The Black British experience is scarcely translated onto the big screen. Over the years, a small but significant catalogue has been built up featuring films which explore multiple aspects of Black British life spanning through decades. As we reach the end of Black History Month then, here's a list of 3 must see films which shine a light on important and often overlooked historical events and parts of Black British culture.
Young Soul Rebels (1991)
Isaac Julien’s coming of age thriller Young Soul Rebels ambitiously tackles sexuality, homophobia, and racism against the backdrop of late 1970s London. The film focuses on two young Black friends Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay), who run their own pirate radio show titled’ Soul Patrol’; the two work to make it big whilst navigating their tricky social landscape where issues have been exacerbated by a recent murder.
While the film doubles as a thriller the heart of it lies within its coming of age element, where it radically centres a queer interracial love story in the 70s, subcultural youth identities and race. Chris and Caz's DJing activities expose us to the American funk and soul obsessed soulboy movement of the 1970s and 80s, their subcultural home if you will. As we go down their individual paths, we begin to see the contentious nature of youth subcultural relations at the time, particularly between soulboys, punks and skinheads.
Source: Young Soul Rebels Archives
Caz’s story is shaped by his existence as a young, gay Jamaican man; throughout the film we see him battle with the constraints and dangers that his identity afford him as he experiences homophobia from within his own racial community and fetishisation from outside of it. His relationship with white, socialist punk Billibud (Jason Durr) proves trying but also intimate. Their racial and subcultural differences provide moments of tension which director Julien sweetens with romantic moments and intimate experiences.
Similarly, Chris’ story is shaped by race and subculture however he faces a more systemic experience. Besides the regular run-ins with local skinheads and the National Front he experiences with Caz, he comes to face both institutional racism from the police force and the radio stations. His mixed race identity also becomes a site of debate between the black characters owing to their views on his ‘racial loyalty’ in wake of the murder.
Whilst all of this makes the film sound extremely heavy, the friendship between Chris and Caz, the romances and the banging soundtrack really lighten the mood making it a perfect mix of social commentary and Black British enjoyment.
Identity colours every inch of this film - its representation of the complexities of intersectionality, mixed race identity, nationalism and subcultures stand strong but its role as one of the only films to spotlight the Black British queer experience truly makes Young Soul Rebels a criminally underrated but ever important addition to the Black British film catalogue.
Available to watch on SkyGo and BFI Player.
Julian Henriques first feature length movie Babymother follows young, sort of single mother Anita (Angela Lauren Smith) as she follows her dreams of creating a ragga girl group with her two best friends Sharon (Caroline Chikeze) and Yvette (Jocelyn Jee Esien) whilst dealing with relationship and family problems.
Babymother sticks out within Black Britain's film catalogue for multiple reasons - firstly, it's a musical; widely recognised as the first Black British musical, it introduced a new genre to the catalogue. Switching between the meta outbursts into songs that are conventional of the genre to in universe musical performances, the reggae/d&b/ jungle inspired soundtrack shines a light on the vibrant dancehall culture and ragga music scene that encapsulated 90s Black Britain. Between the sweet, lovers rock inspired apology song ‘Forgive Me’ sung by Wil Johnson to Superfly’s ode to 90s Jamaican music hotspot Harlesden (where the film is set) with ragga tune ‘Steppin’ Ina NW 10’ , the soundtrack will have you trawling the internet for a second and third listen after the films end.
Source: Prime Video
Henriques continues to shake things up here by focusing on Black British womanhood, a perspective sorely missing throughout the Black British film catalogue. With Anita as the main character, we get an exploration of Black motherhood, womanhood and sisterhood through her interactions with her family and best friends slash bandmates. The importance and sensitivity of motherhood is emphasised not only through her role as a mother but also her interactions with other female figures in her family life. Additionally, the ending performance can only be described as a fervent explosion of girl power that the Spice Girls themselves would be jealous of as Netta, Sweeta & Nastie (their sick band name) rally the crowd around and show that girls can do it too with their infectious performance at the final clash. The eccentricity of the crew’s fashion creates an almost fantastical element across the film. Each girl's bright and experimental style highlights their fun but unique identities, leaving viewers adoring their ever changing hairstyles and Pinterest worthy looks. Mothers, lovers, and ragga girls, these characters show resilience, and multifaceted-ness in a world that likes to pin women down.
Source: All 4
While the film delves into serious issues the tone is relatively light hearted and motivational, a nice break from the bleakness that tends to plague Black British film. A refreshing film, and one that’s arguably overdue cult classic status, Babymother is a must see.
Available to rent on BFI Player.
Photo: Kieron McCarron/BBC/McQueen Limited
The teaching of pivotal moments within Black British History is seldom included in nationwide curriculums; protests and struggles faced by Black Britons are covered up to protect a glorified British history and when Black History Month does roll around it tends to focus on the affairs of other parts of the diaspora. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, a 5 part film anthology, challenges this by spotlighting important historical events revolving around the British Caribbean community.
Small Axe’s first instalment Mangrove stands out for its timely topic and excellent performances. A biopic, it tells the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of 9 Black Britons who were tried and acquitted for ‘inciting riots’ in 1970. Shaun Parkes plays Frank Crichlow the owner of The Mangrove, a restaurant in London’s Notting Hill that became a regular meeting site for Black British intellectuals and consequently a victim of consistent acts of enforced institutional racism by the local police force. Following a march against this, the riot charge was brought forward but contested in a trial which brought the Met's racism to the forefront. A landmark moment, the Mangrove Nine’s case was one of the first times a court of law recognized racial hatred and anti-blackness as behavioural motivators for British police officers.
Photo: Des Willie/BBC/McQueen Limited
The story runs deep and is aided by the performances of the cast - stacked with Black British talent the cast work hard to convey the sense of community, and injustice felt by the real Mangrove Nine, with Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby and Rochenda Sandall’s performances in particular being standouts.
Though Mangrove is highlighted here, the entire anthology series is stunning. From Lovers Rock, an intimate glimpse into the 1980s Jamaican community carried by a nostalgic soundtrack and sweet youthful romance to Education, a harrowing look into racism prevalent within the British educational system in the 1970s and 80s, Small Axe is essential viewing.
Available to watch on BBC IPlayer.