Is That It! Does Sexual Representation in Black British Film Need Performance Enhancers?

With chick-lit tome Fifty Shades of Grey (E. L. James, 2011) slated to make its screen appearance in 2014, sex – or its depictions on film will be brought to the forefront of film consciousness. The British Blacklist thought it was time to take a candid look at black sexual representation in British film. At last, a legitimate reason for Internet research using the words ‘sex, film, black’ in one sentence. Let’s just hope there’re no knocks on doors at strange times of the day from men in uniform…

Whilst most adults will have had at least some experience of sexual intercourse you’d think it’d be easy to recreate the act on film; not so. Typically, Hollywood sex occurs between ‘the beautiful people’; no rolls of fat kindly called ‘love handles’ on these protagonists. No droopy breasts. No hairy backs (indeed not a hairy body part in sight). No sounds of skin and flesh bouncing against each other during rhythmic thrusts – any sound during filmic lovemaking is provided by screams of uncontrollable delight by ‘beautiful’ female opposites; such is the sex life of Hollywood.

Characteristically, sex is heterosexual, and uses this narrative plot to reinforce the masculinity of the male lead. Hollywood then swings to acute opposites where sex is vicious or violent. It’s the spot in between which is missed too often. Looking between African American film sheets (and mainstream) we’re offered far more references than the UK, primarily because of a larger and better-financed industry over a much longer period.

Some of the most contentious sex scenes include the opening images from Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Here we get to find out how the man of the film’s title gets his name. Contentiously, when we first meet him in action, he’s a child. With Van Peebles’ film kick starting the Blaxploitation genre, MGM’s Shaft (1971) and its ilk provided many scenes of black men demonstrating their sexual prowess. Their equal opportunities approach to sex include many inter-racial encounters, perhaps as a middle fingered salute to Jim Crow. Inter-racial sex is still problematic for American audiences with some films not shown in some states if they don’t cut some scenes.

Dania Ramirez & Kerry Washington in  She Hate Me (2004)
Dania Ramirez & Kerry Washington in
She Hate Me (2004)

This is why in mainstream film a black lead often doesn’t see white love-interests (not even Will Smith with his box office clout, Hancock (2008) anyone). Halle Berry’s performance with Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball (2001) is another example of this difficulty and Jungle Fever (1991) needs no introduction. Hollywood’s attempt to offer us ‘alternative’ saw zero gravity, space sex occurring between Angela Bassett and James Spader in science fiction flick, Supernova (2000). Also does anyone remember the girl-on-girl action between Kerry Washington (yes, she of TV’s much talked about soap-drama, Scandal) and Dania Ramirez in She Hate Me (2004)?

Arguably, the reasons for the lack of sexual representation in black British film are bound in the lack of varied stories, period. Looking at mainstream British film what manages to surface as ‘black’ is too often typecast and caught up in white middle-class twaddle of ‘other’ cultures. We’re treated to issue-led, social problem yarns mired in dilemmas most have no experience of. There are few areas of exploration, which show black people in broader sections and lives in society and as a result, considerations of ‘ordinary’ sex lives.

Whilst a black British presence existed in early film history, some 20th Century attempts in exploring black sexuality with mainstream viability was pursued by Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991). Set in 1977 and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, it immersed itself in the vibrant soul and disco music movement of the time. Its explicit exploration of gay sex begins in the very first scenes and we’re treated further by actor Mo Sesay and co making love to the disco sounds of You make Me Feel by Sylvester. Julien continues to explore black gay sexuality in Looking for Langston (1989) and others.

Ashley Walters & Sharea Samuels in Bullet Boy (2004)
Ashley Walters & Sharea Samuels in
Bullet Boy (2004)

Coming to the fore, steamy scenes are had via Bullet Boy (2004) – its themes around guns and violence. One sex scene here is quick and sharp as the male lead Ricky (Ashley Walters) is treated to ‘welcome home sex’ from his main boo Shea (Sharea Samuels). He takes her up against the bedroom wall from behind – as she (admittedly) prefers it. Rollin’ with the Nines (2006) again, with accompanying drugs, guns and street violence themes has associated sexual violence where the female lead Hope (Naomi Taylor) is violently raped.

British ‘hood’ films start with Menhaj Huda produced Kidulthood (2006). Again its themes are around troubled youth, when a schoolgirl commits suicide as a result of incessant bullying. Sex here is seen as a tool for access to needs. Becky (Jamie Winston, daughter of Ray) provides a matter-of-fact blowjob with lip-smacking gusto for such exchange. The follow-up, a redemption-themed Adulthood (2008) sees a scene with actor Adam Deacon in comical position as he takes a ‘business’ phone call whilst in vigorous coitus. Comical foreplay a-plenty ensues in Anuvahood (2011).

An all-female led (2010) offers a somewhat updated vision of gay/lesbian sex between Kerrys (Shanika Warren-Markland) and Jas (Susannah Fielding). Director Noel Clarke humorously states in an interview that his reason for adding this element to the film is “…because there’s lesbians in real life, last time I checked…”

Television seems to offer a little more variety in this area and is more open to interracial sex, for example, Chiwetel Ejiofor in the BBC’s Dancing on the Edge (2013). When placed in a serial type format, there are more opportunities to explore relationships. One of the intricacies of sex scenes in film and film in general, is that of the theoretical male gaze, imagery meted through the perspective of male pleasure via camera angles, lighting and other mise-en-scene techniques. Men are ‘active’ whilst women ‘wait’ and or are passive in what is being done to them. This view can hardly be surprising with the dearth of female directors.

Isaura Barbe-Brown & Lonyo Engele in  David Is Dying (2011) Photo courtesy of SAR Productions.
Isaura Barbe-Brown & Lonyo Engele in
David Is Dying (2011)
Photo courtesy of SAR Productions.

Another difficulty is that black sexual imagery is still caught up in racial ideology. Historically, black bodies lacked control over their own sexual expression. These ideas, when transposed to film and other creative art forms found themselves weighed down with destructive assumptions. Filmmakers and other artists often not wanting to get caught up in controversy leave love and its expression, sex, out of the picture.

Director Stephen L. Jackson’s offering David is Dying (2011) is a contemporary look at black British life, a whole fresh breath away from some of the previously mentioned films and their typical stories. Jackson’s characters are professionals with ‘good’ jobs. They’re artistic and expressive. It features people of middle class wealth with trappings thereof. The sex we see here is post coitus. When David (Lonyo Engele) tries to get his girlfriend Carla (Isaura Barbe-Brown) out of his system he erroneously samples a few women…one after the other. We’re treated to a comical montage of constant after-sex chat from the poor women as David lays disinterested with their banter and just one woman on his mind.

Jackson’s follow-up Sable Fable (2013) with its story summation including descriptions such as a “…complex psychology of love, sex and race amongst four very different couples…” is sure to be another realistic delve into the machinations of 21st Century black British relationships and a better look at what love and sex looks like between black people.

In no way could all sex scenes in black British film be listed here – we’re offering you samples. So tell us what’s your favourite sex scene in film and/or television and how do you think sex should be ‘handled’ in film?


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