Film

Tributes to Menelik Shabazz the award winning Film Director and pioneer of contemporary Black British cinema dies age 67 in Zimbabwe

The British Barbadian Award winning Filmmaker has died age 67 in Zimbabwe, according to sources he died on 28 June, cause of death is not public. Menelik Shabazz was an Award winning film director, producer, and writer – a key pioneer in the development of contemporary Black British cinema. Born in 1954 he produced for Channel 4 drama Big George is Dead (​1983), directed by Henry Martin, and the documentary I am Not Two Islands. He was born in St. John, Barbados and he had lived in the UK since the age of five.  From an early age Menelik watched mobile cinema in his village in #Barbados, but didn’t entertain the idea of making films until his teen years. This was when he was introduced to the first portable video technology whilst studying at North London College. 

This revolutionary technology, the Sony port-a-pack, demystified filmmaking and made the filmmaking process accessible.  Thereafter, Menelik enrolled at the London International Film School. Unfortunately, he was only able to attend for a short period, as his local Borough Council Haringey refused to give him the ‘discretionary grant’ required. However within that short period, he was able to grasp important knowledge, confidence and inspiration to move forward as a filmmaker.

Statement from Menelik’s Family on his Facebook page: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved father, brother, partner and uncle Menelik Shabazz, age 67. Menelik was a passionate film maker and forged the way for many black film makers. We thank you all very much for your messages of condolence. We have been touched by the tributes from those that knew him, worked with him, and were inspired by his work.

Filmmaker and co- Founder of the Windrush Caribbean Film Festival Frances-Anne Solomon said. “He was Legend. Not just for his films, but his festival, the bfm magazine, his activism and his  by-any-means-necessary, take-no-prisoners approach to the obstacles he faced in the industry. He held the vision of Black filmmaking alive when most had to leave the business , or emigrate, because there was no place for us (black filmmakers) in it. He leaned in and kept going.  All power to his determined Spirit.”

Recently screened at the Sheffield Doc Festival.

Charles Thompson CEO & Founder at SCREEN NATION AWARDS commented. “Shabazz was my mentor, friend, partner and brother. From Ceddo, through bfm and countless film projects I’m proud to have been included in his story. He was a one-off visionary African with beautiful crazy ideas, just the type I always had time for. He now stands amongst the Ancestors with the legacy that will live forever”.

David Somerset Film Programmer BFI Southbank said. “MENELIK SHABAZZ has been a key part of the African Odysseys programme since its beginning in 2007, his films distinctly reflecting and expressing the experiences and the hopes of the Black community. The Story of Lovers Rock (2011) was a milestone moment, entertaining audiences and educating them at the same time about history and about how music is bound up with politics, in this massively popular documentary. CEDDO (The Peoples Account, 1985) were an influential component in the Black workshop movement of the late 70’s-80’s, giving a voice to community at large and also educating a generation of film makers. The documentary, Blood Ah Go Run of 1981 captured the tragic loss of the New X massacre and the historic response of the Black community in their largest protest to date, the Peoples Day of Action. Each time we screen his drama, Burning an Illusion, made at the same time, I am reminded how important the film is to the community but also how relevant its messages remains today. These films stand out but there were many others in our screening programme, so often accompanied by the warm, generous hearted Menelik Shabazz, who was always eager to share his vision and his craft”.

Recently in Zimbabwe.

Menelik is best known for his acclaimed debut feature Burning An Illusion, which won the Grand Prix at the Amien International Film Festival in 1982. The film also won the lead actress, Cassie Macfarlane, the Evening Standard Award for ‘Promising Actress’(1982). Burning An Illusion was only the second feature film by a black director produced in the UK. The film continues to be shown today on media courses at Universities and Colleges and has become a cult classic.

Renowned Photographer Charlie Phillips said. “I would like to send my condolences to Menelik’s family. Menelik was a lifelong friend and comrade in the struggle. Like me, he took no prisoners and lived life on his own terms. He was overlooked by the film industry but was always looking for ways to do what he loved. I love you Menelik, rest easy with the ancestors.”

Cassie McFarlane, actor, writer who starred in Burning A Illusion  told the BFI

“Reflections on an Incomparable Giant: Menelik’s passing is an inestimable loss to Britain and especially to those young people, black and white, who have to build a future Britain together. The Steve McQueen ‘Small Axe’ series has been both timely and impactful, but it should not be allowed to eclipse the fact that Menelik Shabazz has been part of our ongoing struggle, political and cultural, since the late 1960s. As such, he and his oeuvre have been to film and its place in black working class struggle in Britain what the independent publishing and book selling of New Beacon Books, Bogle-L’Ouverture and the likes of Karia Press have been to literature and education curricula and the growth of the black working class movement in education and schooling.

I hope that the end of lockdown restrictions will enable BFI to run a Menelik Shabazz memorial programme and screen his films with each screening followed by a Q&A session. The country should not be allowed to continue underestimating the importance of Menelik Shabazz to the process of Caribbean settlement in and contribution to Britain in the post-war period. A powerful and faithful servant of our struggles who has more than earned his place in the realm of Ancestors.”

Step Forward Youth and Breaking Point
In 1976 Shabazz directed Step Forward Youth, a 30-minute documentary about London-born black youths, after which he worked in commercial television, directing Breaking Point (for ATV, 1978), which was shown on prime time TV and contributed to the repeal of the Sus law that was being used to criminalize Black youth.

Still Burning an Illusion

His first feature-length film Burning an Illusion, which celebrated 40 years this year, which he wrote and directed, with financial support from the British Film Institute (BFI), was released to acclaim in 1981 and has been called “one of the most important feature films ever made in Britain”.

About a young woman’s love life, and mostly shot in London’s Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove communities, it was “the first British film to give a Black woman a voice of any kind.” It was only the second British feature to have been made by a Black director, following Horace Ové’s 1975 Pressure. Burning an Illusion won the Grand Prix at the Amiens International Film Festival in France, and its star Cassie McFarlane won the Evening Standard Award for “Most Promising New Actress”.

Menelik, along with other individuals, founded Ceddo Film Video Workshop in 1982. It was Menelik’s vision to empower black film production, training and film screenings. Funded by Channel Four and the British Film Institute, Ceddo created groundbreaking film production and community training initiatives, and hosted a number of screenings with filmmakers including Spike Lee ( School Daze).

Filmmaker Kolton Lee said: “When I began my journey in filmmaking almost 30 years ago, I made it my job to learn about those that had gone before me who looked like me.  Two people’s names immediately cropped up and one of them was Menelik Shabazz.  Over the following years I came to know Menelik, and he became a constant source of inspiration to me as well as a kind of elder, who had walked the path that I was walking and had words of advice, encouragement, support, and insight.  Menelik was a hugely talented filmmaker and storyteller, and he achieved many things as both, but I can’t helping feel great sadness at the things he might have achieved had he lived during a more enlightened time in this country. I mourn his passing but feel privileged to have known him and his work.  A light has dimmed, and we are all the poorer for it”

Despite attempts to produce further drama projects, Menelik was unable to raise funding from within the film and television industry. In frustration, he withdrew from filmmaking in 1998. Menelik then channelled his energies into publishing Black Filmmaker (bfm) magazine to assist the next generation of  filmmakers. The publication was the first of its kind and was distributed in UK nationally, as well as to readers in Europe and North America. The publication lasted nine years.

bfm magazine

Soon after publishing BFM magazine Menelik founded the bfm International Film Festival in 1999. The Festival provided a significant platform for black world cinema and British talent.

Keith Shiri Film Curator/Programmer commented.

When did you first meet/ or work with Menelik in a professional capacity?

I first met Menelik in the 1980 at one of the screenings of Burning an Illusion and at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. The Africa Centre was an important meeting point for political and cultural events in London.

How would you describe his contribution to the UK film industry?

Menelik had attended Fespaco the most important film festival in Africa that takes place in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and had met several African filmmakers and industry professional from across Africa.
I would often consult him when I started Africa at the Pictures a festival of African cinema that we launched in 1990 at the National Film Theatre. The festival invited several filmmakers including Med Hondo, Haile Gerima,
Gaston Kaboré and others most of whom he had met in Ouagadougou. His contribution to the UK film industry was immense not only as a filmmaker but as a cultural activist. We would often meet at either the BFI, Film London, Channel 4 the then UK Film Council lobbying for resources to enable us to run events on African and African Caribbean cinema across the UK. These included the BFM Film Festival and the BFM Magazine and the London African Film Festival. Menelik did not get any recognition that he deserved when he was in the UK and when he was with us. We reconnected again when he was planning to relocate to Zimbabwe where he had been slowly settling and developing projects offering skills and knowledge to local filmmakers. I was shocked when on Monday morning I got calls from Saki Mafundikwa a Zimbabwean filmmaker and Albert Chimedza a musician with the news that Menelik had left us. I would like to think that somewhere there is a recognition that the recently broadcast Small Axe produced episode on Lover’s Rock got inspired by The Story of Lovers Rock Menelik directed in 2011″

Black Filmmaker Magazine and bfm International Film Festival
In 1998, Shabazz founded Black Filmmaker Magazine (bfm), the first black film publication aimed at the global black filmmaking industry, and over the next decade the publication was distributed in Europe and the US.] In 1999 he started the bfm International Film Festival as a platform for screening black world cinema and to inspire British talent, which became the biggest of its kind in Europe.[ As he has said: “BFM was the outcome of my frustrations in the film industry. I wanted to channel that anger into something positive which initially started as a magazine (Black Filmmaker) and the intention to pass on information to the next generation about the film industry. One thing that was happening at the time was a lack of young people entering into the industry on a consistent level. The magazine was an interface between industry and filmmakers and out of the initiative developed the Black Filmmaker International Film Festival.

A foundation template for the screening of black cinema, inspiring future generations, the bfm International Film Festival became the biggest of its kind in Europe and lasted eleven years.

Professor Dr. Lez Henry who appeared in Shabazz’s documentary Looking for Love stated. “I was heartbroken and saddened to hear of the transition of our beloved brother Menelik Shabazz. He was the pioneering figure of black British film and his works remain unparalleled to this day, despite all of the accolades many film makers are currently receiving for what I deem to be ‘safe’ and compromised contributions, that do little to address the historical reality of the black experience in Britain. I state this because when he released his works he was literally fighting against the most blatant and pernicious forms of white supremacist thought and action; that which blighted and threatened our very existence during the 70s and 80s on a daily basis. Brother Menelik challenged systemic and institutionalised racism head on without compromise and that is why I used the following quote from our brother to open the reasoning in my 2006 book ‘What the Deejay Said: A critique from the street’. 


Step Forward

“Burning an illusion for me was the recognition of self. Black people in this society have become almost emasculated from who they are. They have become separated and caught up in kind of thinking that in order for them to become; they had to become somebody else. They had to kind of put on a mask and that mask would become who they are. And what’s happening in that process is that you then lose your self and then you also become disconnected from reality…whether it’s a male or it’s a female… in order to be true to who you are, in order to be realistic in terms of how you see your relationship with each other you have to first know yourself. You have to come to that point because without that everything else is an illusion”.  Words of Menelik Shabazz


The above quote from Menelik Shabazz (2005), Director of Burning An Illusion (1981) and Blood Ah Goh Run (1982), is lifted from the 2005 DVD release of these films that represent a seminal moment in the black British social, cultural and political experience. These films perfectly capture what it was like to be considered an unwanted worthless nigger, other, in the land of your birth and how this reality impacted on wider community relations during that historical moment. That was/is the reality Shabazz speaks of when suggesting black people can only ‘burn the illusion’ when alternative knowledge of self is used as the fuel for the fire. This book is forged in the fire and spirit of his libratory perspective and will present notions of resistance and transcendence that are missing from many accounts that sought to explain OUR behaviour during the ‘crisis’ period of the early 1970s – mid 1980s”. Rest peacefully with the ancestors beloved Menelik as you have left us with your great works and as such you live on”.
Prof Lez Henry

In 2007, Menelik went to Nigeria to work with investors to produce film projects in the burgeoning industry known as Nollywood. This experience lasted only eight months but the experience and  change of scenery rekindled the passion in Menelik to return to filmmaking. The digital technology experience in Nigeria offered a way back into filmmaking on his own terms.

In 2008 started to film a feature length documentary project that became known as  The Story of Lover’s Rock.  It became one of the highest grossing documentaries in UK cinemas in 2011. It also won the Jury award for Best Documentary at the Trinidad International Film Festival in 2012.

Menelik’s story continued with an acclaimed documentary Looking For Love, a film which looks at black male/female relationships in the UK. Menelik has recently developed a dramatic TV pilot for a series set in Barbados called HEAT.

British Film Director Clare Anyiam-Osigwe said “Menelik’s work was made known to me by my husband, Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe back in 2014, when we started dating. I watched Burning An Illusion and felt like I’d found my British equivalent to Spike Lee. I understood how rich yet complex Black British story telling can be, especially when the narrative escapes the mediocrity of crime and poverty or period drama. Romantic drama is my genre & because he walked, I have tried to run, since my debut with No Shade. They say Black love isn’t marketable. They say it’s not profitable. Well, we never needed their permission, we just need to honour our own whilst they’re here to receive their flowers. That spirit is the foundation of BUFF and the cornerstone of everything we do. It is the values that Menelik instilled in Emmanuel 20 years ago when Emmanuel interned at BFM. Rest in power Menelik. Thank you for the mentorship and bravery”.

His most recent film release was a documentary called Pharaohs Unveiled which explores Kemetic history, spirituality and psychic channelling.  His work has spanned 45 years.

He died on 28th June 2021.

Working with Menelik at the ( BFM) Black Filmmaker International Film Festival in 2001 With festival guest Sheryl Lee Ralph, Menelik center.

Editors note: “Having worked with Menelik over the years on his BFM Film Festival and a number of his film releases I hope his work gets the accolades it deserves in his passing: long before Steve McQueen’s Small Axe there was Burning An Illusion, Looking for Love and Blood Ah Go Run. Telling Black British stories was something he was passionate about with very little support. He was of the generation of Black UK filmmakers that had to fight to get their films into the cinemas, get distribution and get funding. RIP Menelik he survives his children and partner. My heart goes out to them.”

#MenelikShabazz #lookingforlove #BFMFILMFESTIVAL #smallaxe

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