Before he passed – an interview with Menelik Shabazz

Pioneering filmmaker, educator and writer Menelik Shabazz has passed on at the age of 67. Let’s keep his loved ones in our thoughts and his powerful legacy living on. In this unheard interview with the legend, six months before his death, Kehinde Andrews discusses Blood Ah Go Run, a film about the response to the New Cross Fire, being part of the moment then and now, and other historical works of the Black British experience.

Menelik Shabazz: Tributes to 'pioneer of Black British filmmaking' - BBC  News

Kehinde Andrews: why did you want to make the documentary?

Menelik Shabazz: I was inspired by a moment in time, which I knew was important, and had to be documented. I was also part of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee. So all of those factors combined, for me to document the Black People’s Day of Action. And from that, it was then extended into making a film that documented that year. Because 1981 was a very pivotal year in a lot of ways.

KA: How did you get involved with the committee?

MS: At the time, I was an activist. I was part of an organisation, the Black Liberation Front. On the committee, there are various other organisations that are on the committee, and I was one selected by my organisation to represent.

KA: Was it difficult to get a consensus and bring everyone together?

MS: No, it wasn’t because the time was a very shocking time for people. It’s similar to the experiences that people felt at Grenfell, in that it was a shock to our system, to know that 13 young people, 14, ended up dead after doing a birthday party. That’s never happened before. People were very angry and upset. So coming together was a natural outcome of that emotion.

KA: In Blood Ah Go Run, part was filmed at the funeral, what was that like being around a family, were the family open to being filmed?

MS: At the time we didn’t have much communication with the family. We turned up at the funeral. We came with our cameras, and we filmed it. It was just part of that moment. We don’t think anybody, was concerned about us filming, really. People were more much more caught up in the grief of the moment, and we were there to observe it.

KA: It must have been difficult, like being around, because a lot of families were involved, it must have been a really emotional time…

MS: It was, I mean, for the families even more so. But for us, you know, we’re kind of outside the direct moment in terms of family grief. But we were part of the emotion of the shock. The parents didn’t really participate that much in any of the activities outside of their own personal circumstances. Doing their own thing and very separate from the activism that was happening around them. It wasn’t like they were part of it, so the film was able to kind of bring together both of those moments.

KA: You’ve got some really good footage of the day as well. What was the march itself, like?

MS: This march really expressed the anger and outrage of the people of the time, you saw, young school children. I mean, the march called for people to stop working, and to express the anger, and to walk all the way from South London, into the centre of the City of London. When they came upon Blackfriars bridge, there was an attempt by the police to disrupt and dismantle the match. Which was, if you read the headlines, it’s something at Blackfriars Bridge… I can’t remember. It was like the press were ready at Blackfriars, it was amazing. Seeing that it was a kind of pre-understanding that at this point there will be something for the headlines for the next day’s newspaper.

KA: Oh, do you think that it was on purpose, the confrontation?

Absolutely. But it didn’t destabilise the march. And so the march was, as I say, showing and expressing the rage, and the solidarity, at the same time, and it was very powerful in terms of people’s emotion. So whatever they put in the way, was not going to stop the determination of the march. And what the intention was, was to express our grief and our disappointment, with also the way that the media was handling it. Hence, when we walked through Fleet Street, that was one of the major touch points at the march. And to express our dissatisfaction with the way in which the media was handling the whole situation with the New Crossfire. So the march was very emotional.

KA: You must have had hours and hours of footage, how do you decide what to put in?

MS: We had two crews on the day. When you make a film, it becomes obvious what you put in, in a way, once you know what you’re trying to say. And for me, it was, you know, showing the range of people, showing the size of the march; showing what people were feeling and saying. All of that. Obviously, a march has a natural narrative beginning, middle and end. So it’s kind of following that, it’s not difficult to select. I’m trying to recollect because it’s probably like 30 years ago, so it’s not just sort on the tip of my tongue. I remember we edited the film in the BBC because the editor actually worked in the BBC. And we used to go in there in the evening and edit the film: it was really bizarre. So the importance was to make it tight and express what the march is about. That’s what we, I had to do.

“it’s important for us to document our history and our story because it creates a legacy”

KA: And you said you extended it because ’81 was a big year. Brixton was not long after, the Brixton Uprisings were quite close…

MS: Yeah, because as soon as we were shooting the March, the next thing you know other events are kicking off. It felt special to include those elements in the film that was initially just a documentation of our history. Documenting a march and then extending it into, you know, the events of the year. It was a very powerful year.

KA: Why do you think it was ’81, because there was a lot happening in ’81?

MS: I can’t say why because you know, in ’81 we had to the passing of Bob Marley. ’81 as I said, the fire. I think sometimes all these things conspire in a moment. The sus laws, and from, you know, the unrest, even the Brixton Uprisings kicked off because of the massive stop and search that was happening in that area. That provoked the situation that people were feeling already. So undercurrents, as we know, of ill-feeling all across the country; in the way that the police were dealing with young black people. And, of course, it still goes on to this very day. So the undercurrent, always at different moments in time, sparks, as we saw in ’76, we saw in ’80 in Bristol. ’81 was really an expression with the death of 13 young people, all of that was again, you know, creating more and more bad feeling. So, yeah, things conspired in 1981 and exploded.

KA: Is it a film that people still talk to you about a lot?

MS: Not personally, but the film is part of the BFI archive and this cinema tech. The film is really a reference for that, a reference to the march, a reference to the time. So the film kind of enjoys a life, which I never thought would be when I made the film. I made it as newsreel style, and it was for that moment. The irony is that more people have seen it now than they did at the time because it was shot on film, it wasn’t shot on video or anything like that. It was shot on proper 16 mm film in those days. I’m just appreciative that the film still has relevance. And that I had the foresight at the time, to document it. And, to illustrate why it’s important for us to document our history and our story because it creates a legacy. And the film is an expression of that.

KA: At the time, what did you do when you filmed it? Did you show it places? What did you do?

MS: It was shown at some places, but at the time, remember we shot on 16 mm. So we had to find places that could project it. It had some exposure, but not as much because the distribution systems weren’t in place in the same way that they are, or have been since. So yeah, it was shown in some youth clubs, some independent cinemas, it went around the country in different smaller environments.

KA: I don’t know that many of us really know that much about the events. Are you surprised that younger people don’t know as much about New Cross today?

MS: No, no, I’m not surprised because there isn’t that distribution or access to these kinds of films or interest until certain moments happen. Like now, people interests are awakened to the past. As I said, I’m glad that it’s there so people can come to it. Because had it not been there, then the whole narrative, or the whole article that you’re doing, may not have been written, or may not have had the same resonance because people have a reference point. So when you’re saying a New Cross March, or you’re talking about Black People’s Day, there is a reference point that you can draw on that’s not just in a book that someone’s written. Which is fine, but doesn’t have the same, obviously, outreach as a visual diary. So, I think visual storytelling of our past has been, you know, is important. And that’s why the film is here, and, you know, we’re able to reference it and have this conversation.

KA: What do you think the legacy of the march is today? Why is it still so relevant?

It’s always relevant because the racism in this country is constant. So it’s always relevant. And it’s been highlighted again, this year, to what’s been happening: Black Lives Matter. George Flloyd, all the other incidents. It’s still part of the narrative of racism in this country. Or it’s part of the narrative of the way in which our story has been negated. It’s another aspect, another story, that is expressing our… tale. Our tales of woe, shall I say, in the UK. And, yeah, so that’s why it’s important, it continues to be. So that’s why my films and my other films are important in that it’s all part of the ongoing narrative, you know?

KA: Thank you for making the film because that’s something we don’t do enough, is document what happened. It is really good to see what it was like, to feel it.

MS: That’s the power of film, you can convey that emotion, which no other medium can, apart from maybe music, but the visual brings it all together. You’re there. You know, you’re experiencing what people are experiencing or getting a sense of that. So yeah. And sometimes you do things you don’t actually know why you’re doing. I think with my films, generally, they’re kind of instinctive, you get an instinctive feeling. It’s the same as Lover Rocks, there was an instinctive feeling that that moment was a historic moment that needed to be documented. I’m sure you are part of this moment now, in that you are doing what you’re doing as part of this moment that people can look back on and reference.

“That’s our story that we have to tell, we can’t really expect our story to be told to the BBC”

KA: Was it one of your earlier films that you made, Blood Ah Go Run?

MS: Step Foward Youth was my first film, that is a continuation. So I suggest you view that it’s on my YouTube channel. And it was done in 1977. Yeah, it’s one of the first documentation of Black British Youth in the UK talking about their story and experience and so on. As another piece that is reference, so I think most of my films are kind of reference points, in terms of the Black British experience. So stuff is out there. There are other interviews of me talking about this film. In the London Film Archive, I think there’s interviews with me and stuff.

KA: Yeah, no, that’s really good. Thank you, and thank you for doing it as well

MS: The point that the film raises is that we are very clear of the racist attack. And since that moment, that other people have come in and said, it wasn’t, and so on, and so forth, and all of that. Yet no one’s ever said who or what, it’s always been it’s not that. But what is it… no one can actually explain. That’s a point in the film, that’s very clear. But people have tried to say that it was not a racist attack, it was something else, somebody, they knew or whatever. But, no one’s ever identified who that person is, or was, and so there is always this thing around that march as to who was responsible, and why the police have not to this day, arrested anyone around that situation. The narrative, which people were very unhappy about, was the fact that the police kept deflecting from the idea that it was a racist attack, and tried to constantly focus on the idea that it was somebody in the party that was responsible, but yet, up to this day, no one has been able to identify who that person is… yet they saw them.

KA: Yeah, I mean, forty years is a lot, so it has all the elements, of everything that is wrong with the way the state deal with Black people. The police not investigating it, the lack of care of life, 14 dead and nothing; the condolence come through piecemeal, weeks later, and then you get this big protest.

MS: Looking at the marches around the Black Lives Matter, they’re bringing together large numbers of that Black people. So I think it’s not a finished narrative in that sense. I don’t think that is done, I think it’s different. I think it’s it’s part of that continuing narrative, certainly of expressing our political, cultural, and emotional views on what’s going on.

KA: Now you’ve got Black people out who are talking about race, honestly, like so few people know that we have a history of this. This didn’t just come up, didn’t just start in the last couple of years. So I think that’s why it’s really important to document and to remember something like the National Black People’s Day of Action, because there’s a long history and it’s part of a much, much, much longer history. What’s your latest project or you’ve got coming out soon?

MS: The last one I did was about one of our greatest living artists, again, not recognised Ken McCalla. That’s on my YouTube channel as well, you will be able to see that. And I’m currently here in Zimbabwe making a film, which is looking at the story of ancient Zimbabwe, present Zimbabwe, future Zimbabwe, through the eyes of the ancestors, and through someone’s journey from the UK coming to look at it, coming to explore heritage. It’s a feature, kind of fiction. And then I’m also working on part two of one of my other films, Looking for Love about Black love and relationships. And probably looking at a part two of just two of Lovers Rock. So there’s a number of different things I’m doing, even from this side of the ocean. And I’m practising the social distancing, but yeah. functioning on both sides.

KA: Honestly, your body of work is really important just documenting. And the total aside, what did you think of the Lovers Rock from “Small Axe”?

MS: I saw bits of it, but not able to see much of it, over here. I’m glad that by him doing a film on Lovers Rock. It kind of helped to let people know that my film exists. So that was useful. It’s good that Steve McQueen was able to get a series on that kind of registers our experience. And so, in that way, I think it’s good. And we’re not likely to see something like that, again, I don’t believe so. So it was a moment. But, you know, it’s not a substitute for us telling our own stories in a way that is authentic and gives us our authentic voice. So that’s the work we have to do and to inspire others and to let the British society, to reflect on themselves as we reflect on ourselves. That’s our story that we have to tell, we can’t really expect our story to be told to the BBC. Our history tells us that this is not going to work. If we look into our history. Gotta remember we’ve had a long history of programming, going back to Desmond’s, going back to a Black cop series. We had a lot of more authentic stories that were told back in the 70s and 80s than we are being told now and so that’s another thing that is not referenced. If you looked at No Problem, what was it… Blouse and Skirt. We had Black on Black the TV series, we had the one that the BBC lost the tapes?

KA: Ohh, Real McCoy, they’ve found the tapes now, you know, it’s on iPlayer haha.

MS: Yeah, there was a lot more happening. Wolcott, was the name of that Black cop TV series that we had in the 70s. So we’ve gone backwards, we haven’t really gone forward when you look at the past and you will not imagine that. So yeah, I’m digressing in other areas, but yeah, the struggle continues and my film, just finally, underlines why we need to tell our story because Blood Ah Go Run, referencing that, because it provides an authentic voice to our stories which we never get elsewhere. Only we can tell that story.

This interview has been lightly edited.

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