7.1 Core findings
• Between the mid-1940s and mid-1970s, films addressing race issues in Britain were rare, while television manifested an incremental interest in them, largely through investigative programmes. In mainstream cinema, the few films concerned with those themes tended to mix their concern with social problems with thriller story dynamics, and their limited cultural impact is mostly linked to the fact that they were marketed as good yarns rather than as issue-based films. Basil Dearden’sSapphire, one of the hits of 1959, typifies this conventional approach.
• Between 1975 and 1981, the first films made by black directors signalled the possibility of a new type of ‘relation of representation’ between the black minority and the dominant white society. The films had limited cultural impact in isolation, largely due to struggles with censorship and low-profile theatrical releases, but they were part of a larger movement which led to black directors entering television, where their work could be seen by millions (seePressureandBurning an Illusion,below).
• 1980s films by the film and video workshop movement widened the spectrum of opportunities for British Black and Asian talent. The debate about the cultural impact of the workshop films is ongoing. Although films such asHandsworth Songswere confined to discrete cinema releases and late night slots on Channel 4, their influence on the culture of filmmaking has been noted: prominent filmmakers such as Spike Lee have acknowledged an aesthetic debt to the British workshop films.
• In the 1990s, ethnic minority films found their way to a more popular, traditional narrative cinema that managed to reach a wider audience. This trend was anticipated by the Channel 4 filmMy Beautiful Laundrette
(1985), widely regarded as a milestone in the representation of race issues and as the first genuine cross-over film of its kind.
• The past 15 years have seen a growing number of British-Asian films achieving significant cross-over success
(Bhaji on the Beach, East is EastandBend it like Beckham).The films were made by British Asian directors and writers, and dramatised multi-cultural Britain, helping assimilate it with the wider mix of British youth culture. • By contrast, the experiences of Afro-Caribbean youth have continued to be cast in a social realist mould which
has affiliations with the social problem movies of the 1950s. The success ofKidulthoodand its sequel,
Adulthood,and the gun-crime filmBullet Boydemonstrated the ability of such films to connect with an audience of black and white youth.
• British cinema has had some cultural impact on the national conversation about immigration issues, an area which remains highly sensitive in UK politics and which has been made more complex by an influx of new economic and political migrants during the Blair years. Stephen Frears’Dirty Pretty Thingsand Michael Winterbottom’sIn this Worldboth had an impact on the national debate on a scale which far exceeded their modest box office performance.
There is an irregular, though not insignificant, representation of black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in UK films between 1946 and 2006. On average, some 23% of feature films during that period have some representation of minority ethnic groups (see Section 5.3). A large proportion of this representation, however, can be described as tokenistic. Whether it relates to period drama set in the imperial past or conveys a sense of urban milieu in contemporary genre films, it is unlikely to have any serious cultural impact on the changing ethnic and cultural realities of post-war the Britain.
This section looks at films that went well beyond background representation or tokenism, that put minority ethnic groups at their thematic centre and in the context of contemporary stories, reflecting aspects of British culture and society back at itself. Our selected case studies make it possible to follow changes in representation over time. In different ways, these films showed a potential for, or even achieved, a cultural impact, in the sense that they contributed to the way in which British people – black and white – came to see themselves differently in relation to the complex and emotive issues surrounding immigration, race, integration and cultural hybridity. Three categories of films featuring black and Asian talent and themes are represented in this section:
• Films initiated by white writers/directors/producers which featured prominent parts for black characters and attempted to grapple with emergent race issues in post-war Britain(Sapphire, Leo the Last);
• Films initiated by black and Asian writers/directors/producers which either reflected the socio-economic and cultural predicament of their own communities or addressed Britain’s developing cultural hybridities (Pressure, Burning an Illusion,Young Soul Rebels);
• Recent films of mixed initiation tackling the human and social realities of immigration into Britain and the experience of indigenous black and Asian Britons(My Beautiful Laundrette, East is East, Dirty Pretty Things, In this World, Bhaji on the Beach, Bullet Boy).
7.3 The ‘social-problem’ film: the mid-1940s to late 1950s
In spite of a conservative studio system, several films were produced in this period which presented the race agenda to the British public. The cultural impact of these films cannot be assessed without taking into account the form in which they were presented. Racial issues were invariably packaged inside a formula which became identified as the ‘social problem’ genre, using the conventions of the thriller and the police-procedural. While this approach ensured that the issues were accepted by the audience, the potential cultural impact was not so much as to foster understanding of immigrant communities’ cultures as to dramatise the white majority’s fear of the alien, along with a generic plea for tolerance. Unsurprisingly, none of the films of the era –Pool of London, Sapphire, Flame in the Streets– genuinely questioned the social/racial hierarchies in place in 1950s Britain, and some film and social historians have argued that they merely reinforced them.