Thursday, 24 November 2011

Nostagic blues....

Just over a year ago I embarked on a journey in New York... this was a personal reflection I shared amongst friends...enjoy

I wake up early most morning on my single bed to a hesitant New York sunrise, I say hesitant because the sun here seems to seep conveniently slowly into my room, a welcomed change to what I’m used to because sometimes I like to play mental games with myself and try to guess how many things I can get done, or how many of my friends birth date I can recall before the natural light fully illuminates my room. Most mornings though, I just like to sit there and imagine – reminisce - think about the busy London life and everyone’s individual strives, I know you’re thinking I’ve only been away for a couple of weeks and it’s way too early to be hit by the waves of nostalgia, but I guess I’m the eternal sentimentalist and for us it’s never too early.

I set out on the streets of Greenwich Village, downtown Manhattan, New York – the concrete Jungle, never before has a metaphor been used to greater effect, this place really is a place for David Attenborough to commentate over; the cloudy mist from sewers almost swamp like and human beings flocking from busy intersections like herds of gazelles avoiding the dangerous clutches of yellow beasts on four wheels, well unless you actually want to catch one. Like the Jungle it all seems to work and coincide together, the historical landmarks and new memorials, the eccentricity of busy Harlem nights and corporate Wall Street mornings, it all seems to make sense in this eclectic metropolis full of power and history, laughter and pain, purpose and desire... I think they call it the concrete Jungle because I don’t think you can ever find a place that blatantly conflicts with the needs of a natural world but still feels so natural.

I study at New York University or NYU as it’s commonly known, at the TISCH school of the arts, the artistic director of my course is Spike Lee, the Spike Lee bit has no relevance to what I’m about to say but just thought I should throw it out there. The course itself is ‘Graduate Filmmaking’, it’s a MFA which is sort of like a masters but not really (, as well as this I’m doing a intensive creative writing course as a supplement. The course is tough but very insightful, it’s a three year course but I’ve been fortunate to learn the second year of the course which tailors to what I want to do - documentary. I am loving every moment of learning here, and what’s actually amazing is I am actually learning, I’m learning beyond what’s being taught in class and my daily interactions with new friends and class mates is really giving me greater insight into my work and how I want to develop as an artist.

I'll finish this rather prompt reflection with a simple message for all my friends in the creative field; we’re going to make great impacts on this industry...

Trust me we will.

Ola Malachi Masha

Monday, 31 October 2011

Success and Sabotage of Lovers Rock. How Positive Black Films get Blocked, Messed up and Messed around

The Story of Lovers Rock is a film made by Menelik Shabbaz about a type of music known as Romantic Reggae and the associated lifestyle and culture of the black community in England in the 1970's/80's.
Mr Shabbbaz is an award-winning filmmaker who was never privileged and patronised in the same way that white directors of less stature have been. Lovers Rock is his first film for fifteen years, it was refused funding by all of the major arts and culture funding bodies who came up with a list of excuses ; not relevant, no market, too niche, not really history, etc. Mr Shabbaz and his team went to the community and repeatedly asked for investors. Despite getting full houses and rapturous applause at several preview screenings at the BFI and the Coronet, people were long on talk but short on pulling their pockets. Fifty thousand pounds was the amount in question. Mr Shabbaz persevered, completed the film despite several last minute obstacles and amazingly managed to secure a distribution deal which meant that a company would assist in placing the film in cinemas across the country. This in itself is unusual as many black films never get
distributed and are shown once or twice if at all before disappearing. The result is that people never get to enjoy, learn or benefit from the those films and there is no box office results to prove such films sell. This then puts off distributors from distributing such films and producers/studios from making such films in the first place.
Mr Shabbaz and his team got the Story of Lovers Rock on a number of screens across the country. This is what happened next..

* Cinemas did not display the Lovers Rock poster in advance or on the day
* Cinemas did not have the film listed on their own website or on their printed programme
* Cinema staff did not know that the film was on in their cinema
* Cinemas did not include the film in their weekly mail out to their regular customers
* Cinemas did not play the trailer for Lovers Rock before the main feature in advance of the film opening as normally happens
* Cinemas that were showing the film did not take delivery of the film or if the film failed to arrive at the stated time did not chase up the distributors they just cancelled the show even though people had booked in advance to see it
* Cinemas agreed to one or two screenings at weird times like 1.30pm on a Monday

No room on screen for loving black couples.
All of the above happened before and even after the screenings began to sell out.
Lovers Rock has been selling out 400 seat cinemas at 11.30pm 7.30pm on weekdays and weekends. Lovers Rock attendance and box office takings have beaten Hollywood blockbusters on at the same venue such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. This is incredible as Tinker had heavy TV, Radio, billboard and newspaper advertising whereas Lovers Rock has none of that. Lovers Rock has had people being turned away at the door and dancing in the aisles. Cinemas were approached to screen the film or extend the run. This is what happened next...
* Cinemas said no
* That they couldn’t see the point
* That they weren’t sure if the film was 'right'
* That it wasn’t worth the risk
* That they weren’t sure if there was any interest
* That they couldn’t put up posters as the directors name was spelt incorrectly
* That they might give it one more day maybe
* That they would definitely show it.. At 1.30pm on a Monday and Tuesday
This is the treatment that a successful independent black film that is making money is getting. Does this happen to Harry Potter? What is the problem? Why would you refuse to screen a film that is making money? Is it that the film shows black people in an accurate and positive light? Why would a film that is making money at 7.30pm on a Thursday be given a follow up slot at 1.30pm on a Monday afternoon when most people are at work or school?
Spike Lee's film about heroic black soldiers in World War 2 Miracle at Santa Anna was blocked by its European distributors because they didn’t 'like' the film. Mr Lee took them to court and won 45 million dollars in compensation.
Oprah Winfrey’s and Denzel Washington’s Great Debaters, about black academic success, which made a profit of 15 million dollars was never even released here. Jumping the Broom an African American romantic

This image is not wanted in the UK.

Comedy shows loving black families getting married. It made 31 million US dollars and got to number 3 in the US charts but will not be released in this country. Shirley Chisholm the amazing and inspirational story about the first black woman to run for President was never released here. Perhaps it was because these films have an all black cast and the majority white population is not interested in seeing black people on the big screen. In which case how is it that 50 Cents Get Rich or Die Trying got released nationwide ? It was the story of drug dealing/prostitute mum who gets murdered and her son and his drug dealing criminal associates who get killed before he becomes a rapper. Precious a film about a homeless, illiterate, overweight black teenager who is the victim of rape and pregnancy twice by her father and physical/emotional abuse by her mother; which has a scene where black women are compared to dogs was on 447 screens across the
country. American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington, about a drug-dealing gangster who flooded Harlem with heroin in the 70's was also on general release. Attack the Block was Joe Cornish' first ever film. As a white director he had no problem getting 6 million pounds to make a film with a majority black cast. In the film we are introduced to a mostly black criminal gang as they rob a white woman with a hint of wishing to rape her, then the lead black youth goes to his local drug lord where he gets promoted to a drug dealer. He and his mates are quite happy about this. The only thing that stops him drug dealing is the arrival of aliens from outer space. By the way, the aliens from outer space are 'black' 'So black you can’t see!' and ‘Blacker than my cousin Femi' according to the script. The black male lead ends up in prison. This film was heavily advertised and made the top ten. What does this say about the film industry and British culture?

Lovers Rock is out now if you haven’t seen it... We are also holding a private screening this Friday in view of encouraging attendees to go out challenge this anomaly.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Sir Richard Branson

So recently I had the pleasure of sitting on the MTV base panel and meeting Virgin Founder Sir Richard, it was a truly memorable day as I sat down with him talked about the Africa, The Elders foundation, Sex Pistols and how he's going to invest huge money on my scripts. (I dream right?)

Top: The film crew preping our interview
Bottom from left: Sizwe, Lil Simz, Dick, Ola, Sarah and Arnold

Thursday, 2 June 2011

An evening with the Prof

Monday 30th of May, I learnt from my friend that Professor Wole Soyinka will be giving a talk at the Southbank in a couple of weeks, “there’s no way I can miss this” I said “please make sure you send me the details this week so I can book my ticket” The next day I found out from Symeon Brown (Monty Kipps) that the event that I envisioned will be in a couple of weeks time was in fact going to happen the following day, so my weeks of preparation was actually days and in all probability our chances of procuring a seat will be slim because tickets for this will virtually be sold out. With this in mind we decided nonetheless to meet there, one way or another we said; we will enter, the Southbank cannot stifle the voice of two young black men who were adamant on listening to one of their inspirations, a literary genius who has impelled the works of so many, if they deny us access we will storm the barracks, demand the Profs attention and as sturdy men wrestle us out he will stand up and shout no, this is exactly the type of passion and action that lacks dreadfully from the young people today, let them stay, in fact, bring extra chairs up to this stage, they will sit with me... one can dream right?

The next day I frantically negotiated my way through London traffic, the last thing I wanted to be today was late, being late will somewhat dampen my act of defiance, and generally, it’s not a good look. I then received a text message from another friend of mine who managed somehow to get us last minute tickets from press office, “how on earth did you manage that?” I ask “Gift of the gab” she said as she laughed “I also told her you guys will blog about it and will not storm down their event!”

So we arrive, late, but that’s not the point right now, we sit, bring out our notepads and fixate our gaze at this ethereal being, with an angelic halo of perfectly conditioned afro hair hovering above him he spoke magnificently, addressed Jude Kelly with such swagger that I’m sure she if not for just a split second thought about the Prof in ways her husband Michael Birch would not approve. He spoke about many things, inevitably about Nigeria and its politics, the impact Nollywood is having on the economy and his reluctant embrace of the industry, Africa and its choice of leadership, and his resentment over how his work has pulled him away from being an artist and towards politics. Most importantly he spoke about Theatre, its transforming powers and how he will forever be in love with this medium.

The evening was opened up to the audience and Symeon inevitably got the mic, he posed a question on historical archive when it comes to the African and Caribbean experience, why there is no recognised institute committed to retaining these chronicles in a way that will harness our future as Black people. The professor somewhat misunderstood and made a valuable point of how we take for granted the history of our people in the UK because it’s very much embedded in the fabrics of our day to day living- we live on Ladbroke Grove, we live in Brixton- we don’t realise these are cultural landmarks and that we need to preserve the stories within them. Without the mic now, Symeon continued his personal dialogue with the Prof across the auditorium as he reiterated his question, now understanding the scope of Symeon’s question the Prof said “maybe we should ask SOAS, why this infrastructure isn’t in place”, only for Symeon to respond “I studied at SOAS, believe me it’s not the place for the answer”. Sitting there enjoying this rather spontaneous banter reminded me of the words of a Malian writer and ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ who said; "In Africa, when an old man dies, it's a library burning." This sentiment resonated with me through the night and made me realise just how important organisations like the Black Cultural Archive are in recording the legacy and preserving true and honest accounts.

Straight after the talk we met a lovely young lady by the name of Ibiene who has indirect relations to Prof Soyinka and was one of the select few that was invited to the post talk reception, buoyed by our fortuitous day we decided to accompany her to the reception and get close and personal with the Prof, alas, this was not to be as we were denied access despite our attempts to use our skills of negotiation. After a minute or two of fruitless negotiating we realised the Prof was approaching us so we decided to talk to him personally before he entered the ever elusive reception.

“Professor Soyinka ” Symeon called, he smiled at us as he stopped, “We just had a very interesting conversation about historical archive and the Black experience in the UK, I feel we need to continue this dialogue”, there was brief silence, then the Prof reached out to shake our hands and tap Symeon on the shoulder saying as he walked away “it is down to you young ones now, you must take it from here” we were rendered speechless and could only watch as he walk through the doors into the reception...his charisma intense but effortless, this man had real swagger.

Still dissatisfied with our brief encounter we continued scoping our way in, planning our manoeuvre around the clutches of one lady adamant on standing at the door like a MI5 operative, we will find our attempts to be futile as we later settle for creating our own reception outside with Ibiene and volunteers of the collective artistes, I guess those inside must have known it was out with us where the real party was because even Dianne Abbott ventured out responding to Symeon’s “how was it in there?” with a passive “it’s alright in there” as she joined Femi Elufowoju, Nigerian playwright and director who like us was relegated to the sidelines, others fizzled out and we all entertained each other until it was quite clear that we will not be seeing the Prof again that evening and with that in mind took to our exit.

My drive home gave me time to reflect on the evening and the wonderful chances we took, it left me spurred by the words of Professor Wole Soyinka, more so by the one he said much more casually as he walked away from us; “it is down to you young ones now, you must take it from here”

We will Prof, we will.

Friday, 27 May 2011

It's not just the Block

This is a revolution, ok, maybe not quite a revolution but a revolt nonetheless, and when one revolts the question is posed; “is you is or is you ain’t?”

Is you against this never ending cyclical barrage of stereotypical portrayals, these constant salvo of clichéd distasteful drama that do nothing for the enhancement of the community in which they claim to represent. Is you no longer prepared to sit and continue to watch as your friends, your family and more importantly your PEOPLE are tirelessly trivialised, done so many wrongs for the sake of entertaining the mass droid inhabitants of what we call the planet earth.

Now, the reason for this rather impromptu outburst comes from reading an article from a good friend of mine, one that I feel will gradually become a welcomed professional nemesis of mine as I’m sure this will not be the last time our paths cross in debate. Maybe one day he might become my Monty Kipps and I, Howard Belsey such as in Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’, however this is a prospect I anticipate and readily prepare for.

His article ‘Defend the Block’ comments on a film that has recently hit the big screens of British cinema, I will refrain from giving this film more publicity than I have already done in this past few days and simply say I’m pretty sure you have come across it through its massive marketing campaign. Also, for the record I have not seen this film in focus nor do I plan to, I am a firm believer of ‘knowing your enemy’ but in this case I feel the enemy is moving one step ahead of me and is no longer playing fairly. The enemy is actually digging in deeper and finding new and I must concede more creative ways to infiltrate, corrupt and plant seeds of doom and failure in the young minds that will sadly use their limited EMA allowances, their mother’s underpaid work salaries to watch a false projection of their environment. What could be more detrimental is the fact that thousands and thousands of suburban white kids will also watch this, laugh at this, and go away believing these characters they see on the screen represents the Black guy they will see on the way home that evening, sitting across them on the last train back to Luton because although they were just rooting for him to help defend them from a greater evil on screen, but this is real life, and after all he can’t fight his instincts to flick that knife he has to procure the valuables in their bag.

My attack (excuse the pun) is not solely against the film, rather its ideology and the ideology many other films and television programmes like it carries, it strengthens negative stereotypes in a fashion that delves deep into the subconscious – film has this potential, in fact that is why I use it as one of the mediums to express myself because unlike any other form it has a way of communicating an idea or reinforcing beliefs. We, as a society have a way of responding to these ideas expressed in films because there is a sense of familiarity as we see real manifestation of us on television re-enacting real life situations with real life objects, psychologically this has a profound effect on us, this commands a greater and truer reaction from us than any other form of communication, we are instantly awoken and aware and at the very least accept the film’s truths regardless of how farfetched it may seem.

There is a danger with this, if Film has this potential and then continues to only highlight issues such as gang culture, fallen and misguided youths in the ‘Block’ then we are ultimately at loss, we will perpetuate what is in fact a miniscule of what life in the ‘Block’ is really about... what we’re constantly fed was not my truth when growing up nor is it the truth for many dwellers in London’s urban areas today, so why must we persist on enduring these barrages, and with our endurance somewhat faltering we start to accept these depictions and become increasingly desensitised to wrong and distasteful commentary.

"It's black!" "Blacker than black!" "So black you can't see!" "This thing is even blacker than my cousin Femi!" This is not comedy it’s racist! Regardless of taunting we all endured during adolescent school days, the sad fact is we were merely victims of decades multiplied by decades’ worth of institutions force feeding us these wrong ideas, to revel in and use this sad fact is really an act of racism.

Why are we so willing to accept the criminal activities of these youngsters on the big screens and not only this go on to then celebrate it as long as it means they protect us from greater impending danger?... Go on big strong black boys, fend off these aliens... go on big strong black men, go and fight this war on terror for us, and then when you get back, we will put you in Prison because you’re socially inept to readapt to social life or the years you’ve spent away hasn’t changed the fact that you still don’t have any viable working merit so we’ll just sit tight and wait for you to commit a desperate act to feed yourself and your family and that’s when we’ll come for you and take you away to prison. Am I the only one that sees this parallel?

I refuse to be deceived and consent to these tactics and ploys laid out by high authoritative forces, forces with hands weighing down on every urban youth by saturating their options with stupefied repetitive dialogue and structure and never allowing them to see something new and refreshing...something true.

I will conclude by addressing the issue of funding and the fact that many films such as these constantly get the required backing they need, this issue can never be irrelevant when interrogating a film because fundamentally the procurement of financial support is the catalyst for any major film to hit the mainstream. Unless you’re Spike Lee, who has proven countless of time that his film’s about the ‘Block’ such as Crooklyn and Do The Right Thing can be true and honest and sincere... and funny, without playing to the coonery boofoonery that is expected from films of this nature, it is virtually impossible to access any financial aid without playing to this requirement. If after all these years British directors such as Menelik Shabazz who is a prominent member of black film makers in the UK constantly gets overlooked or Patrice Etienne a young director who like many other young directors and film makers I know constantly get rejected by art institute because they refuse to engage in the coonery and boonfooney that these funding bodies obviously want to endorse then what hope do you as a community have if all you see is a constant dishonest reflection of you, what hope do you have as viewers if you’re made to believe this is as good as it gets when it comes to urban British cinema...because believe me it’s not.

I will prove it one day!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Attack the Block or Attack the Blacks

It's number three in the UK box office, after Thor and Fast Furious. It
features a majority Black British cast so how does this film portray black
people and what impressions will the tens of thousands of mostly white
viewers walk away with?

The main characters in the movies are a gang of 5 muggers. They are black or
mixed race apart from one white boy. They all live on a council estate which
conforms to the usual stereotypes; vast, shabby, dark and graffiti-strewn.
The first time we see them, all five corner a single white woman on a lonely
street. Their Leader, with hood up and mask on, blocks her passage, demands
her phone then her bag, then her ring. At each demand he becomes more
violent producing a flick knife before shoving her on the ground. She is
laying there while the gang surround her when they are distracted by an
explosion in a nearby car and she runs away.. One of the gang points out her
escape but the Leader says 'Allow it' and proceeds to ransack the car. It
does cross one's mind what else did they have in mind for the young woman
bearing in mind they had taken all of her possessions.
Anyway that's brushed aside as the explosion reveals an intruder that they
must kill as its 'not from the block' Once the gang has kicked it to death
they decide it's an alien and so the story begins. We later find out that
this intruder was also female.
Meanwhile the young white woman is comforted by an older white woman who
commiserates with her that the estate is full of 'F ing monsters'. The gang
later invades the woman's home and force her to provide first aid. We also
discover that there is a violent black drug dealer on the estate with a flat
full of weed. He listens to a heavy bassline rap with lyrics like:
Get that Snitch,
Get that Strap (gun)
Don't give a F***,
Brap ! Brap ! Brap ! Brap !
The drug dealer promotes the Leader by giving him some class A drugs to
run, at which point the arrival of more aliens distract the gang yet again
from further illegality and they get tooled up so they can go on a killing
spree. The boys just happen to have machetes and samurai swords to hand.
And what about these aliens ? How are they described ? This is what the
gang members say.. "It's black !" "Blacker than black!" "So black you can't
"This thing is even blacker than my cousin Femi !"
The gang of 5 will become our 'heroes' in the film as, while watching, we
see that the only thing that can save us from the savage, vicious, black,
alien monsters is some savage, vicious, black, human monsters.
The black females in the film are portrayed in a much more positive light.
They give shelter to the boys when they are in trouble and are shown to be
sensible, caring, articulate and loyal. They disapprove of the crime and
violence the boys are involved in and tell them so. They stick up for
themselves and even manage to subdue an alien without being saved by the
males. They offer pertinent observations about the Leader's conduct which
make him reflect on his behaviour.
While contemplating the aliens' presence the Leader states:
"I think the government sent them things. First they sent drugs. Then they
sent guns. Then these monsters. Black boys are 'nt killing each other fast
enough so they thought they'd speed up the process "
This social commentary , is totally undermined by the joke which
immediately follows .There is ample evidence that crime and violence have
been sponsored by the state in inner city areas however.
In 1998 a congressional inquiry led by Maxine Waters revealed that the CIA
was importing drugs into black areas of Los Angeles and giving crack
cocaine dealers like Ricky Ross preferential treatment. The drugs and guns
distributed by the US government led to catatastrophic social breakdown in
the black community, which was then blamed on the black community.
Closer to home Delroy Denton and Eaton Green were violent drug dealers
recruited by Scotland Yard to work as informers. While working for the Met
Police they distributed drugs and committed violent offences in the black
community. Delroy Denton went on to rape and murder Marcia Lawes in 1995.
Denton had previously been linked to 7 murders in Jamaica. No police officer
was prosecuted.
Operation Jackpot in 1993 revealed that police officers in Stoke Newington
were supplying drugs and guns to the local community while beating up
prisoners and planting evidence on black people. This behaviour had already
been exposed by the black-run Hackney Community Defence Association. All the
above were dismissed as conspiracy theories at the time.
The film ends with the Leader being handcuffed and taken away in a police
van suspected in the murder of two policemen . Meanwhile the estate dwellers
are out in force demonstrating and shouting the Leaders name. The name of
the leader ..? Moses
So by the end of the film we've seen that black boys are violent, predatory,
anti-social, drug dealers who like to gang up on single white females but
can be gainfully employed using their aggression against monsters from
another planet that just happen to be 'blacker than my cousin Femi' . When
they're done fighting aliens they end up prison.
Many people will rush to see this movie and be influenced by it. Some people
will watch it and see all their worst prejudices confirmed and reinforced.
Others will watch it, laugh and applaud the negative portrayals of
themselves as they have so few alternatives . Some will see it identify and
emulate. It might not be so bad but for the fact that there is already a
relentless procession of images and reports of black males being involved
with crime and violence.
Here is a comparison which goes to the root of the black image on screen and
how media portrayal affects social reality:-

Joe Cornish, who is white, made Attack the Block after he was mugged by a
group of boys in Brixton. It is his first film. It was given a budget of
£8 million. It's on 352 screens across the country and is being heavily
promoted via web, TV, buses , magazines etc
Menelik Shabbaz, award-winning black director of several films including
Burning an Illusion (1981) could not get any money from the establishment to
fund The Story of Lovers Rock. The film is a history of 30 years of the
Black British community, its musical legacy with stories of achievement,
police abuses and the fight for equality. He had to fund it entirely
himself. It will be released in September on a limited number of screens and
has an advertising budget of zero.

an extract from the website