Black Britain on Film

British Film Institute

Striking, illuminating and sometimes surprising images of black culture and community, spanning over a century of British film and TV – part of a major new collection available to UK viewers on BFI Player

Before Windrush
There was a substantial black presence in Britain long before the Empire Windrush arrived from Jamaica in June 1948.
Black Britons in Edwardian England
Some of the earliest moving images of black Britons survive in the extraordinary Mitchell and Kenyon collection from the dawn of the 20th century.

Miners Leaving Pendlebury Colliery (1901)

A black miner is seen leaving Pendlebury Colliery in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1901. (1 min 2 sec)

Hull Fair (1902)

Over in Yorkshire, another Mitchell & Kenyon cameraman captured these black boxers at the annual Hull Fair in 1902. (47 sec)

Black soldiers in WWI
During the First World War, devastating casualty numbers meant Britain needed all the help from the Empire it could get. Despite their willingness to serve 'the mother country', many recruits suffered discrimination while on service.

From Trinidad to Serve the Empire (1916)

The Trinidadian soldiers in this Topical Budget newsreel are among the 15,600 men of the British West Indies Regiment who served in WWI.

Having volunteered or been conscripted, many saw active combat. (55 sec)

The war effort
During the Second World War, the contribution of black servicemen and women was recognised – to a certain degree – in films produced by the British government’s Ministry of Information.

Hello! West Indies (1943)

For servicemen and women 4000 miles from home, the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies helped bridge the distance, a little.

This Ministry of Information film takes over the format of the show. (22 min 44 sec)

The Colonial Film Unit
From 1939 the Colonial Film Unit made films specifically for Britain’s African and Caribbean colonies, showing ‘typical’ life in the UK. After WWII, such films not only reinforced imperial solidarity, but formed part of a propaganda campaign to attract cheap labour to the UK.

Springtime in an English Village (1944)

Stage-managed though it may be, this Colonial Film Unit film offers an extraordinary and unexpected snapshot of rural life in wartime.

Selected and crowned Queen of the May – an ancient English tradition – is a young black girl, apparently the daughter of an African merchant seaman who had been evacuated to the village of Stanion, Northamptonshire. (7 min)

African Visitors to the Tower of London (1949)

This film sees the Nigerian Emir of Bedde's entourage visit the Tower of London as part of an extended tour in 1949, which also took in an audience with King George VI during the city’s Colonial Month. (5 min 32 sec)

Black lives on TV
As television’s popularity grew throughout the 1950s and 60s, it became a vital medium in bringing discourses around race and immigration into everyday life. While progress was slow, documentary and current affairs series like This Week broke new ground.

Mixed Marriages (1958) – extract

Broadcaster Daniel Farson investigates conflicting points of view about interracial marriages in late 1950s Britain. His interviewees include a contented Jamaican/English couple (seen here) and reactionary parliamentary candidate James Wentworth Day, who expresses his deeply racist opposition.

In an ambivalent conclusion, Farson reveals that he is still undecided about this ‘controversial’ subject. (1 min 45 sec)

Malcolm X – first interview for British TV (1963)

TV brought major international figures into British living rooms, including radical activist Malcolm X, interviewed here for a This Week special on black Muslims, two years before his assassination. (3 min)

Coloured School Leavers (1965) – extract

Opportunities for ordinary black Britons to express their views in a forum as public as television were rare, and usually mediated through white programme makers. But they helped tackle the sense of otherness fostered by sections of the mainstream media.

This programme looked at the challenges faced by black teenagers about to start their working life. (30 sec)

Immigrants (1965) – extract

Race relations in the west were fertile documentary subject matter in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Made for Swedish TV in the year of the first Race Relations Act, 10 years after the peak of postwar immigration, this film offers a fascinating insight into how issues around race were developing in mid-century Britain.

The film gives voice to the immigrants themselves, to their experiences and their feelings about their impact on English society. (3 min)

Black storytellers
Pioneering filmmakers such as Jamaican actor-director Lloyd Reckord used short fiction to explore the migrant experience, such as in Ten Bob in Winter (1963).

Jemima + Johnny (1966) – extract

The friendship of a young white boy and a black girl reaches out across the generations in this uplifting short by South African-born actor and anti-Apartheid activist Lionel Ngakane.

Against a background media narrative suggesting ever-worsening racial tensions, it offered a refreshingly optimistic take on black/white relations in a post-riots Notting Hill. Jemima + Johnny won its director an award at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, the first black British film to be so honoured. (2 min 59 sec)

Racism and protest
The 1968 Race Relations Act made it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of race, but in reality racism and harassment remained an everyday occurrence. Many artists used film, both fiction and documentary, to protest racist discrimination against Britain’s black communities.

Race Relations Board (1969)

Racism is shown the yellow card in this eye-opening public information film about new laws giving protection from discrimination in housing and employment. (1 min 12 sec)

Tunde’s Film (1973) – extract

This potent, incisive slice of social realism was filmed in 1970s East London, and follows co-director Tunde Ikoli and his pals as they struggle to find work.

Penniless and constantly harassed by the police, the boys decide to cut their losses and rob a bank. (2 min 40 sec)

Dread Beat and Blood (1979) – extract

This vibrant portrait of dub poet and political activist Linton Kwesi Johnson transports us back to the turbulent streets of Brixton in the late 1970s.

Jamaican-born Johnson, seen in this extract visiting a local school, explains with precise and powerful eloquence the violence and racism meted out to Black and Asian communities in London and beyond – and how his poetry acts as a weapon in the struggle for justice. (5 min 36 sec)

Riots and Rumours of Riots (1981) – extract

Inspired by the 1981 ‘race riots’ in Brixton and Handsworth, Birmingham, director Caesar Imruh explores the origins of radical Black consciousness in 1980s Britain by charting the experience of the preceding generation. (1 min 3 sec)

Black British culture on film
Black culture, from music and dance to art and fashion, has been the subject of a number inventive and vibrant documentaries and home movies from across the UK.

Steel ‘n’ Skin (1979) – extract

A marriage of diverse black heritage from Africa, the West Indies and generations of black British culture is at the heart of the fantastic community arts project Steel ‘n’ Skin, filmed for this 1979 documentary. (3 min 25 sec)

Grove Carnival (1981) – extract

This kaleidoscopic record of the 1980 Notting Hill Carnival invites you into the busy streets, following floats and popping into community centres where performers prepare. (59 sec)

Kanga (1992)

Early 90s London gets a vibrant dose of African culture in Ian Watts’ mini-odyssey fusing dance, music and fashion.

We join a young black couple who, embracing their African heritage, search Brixton market for traditional wedding clothes. (14 min 44 sec)

Reclaiming black British history
The limited opportunities for black filmmakers have resulted in a lack of films exploring black history. Fortunately, a number of documentaries have looked back at the trailblazers and icons, as well as the everyday lives of black Britons across the last 100 years.

Sixty-four Day Hero: A Boxer’s Tale (1985) – extract

Sports writer and novelist Gordon Williams uses archive footage, as well as interviews with family members and friends, to investigate the troubled life of the mixed-race British boxing hero Randolph Turpin. (2 min 39 sec)

Born in-a Babylon (2000) – extract

Members of the Rastafari Universal Zion in Tottenham discuss their religion and life in the UK. (1 min 30 sec)

Credits: Story

Explore the Black Britain on Film collection on BFI Player to see hundreds of beautifully preserved films, capturing 120 years of black British history (UK only).

See also the Black Britain on Film YouTube collection.

Curator (BFI National Archive):
Simon McCallum

Additional text:
Stephen Bourne
S.I. Martin
Shanice Martin
Kunle Olulode
Tega Otiki

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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