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The 10 greatest films about the Black British experience

Such films reflect the flourishing multi-culturalism of Britain through the 20th century, with the Windrush generation, denoting those who emigrated from the Caribbean to Britain between 1949 – 1971, often being key subjects. Demonstrating the difficulty such families faced assimilating in with British society, whilst celebrating the arrival of various new cultures, cuisines and musical artforms into Britain, these particular films were key in translating the lived black experience.

Looking at pioneers of black British cinema such as Horace Ové, as well as those who support its continued growth in modern society such as Steve McQueen, the following list looks into ten of the most interesting, most enlightening and most compelling films that reflect the black British experience.

The 10 greatest films about the Black British experience:

10. Second Coming (Debbie Tucker Green, 2014)

Whilst actor Idris Elba is praised for such TV work as Luther or Netflix’s impressive Beasts of No Nation, fans and critics failed to register his work in Second Coming by Debbie Tucker Green that shows the performer taking on his most complicated role.

Examining the life and struggles of a black family living in London, Tucker Green’s film stars Elba alongside Nadine Marshall in this peculiar, compact drama that questions whether the wife is pregnant with the second coming of Christ. Nuanced, subtle and wonderfully explored, the film takes the audience on a flowing journey of mysterious discovery whilst doing well to express an authentic take on the black British experience.

9. Playing Away (Horace Ové, 1986)

A sharp and clever comedy from the influential black filmmaker Horace Ové, Playing Away is an unexpected gem that well balances its entertaining qualities and pertinent commentary on contemporary Britain.

Invited to take part in their ‘Third World Week’, the film follows a West Indian cricket team who find themselves among a posh white British middle-class when they are challenged to a game. Revealing a range of cultural scars throughout the course of the patronising charity game, the tight script from Caryl Phillips allows for sharp opinions and revelations from within a thoroughly enjoyable comedy.

8. Bullet Boy (Saul Dibb, 2005)

Making a name of actor Ashley Walters after a successful career in the music industry, Bullet Boy would lead Walters to more significant projects in the future, heading up Channel 4 and Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Top Boy.

Popularising the contemporary tales of modern British crime that were fostered by the release of Kidulthood in 2006 through to Blue Story in 2019, Bullet Boy depicts life in one of East London’s most volatile neighbourhoods which are dominated by gang culture. With a compelling lead performance, Walters takes the film by the scruff of its neck and creates a gripping, authentic drama about the unfortunate reality of so many young black teenagers who find themselves the victims of their own circumstances.

7. Pressure (Horace Ové, 1976)

Recognised as the first black British feature film ever made, Pressure by director Horace Ové is more than a mere milestone, telling a compelling story of the lived experience of the Windrush generation from throughout the 1970s.

Telling the story of a young teenager and the son of an immigrant family from Trinidad, Pressure tracks the boy’s life as he tries to assimilate into contemporary British culture. “What Pressure tried to do was to portray the experience of the Windrush generation, the kids who came with them and the kids born here,” director Horace Ové states, conveying the complicated lives of those brought over to the country to repair its economy after WWII.

6. Young Soul Rebels (Isaac Julien, 1991)

The finest film of the British installation artist and pioneering creative Isaac Julien, Young Soul Rebels remains one of the greatest films about the contemporary black experience, despite it being over 20 years old.

The founder of the Sankofa artists’ collective, Julien was an iconic figure in British subculture in the 1990s, with his film becoming a critical and commercial success upon its success. Following a murder investigation that takes place in 1977 during the week of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Young Soul Rebels addresses issues of racism and homophobia that ran rife throughout the country during this period. Featuring music from the likes of the Blackbyrds, Parliament-Funkadelic and Roy Ayers, the entertaining film quickly became a staple of black British cinema.

Film

Love Languages: Stories From A London Afro-Caribbean Barbershop

An Afro-Caribbean barbershop is so much more than just a place to get your hair cut. It’s a safe space for the black male community. Directed by Jason Osborne and produced by Precious Magaha. Love Languages is a nuanced documentation of these conversations. A portrayal of six men from differing generations and walks of life, as they discuss their experiences of love and loss through emotive introspection, whilst challenging perceptions of their identity and black masculinity. An Afro-Caribbean barbershop is so much more than just a place to get your hair cut. It’s a safe space for the black male community. An environment charged with boisterous hilarity and touching honesty in equal measure. With the barber’s chair acting as a makeshift therapist’s couch, it’s not unusual to find groups of men partaking in revealing and vulnerable conversations.

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5. Burning an Illusion (Menelik Shabazz, 1981)

Portraying a powerful, complicated black female lead, Burning an Illusion by Menelik Shabazz was an influential film upon its release in 1981 and remains a pertinent British classic to this very day.

Focusing on Pat (Cassie McFarlane) living in West London, the film follows her life under the shadow of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain that demonised the black community with strict stop and search laws that led to riots across the country. A fascinating insight into life under Thatcher in the 1980s, Shabazz’s film is both a critical historical document that analyses black British civil rights, as well as a captivating emotional drama about the life of a disorientated young woman.

4. Babymother (Julian Henriques, 1998)

Highlighting the joys of the Jamaican reggae scene that emerged in the UK toward the end of the 20th century, Babymother from director Julian Henriques is a musical joy to watch.

Following the story of Anita, a young mother raising two children with the help of her parents, whilst living on a bleak North-West London Estate, Babymother shows how music played a significant part in the consolidation of identity in contemporary Britain. A vibrant and compelling drama that provided a mainstream response to Richard Curtis’ overwhelmingly white portrayal of the modern capital in Notting Hill, Henriques’ film provides a far more timeless impression of British life in the 1990s.

3. Rocks (Sarah Gavron, 2019)

Whilst many of these aforementioned stories depict Britain during the arrival of the Windrush generation, Sarah Gavron’s Rocks gives audiences an impression of the black experience in the context of contemporary, multicultural life.

Led by an extraordinary cast of young child actors including Bukky Bakray, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Tawheda Begum and Ruby Stokes, Rocks tells the story of a teenage girl forced to look after herself and her brother after they are abandoned by their single mother. Thanks to such impressive lead performances, Rocks shines a light on the reality of life for so many, creating a compelling and rare coming-of-age story about the struggles of the young black experience.

2. Babylon (Franco Rosso, 1980)

Though many films have addressed the emergence of the reggae music genre in British culture, none did so better than Franco Rosso’s Babylon, a film that has since been considered as a key text of black British cinema.

Set in Brixton, south-west London, Rosso’s film tracks the life of Blue (Brindsley Forde) who helps foster the emergence of reggae music in the early 1980s capital. Highlighting the issues black British youths experienced at the time, Babylon is a gritty evaluation of life in London during this period of time, putting together an impressive cast list of black actors who would go on to become icons of the industry including Trevor Laird, Brian Bovell and David N Haynes.

1. Small Axe (Steve McQueen, 2020)

Sure, Steve McQueen’s groundbreaking Small Axe series may be more than just one film, but its significance in the landscape of black cinema is unwavering, providing a comprehensive document that details life in the country from the arrival of Windrush to life in the contemporary country.

Providing an essential educational narrative, Mangrove is the strongest of McQueen’s films, starring the likes of Gary Beadle, John Boyega and Letitia Wright in its story following The Mangrove Nine who clashed with authorities following police brutality in 1970. The compelling true story is joined by four other tales including Red, White and Blue which delves deeper into police brutality, Lovers Rock celebrating burgeoning black culture, the biopic of Alex Wheatle and finally the analysis of the educational system in Education. 

Each written and directed by Steve McQueen, the Small Axe film series is an essential collection of modern films that provides a comprehensive look into the history of racism in the UK.

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