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Remembrance of Things Present

The oppositional cinema of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective
Art for Remembrance of Things Present.
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Her face bathed in the cool blue light of the projector, Maggie Baptiste, a young Black British woman, sits in an empty room watching a documentary she made. “Right, everybody shut up; the film’s about to begin,” her recorded introduction goes, “and what you’re going to be witnessing is archive of footage on demonstrations, festivals, things like that. I’ve edited them all together to form a montage of images of protest and celebration of solidarity.”

Maggie’s unnamed film illuminates the historical context from which The Passion of Remembrance (1986) emerged. Codirected and cowritten by Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien as part of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective and regrettably under-screened and under-seen, the film has been freshly restored by the BFI National Archive in collaboration with the directors and cinematographer Nina Kellgren. Maggie’s documentary, nested within the narrative but framing the world outside of it, is one of many ways this bold work of experimental filmmaking unsettles narrative chronology and historical authority, simultaneously casting a critical eye on the filmmakers’ contemporary Britain and preceding decades of black political activity, as well as taking on questions of social control, gendered exclusions, and heteronormativity. This singular film resurfaces at a time when the poignancy of its political interventions is grimly confirmed, just as the longevity of its daring aesthetics is beautifully asserted. 

The 1980s were an explosive period for independent Black British filmmaking. While its tentative emergence began a couple decades earlier, the turning point came after a series of anti-racist uprisings and rebellions against the nightmare of Thatcherite England led to targeted subsidization of film production by Channel 4 and the Greater London Council, resulting in the formation of numerous collectives and workshops, such as the Black Audio Film Collective, Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, and Sankofa. This dynamic ecosystem opened new avenues for Black filmmakers to craft an autonomous cinematic language, one that markedly diverged from the white avant-garde.

Sankofa engaged in a collective self-fashioning, elastic and experimental.

Founded in 1983, Sankofa drew its name from an Akan word for a mythical bird that “signifies the act of looking into the past to prepare for the future.” That the composition of the group’s original cofounders included three women and a gay man—Martina Attille, Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Blackwood, and Julien (as well as Robert Crusz)—indicates how this collective distinguished itself. Alongside the interrogations of race, labor, and colonialism that informed this larger context of independent black cultural production at the time, Sankofa’s body of work equally foregrounded gender and sexuality.

The Passion of Remembrance, the collective’s first full-length feature, melds their critique of dominant systems of power and identity formation with a historiographic mission and technical audacity. The film has three components: the Baptiste family drama; Maggie’s film-within-the-film; and the “Speaker’s Drama,” in which an anonymous “Black Woman” and “Black Man” directly address matters of gender and political struggle. The film oscillates between these three sections, which break with both the conventions of sequential chronology and a singular narrative space, in the process engaging personal, popular, and oppositional forms of memory as a process of historical intervention.

This perspective was framed by the generational position of the young filmmakers in Sankofa and the other Black British cinematic collectives. While their parents had, for the most part, moved to Britain directly from its colonial territories in the Caribbean, this second generation had to generate their own distinct relationship to blackness and Britishness. The 1980s were marked by the disappointments of the decolonization era a few decades prior—on the African continent as in the Caribbean, the end of a large-scale struggles toward economic sovereignty and political autonomy also entailed the loss of a unifying force. In considering the global reach of the systems that shaped their lives in Britain, these Black British filmmakers found some alignment with the legacies of Third Cinema, the militant movement which emerged from Latin America in the 1960s and offered a template for cinematic challenges to imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. In the case of Sankofa, they were also pointedly orientated away from the nationalist and masculinist tendencies of Third Cinema.

These nascent independent Black British film collectives saw their task as one of constant revision, and they used formal experimentation as one way of negotiating their geographic dislocation and the uneasy pressures of assimilation. Studied and informed, the work of Sankofa and its peers was also fashioned by a keen knowledge of film theory and participation in contemporary public debates around issues of race, class, and political power, as well as Britain’s national heritage of colonization and imperial expansion. These debates were unfolding in numerous interconnected arenas, including the academy. In his essay “New Ethnicities” Stuart Hall diagnosed a change in “black cultural politics,” where difference was engaged rather than suppressed, identities were seen as always in formation, and blackness was recognized as broadly variable and diasporic. Armed with a shared political project, the filmmakers were attentive to cinema as a language that demanded modification to contest its colonial underpinnings. Theirs was a visual analogy for the way Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire saw the hybridized linguistic innovations of the Caribbean as a form of violence against the sanctity of the French language and, as such, charged with emancipatory potential. 

In this way, Sankofa created a creolized form of oppositional filmmaking. In addition to Third Cinema, they were influenced by Black filmmakers based in the United States, such as Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima. The transatlantic connections coalesced around Black Power, whose American form is established within the first few minutes of Maggie’s film-within-the-film when we’re shown brief flashes of Angela Davis (in her locs era). Maggie’s documentary also includes archival footage of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the Black Power fist as they were awarded their medals. She watches it with her brother Tony and responds to his evident captivation by saying, “What were you doing in sixty-eight, here I mean, this is struggle U.S.-style.” The film’s opening monologue, delivered by the “Black Woman” of the “Speaker’s Drama” also questions this envy of an American monopoly on the recognition of Black radical politics, countering the fear that “the real struggle was over on the other side of the Atlantic, with Malcolm, George, Sonia, Bobby, LeRoi,” with the assertion of the equal importance of local organizing in Britain, as anywhere else.

Sankofa worked with an awareness of their place in the African diaspora—without falling into the trap of seeking another kind of essentialism that would position “Africa” as a mythical origin. They took freely from European avant-garde films, while also defying them and inventing other visual strategies. The vibrancy of this 1980s era of independent Black British film also meant Sankofa looked to the richness of the terrain shaped by the work of other collectives and individual filmmakers, such as Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981) and Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976).

In “New Ethnicities,” Hall notes that The Passion of Remembrance was among a set of films that turned away from viewing blackness as singular or essentialized and toward a recognition of the complexities of “class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity” in what he referred to as a “new politics of representation.” Sankofa engaged in a collective self-fashioning, elastic and experimental. In a 1988 interview about the group’s work, Attille chronicled how the film’s final incarnation was preceded by a project temporarily titled “Systems of Control.” Initially planned as a documentary on policing, it broadened into a larger interrogation of not only state authority and discipline but also more intimate and interpersonal forms of control. The project’s evolution into The Passion of Remembrance was a way to take seriously the particular ways Black women and Black gay men were policed.

The three components of Sankofa’s first feature film each offered a point of entry for thinking through what blackness meant for these filmmakers. The more conventional sphere of the Baptiste family narrative acts as a vehicle for the ways these questions manifested in the everyday: they’re first introduced crowded on the couch watching television, where a Black couple are on some sort of game show. Maggie points out that “every time a black face appears we think it has to represent the entire race. We just don’t have the space to get it wrong, that’s the problem.” It is also crucial to note that in complete opposition to how Black people were portrayed in mainstream, white visual culture—a problem that continues well into the present—the Baptistes are not pathologized or portrayed as innately dysfunctional. Maggie’s film-within-the-film serves to situate these same concerns in the larger political landscape of antiracist and labor movements, the social upheavals of riots and protests.

The “Speaker’s Drama” takes on a more didactic function. The Black Woman and Black Man appear on an arid, sandy expanse fringed by mountains and clouded by smoke—a landscape both digital and ancestral, a limbo that infuses the film with a sense of modern mythmaking. As noted by Attile, the anonymous setting was inspired by Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Against this backdrop, the two avatars of a gendered binary enter into tense conversations about organizing in Black communities, uneven divisions of labor, enduring forms of domination, and who gets remembered. Compared to the naturalized realism of the Baptiste family drama, this section of the film at times risks coming off as artificial and pedantic, yet it serves the important role of emphasizing the film’s challenge to standard histories and heteropatriarchal frameworks. Together, these components create sites of conflict, debate, mediation, and dialogue—an approach crucial for addressing the entangled micro and macro registers of individual and collective black identity formation.

Their method suggests a recognition of oppositional cultural work on many fronts as an accumulative process which demands ongoing renewal.

While attentive to the frictions of intergenerational clashes, The Passion of Remembrance maintains a larger commitment to negotiating contradictions, including more messy mappings of difference. In the film, Maggie’s older brother Tony and their father Benjy are mouthpieces of homophobia. This does not imply a flat condemnation of their characters but is used to situate the film’s engagement with queerness and sexuality in concrete experiences—rather than slotting them in only as abstract polemics. The misalignments also cut across generation and gender, as when Benjy implies homosexuality is a Western contagion, and Glory chastises him with a reminder about a queer family member back home in St. Lucia. The film also places its one romantic storyline outside the confines of heterosexuality, with the central couple being Maggie’s friends Gary and Michael. After an evening out, the pair stop for a kiss on their way home. They are interrupted by the sounds of a several young white men, shouting, “Go back to your country!” as they assail a nearby house. In this way, xenophobia, antiblackness, and homophobia come together in an expression of violence. This scene is also a rejoinder to an earlier episode when a pamphlet titled “Your guide to neighborhood watch” is pushed through the mail slot of the Baptistes’ home. While it might initially seem innocuous, their conversation clarifies how this is connected to racially targeted surveillance by the state and its investment in pathologized images of Black and immigrant families. The Passion of Remembrance is especially sharp in exposing these connections.

Sankofa’s films were conceptualized and produced collaboratively, though Blackwood and Julien have proceeded to have quite different degrees of recognition. While she may have a lesser degree of visibility, Blackwood was also prolific, going on to make Perfect Image? (1989), Family Called Abrew (1992), and Away from Home (1994), which dealt with everything from Black women’s self-perceptions to the stakes of sports and entertainment for Black people and the emotional and psychological toll of displacement and migration. Given the stakes of The Passion of Remembrance, no occasion to recognize Blackwood should be missed.

In a way, Maggie’s place in the film was then, and remains, an assertion of Black women’s authority over the visual more generally. Maggie, in her first appearance in front of the projector, becomes the filter for an intervention in the domain of popular memory: her film fills the screen, and the spectator becomes entirely aligned with her perspective, staging an encounter with the past refracted through a queer, feminist, black lens. Flashes of images show white police forces and multiracial protests, people chanting, objects burning, helicopters, riot gear, street-side interviews, glimpses of landmarks, signs ranging from GAY YOUTH MOVEMENT to VICTORY TO THE MINERS. At times, the footage is subject to garish recoloration in greens, blues, and pinks, while at others it is cast in a muted monochrome or destabilized through the slanted perspective of Dutch angles. These assertions of Maggie’s authority at the level of form serve as an antidote to what the Black Woman decries in her opening monologue, in her reference to the positioning of Black women, sometimes even in radical lineages, as being “fashioned into an image designed for, but not by her.”

The Passion of Remembrance ends with a mother’s grief. When the Baptiste family is first introduced, Glory shares the news of a tragic death, a woman they know who lost her son. The image then shifts to a shot of a Black woman in mourning clothes, sitting in a red chair surrounded by candles. This image returns at the end of the film, with Gary appearing in a black suit, delivering a poem at what seems to be the wake or the funeral of the young man. This turns into a polyvocal elegy, which combines the sinister sound clip of an official voice referring to a slain “negroid male,” Glory’s voice describing how his mother hadn’t seen him for two weeks and then the police showed up saying he was dead in hospital, Benjy’s voice saying “you can’t take the law to the law because they control everything” and Gary’s poem. He intones: “The media may choose to forget while we do not.” Sankofa’s stunning feature is ultimately a form of memory-work. These filmmakers were making sense of the past as a necessary component of making sense of their present in 1980s Britain. It has the quality of a cinematic palimpsest, layering histories and geographies through its three different components.

As their feature demonstrates, Sankofa’s transformative approach and diasporic sensibility challenged the Eurocentrism of the cinematic avant-garde and the terms of power that dictate the terms of remembrance and representation. Their method suggests a recognition of oppositional cultural work on many fronts as an accumulative process that demands ongoing renewal. The Sankofa Collective was as adept at reshaping aesthetics and engaging theory as they were informed about the material terrain of cultural production and the political struggles around them. The Passion of Remembrance is an audacious experiment whose kernels of electrifying cultural warfare persist—as the Black Woman says, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.”

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