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BFI showcases black Britain on film

MAKING HISTORY: Muhammad Ali’s visit to the north east is part of the film collection

THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE (BFI) has launched a major new collection of more than 150 film and TV titles called Black Britain on Film that uncovers the heritage of black Britain.

The collection, which is available online, features some of the earliest appearances of black Britons as well as ground breaking post-war documentaries with fascinating insights into black communities. Black Britain on Film also 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.

Among the highlights is a film about a real-life black challenger for Britain’s heavyweight bareknuckle boxing title (When Giants Fought, 1926, BFI) and six reels of rushes from unfinished documentary project called 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 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 at the 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 the regional and national fi lm archives across the UK to bring back this important history to public view.”

Many of Britain’s leading black screen actors are also 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 form part of the collection, 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).

Black Britain on Film 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.

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