Rest in Power, Menelik Shabazz. Black British Cinema Is All the Better in Your Wake.

A glimpse of a protest sign, flashing “BLACK-ACTION NOW!,” precedes a mostly Black crowd marching down a London street, fringed by the police. This, the opening of Menelik Shabazz’s 1982 short film Blood Ah Goh Run, gives way to images of smoking rubble and street confrontations between the people and the agents of the state. Shot on 16mm and shown around youth clubs and independent cinemas, it documented the momentous march of the “Black Peoples Day of Action,” the collective culmination of the anger and grief after the deaths of 13 young Black people in a house fire in New Cross in what was widely believed to have been a racist attack. A form of counter-information to the state’s mistreatment and criminalization of Black people in Britain, this assemblage of newsreel footage encapsulates the stylistic conventions and political commitments from which Shabazz’s cinema emerged.

Shabazz was one of the pioneering figures of independent Black British cinema. The Barbadian-born filmmaker, producer and writer died on June 28th in Zimbabwe at age 67, from diabetes related complications. His interest in film began while in college, coinciding with the beginnings of a political awakening and his exposure to the rise of Black Power movements. Shabazz described the classroom as a site of struggle and saw how the institutional parameters of the education system served as a microcosm of the racism that dictated all social infrastructures.

His first work, Step Forward Youth (1976), preceded by a six-month stint at the London International Film School, documented the experience of young Black people born in Britain, negotiating a fractured sense of belonging that was different from that of their parent’s generation. At stake in Shabazz’s work was the question of differing political identities and how people of African descent were excluded from a flattened notion of British nationality. Confronting anti-Blackness, racialized police violence, and xenophobia, he wrestled with the continuations of imperial power structures. His films reflected an increasing assertion of Black militancy in the face of entrenched inequality through formally disruptive tactics and collage techniques. Like many of his contemporaries, Shabazz saw the value in rejecting the aesthetic and ideological logic of cohesive documentary realism and its complicity with the monolithic narratives used to authorize colonial violence.

Throughout his career, Shabazz echoed a key position of many Black filmmakers both on the African continent and across the diaspora: a sense of shared historical responsibility and an imperative to create counter-narratives. Committed to collective efforts, he was part of a generation of Black British filmmakers who sought to establish oppositional film economies by creating independent film production companies and workshops. Shabazz set up Kuumba Productions with his frequent collaborator Imruh Bakari Caesar, with whom he and several other filmmakers also co-founded the Ceddo Film Video Workshop in 1982, with some funding from the BBC’s Channel 4. They were named to reference the idea of cultural resistance in Ousmane Sembène 1977 film on religious autonomy and historical reclamation. Tellingly, the collective’s first film, The People’s Account (1985), was censored, unmasking the caveats attached to funding from traditional entities like the BBC and BFI — they wanted docile forms of multiculturalism, not unrepentant Black militant rhetoric.

From Burning an Illusion (1981), dir. Menelik Shabazz, available to watch via BFI Player Classics (image courtesy BFI)

Ceddo, like its peer groups, Sankofa Film and Video Collective and the Black Audio Film Collective, served multiple functions: providing political education, practical training in filmmaking for local Black communities and gathering places to discuss new avenues of cultural production. Shabazz also founded Black Filmmaker Magazine and an accompanying festival in 1998, furthering his material commitment to multiplying the available platforms for Afro-diasporic film culture.

Shabazz’s best known film, Burning an Illusion (1981), was especially attentive to the process of an individual’s politicization in response to the material conditions of raced, classed and gendered oppression. It was the second-ever feature film made by a Black British director, after Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975). Set in Shabazz’s own context of 1980s London, the film also offered different perspectives on Black social life. Burning An Illusion opens with a charming sequence set in a Black women’s hair salon, setting the tone for its emphasis on Black women’s intimate socialities and conversations as critical forms of exchange.

Actor Cassie McFarlane has expressed feeling a sense of responsibility towards her role as the protagonist, Pat, given the lack of Black women onscreen. She collaborated closely with Shabazz to develop the character, who was a cinematic manifestation of what activist Claudia Jones called the “triple oppression” of working-class Black women. The film remains a rare example that centers Black womanhood and sexual politics alongside militancy. Shabazz’s cinema was committed to working through multiplicities of Black identities, a political mission reflected in Stuart Hall’s sentiment that “cinema, [is] not as a second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists, but as that form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover who we are.”

From Burning an Illusion (courtesy BFI)

Shabazz’s legacy endures in many forms. Barry Jenkins Medicine for Melancholy (2009), for example, directly cites Burning an Illusion in a sequence where the film’s couple, Jo’ and Micah, use a photobooth. The late filmmaker’s passing was publicly confirmed by his daughter Nadia Denton, whose own work as a curator and author in the realm of diasporic African film echoes her late father’s efforts. When Shabazz passed away, he was on location for another feature film, titled The Spirits Return. Along with the 2019 documentary Pharaohs Unveiled, this last unrealized project seemed to represent a shift in the filmmaker’s later work, away from militancy and towards more spiritual considerations, while retaining an investment in Black peoples’s historical inheritances.

Shabazz’s cinema was marked by his dedication to music. The 2011 documentary Lover’s Rock catalogued the London-based ‘romantic reggae’ genre of the late 1970s and early 1980s with historical rigor and vibrant emotion. The stunning dance sequences of Steve McQueen’s recent eponymous work (part of Small Axe series) is an inheritor of Shabazz’s earlier film, with its intimate language of bodies held close and spaces constructed through Black sound. As a fulcrum of celebration and resistance, reggae was particularly crucial to Shabazz’s filmography, a form of cultural autonomy which united Black people of Caribbean descent. Paul Gilroy’s words, on the “power of music in developing Black struggles by communicating information, organizing consciousness, and testing out or deploying the forms of subjectivity[…]” illuminate the expansive force of the filmmaker’s approach. Uninterested in assimilation for colonial subjects, Shabazz advocated instead for the endurance of Black vernaculars, creolized cultural forms, and Pan-African militancy, which could be shared and sustained through film.

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