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A Magazine for Sheffield
Not That Long Ago

Black film culture in Sheffield: In the early 90s, Hollywood was not the only story-teller in town

In the 90s, the Council, youth workers, and Sheffield Polytechnic promoted Black culture in Sheffield, including a film festival for Film Studies and Black Studies students. 

Psalter Lane main entrance with You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone graffiti

Sheffield has long been seen as a city of culture. We can recognise the fruits of Sheffield’s cultural labour when we note the success of the Cultural Industries Quarter, the Off The Shelf Festival of Words, Sheffield Tramlines and The Showroom. We might include Sheffield Theatres to that list too as over the years there have been some hard-won interventions to involve local talent.

Less visible and often erased is the history of Black exclusion and struggle to be included in these enterprises. Those of us active in the arts know that it has taken decades for Black films to be shown with any regularity, especially outside of Black History Month, but Ian Wild, Showroom Chief Executive, and others like him have made steady progress around inclusion. Yet it has taken decades for programming to include Black films that come from anywhere other than Hollywood. Only recently (2019) has there been any interest in allowing a young award-winning Black British film-maker, Abena Taylor Smith, from Sheffield to curate a series of Black British independent short films, called New Black Voices for the Showroom.

And yet, in the early 90s there was a small film festival offered at the Psalter Lane site of what used to be called Sheffield Polytechnic. It came about because the Polytechnic had access to films for teaching purposes in Film and Media Studies and the Centre for Black Studies was committed to providing a Black perspective in education. And because the Polytechnic was committed to and accountable to the local authority, this locally focused work was considered very much a part of the Poly’s responsibility.

Sugar Cane Alley Poster

Although the festival was over a couple of days and not over a fortnight, Sylvia Harvey and Anita Franklin and their colleagues from the Poly and the community showed some wonderful films and allowed space for deep discussion between students on different courses and members of the larger community.

Let’s look at two of the films that were shown and the issues that were raised:

La Rue Cases-Nègres or Sugar Cane Alley is a film directed by Euzhan Palcy and set in Martinique. Workshop leader, Palorine Williams was there and remembers the film and its impact on the audience.

I was asked to facilitate the discussion about the film and what I remember most is the mix of the audience. There were Film Studies students but also students who were taking a Black Studies course, plus people from outside the university community and it was really nice to see such diverse groups sharing this experience. I remember how, for people of Caribbean descent, the film spoke to them about their own experiences of managing the tensions between mainstream education and the kind of learning that gets passed down from the ancestors.

Palorine Williams

Also shown was work by Ngozi Onwurah, the award-winning British Nigerian director. The film shown was The Body Beautiful and images from that film tend to haunt viewers, even decades later. This film dealt with the issue of self-harm and the other psychological difficulties Black children can face due to racism. Such was the importance of this film that changes were made around the fostering and adoption policies associated with Black children to support same-race placement where possible.

The Sheffield context is very important as the city was known then for its excellence in youth work. In venues like the Hub and the Bow centre, youth workers like Clinton McKoy and Leroy Wenham were tireless in their advocacy of the arts as a tool for supporting youth work. Paulette Clunie, an arts worker was central too during the 1980s, when there was a concerted effort on the part of the local council to support Black culture. Hylda Taylor Smith, a youth counsellor at the time, remembers the struggle she and Wenham went through to get funding for travel expenses for Isaac Julien, director of Young Soul Rebels, to come from London to SADACCA. Smith felt it was really crucial to connect someone like Julien, who was making a name for himself in the industry, to young Black people in Sheffield.

In the western world, film making remains largely white and male-dominated so when the 8th Black actor to receive an Oscar for his work slaps someone on live television it is bound to hurt more than just the victim. Friends and family from New York to Chicago, Atlanta to Compton, Leeds to London are worried about the impact of that slap.

But Anita Franklin, one of the organizers of the 90s festival, is not worried. She says, "I only worry when people forget to take a longer perspective on things. If for example you work with young people, young men, do not allow this one event (Will Smith/Chris Rock) to cloud all the better examples of dealing with rage. Give them other examples of Black responses to provocation. There are loads!"

Some people have said that Smith’s violence will hurt the Black community, playing as it does into racist stereotype. Franklin counters that idea by asking "And what about Chris Rock’s display of stoic calm in the face of public assault?"

She adds, "Racists will always look to bring us down and if they use Will Smith’s unthought-out action to hurt us; that is just normal for racists. But for us and for our young people, if we teach them their history and the multitude of responses we have employed against insults, injuries, even racism itself then this episode will be just that, one episode in a series of Hollywood missteps. My question is: when will we stop measuring our success as a people by institutions that do not have our best interests at heart? When will we start talking more about African cinema, for example?"

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