New Wave to Black wave addendum to ‘Red White and Blue’
Viewing the films made for the BBC by McQueen about black lives in the UK I got to thinking about the ‘British New Wave’ of the 1960’s. This movement marked a period in British Cinema when a fresh wave of film makers emerged who represented and described a neglected part of the social matrix: the lives of the British Working Class. This ‘New Wave’ located their films within industrial and inner city locations, more importantly the intention of the scripts was to depict the lives of the people who lived and worked in these places. And these depictions were contextualised and more rounded, more gender balanced than the formulaic presentaton of working class people that characterised the scenarios of most British film productions in the post-war period. For example working class women were often key figures in these ‘New Wave’ films: sometimes as abused parties; sometimes as the lynchpins of family and community; sometimes as emotional amplifiers of the everyday. And these representations flew in the face of dominant cultural filmic norms that kept a tight rein on emotional expression.
Prior to the films of Clayton, Richardson, Reisz, Schlesinger, Anderson, Forbes and slightly later Loach, my impression is that in British movies the working classes were subject to a more or less consistent character stereotyping. They were shown as funny loveable cockneys, criminals, respectable working people (including police officers) and of course often as servants, honest but poor. ‘Ordinary’ working people were shown in this manner via Ealing Comedies, costume dramas, other ranks in War movies and as the criminogenic elements in Scotland Yard themed police thrillers. Parallel to the British theatre, the film industry in its scripting of working class people had barely moved away from the familiar Dickensian tropes. But in the work of the above directors working class lives were centre stage, with camera and scripts focused on them. The political and artistic drive was for authenticity.
Taking cue from writers such as Osborne and Sillitoe there was often a mood of anger underlying the ‘New Wave’ films. The anger was characterised by a feeling of working class betrayal, the experience of being cheated by a class system which exploited ignorance and vulnerability and left its victims with broken bodies and broken lives. There was also the observation made by Sillitoe about working class ‘pride’. Working people had their own codes, their own sense of justice. They resisted being patronised but the ethos of the new consumeriusm weakened them, made them easy targets for manipulation. As their lives were undermined by shifts in the socio-economic system, ie employment, some workers were absorbed into the new prosperity whilst others were simply abandoned, becoming long term dependents of the Welfare State, signing up to a future of drugs alcohol and mental illness. Cue some thirty years later, Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’.
Many of the New Wave films read like reports back from another country. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘A Kind of Loving’ were commercially successful, but the films taken as a whole were dynamic vectors of information, a kind of trans-social communication path to middle class sensibility about how life was lived on the other side of the economic divide. On re-view these films resonate as socio-cultural historical relics.
I think there are significant differences and some similarities between today’s emergent black film makers and the British directors of the ‘60’s. There are two pertinent similarities, which are related. Firstly, there is the use of the social tensions employed by both generations of film makers. Here I am refering not to the actual intra-dramatic tensions that are explored both within the scripts and the filming processes probing class and race interaction. The tensions I am thinking about are those that are excited between the screen and the audience. Both New Wave and this generation of Black Wave film makers intended that their films shock the audience The films’ tensions cross the line and confront the audience with home truths about the nature of their own society. The audience have to watch the constant battle to find the money to live, they have to watch as two policeman savagely beat up Leroy’s dad, letting him know he’s just a black bastard. The audience have to carry these messages home in themselves and come to terms with the emotions released by exposure to the viewing experience.
The second similarity is closely related to the first and relates to the manner in which Black film makers, like their British New Wave forbears, have projected onto our screens an ‘other’ neglected area of life in British society. However well meaning thay may be, most white directors charged with realising scripts involving black experience have tended towards stereotyping or locating the lives of Black people in ways with which white people were familiar. Onwubolu, McQueen and Coel in very different ways fold their subjects within the ‘black experience’, as something with which they are familiar. They are able to present their characters and their relations with both the ‘black’ and the ‘white’ world as complex. As with the ‘New Wave’ directors their grasp of authenticity serves the intention of black film makers to push out through the screen and communicate to the viewing audience its own involvment, even collusion, in racism.
Onwubolu’s ‘Blue Story’ is reminiscent of British ‘New Wave’s’ way of seeing things. It is about entrapment, entrapment in a socio-cultural matrix. ‘Blue Story’ is a chronicle of young blacks living in a economic system that has little to offer them. Even their families are unable to provide a protective carapace. Protection and succour are now found in the gang and gang culture which is all male. In relation to self empowerment, it is black male identity that is under threat. The re-acton to this threat is the adoption by young black males of an alternative ‘home’, the gang, with its own validating system, built about values that in many respects run counter to mainstream rules of the game. There is some echoing here of the tensions found in ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ and ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’. ‘Blue Story’ seems to me to lack the direct anger expressed in these two films. But like them, ‘Blue Story’ is a report from a strand of social life that sits in our midst, which we don’t see, but has its own destructive dynamic.
Looking at the output of Steve McQueen and to some extent of Michaela Coel (their recent work all on shown on TV) there is a break with the themes of the British New Wave directors. The characteristic theme of McQueen and in a different way also of Coel’s, is: ‘overcoming’. ‘A Kind of Loving’ does play out the idea of social mobility, of self betterment, but even so Schlessinger hints at the price paid for this mobility. But the feel of most of these New Wave films is envelopment. The subjects are immersed in a reality where class and class differences in life chances are endemic; those who see the possibility of change and who confront the system, usually experience heroic failure, viz ‘This Sporting Life’.
Of course being black in UK society is different type of experience to being working class in the 1960’s, though there are some similarities in the economic coupling. Race to some extent overlays class but with the additional discriminatory factor of racism from all sections of society. Working Class culture always placed its hope of improving life and life chances through the political social mechanisms it forged for itself: Trades Unions, the Labour Party, NHS, Education. There was certainly improvement in Working Class life chances as a consequence of Working Class organisation. But Black experience was different. Although Black immigrants had their own cultural legacy to draw on, there was no easy way to develop out of this the political and social mechanisms to improve life and to fight endemic racism. Working Class institutional resistance evolved over some 150 years. Black people did not have that sort of time. The solution, for many blacks was to use the system itself and the leverage available within it to improve life for themselves as individuals, to succeed in achieving some social mobility and hope that individual success would open the door to wider community betterment. The idea of individuals committed to an ethos of individual overcoming, is an optimistic perspective that has the ring of an imported value. It’s an outlook alien to the ‘New Wave’ directors of the ‘60’s but one that since Thatcher’s ideological war has become familiar. The primacy of an individualistic ethos not only had political endorsement from the 1970’s onwards but it’s an idea that underlies much of the output of Hollywood feature films and imported US TV series. It’s a theme taken up by both McQueen and Coel in relation to black experience and which they exemplify in very different ways.
What is characteristic of McQueen’s films and makes them quite different from the ‘60s new wave is that they are stories built about precisely this idea of ‘overcoming’. The main example is ‘Red White and Blue’ which tells an the story of Leroy who joins the Force with the explicit intention of ‘overcoming’ the systemic racism of the police in order to improve the life of the black community. It’s a true story, or shall we say based on a true story (I haven’t read the original auto-biography) but one that is directly out of mainstream Hollywood tradition (The reforming cop, the reforming politician: ‘Mr Smith goes to Washington’) Likewise, in ‘Education’ Agnes Smith takes the decision to fight for the right of her son to be educated in a mainstream school, to get him out of the backwater system of Special Needs where he has been dumped. Agnes’ action is about ‘overcoming’, both the discrimination of race and exploitation of class ignorance. And Frank in ‘Mangrove’, finally takes up the challenge of his indictment and trial on charges of riot. Frank fights and wins the case in an almost classic replication of US Court Drama movies (‘Inherit the Wind’, ‘The Chicago Seven’. Classic in the sense that in such dramas the individual takes on the might of a powerful institution, usually the state – and wins).
McQueen’s precursors are American rather than British, and as argued there are particular reasons for this. To be clear there is no judgement here, implied or otherwise, of this ‘overcoming’ theme. It reflects the reality that in the British context this re-invention and re-casting of an American ideal, was perhaps the only way to oppose the cultural and institutional forces of discrimination in our society.
I only watched some episodes of “I may destroy you’. Coel sets her drama in a milieu that is similar to American preppy sit coms. The drama centres on a clique of young hopeful successful multi-ethic Londoners whose lives revolve round bars and media, with relationships which are both straight and gay. But although the settings and locations are familiar, as a black film maker Coel has moved her story into new territory. Coel’s self played hero, Arabella (beautiful arab), conforms to none of the stereotypes of race class or gender. She has made it, she’s successful and it is her look in itself that communicates this, that captures the viewers’ attention. Image rather than script dominates the screen. Her outfits are visually arresting, but it is her hair, with its different and contrasting styles and locks, that is the medium that is the message. Arabella’s hair changes from shock peroxide to black entanglement, coding her identity in a series of contradictory symbols and claims that assert her right not to be defined by race or gender. Coel has moved beyond the messaging of McQueen to dis-locate blackness from its anchoring in both physicality and place. It is an ‘overcoming’ of any preconceptions about race, preconceptions which are integrated into the scenario where she is eloquently assertive and self confident in her pursuit of the malfactor who drug raped her.
It is interesting how Coel’s and Onwubolu’s work come from radically different ends of the Black experience, the generative and the de-generative. Onwubolu’s gang members possessing few advantages are using a collective solution to the problems of identity, a solution that involves them creating their own distinctive subculture. Coel’s characters with marketable abilities and life skills are progressing as individualistic success stories, but like their working class predecessors, they might also find that leaving behind their roots is the road to cultural assimilation.