In this timely comparative study, James Williams considers how and why John Ridley’s acclaimed 2017 television series Guerrilla ‘reradicalizes’ early black British radical cinema, specifically Horace Ové’s 1975 film, Pressure, the first feature-length work by a black British director. Highlighting the overlooked significance of Ové’s pioneering film, Williams argues that Guerrilla reinvents the story of Black Power in early 1970s Britain in order to intervene in current debates about diversity, representation, revolutionary violence, and social change. —Rebecca Prime
James S. Williams
In February 1968, at the West Indian Students’ Centre in London, James Baldwin delivered a now-famous lecture on black experience and identity in Britain and America. Boldly rejecting simplistic notions of race and color by elucidating the history of racial mixing in the United States and the colonies, he also led a discussion with civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory on the role of white liberals in the black struggle. The event was brilliantly captured by Trinidadian-British photographer and recently trained filmmaker Horace Ové in Baldwin’s Nigger (1969), a forty-eight-minute black-and-white documentary made in a simple but intimate cinema verité style. At one point Baldwin is asked by a member of the audience where he thinks the black man will be in fifty years’ time. His answer is cautiously optimistic, imagining a future black state of mind and sense of pride that could bring forth a new kind of identity. He evokes the “vigor . . . vitality . . . sense of life” of the “black personality.” This was a potent and thrilling prospect in 1968.
Yet two months later, on April 20, 1968, the British Conservative politician Enoch Powell gave his notorious antiimmigration “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which he argued that the Empire Windrush (the boat that brought the first large-scale group of immigrants from the Caribbean to London in 1948) was a Trojan horse, and that West Indians were an occupying force that threatened the very survival of British civilization. Powell then issued a deliberately inflammatory threat: “In fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Although Powell was immediately censured by his own party, his extreme racist views cast an ugly nationalist shadow over the course of multicultural relations in Britain for years to come.
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