Tag Archives: Black British film

Black History Month: Babymother (UK 1998)

Wil Johnson as Byron and Anjela Lauren Smith as Anita

Wil Johnson as Byron and Anjela Lauren Smith as Anita

Babymother is one of the few Black British films to receive a UK release of any kind since the 1980s, but even so, it is likely to be better known abroad where it was shown in festivals. In the UK it received only a very limited distribution and has been seen mainly on Channel 4 television. The first TV airings showed cropped images from what is a widescreen (CinemaScope) film musical (which bizarrely links it to the early Cliff Richard ‘Scope musicals such as The Young Ones (1961). The film represents a conscious attempt to avoid the typical ‘burden of representation’ that sits heavily on Black British films – it isn’t concerned with the ‘problems of life in the inner city associated with racism and deprivation’. Instead it celebrates one aspect of Jamaican life in London – ‘dancehall’, with its distinctive musical style and dramatic costumes.

A Jamaican film, Dancehall Queen (made on digital video by the legendary Don Letts) was released in the UK in 1997 and did good business in South London. This may have influenced Henriques. Some critics have also suggested that Babymother may owe something to the look and feel of Bollywood. Henriques himself speaks about the long tradition of specifically Jamaican culture including the links to the Saturday night ‘blues’ party which often carried over into Sunday church.

The film is set in Harlesden, the western part of the London Borough of Brent, arguably an area of London that has been defined through successive generations of new communities – Irish, African Caribbean and Asian. The plot sees a young single mother (the ‘babymother’) – Anita, a beautiful talented singer who has not found the confidence to assert herself in the dancehall culture, especially when she has felt herself in the shadow of the ‘babyfather’, Byron, played by Wil Johnson (now a leading UK TV actor). But when Byron steals one of her lyrics, she finally decides to take him on in the competitive arena of the dancehall. The film plays this narrative from the musical (which sees characters bursting into song as in the classical musical as well as in the dancehall) against a more familiar family melodrama about Anita’s mother and older sister. This has an interesting twist. A full synopsis and commentary is available on Screenonline. Though the Screenonline account is accurate, I don’t think it quite picks up the unique qualities of the film. Certainly this is a film to divide audiences. If you are expecting the usual ‘social realist’ drama about inner-city London, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like the idea of a vibrant musical with some reality thrown in, I think it works. If you don’t know about dancehall, it is extremely colourful with the performers wearing outlandish costumes (a bit like the carnival costumes seen at Notting Hill or other Caribbean carnival events). It is a completely Black musical, with no white characters as such. Screenonline suggests that this is a weakness, but it seems fine to me. A TV series called Babyfather appeared in 2001. There was no direct connection between the film and the series which both focus on the concept of single parents, but Wil Johnson also appeared in the first episode of the TV series.

Anita and the children

Anita and the children

Writer-director Julian Henriques was born in Yorkshire. He studied psychology at Bristol University and worked as a lecturer, policy researcher, and journalist before becoming a television researcher. In the 1970s, he started the journal Ideology and Consciousness (later I and C) with a group of young psychologists and social theorists. Their aim was to bring together critical work in psychology with work on the subject and subjectivity coming out of European social theory (structuralism, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis), as well as continental feminism. He has made documentaries for LWT, the BBC and with his own production company for Channel Four. We the Ragamuffin (1992) was his first narrative short film, Babymother his first feature film. Henriques taught film and television at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, and currently works at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Here is his staff page at Goldsmiths.

Producer Parminder Vir began her career in 1978 as an Arts Administrator with the Minority Arts Advisory Service, moving to the Commonwealth Institute and eventually becoming Head of the Race Equality Unit in the Arts and Recreation Department of the GLC. In 1986, she moved into film-making and began working as a researcher for the BBC. She set up her own production company in 1994 and produced several award-winning programmes. In 1996 she had joined Carlton Television as a Consultant to the Director of Programmes, implementing a strategy for achieving cultural diversity on and behind the screen. Since 1998 she has become a leading figure in the film and television industries, serving as a UK Film Council Board Member from 1999-2005 and setting up Ingenious World Cinema to aid production of films from “emerging markets, including India, China, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and the Diaspora” as part of the larger Ingenious Media. (She is also married to Julian Henriques.) 

Amazon shows that there are still some copies of the Film Four DVD available.

(Notes updated from a screening in 2002)

Black History Month: Introduction

October is ‘Black History Month’ in the UK. It’s a celebration of the importance of Africa and its peoples and diaspora around the world. The US has a month in February, but in the UK, October became established after an initiative by the late (and very lamented in these parts) Greater London Council in the 1980s. You can find out more at the Black History Month website. 

Having noticed the celebrations over the last few years, which now occur not only in London but across the UK, we decided to celebrate the month by focusing on some of the films from Africa, North America and Europe that deal with African culture and diaspora culture. We are compiling lists of interesting films and also intending to review one or two significant titles.

To kick off, we’d like to celebrate the latest film to receive the restoration treatment organised by the Martin Scorsese-backed World Cinema Foundation. This was announced at Cannes in May and a further news item appeared in the Observer today highlighting a screening at the London Film Festival. The film in question is Touki Bouki, directed in Senegal in 1973 by Djibril Diop Mambéty.

Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki is an important film for several reasons, but most of all because it proved that African filmmakers could make a diverse range of different kinds of films, including those that were seen as ‘avant garde’, but also as youth pictures with a ‘New Wave’ feel. A pair of young lovers attempt to leave Senegal and have adventures presented in an unconventional narrative structure. The pdf downloadable from the World Cinema Foundation website above has a short statement from the great Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé:

Djibril left his country with the dream of finding success and solace in Europe. He soon discovered, however, the cruelty of life. While his dream fell apart little by little Djibril found he was unable to leave “Europe”, his host country. That was when returning to Africa became the real dream for him. Ending his days in Africa was a dream he would never fulfill.

Touki Bouki is a prophetic film. Its portrayal of 1973 Senegalese society is not too different from today’s reality. Hundreds of young Africans die every day at the Strait of Gibraltar trying to reach Europe (Melilla and Ceuta). Who has never heard of that before? 

All their hardships find their voice in Djibril’s film: the young nomads who think they can cross the desert ocean and find their own lucky star and happiness but are disappointed by the human cruelty they encounter. Touki Bouki is a beautiful, upsetting and unexpected film that makes us question ourselves.

The restoration has involved a digital process to recover the colour range of the original. This is at the 2K international standard and a 35 mm interneg has been produced at the end of the process. The restoration was carried out by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory. It sounds wonderful, so if you get the chance, check out the LFF. The film screens at 18.30 on 24 October.

A second film spotted in today’s Observer also deserves mention. Babylon is a British film from 1980 featuring a fantastic cast of young Black British acting talent, many of them also leading musicians. Brinsley Forde, lead singer of Aswad and former child actor plays a reggae DJ with a sound system. He and his crew face plenty of obstacles as they fight a ‘battle of the bands’, not least the racism endemic in London at the time. The music was overseen by Denis Bovell and the cast also includes Trevor Laird and Victor Romero Evans (as well as a host of other British TV regulars). For the last couple of years there has been an Italian DVD available of dubious provenance (not certificated for the UK):

Here is the trailer for the Italian version:

Now there is a new UK DVD from Icon Home Entertainment. In 1980 the film was rated ‘X’, now it is a ’15’.

If the film is not directed or written by a Black filmmaker, does that invalidate its status as a film to be celebrated as part of Black History Month? I don’t think so – my memory is of a film that felt authentic for the streets of London in 1980 and an important assertion of Black British culture. I’m looking forward to watching it again. There’s a useful Guardian plug for the film here, commenting on director Franco Rosso’s pedigree as a filmmaker representing the UK reggae scene on film.