The BFI has launched, Black Britain on Film, a major new collection of over 150 film and TV titles that uncovers the heritage of black Britain. It features some of the earliest appearances of black Britons in two films by Mitchell & Kenyon, as well as ground-breaking post-war documentaries with fascinating insights into black communities. The collection includes lesser-known TV drama, contemporary features and films of iconic figures including Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Black Britain on Film charts changing attitudes and hidden histories spanning more than a century.
Black Britain on Film complements the BFI’s new blockbuster season BLACK STAR and is available to view on the BFI’s VOD platform, BFI Player, mostly for free. It is part of the BFI’s five-year Britain on Film project to digitise, and make available online, 10,000 films, from the BFI National Archive and the UK’s national and regional film archives, by 2017.

The films offer an exceptionally rich survey of black British experience. Highlights include some of the earliest images of black Britons on film, the story of a real-life black challenger for Britain’s heavyweight bare-knuckle boxing title (When Giants Fought, 1926, BFI) and six reels of rushes from unfinished documentary project A World is Turning (1948, BFI), which features well-known members of the black and Asian communities – including a surgeon, a poet and jazz legend Adelaide Hall – offering a unique celebration of their achievements in the year the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury.

There’s also unique film of the late Muhammad Ali (preserved in the collection of the North East Film Archive) which documents a visit he made to South Shields in 1977. Interviews with Martin Luther King Jr. (1967, NEFA) and Malcolm X in Black Muslims (1963, BFI) also feature among some rare British television programmes. Overall, the collection offers a rich mosaic of newly digitised material.
Heather Stewart, Creative Director, BFI said, “Black Britain on Film is the perfect complement to our celebration of Black Star, revealing the little-known film and television heritage of the representation of black people in Britain in all its richness from the towering Paul Robeson to some of the earliest appearances of black Britons in Edwardian film. We have scoured the BFI National Archive and regional and national film archives across the UK to bring back to public view this important history.”

Graham Relton, Archive Manager, North East Film Archive said, “Two great 20th century icons, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, were both captured on film when they visited the North East of England, with King seen receiving his Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law at Newcastle University in 1967 and 10 years later astonishing footage of Ali visiting a boys boxing club and having his wedding blessed in the Al Azhar Mosque, both in South Shields. These films were Tyne Tees productions, but they are now cared for by the North East Film Archive, and thanks to the collaboration with ITV, and the BFI, we have been able to preserve the original images, and digitise them so that everyone can see them once again. We are delighted they are now available on BFI Player, part of Black Britain on Film, for all to see!”

L-R Muhammad Ali Visit to the North East (1977, NEFA), No East or West (1954, BFI), Black Sheriff of Nottingham (1989, MACE) Riots and Rumours of Riots (1981, BFI), Tessa Sanderson (1977, MACE), No East or West (1954, BFI)

L-R Muhammad Ali Visit to the North East (1977, NEFA), No East or West (1954, BFI), Black Sheriff of Nottingham (1989, MACE) Riots and Rumours of Riots (1981, BFI), Tessa Sanderson (1977, MACE), No East or West (1954, BFI)

Black Britain on Film features a fascinating array of non-fiction subjects predating the postwar era: Miners Leaving Pendlebury Colliery (1901, BFI) shows a young black miner joking with his fellow workers in a fantastically evocative film by pioneers Mitchell & Kenyon. Contemporary newsreels like From Trinidad to Serve the Empire (1916, BFI) highlight the contribution of black servicemen during World War I, while Hello! West Indies (1943, BFI) gives a voice to Caribbeans serving in the army and in civilian life in Britain during World War II.

Documentaries in the collection offer a powerful sense of social attitudes and the reality of prejudice alongside the celebration of shared identity. Immigrants (1965, BFI), made for Swedish television, follows Commonwealth citizens arriving in the UK and charts the problems they face in finding homes and jobs. The fiery Blood Ah Go Run (1982, BFI) looks back at the tragic killing of 13 young black people in the notorious 1981 New Cross fire. The Gay Black Group (1983, MACE) provided a support network for marginalised LGBT members of black communities in London and beyond. Nigerian Wedding in Cornwall (1964, SWFTA) captures a joyful celebration near Redruth, London Line No. 373 (1971, BFI) presents an upbeat profile of young Africans studying in the capital and Sid’s Family (1972, BFI) is a warm portrait of a large Caribbean family living in Bristol.

The revival of key classics of black British film will include new digital presentations of several films starring the legendary American-born singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, who became Britain’s first black film star in the 1930s and 40s, including The Proud Valley (1940, Park Circus) and Song of Freedom (1936, BFI).

An important part of the project will be exploring British television drama, which from the 1950s was attempting to reflect an increasingly multicultural society. Those ground-breaking dramas which survive represent an important and undervalued chapter in the history of Black Britain. Highlights include Hot Summer Night (1959, BFI) and You in Your Small Corner (1962, BFI), which feature among the earliest interracial kisses on television. The collection also features the first drama series built around a black police hero, Wolcott (1981, Network).

Many of Britain’s leading black screen actors are represented here, including Earl Cameron, Norman Beaton, Carmen Munroe, Rudolph Walker, Lenny Henry, Sophie Okonedo and Idris Elba. The work of pioneering black filmmakers such as Lionel Ngakane, Lloyd Reckord, Horace Ové and John Akomfrah appears alongside more contemporary films by Steve McQueen, Noel Clarke and Debbie Tucker Green, while a showcase on provocative director Ngozi Onwurah includes her confrontational, controversial and long hard-to-see debut feature Welcome II the Terrordome (1995, BFI). The project will also rediscover generations of black British performers, from music hall act Scott and Whaley to the incomparable singer and actor Elisabeth Welch. And there’s a rare chance to see the acting debut of Jamaican pop sensation Millie (of My Boy Lollipop fame) in the joyous musical The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown (1964, BFI).

Black Britain on Film will include a touring programme of archive for cinemas and community groups from the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) and complementary programming with broadcast partners such as the BBC and London Live.


To watch the full Black Britain programme go to BFI Player.