Race Matters

What Steve McQueen’s Oscar win means to Black British Millennials

I remember distinctively hearing a loud scream from one of my relatives, urging me to drop everything, lock, stock and barrel, to watch brown faces grace the television set in non-stereotypical roles (basically not a criminal suspect on The Bill).

This didn’t happen often in nineties Britain.

One of these moments came in 1992 at my grandmother’s house in Kensington, my extended family and I huddled around to watch an ENTIRE black family go through the rigours of fame in The Jacksons: An American Dream.

In my late teens I discovered Spike Lee and John Singleton but the thought that now, in my life-time, I would see a BLACK BRITISH director come to the world stage feels like a shock to me and folks yours truly is 27 years old.

Black Britons were, in the main, non-existent or clambered for the role of Othello on stage or were thrown together in all black dramas like Babyfather that only seemed to come along once a decade on the small screen. In the movie industry, only Thandie Newton seemed to be making a living out of this trade.

It’s only in the past six years that I’ve begun to dig, hard, to find more black faces both in front of and behind the camera.

A wonderful socialist invited me to SERTUC Film Club to watch Gus Vin & the Birth of Ska, a film about the growth of Ska music in the UK. I learned that British music legends like Beatles and Elton John spent half of their early years in predominantly black Ska clubs in London. The film was well done, but I remember during the Q & A a portly black man with a walking stick lament that he would have liked to have done such a project: I felt his pain. “Why shouldn’t black Britons be in charge of telling our stories on camera?” The director was a white Ska enthusiast from Australia.

Not long after I graduated, one of my Caucasian managers introduced me to African Odysseys at the British Film Institute. A cinema club where historic black films, many produced and directed by black people were shown.

Despite all this, the programme was still American-everywhere-else-heavy and foreign-director-heavy, basically lopsided.

I understand films like Black Orpheus and films by Ousmane Sembène are probably now part of a black canon yet this reflected a pattern of quirks within our country: black educational programmes with a focus on everywhere that isn’t the Caribbean or the UK.

Segwaying back to the topic. I’m saying all of this to say that I’m so thankful for people like Steve McQueen blasting through the mainstream.

Admittedly the same quirks are reflected in the geographical setting of 12 Years A Slave (do I need to reinforce the fact that slavery ALSO happened in the Caribbean with white British masters?) but I feel Mr McQueen has, with the spirit of excellence in the execution of this film, honoured the memory of all slaves who would have faced quasi-identical suffering whether they were in Sao Paulo, St.Vincent or West Virginia.

An edit of this blog was first published on Creolita.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Cornerhouse Manchester 
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