Afro-British Films Take Center Stage

Shantella Y. Sherman | 12/23/2009, 2:48 p.m.

Afro-Brits -- Black people of West Indian, British and African descent living in England; have long been invisible in mainstream popular culture. Even as Afro-Brit filmmakers and actors celebrate their successes, American movie houses have either neglected or given their works short shrift.

€The stories are gripping, but cerebral. They engage your mind,€ said Sabrina Roth, 34, an avid collector of Black British fiction that can be seen neatly stacked in piles throughout her Northwest home. Roth numbers among a growing American audience to embrace literature and films by Blacks in Europe, mostly England.

Unlike their American counterparts, early British literature and film placed Afro-Brits firmly within their caste or class systems, rather than deferring primarily to race. In so doing, Afro-Brits found a generalized space in pop culture representation. For as many servants and day workers in film, there were almost as many Hamlets and Jane Eyres.

Films like Ten Bob in Winter (1963) and Pressure (1975) introduced the African and Caribbean dialectic to mainstream British films. At their core, these films examined how €blackness€ was defined within the constraints of conservative British ideals. Television programs like the long-running EastEnders, integrated Black faces into their casts, while other programs like Love Thy Neighbour (1972-1976), a contemporary of All in the Family examined racial tensions and concessions between a Black and White British family living next door to each other.

Actors Naomie Harris (Clara Bowden) and Charlie Creed-Miles(Ryan Topps) portray a pair of way-ward lovers in the PBS adaptation of Zadie Smith€s novel White Teeth. The story follows the lives of a West Indian and Indian family torn between traditional and British values.Courtesy Photos
€The Afro-British are defined most as British first, and then whatever else they may have been second, third, and so on. There are waves of infusing West Indian culture and certain African cultures into mainstream programming, but few concrete shows,€ said Ingrid Olson, president of the Black British Society, a blog that focuses on black identity formation.

Olson said that the vast majority of Blacks in London have ties to the West Indies, India or countries in Africa. As each new generation tries to find their place in British society, the literature and films begin to reflect their aspirations.

€When you look at the works of people like Zadie Smith or Andrea Taylor, you begin to see the tug of war many Afro-Brits have with themselves and their families over how best they should represent themselves. Does a Jamaican want to be represented in British film as eating oxtails and rice and peas? Maybe, maybe not. If that person is trying to run with the tea and crumpets set, the traditional Jamaican foods are viewed as backward and embarrassing. Popular culture tends to mimic these real life dilemmas,€ Olson said.

By the late 1990s an explosion of sorts began that brought the plight of urban Londoners to the forefront. And while television programming such as Chef! (1993-96) starring Lenny Henry were popular among mainstream audiences, Henry€s portrayal of an uptight, chef and restaurateur were classic British.

This new generation of Afro-British popular culture brought authors and filmmakers like Noel Clarke, Patrick Augustus and Courttia Newland to the forefront, with grittier, more internal stories.

€Patrick really opened up the dialogue between Black men and women over how they conducted relationships with each other. There were a lot of single women running around with babies and no daddies. Patrick wrote his first book Babyfather to examine the way Black men deal with unintended pregnancies and it hit a nerve with a lot of people who both applauded and loathed him for it,€ said Jabari Davis, 47, an Afro-Brit and fan of the author.

Davis said that the BBC could not ignore the outpouring of sentiments over Augustus€ work, especially when the initial book spawned three additional titles in the series. In 2001, BBC2 introduced Babyfather as a serial drama to the delight (and dismay) of many.

€You have to understand that the Blacks in Britain are, by most accounts, British first. They have the sensibilities of British people and don€t like having €dirty knickers€ tossed into the public arena. To see four guys in casual relationships deal with fatherhood drove a lot of us to drink,€ Davis said.

Davis, who lives in Leeds, England, admits though, that part of the resistance to such television representations was the gangster-urban teen genre that was simultaneously taking over the film industry. In addition to the more sedate West Indian family saga, British film opened the floodgates to several successful urban films, including Bullet Boy, (2004), that depicted Black youth as violent, sex- and- drug-crazed.

€A lot of what was being depicted was based on truth. To those outside of London, to see Notting Hill portrayed in a movie without Black people in it was crazy, especially since Notting Hill is almost completely Black. Films and television programs like West 10 LDN, set on the Greenside estates in West London and KiDulthood, capture the turmoil €" and fun, today€s youth experience,€ Davis said.

But even as Afro-Brits manage their own images and tell their own stories onscreen, there remains a certain level of anxiety over how and where to advance those images. With BBC the primary avenue for television distribution, telling Black stories is not always profitable. To remedy viewing issues, at least in London, several screening houses and organizations have formed.

Among them, Rapture Film Club, a new monthly club dedicated to the screening of black films. Priscilla Igwe, the founder of Rapture said that screening clubs were once vibrant in the 1980s, but disappeared.

€I think there is a gap in British audiences seeing films that reflect Black experiences,€ Igwe said.

And as Afro-Brits continue to take center stage in London, African Americans are beginning to take notice. Davis, along with a contingency of Black British film loyalists hope to form an American leg to Rapture Film Club. But first, Davis said, he has to make people aware that the genre exists.

€A lot of times when we think Diaspora, African Americans omit the European experience. America€s local PBS stations are shameful when it comes to buying and airing Black programming from England, so very few people outside of the region know that we have a Noel Clarke who blows Spike Lee and Lee Daniel out of the water €" or at least, give them a run for their money,€ he said. €There have always been Blacks in Britain and Paris and their stories are varied, stylized, and beautiful,€ said Davis, who is forming an Afro-Brit Film Club in Baltimore, Md.

Currently, KiDulthood, Adulthood, and West 10 LDN can be viewed via YouTube