Race and iden­tity on the screen

This section looks at the treat­ment of racial iden­tity as a theme or source of dramatic conflict in films and tele­vi­sion in Britain and America.  (The under­lying issues influ­en­cing these repres­ent­a­tions are of course a hugely complex subject and there will be no serious attempt to analyse these in any depth here. This is just a brief list of films worth investigating).

Race is of course only one indic­ator of iden­tity. There are many: including culture, age, gender, reli­gion and sexu­ality. The ques­tion of iden­tity – of who or what makes us what we are – is the real subject matter of these films.

Made in Britain

Britain has been subject to waves of immig­ra­tion throughout history and each has had its impact on British culture. For those who come to the UK and those who are affected by their coming, there is always a conflict between the desire to integ­rate and the desire to assert and retain group iden­tity. This conflict has been the subject matter of many films but it is only relat­ively recently that the authentic voices of certain groups have been heard.

The themes of these films are always ques­tioning and the voices often angry. There is talk of dispos­ses­sion and oppres­sion from both white and black. There is confu­sion and frus­tra­tion but there is also humour and a wry deprec­a­tion that is uniquely British.

Babylon 1981

One of a wave of polit­ic­ally aware films made in the early eighties at a time of confront­a­tion and rioting between black communities and the authorities.

The setting is South London and the focus is predom­in­antly on the sons of black West Indian immig­rants trying to find their own iden­tity. The char­ac­ter­isa­tion is broad and some­times lapses into stereo­type but the film has vitality and assert­ive­ness to commend it.

Burning An Illu­sion 1981

More artic­u­late and ambi­tious than Babylon, this has a similar setting but focuses more on women than men. There is a specific polit­ical message in the story of a young woman ‘discov­ering’ her black iden­tity and becoming radic­al­ised in the process.

Possibly more inter­esting however is an attempt to examine gender politics in this context. Although the film ulti­mately fudges this issue (the heroine puts her victim­ised boyfriend before her own interests) it does at least raise some inter­esting questions.

Shoot The Messenger 2006

Written by a black writer, this tele­vi­sion drama often ventures into uncom­fort­able territory by chal­len­ging the rhet­oric of polit­ical correct­ness asso­ci­ated with race. The hero is a black teacher who loses his job for being a racist (picking on a black student) and is vili­fied by the media, ending up home­less on the streets.

It is broadly satir­ical in its style but it also gives a start­lingly different and thought-provoking perspective on the subject of racism.

This is England 2006

A young boy whose father is killed in the Falk­lands war falls in with a group of skin­heads who adopt him as one of them. Everything is fine until a new member with racist views enlists him.

This film, set in the ’80s, contra­dicts the stereo­typ­ical image of skin­heads, showing a gang which includes women and at least one black member. It is an optim­istic portrait of a prot­ag­onist who is initially seduced by bigotry and nation­alism but grows into a new aware­ness by the end of the film.

Made in Britain 1982

Telling the story of a bright but disaf­fected 16-year-old skin­head, this corus­cating film deals with racial iden­tity as a product of a more general feeling of dispos­ses­sion amongst the white British working class.

David Leland, the writer, wrote this as part of a collec­tion of tv plays which focus prin­cip­ally on what the educa­tion system does to young people and the ques­tion that concerns him is how an intel­li­gent 11 year old can enter that system and be trans­formed into an angry, self-destructive char­acter like Trevor  (played here by a young Tim Roth in a memor­able and career-defining performance).

Britz 2007

Ostens­ibly this was a polit­ical thriller dealing with much the same material as tv shows like Spooks and Home­land. It tells the story of two young Asians, a brother and sister, who choose diamet­ric­ally opposed paths; one joining MI5 whilst the other becomes a radic­al­ised terrorist.

It’s a simple concept (even simplistic) but it does allow some inter­esting oppor­tun­ities to explore the concept of patri­otism versus reli­gious ideology.

Made in the USA

The histor­ical and polit­ical profile of America differs hugely from Britain;  America is a much more diverse and hetero­gen­eous country with a popu­la­tion made up of immig­rants from all corners of the globe. Super­fi­cially it seems to have been much more successful than Britain in assim­il­ating these groups and giving them a common identity.

Yet it also has a history of bitter conflict between the races that origin­ated in slavery and foreign wars and continues, despite reforms in its society, to still remain unre­solved. There is however a read­i­ness to confront these issues in America that British society lacks. The polemics are overt and out in the open and hypo­crisy often refresh­ingly absent on both sides of the racial divide.

Dutchman 1967

This is the screen version of a play by Leroi Jones, poet, play­wright and member of the same 60’s black conscious­ness move­ment that included Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis and Stokely Carmi­chael (see below). Unashamedly confront­a­tional in his views, Jones uses language like a jazz musi­cian in a drama that has an almost clas­sical feel.

A young intel­lec­tual meets a white woman on the subway who launches an all-out attack on his psyche, altern­ately taunting and flirting with him, until, in a memor­able outburst, he asserts his black iden­tity. The polem­ical stance of the writer may seem dated but the writing is powerful and the two leads turn in terrific performances.


Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner 1967

Almost the opposite of Dutchman, this is aimed squarely at white liberals – and at garnering Oscar nomin­a­tions. Tracey and Hepburn are drafted in to represent the conscience of White America, while Sidney Poitier is again cast as a truc­u­lent symbol of black integrity.

Recently remade with the racial iden­tities reversed, the film tends to get laughs from hip young black audi­ences these days but it has one or two effective moments such this scene where Poitier asserts a new iden­tity for himself as a member of an aspir­a­tional black middle class which, in the ’60s of JFK and Martin Luther King, was begin­ning to become a reality for the first time.

Tell Me Lies 1968

A gag on the 60’s comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In consisted of a black actress starting to sing White Christmas only to break off with: “Hey, if you’re listening, Stokely – only kidding!” The filmed version of Peter Brook’s play U.S. about the Vietnam war features this staged conver­sa­tion between a supposedly naive English actor and Stokely Carmi­chael who was a recog­nized spokes­person for the Black Conscious­ness movement.

Carmi­chael comes across as a hip intel­lec­tual version of a Black Panther; his calm manner very effective as he puts across the Maoist philo­sophy behind Black Conscious­ness thinking. This was prob­ably one of the few oppor­tun­ities given to him for a wider plat­form and he wasn’t going to waste it.

Five Corners 1987

When Bob Dylan sang The Times They Are A Chan­ging, there’s no doubt he was singing to the white youth of America who were begin­ning to have their eyes opened and their polit­ical conscious­ness raised by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.

Five Corners is, at heart, a neigh­bour­hood movie; a nostalgic looking back to a time of integ­rated communities but it contains some effective scenes. In this one, a blue-collar white boy (Tim Robbins) clashes with a young black Civil Rights activist over his precon­cep­tions. It’s a reminder of how raw rela­tion­ships between the races were in America only a relat­ively short time ago.

The Believer 2001

The twist in the premise of this film may be a little predict­able but that doesn’t lessen its power as a study in self-hatred. It is memor­able exactly because its protagonist’s ideals come from such a deeply personal place.

It is also effective because it demon­strates that the instinct towards radic­al­isa­tion when it’s awakened – partic­u­larly in young people – can go in either direc­tion; some­thing very pertinent in these days when young people seem drawn like moths towards extremist causes.

The Wilby Conspiracy 1975

This doesn’t quite fit into the categories above but is worth a mention because even though it was a main­stream thriller (with Michael Caine coming to the aid of a Mandela-like African politi­cian played by Poitier with his usual grace ) it contains one of the best illus­tra­tions of overt racism ever put on screen.

Nicol Willi­amson doesn’t attempt the usual dire accent but he perfectly under­stands his char­acter – an Afrik­aner policeman. His berating of the village headman in this scene contains just the right amount of patron­ising humi­li­ation. This is what colo­ni­alism means in its worse mani­fest­a­tion: the treat­ment of adults as chil­dren, a condes­cen­sion that is almost more painful to witness than brutality.

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