Filmmaker and history-maker: Steve McQueen

So it seems appropriate as the row over the ‘all-white’ Oscars rumbles on (#OscarsSoWhite), that the person I want to post about today is a leading Black British director, producer and screenwriter who was born in London in 1969 with parents from Trinidad and Grenada – Steve McQueen.

McQueen is probably best known for winning an Oscar for Best Film in 2014 for his screen adaption of the 1853 slave memoir of Solomon Northup – ’12 Years a slave’ – this was the first time any film with a Black director or producer won an Academy Award for Best Film. The movie, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita N’yongo, also won a BAFTA and Golden Globe as well as a Best Director award for McQueen from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Steve_McQueen

By Aprillamb

In fact McQueen has been rewarded for his work quite a bit – in 2011 he was honoured with a CBE for services to the visual arts and in April 2014 Time magazine included him in its annual Time 100 list as one of the ‘Most Influential People in the World’.

But what makes McQueen so interesting for me is the fact that he grew up in West London in the 70s and 80s (just like me). He also often tells a story of how he was stereotyped at school, in his case, being put into a class full of mainly Black boys who were thought of as ‘academically challenged’ – so basically written off.

But instead of using this experience and his dyslexia to feed a bitter notion of neglect, anger and under privilege, McQueen was able to develop his talent for art and visual design and has now gone on to have a successful career in Hollywood.

So, as with all of the people I try to highlight on this blog, he is a great example of someone from a Caribbean background who has contributed significantly to the UK and his life demonstrates how you should not let how you have been treated in the past define your whole future.

I am also excited about McQueen’s future projects which include a film biopic on Paul Robeson (who I have previously written about on this blog) and a BBC Drama about the lives of Black Britons between 1968 to 2014.

Speaking about that project McQueen said: “I don’t think there has been a serious drama series in Britain with black people from all walks of life as the main protagonists.”

12_Years_a_Slave_

By GabboT

Speaking about the current Oscars controversy in The Guardian he quite rightly points out that this issue goes beyond under-representation of ethnic minorities at a high-profile award show.

He said: “I’m not interested in just talking. This is an important issue. It’s an us issue. Again, this is not about black, not about white, this is about us how we want to improve our environment and our society, and who we are. So, let’s get on with it. Let’s fix this. It’s ridiculous! There’s no real debate is there … really?”

I completely agree with him but I do think it is people like McQueen who can make a difference, however small, in how Black people are perceived and the opportunities we are given especially in leading industries such as film and the media.

It’s great that he has enjoyed so much success and it shows that when you have a dream you must never let anyone dissuade you from pursuing it especially because of your colour – we must become our own cheerleaders and constantly use examples such as Steve McQueen to teach our young people that there is nothing that they cannot achieve if they believe in themselves.

Second Coming: A film review

So a few weeks ago I went to see a film called ‘Second Coming‘ at the Hackney Picturehouse.

Obviously going to see a film in the cinema is not really that special nowadays but this film stands out because it is written, directed and stars Debbie Tucker Green who is black, female and British and it features a predominantly black cast including superstar Idris Elba.

I thought it was an ambitious, sensitive and thought-provoking film but what I loved most about ‘Second Coming’ is that it showed black people in ‘normal’ situations – there was no violence, gratuitous sex, swearing or anything else that usually accompanies a black person in a feature film.

It wasn’t about slavery, drugs, the ghetto, racism or any other weighty subject that we of course must not shy away from, but don’t have to be defined by all of the time.

And because of that I found it to be a breath of fresh air.

Second ComingThe film just follows an ordinary black family of three who are going about their every day existence – eating, talking, going to run-of-the-mill jobs and school, and just trying to get on with life which we can all relate to.

The couple, Mark and Jackie, played by Idris and the equally superb Nadine Marshall are seen having meals, getting ready for bed, going to work, visiting extended family and just living.

Their 11-year-old son JJ, who is played by the outstanding Kai Francis Lewis, goes to school as per usual, has a girl as a best friend and a wonderful affinity for nature which at one stage sees him take home an injured bird which he hopes to nurture back to health after his friend damages its wing (more on that later).

The ‘twist’ in the film (and I’m not giving anything away by mentioning it) is that Nadine’s character is pregnant, and she finds this difficult to accept, primarily because she has a history of miscarriages and also because she hasn’t slept with her husband, or anyone else as far as we are told, for months.

The early part of the film is spent building up the relationship between Jackie and the audience and it wasn’t hard for me to like her as she reflected so many things that I could relate too – she tied her hair up at night (as I do), she spoke with a London accent (as I do), she spent most of her time at work (as I do) or at home looking after her family and was in all ways just your typical, black British woman.

So we find out early on that Jackie is in denial about her pregnancy and after a series of bad dreams/ visions involving water and a grilling by her best friend (played by the writer Debbie Tucker Green) we also find out that Mark probably isn’t the father.

Mark is still in the dark but eventually finds out the ‘happy’ news about the baby from JJ. However as his wife gets big very quickly and is obviously further along in her pregnancy than he realised it doesn’t take too long for him to work out that he can’t be the dad.

This revelation leads to one of the most tense, emotionally-charged and difficult scenes in the film when he confronts Jackie and also drags in their son into a heated, but one-sided argument, that leads to more questions than answers.

The couple’s relationship falls apart and Jackie becomes increasingly isolated and desperate as she struggles to understand what is happening to her and deal with her nightmares which are getting more strange and vivid.

Eventually she takes drastic action to end her predicament and this is another scene in the film that IMO was well-managed and sensitively acted, written and directed.

While in hospital Jackie is given psychiatric treatment and in these sessions it slowly becomes clear that even she doesn’t have any answers and so the audience must accept that it will never really find out how she became pregnant or who the father is. Although some parts of the story moved slowly I was completely gripped as it became obvious that this was not going to end all tied up with a neat bow.

Anyway, eventually the baby is born and the film, which has a general grey feeling of prevailing sadness throughout, actually ends on a quite uplifting note with a family BBQ where the baby girl is already walking and is the centre of attention as she is fussed over by her doting big brother.

Meanwhile Jackie and Mark sit on white plastic chairs and reminisce about their long history which hints at the possibility of a happy ending, even after all they’ve been through. And to symbolise the revival of their relationship, the bird that their son JJ was nurturing but had died and was buried, emerges from its grave and is fully healed and able to fly off into the sunshine.

So, what I loved most about this film really was that it didn’t pander to stereotypes or preconceived notions. I really felt part of the family’s mini-drama and the fact that at the end we are left to interpret whether the main character has really experienced a ‘miracle’ or was just having some sort of pregnancy-induced mental breakdown is the perfect way to leave it.

The film is essentially about how the extraordinary clashes with the ordinary every day and sometimes we are just too engrossed in living to see or accept it.

I hope Debbie Tucker Green and ‘Second Coming’ get some deserved exposure and recognition and that other film makers see that when you cast black people you don’t always have to go beyond the every day to tell an amazing story.

Rating: 9/10

Other reviews of ‘Second Coming’ –

The Guardian review of ‘Second Coming’

The Telegraph review of ‘Second Coming’

Black British exposure on the BBC

So I’m not sure if someone from the BBC is following this blog but alongside a few recent documentaries highlighting the immense contribution of Black Caribbean people to the British Armed forces, which I have covered quite a bit on here, they have now also latched on to Cecile Emeke who I also mentioned a few months ago when I found her latest series ‘Ackee and Saltfish’.

The BBC magazine article is plugging Cecile’s YouTube channel about the Black British experience and I think it’s great that she is enjoying national exposure so please check it out – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32848057.

You can also find Cecile’s YouTube channel here – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSv7x7CZ8TduR2t0SXB5KQA

A tribute to Paul Robeson

Yesterday was the birthday of Paul Robeson, an American actor, singer and human rights activist who I didn’t even know about except a theatre in my local library in Hounslow is named after him and because I subsequently came across him a few months ago while doing research for this blog.

I often wondered who the man was behind the name of the theatre as I went by to find books in the library or surf the internet, so when I started finding out about the immense contribution of black Caribbean people to the UK, and his name came up frequently as part of the Claudia Jones story, I was intrigued to understand how this American man who was the son of a slave came to be so well known in the UK.

220px-Paul_Robeson_1942_crop

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9th 1898. His father started life as a plantation slave in North Carolina, but escaped in 1860 and eventually become a pastor. In 1915 Robeson became only the third black student to be accepted by Rutgers College after he won a scholarship. He gained a law degree but experienced racism in his chosen career and so spurred on by his wife Eslanda, who would later become his manager, he moved into singing and acting.

The Robeson’s moved to London in 1927 and Paul won critical acclaim after starring in several high-profile theatre productions. While in the UK he also became involved in various human rights issues which fitted in with his communist beliefs including a campaign for better working conditions for miners in Wales.

At the start of WWII the family moved back to the US but in the 1950s they were caught up, along with many innocent others, in the McCarthy hearings and were blacklisted for their communist views.

Paul apparently never recovered from this ostracisation which involved taking away his passport and making sure nobody would hire him for any role. Even when he was given back his passport in 1958 and tried to make several comebacks the effect of the previous years was long-lasting as he suffered from depression and at one stage tried to kill himself.

He died in Philidelphia in 1923 at the age of 77, a reclusive and almost forgotten man.

But now British filmmaker Steve McQueen (who incidentally is of Grenadian descent so will feature on this blog at some stage) is making a film about his life and I hope this will inform a whole new generation about Robeson’s talents.

In my opinion anyone who is interested in black culture in the UK or US should be told about his story as an actor and activist and I am glad that through this blog I have found out about him and his amazing life.

Below is a documentary about Paul Robeson’s life.

References / further reading:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/5345904.stm

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/18/steve-mcqueen-to-make-film-about-paul-robeson

http://www.cpsr.cs.uchicago.edu/robeson/bio.html

 

 

‘Ackee and Saltfish’ by Cecile Emeke

Even though this blog was created for my MA in International Journalism (distance learning) from Napier University and has now been submitted for grading, I’m hoping to try and keep it going, as I’ve really enjoyed exploring the history of black Caribbean people in the UK and telling their stories.

The truth is the project is more extensive then I could have imagined as the contribution of Caribbean culture to the UK spans so many years, across so many sectors and IMO every individual who has made a significant impact in a particular area deserves to have their story heard and shared.

I said before in the post on ‘Why create this blog?’ that I want this site to be as inspirational and motivational as possible, not just for black Caribbean people, but for anyone who is facing adversity or obstacles (whether racial or otherwise) and needs encouragement. It seems there is nothing more uplifting than discovering other people who have overcome the odds to make a success of their life.

So I’m going to try to keep posting stories on the achievements of black Caribbean people in the UK in the past and present.

And on that note one such person I came across recently is Cecile Emeke who is a British-Jamaican filmmaker and the creative force behind a film and web series about the black British ‘experience’ called ‘Ackee and Saltfish’.

Ackee and Saltfish

Copyright – Cecile Emeke

Cecile has been interviewed recently on the success of her production which “aims to capture the full range of the black and African diaspora, especially in Europe” and obviously the write-up grabbed my eye because this blog has a similar aim.

Anyway I found her story fascinating so if you want to know more about Cecile and her work I have added some links below and I will definitely be watching previous and future episodes of ‘Ackee and Saltfish’ to see how it portrays what it is like to be black and British.

If you plan to have a look as well, or have already seen it, or have another film/series you think black Caribbean people in the UK will be interested in, please let me know via the comments section.

Click on the links to find out more about Cecile Emeke and ‘Ackee and Saltfish’:

https://www.facebook.com/cecileemeke

http://www.ackeeandsaltfish.co.uk/about2

http://www.blackgirlstalking.com/interviews/filling-the-gaps-with-strolling-an-interview-with-cecile-emeke