Spotlight on Black talent

Posted on February 5, 2021

Categories: General

Amongst other areas, our recent Black Film Bulletin blog series touched on Black filmmakers of the past and present, some of whose work has not been widely seen, and their vast and exciting potential to inform, inspire and reward both cinema programmers and audiences today. For this post, we asked Adam Murray, film programmer, filmmaker, writer/critic and broadcaster at Bristol/Birmingham curatorial collective Come The Revolution and Rico Johnson-Sinclair, Director of CineQ, a queer film exhibition organisation that prioritises queer, trans and intersex people of colour, to share the Black filmmakers and creatives they are most influenced and inspired by – and whose work, in their opinion, hasn’t yet received the recognition it deserves.

Adam Murray, film programmer, filmmaker, writer/critic and broadcaster, Come the Revolution

2020 was a long and challenging year, and certainly one for personal and professional reflection and change. Bearing this in mind it’s taken me on a bit of a journey tracing and reassessing what has inspired me and sent me down my particular path as a Black film curator and creative.

The first person who springs to mind as a long-term influence and inspiration is UK filmmaker Menelik Shabazz. His films – including the award-winning Catch A Fire (UK, 1996) which told the story of Paul Bogle and the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion, Burning An Illusion (UK, 1981) and The Story of Lovers Rock (UK, 2011) – have always been consistent, inspirational and relevant and are well worth revisiting, perhaps especially in relation to the recent success of Steve McQueen’s masterful Small Axe Series.

When I started to take a more serious interest in the moving image and cinema in my late teens and early twenties in the early/mid-90s I would read Black Filmmaker Magazine (founded by Menelik Shabazz) regularly to inform myself about what was going on diasporically in the film industry for Black creatives. There was no internet, no blogs and no smartphones at the time, so in addition to attending events and screenings, reading magazines was the only way to find out what was going on.

Two decades after a short interview with Menelik for Come The Revolution (our group of Bristol and Birmingham-based programmers and curators) he signed an issue of Black Filmmaker Magazine for me. The editorial of that issue, which was poignant and still resonates to this day, discusses the serious concerns around marketing and distribution for Black films, filmmakers and audiences in the UK; in particular highlighting the struggle Newton Aduaka’s film Rage (UK, 1996) had faced at the time in UK cinemas. So many of these concerns still exist and Menelik’s work as a creator, filmmaker, writer and editor of BFM had a huge impact on me in terms of:

If it doesn’t exist, create the space, platform and conversation and people will eventually gravitate towards your chosen focus and passion, try and make it happen.

It instilled a real sense of DIY energy in me, a need to reach out to and communicate with other Black filmmakers, writers and creatives. This experience is one of the many magic-moments that informed my praxis and practice as a Black curator/creator. So I thank Menelik for his passion and drive over the years, his kind words of encouragement in 2015 and that golden opportunity to interview him.

This experience was one of the reasons that this year, I decided to focus on and research an often unexplored genre within the history of Black cinema, that of Black horror; and in March 2021, I will be launching Bristol Black Horror Club to explore all things diasporically Black horror and Black horror film-related.

Bristol Black Horror Club Logo (2021)

My research has been influenced by Professors R. R. Means Coleman and Tananarive Due (particularly Due’s UCLA course The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival and the Black Horror Aesthetic), as well as a conversation with director Rusty Cundieff for an interview extra and a long form essay featured in the BFI Blu-ray edition of Tales from the Hood 1 & 2.

I’ve had a long-term interest in representations of race, gender and sexuality in horror cinema and had started developing a ‘Horror Club’ idea as far back as 2018-19, via ongoing work with Film Hub South West’s Beyond Boundaries group and a screening of Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, USA, 1973) introduced by Karen Alexander at Bristol-based film festival Cinema Rediscovered (including a long and impassioned conversation with her afterwards in the Watershed Café/Bar).

2020-21 felt/feels like the time to take the plunge. Historically, Blackness in horror has been unevenly represented both in front of and behind the camera as far back as the 1900s, with Birth of A Nation (Griffith, USA, 1915), and I Walked with a Zombie (Tournier, USA, 1943), leading all the way through to today’s current Black horror renaissance spearheaded by Jordan Peele’s Monkey Paw Productions, a highly anticipated remake of Candyman directed by Nia DaCosta up for release in 2021 and His House (US/UK, 2020), directed by Remi Weekes, which set Netflix ablaze earlier this year. Horror feels like a genre fecund with possibilities and utopic/dystopic ideas for Black British filmmakers and creatives to explore in 2021.

Cables & Cameras Event, The Conversation at The Cube Cinema – Adam Murray and Rachel Drummond-Hay 2019. Photography By R. Thompson

It’s been interesting to see some of the short film submissions for Cables & Cameras, a Bristol-based POC networking event based at the Cube Cinema and the brainchild of Bristol filmmaker/curator Gary Thompson, which have also focused on horror as a way to explore race and identity diasporically, with some local filmmakers expressing a keen interest in the genre. This brings me to the work of Elias and Timon Williams, creators of the platform Mandem. They are talented young brothers who are building a fluid portfolio of creative work between them and their collaborators – for example, read about The Mulatto on Mandem, a short thriller about mixed-race identity.

Image for Short Horror Film The Mulatto, credits Elias & Timon Williams

Michael Jenkins and Dr Mena Fombo are also embarking on a fascinating new project launching Bristol’s very own Black Arts Barge at a harbour-side location, coming soon. With this new inclusive space they hope to reimagine Bristol’s Harbourside and change the narrative of venue ownership and arts institutions in the South West. Watch a discussion about the project here or read this illuminating, wide-ranging interview with Michael Jenkins.

Dr Mena Fembo and Michael Jenkins – Photo Credit Black Wave Pro2

Via Cables & Cameras, I also had the good fortune of interviewing Namibian-British filmmaker Perivi Katjavivi, now based in Bristol, about his award-winning film The Unseen (Namibia/UK, 2016), being mixed-race and his future projects and goals. Read about the event here and watch the Q&A here.

The Unseen (2016), Kala and Anu – Credit Perivi Katjavivi

These are just some of the filmmakers and creatives locally in Bristol who have inspired me over the last three years, and who are persistently energised and consistent in their creative output.

Finally, this blog would be incomplete without sharing another interview, this time with Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor for BFI NETWORK South West and Cables & Cameras, unpacking her recent success with Blue Story (Andrew Onwubolu, UK, 2019), the experience of being a Black woman in the UK film industry, her disciplined craft as a producer and all its insights and profound resonances. Watch here.

Rico Johnson-Sinclair, Director of CineQ

In a global revelation that surprised absolutely no one Black, racial tensions which slowly simmered in the background came to the forefront in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd. People all around the world heard the sound of the camel’s back breaking from centuries of straws – and, while not for the first time, but perhaps the most impactful in my lifetime, Black people and allies took to the streets to demand change for some of the most marginalised people in our society.

But whilst the conversations made infinitesimal changes for Black people, the swelling tirade of opposing voices intent on pushing progress back seems ever-present. This is the duality of advocating for the rights of the marginalised; to have to be constantly working to upend oppression in its many forms, while ultimately being aware that any progress is ultimately transient, as what we deserve as the bare minimum never seems to be dictated by evidence, or indeed by us.

Today I’m going to talk a little about the filmmakers that stoke the fires of that fight. And the filmmakers and creatives who deserve more accolades.

Film has the power to shift and change hearts and minds and the power to help us understand and empathise with each other in a time where it hurts to feel anything.

Use that power wisely folks.

Marlon Riggs
I’d previously watched a lot of queer films, but almost all of them, whether foreign language or English, depicted white couples as they went through hardships to ultimately achieve love. That did nothing to help me tackle the internalised homophobia and internalised racism I’d accrued throughout my adolescence whilst trying to figure out exactly who I was, when there was no representation for someone like me – until Riggs’ Tongues Untied (USA, 1989), which speaks almost explicitly about the intersection between Blackness and queerness, and dared to call Black people loving other Black people a radical act. Marlon Riggs along with Barry Jenkins are both a big part of my dedication to creating space specifically for Black queer film.

Tongues Untied (USA, 1989)
1989: Still From Tongues Untied, a film by the late Marlon T Riggs (Still By Marlon T Riggs)

Cheryl Dunye
Cheryl Dunye is a name most Black people should know. The Watermelon Woman (USA, 1996) is an infamous lesbian film depicting interracial love. It’s essential viewing for any queer cinephile, and unmissable if your jam is the history of Black queer film. Cheryl has carved a career out for herself as a writer on several prominent TV shows that detail the black experience, including The Chi, Dear White People and more recently Lovecraft Country. I’m inspired by her creativity, but also the fact that she has notable credits in both film and TV. I’d love to see what she could do with a show all to herself.

Universe, can we make that happen for her?

Campbell X

Maya Angelou
I snuck Maya Angelou on to this list. Whilst technically she is a filmmaker (see also: Down in the Delta), it’s her words that breathe life into anyone that exists whilst being Black. And Still I Rise should be in everyone’s personal library. What a phenomenal force, and what a life-changing legacy she has left behind.

8th April 1978: American poet and author Maya Angelou gestures while speaking in a chair during an interview at her home. (Photo by Jack Sotomayor/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

Dee Rees
If you’ve seen Mudbound (USA, 2017), you’ll know how challenging it is. Now imagine the strength of the person tasked with bringing that to life. Welcome to the stage, Dee Rees. The writer and director of one of my favourite Black queer films, Pariah (USA, 2011), Dee Rees has accelerated through the film and television industry, creating work that isn’t just about the community but also prolific works whose impact will outlive us all. I’m waiting with bated breath to see what comes next.

Regina King
Receipts? One Night in Miami (USA, 2020).

And put blessings on these names for the future…

Yance Ford
Yance Ford is a visible transgender man, making films in our industry, fiercely and unapologetically. And despite the fact that that shouldn’t be a radical act, it is. Strong Island (USA, 2017) is something truly intimate; it peels back layers of intensity and racial complexity to find something really soft and warm, a story of familial love.

Wanuri Kahiu
Rafiki (Kenya, 2018) was an amazing movie. Not just because it was an amazing movie, but because it did something that not many other award-winning films do – it spoke about the lack of support for LGBTQ+ identities in the Black community in a place where homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in prison and same-sex women partnerships are not recognised. The bravery it takes to call out the very state that you were born, in under these conditions, is astounding. The significance of seeing this film in the UK, which some would argue is responsible for the homophobia constituted in many African countries due to religious colonialism, wasn’t lost on me. Her next project (The Thing About Jellyfish) is sure to be a winner.

November 2018: Still of Rafiki, a feature film by Wanuri Kahiu. (Still from Christopher Wessel)

Ajamu X
An amazing creative and photographer who has personally taught me a lot about the joy of my own Black queer body and what it embodies. Ajamu X’s work has nurtured my understanding of what it is to be Black and his eye for Black male sexuality is unrivalled. I’d love to see him create a film. What a wonder that would be.

Stephen Isaac-Wilson
Flitting between commercial filmmaking with Pulse Films, short narrative-lead film and partnerships with Tate, Barbican, Serpentine, Victoria Miro, Channel 4, British Council and Nowness, Stephen for sure has a bright career ahead. I personally love his short film Ajamu (UK, 2019) which looks at Black queer sex subcultures and is inspired by the aforementioned Ajamu X, and the wonderful leap which documents queer relationships and their liberation.

Nosa Eke
An incredible writer and director whose projects The Grind (UK, 2016) and Something in the Closet (UK, 2019) are made with such assurance, it’s impossible to doubt their eye as they navigate a path through the unconventional and challenging. Self-describing as a platform agnostic writer and director, one of Nosa’s many engaging traits is their ability to reimagine worlds, which is very present in their traditional and interactive storytelling.

April 2019: Still from Something in the Closet, a short film directed by Nosa Eke (Photo from Laura Radford)

Adam Murray is a film programmer, filmmaker, writer/critic and broadcaster at Bristol/Birmingham curatorial collective Come The Revolution. Rico Johnson-Sinclair is Director of CineQ, a queer film exhibition organisation that prioritises queer, trans and intersex people of colour.

Header image credit: October 2019: Still from Ajamu, a short film from Stephen Isaac-Wilson (Still from Harry Wheeler/Pulse Films/Random Acts)

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