The New Black

By Karen Alexander

night-of-truth-fanta-regina-nacro.jpgThe Night Of Truth, 2004

Towards a renaissance in black film* exhibition

At a time when our cousins across the water have elected their first black president, and the art world is debating categories such as ‘post-black art’ [1], it may seem slightly retrograde to be talking about notions of ‘black cinema’ here in the UK. Well, yes and no. It’s clear, when looking at the cultural landscape, that we can kid ourselves that time and money has brought progress. But in the area of cultural representation and particularly cinema the fact is that, in all but the most specialist places, black cinema is virtually invisible. Over many years heroic animateurs have worked tirelessly to bring much-neglected black films to our screens. Unfortunately, the lasting impact of this has been negligible. Perhaps now with ‘diversity’ signalled as being so much part of our lives, it’s a good moment for us to take stock of black film exhibition, to clarify what we might want it to deliver, and pinpoint key areas for radical change.

Aware of the dispersed nature of the funded black film exhibition sector, the UK Film Council and Film London commissioned an internal report, ‘Towards the Wider Dissemination and Consumption of Black Film Content: a Review of Current Activity and Strategic Content’, completed in March 2008. This report mapped black film exhibition activity and found in the space of one year that there were over 50 events, screenings or celebrations of black film in London alone. The question the report asked was what tactical measures could be used to develop a long-term UK wide strategic plan for black film that took into account the shifts in social movements and cultural consumption.

In conclusion, the report recommended ways of supporting the development of a sustainable and successful black film exhibition sector; keys to this were programme focus and knowledge, marketing and customer experience. Underpinning the recommendations was a call for in depth market knowledge and customer networks based on communities of interest, the cost effective use of technology networks, ongoing training and the urgent establishment of strategic linkups and collaborations to support the sector.

night-of-truth-fanta-regina-nacro-2.jpgThe Night Of Truth, 2004

Guided by the report and further conversations with those working to exhibit black film, Film London launched a new Lottery fund – the Black Film Exhibition Publicity Fund (BEFPF) [2] to increase the impact of black film exhibition activity, by providing additional money for press and marketing. Set up to run in tandem with the (BEFPF), the Skillset/Film London funded professional training scheme The New Black aims to transform exhibition possibilities for black film. Conceived to be as much about ‘cultural leadership’ as about training, it was essential to situate black film exhibition as part of a discourse about cinema and cultural production. The New Black students (a feisty group of exhibitors, festival organisers and programmers recruited from all places between Wales and Folkestone) were up for the challenge, and they engaged with the thinking and written exercises on films like Charles Burnett’s The Horse (1973) with almost as much enthusiasm as the industry workshops.

Looking at the course overall, one of the real strengths for the students was the fast track introduction they were given to the ‘behind the scenes’ business working of the film industry. The first of three core modules centred on audiences and distribution. Four sessions (with AIM, BFI, Revolver, Verve and the UKFC) unpacked and demystified industry norms and practices. Two of the liveliest sessions were with the studios (Pathe and Lionsgate), and the pitching exercise with the heads of City Screen, Bristol Watershed and BFI Southbank. Other modules covered, marketing, promotion film education, audience development, the black media, film archives and legacy. The final day was hosted by The Commonwealth Foundation, with discussions focused on international development in light of a recent draft report, ‘The Bigger Picture’. A number of fascinating synergies were identified that will feed into their final report.

The students were thrilled by the range of professionals they had access to, and in turn the panellists admitted that they got a lot from meeting the students, and are keen to keep communication channels open. The energy of the group was quite amazing, and what we could not have foreseen was how quickly the students would bond. They have resolved to support each other in programming, research, event promotion and critical writing. The New Black was conceived out of a delight that there were so many black film events, not disappointment that there were so few. What The New Black is equipping the black film exhibition sector with are tools to deliver more impact. In the process, the sector must be aware it will need to professionalise, establish a new psychology and redefine itself. Not quite as grand as having a black president but, if done well, perhaps the effects could be almost as lasting.


* For the purposes of this piece black film is taken as defined in the internal UKFC/Film London report ‘Towards the Wider Dissemination and Consumption of Black Film Content: A Review of Current Activity and Strategic Content’ as: 'Black film is that which is made wholly or largely by or with a Black cast or crew, and/or has a story, subjects or themes which deal the black experience, history or culture or which presents a specific view, comment or insight into issues that clearly relate to Black British life.' Black here means African or African-Caribbean origin, related descent or connection.

[1] A term to emerge from US based black contemporary art – see Thelma Golden
[2] Information on this fund is available from the Film London website.

Karen Alexander was Course Tutor for (November 2008 – April 2009). She is a writer on film, a curator and a freelance consultant. She has contributed articles to several books, including British Cinema of the ’90s. As a cinema programmer she most recently worked on the Serpentine’s exhibition Indian Highway.