Two 1986 British Films about Race Relations: Handsworth Songs and The Passion of Remembrance

It can sometimes feel to me as if too many people in the UK (or, say, Australia or NZ, as other examples) look to race riots in the United States and feel somehow as if they are unrelated to struggles taking place in their own country, as if the toxic legacy of slavery in the US doesn’t somehow also apply to other countries, especially ones with their own long colonialist histories. Another sad theme of my week dedicated to the ‘cinema of resistance’ (as I’m calling it), is that struggles that were documented playing out decades ago, and sometimes centuries ago, are still relevant.

Looking to the situation in the UK, these two films were made almost 35 years ago, dealing with race relations — and, in the case of the first film (a documentary), race riots — playing out in the United Kingdom. The impetus to rioting may have been somewhat quelled by a report which identified institutional racism within the police and took steps to alleviate the immediate problems, but it’s certainly very far from the case that the police in the UK (or Australia or NZ) are somehow colour-blind or that there are no cases of violence against the bodies of minority ethnic people. You can look to more recent films like The Hard Stop or Generation Revolution to see that clearly enough, and the ongoing fight against injustice. Race, often intertwined with class, continues to be a source of conflict in most Western countries, and the police and forces of state violence continue to be the main actors, even under conditions where it seems unrelated (witness a report even just today in the UK linking Black and minority ethnicities to higher instances of COVID-related deaths).

For those interested, Handsworth Songs can be watched on YouTube (so look it up), though I can’t find anywhere you can see The Passion of Remembrance.

Handsworth Songs (1986)

A really strong experimental documentary dealing with the race riots of the mid-1980s in Handsworth near Birmingham (as well as Broadwater Farm in London). It’s a blend of vox pop testimony, archival footage, news outtakes, and spoken commentary both journalistic and poetic. A beautiful assemblage that’s also poignant about the issues facing the black community in Britain at the time, whether Afro-Caribbean or Asian, about the injustices and the difficulties that led to rioting.

Handsworth Songs film posterCREDITS
Director John Akomfrah; Cinematographer Sebastian Shah; Length 61 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (Mediatheque), London, Saturday 28 October 2017.

The Passion of Remembrance (1986)

While it very much feels like part of a first wave of engagement with questions of race, identity and revolutionary politics embedded within a distinctly 1980s aesthetic, this feature by Sankofa collective still touches on a lot of intersecting issues, albeit sometimes in quite a dense and talky way. The scenes between the man and the woman in the quarry can feel rather arduous, but there are also expressive sequences amongst a Caribbean British family (the dancing! I loved it) as well as sequences directly confronting homophobia within activist circles. There is, in short, a lot going on here.

The Passion of Remembrance film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Isaac Julien and Maureen Blackwood; Cinematographers Steven Bernstein and Nina Kellgren; Starring Anni Domingo, Joseph Charles, Antonia Thomas, Ram John Holder; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 27 July 2019.


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