Black Britain on Film

Naomi Gessesse discusses Black Britain on Film and the importance of archival footage in the representation of cultural history.

Earlier in the year, the British Film Institute in association with the Independent Cinema Office released six thematically curated programmes of archive films, including LGBT Britain, Railways, Rural Life, South Asian Britain on Film, Coast and Sea and, topically, Black Britain on Film. The BFI National Archive as well as other archives across the country work to preserve various obsolete formats of fiction and nonfiction film for the use of future generations. While this is a crucial aspect in preserving cultural heritage, it is not widely accessible. Specially curated programmes, such as the six previously mentioned, introduce an account of the past that many are not familiar with. The limited mainstream cinema release of these films highlighted the spectacle and “event” of these programmes, and reinforced the rarity and exclusivity of the preserved films. Black History Month invites us to reflect on what it means to be a black person in Britain and the implications of life in a colonialist white space. The film does not act as a timeline of Black British history and nor does it represent the scope and scale of Black British identity and culture. However, with the legacy of the British Empire still stuck in the teeth of school history curriculums, I would like to highlight the value of archival cinematic representation in constructing a historical context for the black British diaspora

Black Britain on Film is structured as a sequence of rare actuality and archive footage, spanning from 1901 to 1985 and across different regions of the UK. The clips range from a vibrant Nigerian wedding in Cornwall to touching interviews with black school leavers, whilst also covering racial tensions on a Liverpool housing estate and the electric Notting Hill Carnival. Focusing on two of the earlier films in the program, we can examine how the they are undeniably voyeuristic. The black body is watched and observed by a white eye and for a white spectator. There is a tonal shift in the later clips, with interviews and discussions of racism and inequality a central theme. Many of these clips are available for free online and I recommend exploring them.

The film opens with Miners Leaving Pendlebury Colliery (1901), in which the camera observes an exodus of miners leaving work. Its deliberately confusing. The film is slightly out of focus and the soot-covered faces of the white miners plays tricks on your eyes, which search for markers of blackness – hair, nose, mouth. Halfway into the scene we see him. He stands out, wearing a bright white shirt which contrasts the greyscale colour scheme of the film. The spectacle of seeing him in Edwardian Lancashire sets the tone for the rest of the film. It’s unclear whether the black man was “planted” there by the director, but the film does not linger on that question for long, instead it moves quickly onto the next clip. The footage from the earlier period is eerie and dreamlike. Diegetic sound would not be possible in film until the early 1920s, and this absence of noise gives the early footage a hauntingly atmospheric quality.

From Trinidad to Serve the Empire (1916) touches on the colonial relationship between Britain and the Caribbean. Innovation in technology means the film is grainy and textured, ancient. In the film, colonial troops from Trinidad meet the Lord Mayor of London, William Dunn. He is dressed almost cartoonishly, wearing furs and other finery to highlight his status. A handful of Trinidadian soldiers stand to attention, with one young man stealing glances at the camera in curiosity. The devastating casualties of WW1 forced soldiers from the Caribbean and elsewhere to “serve the mother country” yet despite this service many recruits still experienced discrimination. The film lingers on an odd moment in Black British history – the soldiers seem to be as scrutinized as they were celebrated.

I visited Black Britain on Film as a mixed-race person who has grown up in Scotland and has felt no particular feeling of national identity. My knowledge of any African or Caribbean migration to the UK is limited to the Windrush generation and was thought of as an “English thing.” The film was a key starting point for my own questions of the past and our relationship with it, and it angered me and moved me at the same time. If you are someone non-white living in a white community, experiences of racism can often feel like an individual suffering rather than a collective experience. The erasure of black people from Britain’s historical narrative contributes to this, and archival film projects like Black Britain on Film offer an innovative remedy.

[Naomi Gessesse]

Africa in Motion film festival will be hosting screenings across Glasgow from the 27th of October to the 5th of November. More information is available here:


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