Handsworth Songs (1987, John Akomfrah)

Our second Black Audio Film Collective film after Testament, this one a collage-style doc about the 1985 Handsworth riots – with at least one scene from the 1977 Handsworth riots, the country having failed to solve racism during the intervening years. A good mix of music and sounds, collaged like the visuals. Interviews with community members about mistrust of cops because of bad policing, combined with the story of an innocent woman shot by police in her own home give the sense that nothing has changed between Handsworth Songs and Crime + Punishment. Racism remains unsolved.

I’d been wanting to see this for ages, it having appeared on some list somewhere of great films, and am glad I held off on the bootleg VHS copies to see it properly projected in a theater. Not that there are such splendid visuals – it’s mostly news and interview footage – but there’s at least one innovative move in here: lit photographs hung in a dark room, the camera slowly moving through the room in 3D like an early version of the Ken Burns effect.

Vikram Murthi:

Akomfrah sought to redefine blackness in British culture for a new generation as a reaction against conservative Thatcherite policies along with the respectability politics of their immigrant parents. In turn, the Collective demonstrated that the best way to examine the noxious ideologies in the culture was to trace their historical lineage. As a middle-aged black woman tells a British reporter, “There are no stories in the riots. Only the ghosts of other stories.”

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