de La Critique at Cannes Film Festival.  There is a startling excerpt in Horace Ové’s Baldwin’s Nigger. The film is a portrait of writer and activist James Baldwin, who in a searingly eloquent speech defines the borders that separate black and white psyches. “I think the European personality lives in a system of checks and balances that are really very nearly pathological.(Then there is) the flesh – which the Christians must mortify. Now according to me, the flesh is all you have, if you mortify that, there is no hope for you. Everything you find out, you find out through your senses. Everything awful that happens to you, everything marvellous that happens to you happens in this frame, this tenement, this mortal envelope. Which should be, instead of beating it with chains, and hanging it on crosses, it should be the celebration. Your life, your body, and if that concept comes back into the world, it will come from the Black people that have been submerged so long.” The ‘compartmentalisation’ which James Baldwin refers to is a fogged mirror to the different styles of the above films.Babylon, intensely watchable as it, with its reggae star, Brinsley Forde (ex-Aswad) and dubplate bartering off Brixton Market with bags of weed and gold chains, comprises of almost a cartoon reel of black cultural stereotypes, box ticking, all seen from Franco Rosso’s white perspective.  Pressure, however, is anything from slick; in fact throughout the film the search for identity hurts to watch; like a raw nerve dragged along the surface of the grainy celluloid it is shot in. The diatribes from Tony to his mother, and of the lengthy Black Power speeches, are like songs; raw and tender. The rawness of the film, quite outside the unique immigrant-experience tale it tells, has an honest, wise, naïf-savant sort of truth, which is not the case with the ‘compartmentalised’ film of Franco Rosso. Dusk, September 28, 1975 – three masked gunmen burst into a branch of Spaghetti House restaurant in Knightsbridge. The ten Italian staff were busy counting £13,000, a week’s takings. Brandishing .22 pistols, the gunmen, made up of gang leader Nigerian Franklin Davies, 28 and West Indians Wesley Dick, aged 24 and Anthony Gordon Munroe, 22, hustled the waiters into a tiny cellar. One managed to escape. Soon 400 police were on the scene. The group told police and reporters they were members of the Black Liberation Army a Black Panther splinter, and demanded safe passage and a private plane to take them to Jamaica. The siege lasted five days. The gunmen, demoralized after five days of stone-walling from the Met, emerged defeated with their hostages. Franklin Davies was found in the basement with a gunshot wound and a pistol beside him.  In 1979 Horace Ové made Hole in Babylon, a film about the siege. His aim was to show that the three who held up the restaurant were not random hooligans, but politicized and conscious young men. Ové discovered that the trio had previously been trying to set up a black school, in the same way as Jewish communities did for their people. One was a medical student; another was a writer. Ové wrote to them repeatedly in jail. Despite repeated interest from American TV and university film distributors, the BBC bluntly refused to distribute it abroad. As one BBC sales executive put it: “We are not a film abroad about a group of black hooligans.” A handful of black films and documentaries came out around the 1970s and 1980s, which dealt with black causes célèbres. One was Blood Ah Goh Run, by Menelik Shabazz, which told the story of the New Cross fire of 1981, where 13 young blacks were killed in a suspected arson attack in the south London district. Another told the story of the Mangrove Nine, a collection of West Indian men who were tried during a record-length trial after a protest at police harassment in Notting Hill. Darcus Howe, now the eminent New Statesman journalist and broadcaster for Channel 4, was among those in the dock. Howe was very active in the community – he was in the Black Panthers with Linton Kwesi Johnson at around that time.  Ishmahil Blagrove has relocated to Cuba when we next speak; the phone cuts off seven times during our chat and I have to be quick because there’s a loud rumba procession down his street in 30 minutes. Ishmahil gets down to the nitty-gritty: “When I watch films like Babylon and Pressure with people from the hood, it’s like a tour of the neighbourhood. People say – “Look! And he’s dead now, and he ended up in jail,” The films are like a photograph of the characters who were in the area, at the time. Is there a ‘club’ of black UK actors? I ask. “They just know each other from the communities” Ishmahil tells me. “Norman Beaton (a star of Desmond’s, the legendary 1980s TV show set in a Peckham barbers) was a regular face in Ladbroke Grove. People like Danny John-Jules. He was a guy who would be in the bars, part of the community, we don’t know him as an actor, we know him as part of the community. That’s how many of these characters work.” We talk about Tony, in Pressure, the first black kid in film to eat bacon & eggs. “The first generation of Black Britain were all Tonys”. The birth of conscious black-controlled film in the UK has been slow. It is still a fringe movement, nourished by specialist books shops and Dalston markets stands: the casual indifference of Bernard Shaw still typifies the public.


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