[Originally published in The Guardian]
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Notting Hill in west London. People are milling around the foyer
of the Coronet cinema, in anticipation of the film that’s about to start. It’s not the latest Harry Potter or Hollywood action blockbuster, though. These 300 people – mostly black British men and women age 25 and upwards, with some young children and teenagers in tow – are there to watch the first offering from Rapture Film Club, a new monthly club dedicated to the screening of black films.
Twenty years ago, during the heyday of black British film, clubs of this kind were common. Now, it seems, they are returning. In recent years, notwithstanding a handful of critically acclaimed films such as 2006’s Kidulthood, the number of programmes and films aimed at black audiences in the UK has fallen. Priscilla Igwe, the brains behind Rapture, does not believe this was due to a lack of audience interest. “I think there is a gap in British audiences seeing films that reflect black experiences,” she says. Her audience is “hungry for black film”.
Another person trying to fill the gap is Simone Pennant, a TV producer and documentary-maker, who decided in April to self-organise by setting up the Black & Asian TV Collective. “In the 1980s and 90s, there was a real black creative presence which was fuelled by the riots and other racial tensions,” Pennant says. “This led to quite a few initiatives which involved putting black people on TV and making sure we had more representation. Outside of that, people were also doing their own thing: there were more film clubs and more events. We had a boom time.”
That boom ended. But now the Collective is gaining support from a number of influential media figures and organisations, and there are positive signs of a wider renaissance in black British film. Last year, Film London, the capital’s film and media agency, began a programme called The New Black, a nationwide fund aimed at raising the profile of black film-makers and attracting larger audiences. A number of film festivals – the East End film festival, Images of Black Women, the London African film festival – are also increasing opportunities for film-makers to have their work seen.
This resurgence of interest has been fuelled by better and cheaper technology, a changing media environment, the rise of the internet and the economic crisis. “Hard times bring the energy to want to do something,” says Pennant, who believes the only way for TV and film companies to combat falling revenues and audience numbers is to focus on diversity. Both Rapture and the Collective embrace diversity in its widest form – Rapture describes itself as a “faith-based” film club – and believe the future for audiences as well as film and TV programme-makers must be inclusive.
The success of black American and African film and TV also provide great examples for the UK. Tyler Perry, the first African-American to own a major film and TV studio, has found huge success making movies for black audiences in the US. Indeed, Rapture’s forthcoming screenings are all of American movies. However, says Igwe, the demand for black British movies is there. People begin to think, she explains, that “this is good, this is black; but it’s not British”.
Both Igwe and Pennant are adamant that black British film and TV talent is strong. Pennant says she is overwhelmed by the experience and talent she sees at Collective; for Igwe, the future of black British film is the underground movement of young people making groundbreaking films with basic equipment. “If we start creating our own outlets, our own clubs, like we’re doing now, a breakthrough will happen,” she says.