Interview

George Amponsah talks directing and new BBC doc “Black Power”: executive produced by Steve McQueen

Black Power: A British Story Of Resistance is a searing account of the Black Power movement directed by BAFTA-nominated George Amponsah (Hard Stop). Airs Thursday, 25 March 2021 Time 9:00 PM – 10:30 PM BBC Two

This 90-minute documentary examines how the Black Power movement came into being in the late 1960s and fought back against police brutality and racism. It features rare archive of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael’s activities in Britain, as well as footage of leading figures in the movement in the UK, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Darcus Howe and Roy Sawh. It casts fresh light on the story of the young black people in the 60s and 70s who challenged the British establishment and helped to shape a new political and cultural landscape in the UK. Contributors include photographer Charlie Phillips.

George is a multiple award-winning   BAFTA nominated  film maker who  first started taking pictures in the 1980s as a photographer and Super 8mm film enthusiast. George’s  most recent  work in  2019 saw him working  as director  on Enslaved  – a new inspirational six-part   documentary     series hosted   by Academy   Award   nominated actor Samuel L. Jackson (Glass,  Captain Marvel,  Pulp Fiction) that brings home the horror of slavery to the world through underwater archaeology. George’s directing work on Enslaved involved filming in Brazil, Ethiopia, and Jamaica as well as Europe and the UK.

George’s feature  length  documentary The Hard Stop was nominated for a BAFTA in 2017 in the Outstanding  Debut category.  The Hard Stop unpeels the true story behind  the UK riots of 2011 following the death of Mark Duggan who was shot and killed whilst being arrested in a ‘hard stop’ procedure by armed police. This incident  ignited  a riot that escalated into a week of the worst civil unrest in recent British history.

His other work includes The Fighting Spirit (2008) a feature documentary which  tells the story of three young boxers and The Importance  of Being Elegant  (2004) about a bizarre cult of fashion lead by the flamboyant Congolese singer –Papa Wemba.

George is   a graduate  of The  UK’s  prestigious  National Film  and Television School  where he won a Post-Office Scholarship to attend the documentary directing course.   Since graduating   in 2000 George has taught documentary directing at the NFTS and The Met Film School  and has been a tutor at Docubox, a film academy  set up for aspiring  film makers.

ALT A caught up with George to discuss, directing, the Black Power documentary and racial awareness in Britain.

ALT: What was your route into directing?

George:

My route into direction came through art college. As a teenager, I was obsessed with art and I was determined to go to Art college and I’ve managed to get into the university of East London, which when I, enrolled in 1989 was called Northeast London Polytechnics. So that gives you an idea of how old I am. I went there because I’d heard that they had a very good film and video department and in fact they really did. They had a lot of film and video equipment and, I’m talking about Super 8mm film cameras, 60mm cameras and video cameras using the video technology of the time, which was, SVHS, I was just like, you know a pig in a playpen. None of the art tutors had any clue how to use this equipment, because they weren’t technicians, you know, they were art teachers but of course I quickly befriended the technician chap who’ was a chap called Dean Todd and I had access to all this equipment and I started making films, my version of films at the time, which tended to be a mishmash of different mediums. And so, it could include Super 8, 16mm video and photography. So those were my first films.

ALT: Why did you choose documentaries?

George:

You know, what, I just described my first films were, I guess were experimental art films, but if they had to fit into any category, it would be documentaries because my films, I started off very early on wanting to make films, which explored my main concern, I suppose, if that’s the right way of putting it or some, what, what motivated me, which was to try and make sense of who I was and where I fit into society, and so really films about my identity as a Black British person, of Ghanaian origin. So that’s what I wanted to explore. by the time I was 18, 19, and enrolling into Art college, I’d already read the autobiography of Malcolm X. So I was well aware of that. And I was also a hip hop kid as well at that time. So the politics of black power emanating from America was something that was very much, apparent to me and very much in my consciousness and something I wanted to express through films and through my own personal experience of growing up in Britain.

ALT:

Do you think that the story of Black British resistance is under told?

Darcus Howe: Still Black Power

George:

The short answer to that question is yes, but I would say that, yeah, I think so. I’ll give you an example, Steve, McQueen’s brilliant, Small Axe, drama, and anthology, which we’ve just seen and can still see on BBC iPlayer now for me, when I watched that, towards the end of last year, it just felt like a bit of an unprecedented thing. You know, this aspect of black British history, being on screen, being on the BBC now. It’s not like Small Axe and Stephen McQueen’s film, or even our Black Power film, or films that aren’t part of a trajectory because they are because I’m very much aware of films that had a formative influence on me. And I’m talking about films such as pressure by Horace Ové, which was, I believe made in the very early 1970s, Babylon by Franco Rossi, that was a film from the early eighties, Burning an Illusion a film by my friend Menelik Shabazz again from the eighties. So these films were made roundabout, the late seventies, early eighties. But the problem for me is that I felt that those films should have had, those filmmakers anyway, it should have had a trajectory in the same way, as I would say, their white counterparts, had a trajectory, filmmakers like Mike Lee and Ken Loach, great filmmakers who were making films, documenting the situation from, in terms of the white working class struggle, from the early eighties, but those filmmakers who were documenting what was going on for Black, British people made one film, and then they never seem to be able to really get things going again, and to have that consistent, filmmaking, trajectory so they could keep documenting this story and this experience. And it’s, for me, it feels like it’s taken until 2020, that Steve McQueen, with all the clout, I suppose, for want of a better word that he brings to bear, from the fact that he’s won an Oscar, from making a film films in Hollywood. I think it’s taken till 2020 for him, someone of his, achievement to then make this incredible series, which then sort of almost like, brings things up to date if you like, or that trajectory that I was talking about that hadn’t happened for those filmmakers, we’ve now sort of gone some way towards filling in those missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. And I hope that this Black Power documentary, achieves a similar sort of result in terms of filling in a missing bit of British history.

ALT:

Tell us about a bit about Black Power, what is the narrative and were some of the highlights without giving it all away?

George:

Yeah, I mean the Black Power documentary, which we’ve just finished making, looks at the 1960s and the 1970’s through the eyes of young black people who were newly arrived in this country and who refused to take racism as part of the natural order of things in Britain at the time. And it shows very much how the civil rights struggle in America, inspired activists in this country to take a stand.so, you know, we see that influence emanating from the likes of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Stokely Carmichael, who came to Britain and did a lecture, very seminal sort of talk in Camden, that we’ve got that archive footage. And, you know, and that’s one of the pleasures for me of making this film is, is discovering this archive footage, Stokely, Carmichael, coming to Britain in 1967, as well as the archive footage of other leading figures in the movement over here, and I’m talking about the likes of Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Darcus Howe, and Roy Sawh, and some of these names people hadn’t heard of, when I say people, I have to include myself in that because, just over a year ago, I had never heard of a lot of these people I’d never heard about Altheia Jones-Lecointe or Roy Sawh or Zainab Abbas or, many of the contributors in my film, I had heard of Darcus Howe, but not because of his involvement in the British Black Power movement. not because if his pivotal role in the movement, I’d heard of him because, I’m old enough to remember the Devil’s Advocate television series so it’s been an eye opener for me, and I hope it will be an eye opener for audiences when the film gets aired.

ALT:

Mangrove 9 the first original documentary was in 1970s. And of course, you mentioned Steve McQueen’s, recent films how much do you think that documentaries like this, media getting these stories out, goes towards, changing narrative in race relations. Do you think there’s any kind of, it might be a bit too dramatic to say effect, but how much did they, you know, these things like contribute to change?

George:

The Black Power documentary, I should say it does feature the Mangrove Nine trial then. And the Mangrove demonstrations is one of the pivotal moments in our documentary for obvious reasons. So, it looks at that, but I also looked at other pivotal moments in the history of the British Black Power movements, such as the Oval Four conviction which again, I had never heard of it. I knew nothing about, and I don’t believe a lot of people will know about this. So, it is there an absolutely pleasure to be able to show that in our film and to have, a significant contribution from one of the Oval Four namely Winston Trew who’s contributed significantly to our documentary and who I might say it’s just been a pleasure to work with, and it’s just an absolutely a really inspirational person.

I think you used the key word contribute there, and I think what then happens potentially is a groundswell, things change by public opinion and when all these things start to happen and you get these programs, dramas series such as Steve McQueen’s Small Axe and you get documentaries such as Black Power a I believe it does contribute towards a potential shift in public opinion. all these things happen. I don’t think these things are isolated from things we’ve seen in the news recently, following, you know, Meghan Markle’s revelations about her experience, as one of the first members of the Royal family who was a person of color all of these things are happening in 2021 last year was a significant year.

We can’t get away from it, following the tragic circumstances in which Floyd was killed by a police officer in America. We had this, this moment in this country where there was a sudden, I think, moment of sort of moments, a national conscience or national, a moment of self-reflection, like, hang on a minute, what is it we don’t know about racism and that we might just not be aware of, we might just take for granted because we haven’t had that experience. Haven’t had that direct experience if you’re not a person of color. And I thought that was unprecedented what happened last year. I think the fact that it happened during the pandemic, I think was also important. so, all these things I think contribute to, potentially a shift in public opinion and how society, conducts itself regarding race.

Linton Kwesi-Johnson: still Black Power

ALT:

Do you think this is a better time for Black directors? And are you optimistic that this is just not going to be just a moment that in 10 years’ time we will still be having the same conversations?

George:

In 10 years’, time, we’ll still be having a different conversation. The conversation will have moved on, but it will still be necessary to have this conversation. It won’t be not necessary to have this conversation in 10 years’ time, in my opinion, but I think we’re moving the ball forward. Progress is being made as far as I’m concerned from when I started making films in 1989. Definitely.

ALT:

For our Creative Careers section, could you tell me three things that make a good documentary and a good documentary director?

George:

Let me have a think about that joy three things you need to have to make a good documentary or to be a good documentary director. Humility and stamina, which is sort of the same as persistent, I suppose, persistence and stamina you can put in the same track category. So curiosity, humility, and stamina.

ALT:

So what makes a good documentary?

George:

You know, these things can be a bit subjective, for obvious reasons. So, I can’t really talk about what makes a good documentary, but you know, it kind of varies, I think, depending on which documentary we’re talking about.

ALT:

Is it not formula in the sense that some of the same things would drive any documentary?

George:

No. You know, there’s different documentaries I’ve made for different reasons and I think are effective for different reasons. And sometimes it can be a matter of pace. So, you know, what I think makes a good documentary, but sometimes some of that is just what appeals to me.

ALT:

So, what do you think makes a good documentary then?

George:

I think the documentaries that exhibit, those three key qualities that I mentioned.

ALT:

Back to Black Power if you were to summarize why should we watch this documentary?

George:

I think, I think the viewers, um, would gain a lot from watching this film. I believe it’s a well-made film, but you know, I’m probably a bit biased in that, but, it’s a piece of the missing puzzle. If you ask me, this is a part of British history that has been up to now missing you know, we did not know this part of our history and when I say we I’m talking British people, I’m not talking about black, British people. I’m talking about British people. If you don’t know your history, you’re not in such a great position to really understand where you are in the present in 2020 or 2021. I’m talking about last year with a black lives matter moment that I described earlier, following the George Floyd killing and, things that are happening in the last few days with this outcry, following the Meghan Markle revelations and Piers Morgan storming off, we’re in a better position to understand and to process what’s happening. Now, if we know where, where what’s happened back then, there’s no good sweeping things under the carpet, which I think is what has happened. Now, we’re bringing to light a chapter, a very significant chapter in British history. I’m talking about the British black power movement. We bringing it to light and putting it in its rightful place in terms of British history. So we’re putting a piece of the puzzle in place that up until now has been missing. So for that reason, I think it’s very much very, it’s definitely worth, worth watching this documentary. It’s been an eye-opener for me making the film and I hope it will be an eye-opener for television viewers watching it.

ALT:

Did you shoot the documentary during down, and what was that like on set?

George:

That was very much a challenge, very much a challenge because we started filming and soon afterwards, we were, in this lock down situation and experiencing this pandemic. And, before I knew it, there was this, on the news was this really worrying statistic that apparently black people were X amount of times more likely to die from COVID then white people or people of color should I say? And, you know, meanwhile I’m asking people of color, black people and Asian people, in their seventies to preparing them in on my, my documentary. And, um, so that was a challenge. And those people showed up to tell their story. I can only guess, you know, because it is important to them. what I felt was, a continuation, I think of bravery and, that these people displayed in 1970 in the 1970s and the 1960s and seventies as young activists in this country, standing up to the racism of the British state. I felt a continuation of that bravery when they stood up to be counted, in the making of this documentary during last year during the pandemic.

The BBC has commissioned two new documentaries: Black Power: A British Story Of Resistance directed by #BAFTA-nominated George Amponsah (The Hard Stop), and Subnormal, directed by Lyttanya Shannon — with both films originating from filmmaker #SteveMcQueen (12 Years A SlaveSmall Axe).

Date: Thursday, 25 March 2021 Time: 9:00 PM -10:30 PM. Confirmed for BBC Two

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