Black British life has been sorely underrepresented in our national cinema, but there have been hints of a resurgence in recent years. Amma Asante’s 18th-century-set drama Belle (2013) became an international box-office success, shining a light on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of an African woman and a British naval captain; Destiny Ekaragha’s Peckham-set comedy Gone Too Far! (2014) sharply observed the tensions between young Britons of Jamaican and Nigerian descent; and Debbie Tucker Green’s magnificent Second Coming (2014), starring Idris Elba and Nadine Marshall, skilfully examined an unexpected, mysterious pregnancy and its resultant impact.
More recently, two key films arrived courtesy of young Nigerian-British talents: Shola Amoo’s beguiling, unusual docudrama A Moving Image (2016) looks at the impact of gentrification on Brixton, and Joseph Adesunloye’s moving White Colour Black (2016) follows a young London photographer on his journey to Senegal to bury his estranged father. Meanwhile, Asante followed up Belle with the period romantic drama A United Kingdom (2016), starring David Oyelowo as Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana. Away from the cinema, Steve McQueen has developed a major BBC television series that will follow a group of black British friends and their families over a number of decades.
So, there’s plenty to look forward to. But what about looking back? Following a number of issue-based films that addressed the black British experience in the 1950s and 60s (Pool of London, Sapphire, Flame in the Streets), the first wave of films to genuinely focus on a new generation of postwar, Windrush-era arrivals and their children in Britain began in 1975 with the release of Horace Ové’s brilliant Pressure.
The 1980s saw a surge in activity for black British production and representation, encouraged in part by the arrival of Channel 4 (which put diverse programming at the centre of its remit) in 1982. Since then, due to a combination of factors (lack of training and funding, exodus of talent to the United States), there’s been a cycle of frustration in maintaining and developing the black British presence on film. While a significant breakthrough in its own right, for a long time Ngozi Onwurah’s 1995 Welcome II the Terrordome stood as the only film by a black British woman ever to see UK release.
Even so, a significant – if under-seen and underrated – body of work exists that’s dedicated to exploring black British life in all its complexity, diversity, sadness and joy. Here are 10 of the best.