Welcome ll the Terrordrome Ngozi Onwurah (UK 1995) Suzette Llewellyn, Saffron Burrows, Felix Joseph
Viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle UK, 9th May 2019; Ticket: £7
style is king
Ngozi Onwurah’s ‘Terrordrome’ is a production defined completely within style. As a filmic statement it attests to the triumph of the outer over the inner, surface over depth, darkness over light.
To carry through this project Onwurah had to understand how she could push the capacities of a minority film project to express the experience of black culture in a white society. Most contemporary films when set in ethnic groups highlight the content and the primacy of character. Typically narrative structures drive the characters towards some outcome and the characters are normally defined through their association with conventional feelings experiences and attachments. These are relations such those with mother or with children which are of course reassuringly indistinguishable from those kinds of relations in the majority culture. Everyone is kind of the same – if you prick me do I not bleed?
Onwurah has taken a radical step of relegating plot and characterisation from being the core defining qualities of her film. They are still present but not the primary characteristic. She has seen that most Hollywood movies, with the exception of Spike Lee’s films, when taking the black community as subject matter use scripting to normalise the black experience. Blacks were explained as being just like the white people: same types of relationships, same types of problems. No different. But of course this singular emphasis on the extent to which black and whites were similar in outlook experience and expectations denies what is crassly obvious: being in a black minority there are huge differences in life, huge differences in experience. And these differences are structured into their understanding of life .
Onwurah starts with the perception that the defining aspect of black experience is the ghetto – here realised as the Terrordrome. An experience that is both oppositional to the majority power structure that contains them, and creative in using its own resources to to be seen and heard. The particular response of the blacks living in the Terrordrome is to take its defining situational aspects and assume them into expressive modes of the body. The collective experience is transformed into a stylistic statement, a collective part of individual subjectivity. A culture of unashamed minority assertion, a feature of black identity alien to majority culture.
Style then is the pure product of the Terrrordrome which Onwurah realises within a particular setting. Grounded in minority oppositional style, normalised settings such as apartments houses hotel rooms kitchens bathrooms would have lent a discordant visual signing to the film. Onwurah’s Terrordrame space in alligment with the film’s stylistic sympathies: the disassociated spaces of the shanty town, clapboard dwellings, subterranean service areas, abandoned basements. In the spacial configuration there are no markers dividing off kitchen area, bathroom, bedroom, lounge, dining room. No bourgeois division of zoanal function. This is the Terrordrome territory. A ghetto that’s like an excavated space, hollowed out of emergency need and press of population.
Within in the immediacy of the settings and the presence of the bodies, hip hop lips tell the voice the people their story and their life in the shadow of the white world. The drama that unfolds in Terrordrome is moulded and given direction by Onwurah’s creation of a filmic world defined as pure stylistic construct. The narrative develops as a black – white revenge saga. It is fuelled by white male sexual jealousy and spun out on the wheel of stylistic opposition that completes the full tragic cycle of death destruction and miscarriage.
Terrordrome points to the primacy of style in minority culture, a primacy that not only is an identity resource but also shapes and predetermines responses. This stylistic determinism is seen not just in the opposition of gang culture to the majority, in particular the police and authority, but also in internecine warfare. This conflict is experienced in London 2018-19, where there’s been a large number of fatal stabbings. The hoodie ghetto territorialised style admixed with ‘Drill’, a bass driven form of hip-hop, creates a series of reactive responses that quickly escalate to the extreme act of knifing and killing.
As the violence in Terrordrome escalates, both in the rage of the minority and in the calculated reaction of the majority, Onwurah ‘s depiction of the situation renders a clear understanding of the forces in play in our world.