TBB Looks at British Black Biographies Long Overdue an On-Screen Makeover

Our cousins over ‘the pond’ in Shadow and Act presented us with news about 60 prospective biopics depicting the lives of prominent African American (and wider diaspora) luminaries. These productions wait on tenterhooks to be made into viable film. But when we looked, we were aghast as it contained just two icons of British origin, Shirley Bassey and Laurie Cunningham!

We’ve seen adaptations of Stephen Lawrence and Stuart Hall etc. but that still leaves plenty of other folks of note who are long overdue a legacy in film. We know that the Shadow and Act list is about actual productions but it got us thinking about possible British vehicles, which could do justice to history. We also felt that there are periods of time so unique and iconic that they’ve become characters in and of themselves and could warrant biopics too.

We’ve decided to remind ourselves of the rich context that Black Britons have created with our list of persons, periods and historical landmarks that could feature well is television, documentary or feature format.

Bernie Grant

biopics_bernie_3This larger-than-life character was perhaps the proverbial thorn in the British establishment side if ever there was one. A Labour Member of Parliament (MP), Grant famously entered the state opening of parliament wearing his African Dashiki not only in an act of defiance, but an act of unapologetic pride in his heritage. Grant was a founder member of the Standing Conference of Afro-Caribbean and Asian Councillors and part of Labour Party Black Sections. Amongst other things, Grant was at the forefront of the Winston Silcott campaign. Grant’s legacy appears in venues to include the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in London’s Tottenham.

Dyke & Dryden

biopic_How_They_Made_a_MillionMany of us are familiar with Johnson Publishing Co. which published the first Ebony magazine in the USA, but what of Britain and its own consumer market in the relatively new arrival of African Caribbeans of the 1970/80s? Enter Dyke & Dryden, businessmen who founded the first multi-million pound enterprise in the Black British hair and beauty industry. Len Dyke and Dudley Dryden started off selling beauty products from a market stall in Ridley Road, Dalston, London. The duos were the founders of the now famous Afro Hair and Beauty Show, which started in 1983.
Lilian Bader

biopic_lillianProbably the first black woman to join the British Armed Forces, Lilian Bader was born to a Barbadian father and English mother in 1918. She joined the NAAFI as a Canteen Assistant and through stoic determination she fought her way through to carve out a career in a sphere of British society, which was disparaging and scathing of her abilities even as Britain was at war. Such a film could tell us about how Bader continually sought to reinvent herself to meet her goals – even up to the latter part of her life where she become a teacher.
First Black British MPs

biopic_mpPaul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott made history as the first Black and Asian persons to be elected as MPs. A film depicting their rise (and falls) within Britain’s political system would do more than document an important part of the UK’s history as the MPs battled activism, intrigue, double-standards, scandal and prejudice. Even now as we write, Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is being subjected to the most vile attacks on social media above and beyond her political stance. The latest taunts come during the parliamentary voting in implementing the notorious ‘Article 50’, which starts Britain’s exiting the EU. These gender and race-based insults targeted at Abbott are revealing about British societal and racial politics.

Val McCalla

biopic_valThe Voice, Britain’s longest-running Black newspaper was based on news about the country’s Black population. Val McCalla founded the paper in 1982, in a rags-to-riches story. McCalla launched the paper amongst an unmitigated slew of British media determined to provide ‘news’ about African Caribbeans in the most disparaging light. Often thought of as the ‘Black Sun’ (a take on the most popular tabloid of the time), The Voice monopolised upon the monocle and presented much needed news about Black communities from other perspectives. In it’s hey-day, The Voice provided a much-needed platform for Black journalists seeking their break into a more-or-less closed media industry in the UK.

The New Cross Fire

biopic_new_crossIt was a joint birthday party celebration at 439 New Cross Road, London: teenagers out having a celebratory time. But tragedy struck on Sunday 18th January 1981 when a fire took the lives of thirteen young people that night. To date, no one has been convicted or held responsible for these deaths. Director Menelik Shabazz documents the People’s Day of Action 1981, in his documentary Blood Ah Go Run organised as a result of the frustration from the continued false starts via the police in this case. It was a pivotal time in Black British history as the incident mobilised communities into action against the injustice in the resolution of the Fire and the prevailing racial prejudice they faced. The pressure cooker was fit to burst as first generation children of Caribbean migrants found that they were not being treated fairly in society and refused to suck things up as their parents, more reverent of ‘The Mother Country’, seemed inclined to do.

Claudia Jones

biopic_claudiaOf Trinidadian birth, the story of Claudia Jones is peppered with activism, which would have grated against the establishment. It picks up in the UK with her founding Britain’s first Black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette and she’s credited as the ‘mother’ of Britain’s largest street festival, the Notting Hill Carnival. Jones spent some time in the USA, however this was cut short when she was deported due to her strident political activities. It’s in the UK that she was granted asylum. Paul Robeson is said to have mentored Jones.
Justin Fashanu

biopic_justinIn his footballing career, Fashanu collected a number of ‘firsts’ including openly gay and the first black footballer to make a £1m transfer in 1981. He and his brother was a product of Barnardos, the care homes for children after their parents divorced. A troubled person no doubt because of outside (and probably internal) pressures to include racism and homophobia, Fashanu committed suicide in 1998 aged 37.
Brixton ‘Riots’ 1981

biopic_brixtonWe’ve had some account of Britain’s most recent ‘riots’ (2011) to include The Hard Stop which tells the story of Mark Duggan, shot dead by police marksmen. However, the 1981 Brixton uprisings have found some documentation via numerous documentaries often with narratives linked to the politics and racial tensions of the time; a Margaret Thatcher, Tory-led government, a police force found to be racist, SUS laws and the like. There are a number of personal perspectives a film/biog could take. It is well known that Alex Wheatle, the winner of the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize (2016) documents the riots in his writing through his Brixton trilogies; Brixton Rock, Brenton Brown and East of Acre Lane. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see one of Wheatle’s characters as a backdrop for an important part of (Black) British history.

Lovers Rock

biopic_loversThis music genre is unique to the UK. With its origins in Jamaica, the music spawned artists such as, Kofi, Sandra Cross, Jean Adebambo, 15,16,17, The Investigators, Donna Rhoden to name but a very few. It birthed a specific culture of hair, fashion, night clubbing, parties, music industry, burgeoning youth culture and recognition of a new type of racial tension. We’ve had the film-documentary called The Story of Lover’s Rock from director Menelik Shabazz, but a dramatic feature-film charting the birth of this special part of British culture is long overdue. Most of the artists that were prevalent at the time were ill advised about the business of music and consequently did not survive in the industry. We’ve just Janet Kay Carol Thompson and Victor Romeo Evans who’re today making success of what they started.

So, what do you think about the list? Do you think anyone’s been missed out? Let us know!


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