“All for one, one for all,” the dashing motto of The Three Musketeers, is almost as well known as the devise of the French Republic itself: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Less well known is that Alexandre Dumas, who wrote the classic tale of swordplay, camaraderie, and France’s wars of religion, was black—the grandson of a Haitian former slave, who in his day rose through the ranks to become a decorated French general with 50,000 (white) soldiers under his command.
Black men and women like Dumas have been an integral part of Europe for centuries: DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed that the first Britons had “dark to black” skin, evidence of the Black presence in Europe from the middle ages onwards is available in coats of arms for towns throughout the continent, and variations of Moorish names have been been found as far flung as Scotland, Sweden, France, Switzerland and Belgium. Joining Dumas in crafting irreplaceable contributions to modern European culture are such people of colour as German philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo (1700-1775), and English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).
This rich history, however, has often been swept under républicain-coloured rugs (or colour-blind rugs, as it may be); Dumas is rarely viewed as a black French writer rather than just as a French writer. On the other side of the Atlantic, the struggles, triumphs, and continued strife of the African American community has coalesced together into a narrative history that has become a global story, and not merely a national one. Over the course of centuries, black American identity has become fierce, and fiercely present. But what of black European identity? Do black Europeans exist in a better social and political landscape than their American counterparts?
Caught between the tug and pull of multiculturalism and state policies of official social and political colour-blindness, is there a tangibility to black Europeanness? And perhaps more importantly, has their struggle and their context given way to a fate that is better or worse than that of black Americans, an ocean away still shouting to the world that their lives also matter?
At the beginning of the 21st century, a population report suggested that both the US and Europe were on the brink of major demographic changes: the majority white population was giving way to more mixed groups of people as a result of continued global migration patterns. The report, published the same year that Princess Angela of Liechtenstein became the first person of known African origin to marry into a reigning European royal family.
Eighteen years later, following the highly televised British royal wedding of Prince Harry to the African American actress Meghan Markle, commentators seized on the notion that Britain, and by extension Europe, had become post-racial. Simultaneously, the German company Super Dickmann chose the royal wedding day to post an image of a chocolate marshmallow bride, later apologizing for the arguably racist image known as the NegerKuss, or “Negro Kiss.”
“…the marriage had made the Royal Family more symbolically relatable to a multi-ethnic Britain—but Britain today needs more than symbolism.”
That royal wedding succeeded in highlighting the racism and class divisions that exist in ‘polite’ British society, where people generally feel uncomfortable talking directly about ‘race’ and would rather allude to the subject than have a straightforward conversation. In its aftermath, various British media commentators noted that the marriage had made the Royal Family more symbolically relatable to a multi-ethnic Britain—but Britain today needs more than symbolism. Though perhaps to a lesser extent than the United States, the United Kingdom has for years embraced an official policy of multiculturalism; an embrace of multiple cultures and identities underneath the Union Jack. Whereas just 32% of ethnic minorities describe themselves as “English” (in contrast with 61% of whites), two-thirds of minorities in the UK proudly label themselves “British.”
High profile unions like the British royal wedding may seem to suggest a change in the climate of racial equality, but multiculturalism as a matter of European public policy has been controversial and far from conclusive. In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that as a concept, multiculturalism had “failed,” a year later, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched a ‘war’ on multiculturalism, and in countries like France, the idea of identity communities within the broader nation has never held much sway at all, being viewed rather as divisive and unproductive, and where even collecting statistics based on ethnicity has been illegal since 1983.
While in Northern Europe, blackness is frequently exoticised in an almost naive sort of way, in Southern Europe, black people are regularly categorised as migrants, refugees and undesirables. When a photo of American actor Samuel L. Jackson and basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson was purposely misidentified as migrants and subsequently shared as a social experiment, it was cited by far-right populist supporters who were quick to identify them as “lazy migrants” on a shopping spree with money from the state. Opponents of Italy’s ‘open migration policy’ were quick to condemn the two men, whose blackness overrode their individuality, relegating them to the status of unwelcome and unwanted refugees.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported that 2016 was “a banner year for hate,” and cited the election of Donald Trump as one of the typical reasons for that description, because it corresponded with the increase in reports of hate crimes—the largest increase, 197 per cent, was of anti-Muslim hate groups, which increased from 34 in 2015, to 101 in 2016.
Of course, Islamophobia has not been the only rising prejudice in the United States. Even before Trump announced his candidacy, a series of videotaped, high-profile police shootings of (most often) young black men thrust race back into the national conversation. Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose treatise on race in America, in 2015 when accepting a National Book Awards prize for the best nonfiction book—his treatise of America’s race problem: Between the World and Me—stated that at “the heart of our country is the notion that we are O.K. with the presumption that black people somehow have an angle, somehow have a predisposition to criminality.”
Like Eric Garner, who could not breathe; Tamir Rice, all of 12 years old; Eric Harris, who after he was shot, was told, “Fuck your breath,”; Philando Castile, a concealed-carry permit holder about whom the NRA remained strikingly silent; Terence Crutcher, unarmed and with his hands up. The list could go on.
It is because of this perceived American systemic racism that the country continues to face renewed scrutiny under the spotlight of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the highly visible NFL protests, which began when Colin Kaepernick-led protests, where Colin Kaepernick, the a now ex-professional American football player, took a knee along side his team mate Eric Reid during the national anthem (sung before every professional sports match), to protest the police killings.
“The NFL players follow in a proud tradition of silent protest.”
Their on-the-field-speech swiftly drew the ire of Trump’s Twitter fingers, who denounced the protests as un-American—a type of unequivocal judgement he has been loathe to levy upon the alt-right. The NFL players, of course, follow in a proud tradition of silent protest the likes of which has been deployed since the era of the Civil Rights movement.
The silent “voices” of Kaepernick and the tens of thousands of others who have knelt and marched remain necessary for reasons far and beyond the systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system: the United States, the most unequal wealthy nation in the world, is even more so for black and brown people. Median wealth for white households is $171,000. For black households, it’s just $17,600. And the gap is growing.
In the face of that stark inequality, Trump’s presidency has embodied white supremacy – through his close links with Stephen Bannon, the KKK, and right wing populism. Trump has legitimised public hatred towards minorities and people of colour from the highest office in the country. And whatever its origins, the American alt-right has set its sights on making common cause with its European brethren. Once exiled from the White House, Bannon turned his sights on the far right wing parties of Europe, like those led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Germany’s Alice Weidel. He has advised them all to wear “to wear assertions they are ‘racist’ as a “badge of honour.”
Indeed, the common cause made between the far-right in the United States and in Europe threatens people of colour on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In Europe, extremist parties have seen their average vote share rise from 5% of the vote in 1997 to 16% in 2017. In the United States, white nationalism has a political ally in none other than the Oval Office itself.
I do this every day, I walk the local streets, I drive and often take taxis, buses, trains and airplanes to destinations all around the world – I travel while Black.
I chose not to notice it at first, wishing that it was an aberration of my mind, but it’s not: I have an (in)visible label stuck to me that identifies me as different – my skin. But it’s not only my skin, it is also my hair – especially when I had dreadlocks.
Driving around the UK as me (I cannot change myself, you see) is problematic for others, especially the police. Here is a typical example – sadly non-fiction – that occurred more than once, imagine me (late 90s) dressed in my Burberry coat, with my Samsonite briefcase next to me on the passenger seat, driving my brand new VW Golf GTi. I am on my way home from the local train station, after working in London for the day as a computer consultant. As I near my home I am pulled over by the police for … for nothing, it transpires, apart from driving while Black.
“Can I help you, officer?”
I am tired of the stops but used to them. The weariness is evident in my voice.
“I stopped you …”
“I stopped you to see what you are doing in this area?”
“Pardon?” Although I am well used to this type of enquiry I have no desire to make things easy for people who approach me with discrimination plans clearly shining from their foreheads.
“What are you doing in this area?”
This has to be one of my favourite questions from police officers, especially as this is a public road, and as far as I am aware apartheid pass laws have not been implemented in Oxfordshire, or any other part of the UK.I really can’t wait to see where this scenario will lead.
“I’m going home.”
“Where do you live?”
“Why do you want to know that?
“I’m trying to ascertain what you are doing in this area?”
“Is there something wrong?”
“I’m not sure, I’m asking the questions.”
“Are you stopping all vehicles or just me?” I say this as other cars, my neighbours in fact, drive pass without hinderance.
“Please confirm where you live.”
“For what reason? Why have you stopped me and why do you want to know where I live?”
“Just answer the questions!” The irritation level is spiking in the police officer because I do not roll over and show my belly.
I exhale a deep sigh and say, “I live just around the corner … do you want to come and see?”
“Whose vehicle is this?
“Oh. Do you have the papers?”
“Alright then. Carry on.”
“So what did you stop me for?”
“You can go now.”
Long days sandwiched by ignorance do not make a tasty mental snack.
First the skin: this is a passport to discrimination from ignorant beings. The negativities encountered when in one’s own private vehicle are contrasted when in public. Having black skin proves useful when on crowded buses or trains because the seat next to me, or opposite me is always the last one to be occupied, gingerly, by some desperate passenger who has scoured the whole of the transport for an alternative. Some people choose to stand for the entire journey rather than sit next to me. I still point out the vacant seat, and sometimes they respond saying, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not going far.” They may still be standing when I leave the seat and alight at my destination, or they suddenly change their mind about sitting when another seat, elsewhere in the carriage, becomes free.
I’ll replace my bag on the chair and carry on. Comfortable with space around me. Uncomfortable with the ignorance or hatred around me – from people who do not know me at all.
However, it does feel like I have a communicable disease when there is a quarantine-like space around me. I am not contagious, but they think they can get something undesirable from coming in close contact with me. It saddens me more than it amuses me.
I am a signifier to people – they appear to have applied value to my blackness and my cultural appearance. To them my dreadlocks mean I am a drug-dealer and always in possession of vast quantities of marijuana or, at the very least knowledge of where to readily get some if my ‘personal supply’ has run out. This is pure ignorance as I have never smoked or taken drugs in my life. My dreadlocks are the best way of maintaining my hair as well as a connection to the culture of my fore-bearers. This became a regular occurrence, so much so that I had to start making a joke out of it because my frustration at the frequency of the inquiries was mounting as much as my hair grew.
If a conversation was started, it usually contained the ubiquitous question, “Where are you from?” in the dialogue.
“I live in Abingdon, Oxfordshire”
“No, I mean where are you from.”
“No, I mean where are you from.”
“Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the West Country.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where do you come from.”
“I told you. The only other detail I can give you is graphic – my mother’s vag…..”
“You don’t get me … “
(I understand them completely but I’m not entertaining this vague question again.)
“What precisely do you want to know?”
“What nationality are you?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. I was born in Wiltshire. I’m English.”
“Can’t you just answer the question …”
“If you ask the question you really want the answer to, then I will answer it, if I can. What do you want to know?”
“What are your parents?”
“This is silly.”
“Yes, you’re right. It is silly.”
“You can’t be British. You’re Black!”
“I am British, in fact I’m English. The same way a person born in Wales is Welsh, and a person born in Scotland is Scottish, and a person born in Ireland is Irish. I’m English, but like so many people I sometimes say I’m British. My parents are British, too.”
“How can your parents be British? They’re black too, right?”
“Yes, they are British citizens.”
“But where are they from? They’re not from here, are they?”
“No, they’re not from Oxfordshire, our family home is in Wiltshire. That’s where we’re from. But I see the question you want to ask is what’s our family heritage. Is that right?”
“Yes, where are you from?”
“My parents came to England from Jamaica in the Caribbean. But our family heritage goes back further. My name is Morgan, a Welsh name, my maternal name is Sutherland, a Scottish name, and my genetic roots are also from West Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. So, the answer to ‘Where am I from?’ is all over the world. I guess my family has roots everywhere, a bit like the Queen who has German ancestry: in 1917 they changed their family name from ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ to sound less German – especially as the country was at war with Germany. Did you know that Queen Victoria’s first language was German? But she also learnt to speak English? She married her German cousin, Albert and they both tried to assimilate into the country where they lived: England. In fact, Queen Victoria became more Scottish the longer she lived.”
“Oh. I didn’t know some of that.”
“Because I am constantly asked that question based on, I suppose, the colour of my skin, and the style of my hair, I like to share facts about where people are from. Especially people who are seen as quintessentially English as the British Royal Family, who are seen as being as English as fish and chips, or a cup of tea. So where are you from?”
“Where’s here? Where are your parents and grandparents from?”
“My parents are from here as well, I think. I don’t know about my grandparents.”
“Maybe you should have more answers before you ask so many questions.”
So, I continue to travel whilst Black armed with answers that people often do not expect and I wonder how long will it be until I can just travel and declare, “I’m English,”to any enquiries about where I’m from; to have that accepted without being grilled about the ten generations that preceded me would be a lovely journey down the road, across town, on holiday or just across the back fence.
“Moonlight” (2016) is a poetic and universal tale. It is a coming-of-age story for everyone who has every questioned “Who am I?” The central character in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story is a Black American young man in Miami, yet he is also all of us, in all locations of this world growing up and coming to terms with our unique identities and surroundings.
Barry Jenkins, the screenwriter and director, takes McCraney’s story of one person’s lifetime and makes it into a filmic triptych that relates to three seminal stages of that life: preteen, teenager, and young adult.
Jenkins uses separate actors to portray the same character at three distinct iterations of personal growth: the first section of the film shows Little (Alex Hibbert), age 11; then Chiron (Ashton Sanders), age 17; and finally Black (Trevante Rhodes), age 25.
Little inhabits a world of silence, fear, and anxiety; he is selectively mute because of the sadness of his home environment—where he lives with his drug addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris)—and the isolation he experiences when he cannot vocalise his feelings. Like many young people on the cusp of a shifting physical and emotional landscape, Little is quiet and brooding; he spends the majority of his time watching his peers and the adults around him.
Little uses his physicality more than words, with the majority of his communication being shown through the longing silently etched in his eyes. However, the film is not silent; the score by Nicholas Britell, the musical interludes, and the background sounds of the Miami ocean create a moving emotional landscape from the opening scene to the final frame.
McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami and worked together to produce a film about identity and early life in a location that was simultaneously beautiful and a nightmare. Jenkins ensures that the audience sees that people can live a life of poverty, hardship, and emotional turmoil in the middle of picturesque surroundings.
McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami and worked together to produce a film about identity and early life in a location that was simultaneously beautiful and a nightmare. Jenkins ensures that the audience sees that people can live a life of poverty, hardship, and emotional turmoil in the middle of picturesque surroundings. He uses the images, sounds, and feelings in the film to show a juxtaposition of intense emotions, alienation, and loneliness amid a stunning physical landscape. Jenkins directs the film to portray the main character as physically adrift, alienated from his community, and travelling within himself yet surrounded by space at all times.
The introduction of Little on-screen occurs in the first few minutes of the opening credits as he is running and being chased by his childhood bullies. This theme of escape continues throughout the majority of the film. Little is rescued from the junkie den he hides in by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the local drug dealer. Juan’s character is a magnanimous father figure toward the vulnerable Little whom he nurtures rather than exploits. “C’mon now, can’t be no worse out here,” he says as he entreats the scared child to go with him for a meal. Those few words cement a lifetime relationship of trust between Little, Juan, and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) that is based on a mainly one-way verbal communication method. Juan and Teresa become surrogate parents, the anchors in Little’s life. They save him from drowning in the questions of his own identity.
Little, Chiron, and Black expertly portray the internal silence and loneliness of a coming-of-age experience. The main character is like the water that is the soundtrack to his life: fluid and constantly changing.
Little, Chiron, and Black expertly portray the internal silence and loneliness of a coming-of-age experience. The main character is like the water that is the soundtrack to his life: fluid and constantly changing. Little has a baptismal-like experience when Juan teaches him to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, as in that moment he symbolically and literally learns life lessons on how to stay afloat and trust other people.
Juan cradles Little in his arms in the expanse of the ocean with the reassuring words, “Relax. I got you.” When Little is ready, Juan releases him, saying, “You in the middle of the world… There you go, I think you ready.” Little finds safety and constancy with Juan and Teresa.
Little/Chiron/Black experiences a harsh reality of toxic masculinity and homophobic hatred from his school friends, yet Juan is a constant and caring male figure who gently teaches the young boy identity politics when he tells him that “there are people who look like you everywhere,” and “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. You can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Little’s mother Paula is inconsistent and angry and frequently forces Little to look inward or to Juan and Teresa’s for clarity, especially about his own sexuality and the local trap (drug scene). At Juan’s home he learns about complex adult relationships and behaviour, including the fact that Juan sells drugs to Paula. Silence and secrets are a constant thread in this film. Before he betrays Chiron, Kevin, a childhood friend, shares a story of his own sexual experiences but insists that the tale “must stay between us,” adding enigmatically, “… I know you can keep a secret.”
Teenage angst is pivotal in deciding the direction of Chiron’s life. Kevin succumbs to masculine peer pressure when he chooses to fight Chiron in the schoolyard, which leads to Chiron transforming into Black after subsequent events lead to a prison sentence. When Kevin and Black meet in the third part of the film, Kevin notes that Black is “still fronting.” However, both men eventually discard their facades and recreate a tender moment from the beginning of the second part of the film when they were intimate with each other.
“Moonlight” is a worldwide story about being able to love yourself before you can love others.
“Moonlight” is a worldwide story about being able to love yourself before you can love others. It is journey of silence, recognition, and acceptance of self and also connections with others. It is a tale about situations that may appear calm on the surface but underneath the physical armour is a state of chaos.
At the end of the film, we understand that every life is a palimpsest of earlier identities—where one finds a way to handle the crises of young sadness, numb oneself to anger and confusion, and eventually navigate a pathway to personal happiness.
Since the 15th century – in the Americas and the colonised world – the Black female body has been seen as a product to be used to produce more products in the same image; this has some parallels with the Black African tradition where the Black female body was viewed as a source of social success and family wealth, the commonality between these two views is patriarchy.
Objectification of the Black female body renders the black woman a commodity that others can enact their will upon, e.g. rage, lust, anger, disgust, desire.Therefore Black women need to regain control of the image that they project of their own bodies. Beyoncé is one Black woman who appears to be controlling the representation and reflection of her concept of the Black female body.
Black female bodies have historically had repeated collisions with masculinity, power, and whiteness; these bodies constantly exhibit strength beyond the imposed theories as they continue to disrupt the masculine narrative of superiority, because without them Black life does not continue.
When Black bodies were viewed as products they were also categorised as sexual and economic property where the sexuality and reproduction were strictly controlled; in this manner they are systematically dehumanised and positioned to be subject to the white patriarchal system. A prime example of this occurred in 1814 when Sara (aka Sarah or Saartjie) Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, was displayed in a cage, and objectified as a deviant savage who was an inferior being. Baartman was described has having “abnormal sexuality and genitalia”.
Sara Baartman was in fact a Khoikhoi woman – an aboriginal South African – who became a domestic servant to Dutch coloniser Pieter Willem Cezar in Cape Town, South Africa, before she was employed by English ship surgeon William Dunlop and Cezar’s brother Hendrik.
Apparently Sara Baartman signed a contract on 29 October 1810 with the terms stipulating that she would be a domestic servant in England and Ireland for Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar in addition to being exhibited for entertainment purposes. The contract allegedly stated that Baartman would receive a portion of the earnings and would also be allowed to return to South Africa after five years. However, after four years in England Baartman was sold to Reaux, a showman in France, who showcased her alongside his animals.
Baartman died in France in 1815 after being exhibited and studied as a science specimen by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists. Baartman was used to emphasise the theory that Black Africans were hyper sexual and less human than Europeans. It was through this initial commodification process that black bodies were positioned to be subject to the white patriarchal system. As Iman Cooper (2015) says essentially “the humanity of the black body was ruptured into an object to be bought and sold, in order to satisfy the economic desires of the white slave owners.”
Baartman is symbolic because her Black African female body was used as imagery to represent, reflect and affect the nascent European held opinions of ‘savage sexuality and racial inferiority’ of the time. The physical presence of Black bodies in the world is undeniable, however the concept of racism made the power and self-agency of those bodies incomprehensible and refutable in the eyes of white colonisers, but the black body has always remained self-defining and disruptive to global theories of cultural being.
This originally European social conceptualisation of the black body has remained widely unchallenged by mainstream society, especially in media outlets that are controlled by heteronormative white men. Therein femininity is also codified as Christian, white, docile, chase and pure, while Black women’s religious characteristics are not viewed in the same way as their white counterparts they have historically been viewed as uncontrolled, loud, wild, lewd and evil. Both black and white female bodies have been regulated according to the diametrically opposed assumptions held about each other, largely based on the overriding global standard rooted in racism.
Black women performers like Beyoncé often use their bodies as a means to reclaim and contest the control of the image of the Black female body from their personal perspective: powerful, sexual, self-regulating.
Who is right, Beyoncé or bell hooks? Can’t they both be correct? Black women have a right to control their own image and decide on the sexualisation of their individual bodies – that is their agency and feminist right of self determination.
Bodies will always be sexualised and objectified by the gaze of the ‘other’ be it the gaze of a man or another woman (Black or white). Therefore Black women are justified in deciding their own degree of visual sexualisation according to the pervading and overarching social mores, nevertheless I do not believe sexualisation can be ignored or viewed in isolation without considering the history of objectification and sexualisation of the female body, specifically the Black female body.
As Nora Chipaumire suggested in 2014, the Black female body can acknowledge her own power and presence, and negotiate the way others look at it or see it in her own way, on her own terms.
Black female bodies are engaging in the freedom of expression as their own subjects, they are no longer mere objects.
Marjorie H Morgan is an award winning playwright, director and producer based in Liverpool. Her works explore the theme of ‘Home,’ in particular historic and contemporary migration stories, giving voice to those marginalised in British society. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the Kenneth Branagh Drama Writing Award for Let The Eat Cake, and has since undertaken playwright programmes at The Everyman Playhouse and SLATE.
As the writer-in-residence for the Liverpool Independents Biennial Marjorie wrote The Thin Red Line in 2018, which was performed at Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool as a response to Banu Cennetoğlu’s public arts installation The List. The script was constructed through verbatim words of the refugees and asylum seekers in Europe.
Supplementary to her theatre work Marjorie has also written articles and essays for a wide range of magazines on film, black LGBTQIA+ issues and borders, including The Guardian, gal-dem, red pepper, ROOT-ed magazine and Cinema Femme.
For her Time and Space residency Marjorie will be developing and workshopping a programme of plays with members of the refugee and migrant communities in Liverpool, and actors and directors for a performance in June 2020 for the Refugee Week.
For decades, the UK government has restricted citizenship to exclude and criminalise people from Commonwealth countries. By Marjorie H Morgan
The Windrush Scandal has shed light on the ‘hostile environment’ as it has recently been implemented against legal British citizens who were reclassified as migrants, illegally detained, and sometimes deported from their home and country; this is part of a Conservative Government system of xeno-racial profiling and victimisation.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid suggested, in a recent interview that the ‘hostile environment’ began in 2008. But parliamentary records show that deportations connected to ‘country of origin’ have been a regular part of British history for decades.
In 1962 Carmen Bryan, a former Commonwealth citizen, was one of the first people to be deported following the implementation of under the terms of the newly enacted 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act (CIA).
Bryan was arrested on a £2 shoplifting offence and as a result Paddington Magistrate’s court recommended her for deportation to Jamaica. Bryan’s case was questioned in the House of Commons by Labour MP Eric Fletcher who suggested the magistrates were misusing their powers of detention and deportation as the CIA 1962 “was not intended to apply to cases of petty larceny.” Despite reminders that deportation was only supposed to be applied to serious cases, the Conservative Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, refused to agree that the £2 shoplifting offence was not trivial, or to take into consideration that it was a first offence: he upheld the recommendation for deportation.
Carmen Bryan’s case mirrors current Windrush Scandal cases, where BAME citizens of former colonies are singled out for legal victimisation – or in the words of Gurminder K Bhambra, ‘turned into migrants.. She was held in detention without access to any legal advice for over a month, and furthermore did not have any communication with the Jamaican High Commissioner. Bryan was told by the legal establishment to accept deportation because “it would be impossible for her to appeal and that if she appealed she might be sentenced to imprisonment and then deported”; given Hobson’s choice to either spend her life in Holloway or be sent to Jamaica, Bryan, under duress, chose the deportation option.
Parliamentary records show that deportations have been a regular part of British history for centuries. Although British citizens have not been regularly deported for criminal offences since 1868, the Windrush Scandal is evidence of the ongoing situation of discrimination against Commonwealth citizens as entrenched in the 1962 CIA. This instrument of law reduced the rights of British citizens if they had links to Commonwealth countries. Before 1962 all Commonwealth citizens were recognised as full British subjects – as specified in the British Nationality Act (BNA) 1948:
“in this Act and in any other enactment or instrument whatever, whether passed, or made before or after the commencement of this Act, the expression ” British subject ” and the expression ” Commonwealth citizen” shall have the same meaning.” BNA 1948 P1 s.2
British nationality was therefore synonymous with British citizenship. This changed within four years after the start of the 1950s Commonwealth migration to the UK of mainly Caribbean and Asian British citizens. There were a series of laws enacted between 1962 and 1971 which reduced and altered the rights of British Commonwealth citizens in the UK. The 1981 BNA further altered the categories of British nationality and ceased to recognise Commonwealth citizens as British subjects with effect from 1 January 1983.
Conservative MP Enoch Powell called for a more restrictive policy on immigration in regular racist speeches, citing the grievances of self-titled ‘native’ white Britons. Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech was hugely influential – galvanising support for right-wing anti-migrant politics, which would provide the basis for decades of restrictive immigration policies. These policies have applied to the vast majority of migrants to Britain from either current or former British colonies: deliberately racist, as the unrestricted right to enter and remain in the UK was deliberately removed as part of the process of retracting the rights of migrants through legal restriction of citizenship which targeted specifically BAME people.
This is the foundation of the ‘hostile environment’: a long-running retraction of citizenship rights, treating people from the Commonwealth as problem that needs to be controlled, associating their presence with “social disorder and malady”. He might be decried as an extremist from some quarters, but Powell’s infamous speech stated “the encouragement of re-emigration” was official Conservative party policy; he also concurred that that the Conservative plan to reduce Black immigration was “by stopping, or virtually stopping, further inflow, and by promoting the maximum outflow.” Within a few years the British Commonwealth people went from being invited citizens to the Motherland to ‘invaders’: they were viewed as a disease that had to be prevented.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that of the 63 people identified as part of the illegally deported Windrush cohort there were 32 who had criminal records who he did not want to repatriate to Britain, as they were ‘foreign national’ criminal offenders. This begs the question of when they were categorised as ‘foreign nationals’. When their landing cards were lost or destroyed in Home Office chaos? Or perhaps after they were illegally deported? That they have been duly tried and convicted of crimes is not the central issue – their citizenship is the matter for debate. Depriving them of citizenship is the only way to justify using deportation as a punishment for crime. It hasn’t been legal to use such tactics against not 18thC transportation policies which condemned tens of thousands of working class people, usually those who had commited minor offences, to exile in penal colonies. It’s worth noting that they too were seen as a predatory threat to society.
Javid stated that since the beginning of electronic records in 2002, there have been around 8,000 deportations and removals to the Caribbean. Javid also concurred that the number of people wrongly detained was “a lot more than removal and deportations”; he insisted that his was part of the government’s implementation of a ‘compliant’, rather than hostile environment.
The scale and cruelty ‘hostile environment’ have rightly shocked the British public – but it’s not a new creation. It’s part of a long legacy of exclusion and criminalisation which lies at the heart of how Britain treats its former colonies – and BAME people in general.
When one discusses female comedy films, invariably “Bridesmaids” (2011) and “Mean Girls” (2004) are mentioned. This is not it. “Girls Trip” (2017) is new and different. There is the usual chaotic series of events that accompanies film comedies, but this movie has Black females friendships as a central focus.
Written by Kenya Barris (scriptwriter of comedy hit “Black-ish”) and Tracy Oliver, this film feels real, and it is my go-to choice for a laughter fix. This movie leaves the viewer with a warm and fuzzy feeling because it is based on the real-life female friendship experiences of the writers. The Flossy Posse quartet depicted have great chemistry on-screen so the story is even more believable, despite the use of the comedy genre of the reunion and wild weekend events.
“Girls Trip” is the first film by an African-American screenwriter to pass the $100 million mark. It was also the first comedy of 2017 to pass that figure domestically in the USA.
This film is a 117-minute turbulent portrayal of how individual life events can take you in different directions, but shows how the concrete connection of early friendships ground you when times are both good and bad. This is a situation comedy where nothing goes to plan, and it’s the way the four principal characters—the Flossy Posse—handle the unexpected moments that give rise to the best comedic reactions.
A prime example of this is when the four friends have an argument and all go their separate ways. Dina (Tiffany Haddish) says to them as she stomps away, “I hate you all. I love you, but I hate you, bitch!” Haddish has many of the best one-liners in the film. Dina is portrayed as the unrestrained, immature, reactive joker who is supremely confident about everything despite having just lost her job over a sandwich.
Liz Davelli (Kate Walsh), as Ryan (Regina Hall)’s agent, also shares the limelight as a comedy genius with her smart delivery of the culturally insensitive “white woman lines” along with the lingering hugs and inappropriate use of words and actions, such as ass smacking Stewart (Mike Colter) and whispering to him, “I am so lonely,” while she body hugs him in front of his wife, and then leering after him as he walks away, saying “Oh! Gosh, that man knows how to exit a room. Woof!”. She is brilliant as the token white woman.
“Girls Trip”‘s main focus is the story of Ryan who is on the edge of a major public breakthrough, although each of the other members of the Flossy Posse are equally represented with characteristics that are regularly found in female friendship groups: business-oriented, empathy, determination, and risk-taking. The performances of the main four characters is mostly balanced with fairly equal attention paid to the backstories and complex humanity of all members of the Flossy Posse, which are progressively revealed. “Girls Trip” subtly charts the changes in personal relationships and friendship dynamics and shows how each woman’s decision can impact the life and reality of her close friends.
Ryan is married to retired football player Stewart Pierce; they are the picture-perfect power couple who sell their dream lives as the template for people who want to “have it all”; however, the facade of their personal lives together soon shows cracks of infidelity and unselected infertility. Ryan and Stewart are content to exist behind an illusion of happiness for the sake of their public brand. Their friends, especially Dina, frequently call them out as “plastic” and “fake.”
There is an inevitable fallout, yet when the friends are finally reunited at the end of the film, Ryan says in her keynote Essence speech, “I have done such a great job of pretending so many times before, but there are some people, when you see them, you just can’t pretend anymore. Because they know … you. The real you.”
One of my personal favourite scenes is the dance battle in the nightclub. The reality and complete range of female friendship is right there: the bond of unity, the angst, the rivalry, the support, and the musical soundtrack. This scene shows that the Flossy Posse is a “ride or die” crew, especially when mild-mannered Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) starts the physical fight because her tsunami drink “wore off.” She fights like a mother bear whose cubs are under threat. They all do; they are totally united as one.
In this film, every detail counts, even the “You can’t buy Sisterhood” patch on Lisa’s denim jacket that is shown in the closing scenes, along with the music like “I’m Every Woman” by Whitney Houston.
It’s a film that makes you laugh and cry simultaneously, and sometimes cringe with embarrassment, but mostly laugh.
Ryan concludes the film with this speech: “I don’t know what the future will bring. Love or heartbreak, joy or pain, but right now it’s bright. The one thing I know for sure is my girls will be there. No matter who else steps in the picture, my girls are my constant. They give me the permission to be who I am. And I am going to be me. We’re going to be us.”
The film’s finale is a dance sequence in New Orleans after the weekend’s events that sums up the exuberance of Flossy Posse’s friendship as they sashay and sing their way along the streets both as a close friendship unit, but also as individuals dancing to their own beats.
“Girls Trip” is a film that highlights and celebrates Black womanhood in a variety of forms. This includes a honour roll call of Black excellence with people like Iyanla Vanzant, Mariah Carey, Mike Epps, Terry McMillan, Morris Chestnut, Estelle, Common, Ne-Yo, and Ava DuVernay who specifically talks about “Black Girl Magic”; DuVernay says, “It feels like a reminder, a rallying call, a term of endearment.” “Girls Trip” is all about the journey that is “Black Girl Magic.”
The sound of repetitive, relentless punching against a fixed piece of board starts this documentary, and a world upside down and back to front ends it. Every frame of the 107 minutes in between reinforces the idea that the director, Yance Ford, is sharing his personal elegy of grief with the camera. This is a story for everybody, but specifically for you, the person listening and watching right now. This is the message that is transmitted.
“Strong Island” (2017) is a documentary that does not pull any punches. It is a stark, literally in-your-face look at the justice system from the point of view of a Black man in twenty-first-century America. This is not an unfamiliar story. It is, however, a highly personal journey that amplifies other similar stories. Yance Ford, as the director and an active subject in the documentary, is endeavouring to reclaim his family’s history and to rewrite the stolen identity of his murdered brother, 24-year-old William Ford Jr.
Twenty-two years after his brother’s death, Yance Ford faces the camera and starts a quest to find answers: “I’m not surprised that the case didn’t go to trial. I just want to know, exactly, all the reasons why.”
The gravity of the decades-long exodus from private shock to this public statement of grief is shown in the first full frame of Yance Ford speaking directly to camera. Ford warns that the film will be uncomfortable to watch; it is, if one does not want to face the truth. Fade to black. The transitions between the majority of shots are black screens. Just blackness. No sound. No words. Silence and darkness—a parallel of the family journey.
Central to the questions Ford asks is a pair of contrasting cases of shootings: William Ford’s and David Breen’s. Viewers subtly become aware of the differences between the circumstances of teacher William Ford’s shooting and subsequent death, and that of lawyer David Breen, 25 years old at the time, a former assistant district attorney (ADA) who had the Brooklyn Bridge shut down to transport him to a hospital after he was shot at a cashpoint mugging. Breen’s attacker, 18-year-old Kenneth Martinez, was charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault, robbery, and criminal possession of a weapon.
William Ford was one of the two men who assisted Breen when he was assaulted—by apprehending the fleeing assailant who was armed with the gun—and was subsequently a witness for Breen’s case. Ford was later described by Ed Boyar (former Brooklyn ADA) as performing a “fearless … heroic act”: the evening Ford was killed was at the end of a week of appearances in court as a defence witness for the shooting incident relating to David Breen. The legal system he was participating in, the legal system he obtained employment with as a correction officer, was the same system that turned its back on him later that day.
David Breen and William Ford both got shot, yet David Breen’s story had a different outcome. Breen was rushed to a hospital with major road closures and his attacker was brought to court. William Ford was left to die alone on the ground and his attacker walked free, sanctioned by the courts.
Barbara Dunmore Ford raised her three children with the principal aim to love one another, and to see character, not colour. The sad truth of this film is the understanding that despite his family’s standards, William Ford was judged primarily on his colour, not on his character.
The character was unseen. The grand jury deemed William Ford’s murder as a “justifiable shooting.” The police evidence in the investigation focused on the deceased victim’s height, weight, and exercise routine, not on the facts around the vehicle in question or the behaviour of the murderer, 19-year-old Mark Reilly. Reilly had an extensive criminal record; it is a matter of record that he used a rifle to shoot William Ford once in his chest. It is a matter of record that the murderer is white. It is a matter of record that the victim is Black. It is a matter of record that the defence system contended that the killing on April 7, 1992, was based on fear. Fear of blackness dictated that justice went absent in the grand jury hearing, which decided that the murder was a case of self-defence because reasonable fear existed. This decision was reached because the victim was deemed the prime suspect in his own murder.
“How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Yance Ford asks. Additionally, he wants to know “What are the contours of fear? Whose fear is reasonable?”
“Hidden Figures” (2016) noted, “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” Yance Ford’s experience shows that it is even difficult to get equal standing, so there is no hope of getting ahead in his personal experience.
The documentary invites the viewer to see William Ford not as the newspapers, the grand jury, the murderer Mark Reilly, and the police saw him, but as his family, specifically Yance Ford, saw him. Yance has multiple reasons to be passionate about directing the gaze of the viewer to the personality and character of his brother, because he himself has specific identity questions, being a transgender man. He has also stepped into the role as the only surviving male member of the Ford family following his brother’s murder, and his father’s rapid decline and death from illness after that unresolved tragic event.
The filmmaker narrates the film with a steady voice and invites the viewer to see his brother as his family knew him, flaws as well. His whole humanity is displayed. The people interviewed are generally sat centre frame in upright chairs, facing the camera. This is a direct interaction between each speaker and the viewer. Yance Ford is the sole person whose face takes up the whole screen, looking directly into the camera. We only see Yance’s hands as he shares family photos and disseminates the family history and personal portraits as he saw and knew them.
“Strong Island” is a powerful indictment on a legal and social system that continues to fail the Black American community. Yance Ford is harnessing the power of the gaze in this documentary to make his own memory, his personal journey, and his family’s grief readily accessible to everyone. Yance Ford, as a filmmaker, highlights William Ford’s death and thereby removes the anonymity of this case from the never-ending list of publicly ignored Black men’s unjust deaths. To Yance and his sister Lauren, William Ford was a hero, so Yance Ford recreates the legally tarnished name of William Ford in the image of him that they held as a family. The content of this film is the reason why #BlackLivesMatter continues to be relevant as we slink through the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
The reality behind “Strong Island” is not a new story; it is an old story that is always fresh and relevant. That fact is this film shines a light on an individual experience, on humanity at the most raw and vulnerable moments, when sudden and unexpected death crashes into a family, and it is all completed with a mostly calm and always tender attention to the facts as viewed by the surviving family members.
In this portrayed behaviour, Yance Ford mimics his mother, his father, his sister, his community, his “race,” all who have been conditioned by repeated traumatic situations to retain a mainly calm demeanour in the centre of an anger storm. This film clearly demonstrates that any “Angry Black Person” is stripped of their right to be angry, or their right to be viewed as a person: “Angry Black Person” becomes “Angry Black Person.” Black is seen and judged according to the centuries of institutional racism and structural discrimination, and not as Barbara Dunmore Ford had taught, on character.
Viewers may comment that this is a biased, one-sided documentary. I am sure the director would concur: this film was created to balance the view of William Ford as seen by the community and legal structures of Long Island.
As standard justice seemed unobtainable, Yance Ford has taken his case notes in documentary form, to the public. This film is worthy of its Oscar nomination, and it must be a bittersweet moment for any filmmaker. It is a film that should never need to be made, yet the direct personal appeal of the Ford family to see their son and brother as a human being who had been unjustifiably murdered, is overwhelming in its dignity and sadness.
It is a pessimistic view of life in America, and for Yance Ford and millions of people who look like him, it is a daily reality: living with the fear of being treated as a second-class citizen in school, housing, employment, and the law.
This documentary is a dissection of the reality of fear viewed from different spectrums of America. It is an investigation of how the justice system systematically protects white people from just punishment and unjustly castigates Black people as criminals, merely by virtue of their black bodies, even when the Black person is the victim. This is a stark portrayal of the impotency of Blackness when confronted by whiteness and civil justice, the impact of social segregation that nonchalantly draws lines around lives with the same ease it constructs chalk outlines around the fallen Black bodies.
This documentary is the world through Yance Ford’s eyes. It shows how white people imbue black bodies with monstrous characteristics that justify all their actions toward them, including murder. The American legal system seems not to question what reasonable fear is when a white man kills a Black man—it accepts all manifestations and actions against Black people as reasonable. Why?
Yance Ford asks many questions in an attempt to understand what happened to destroy his family, and why the expected murder trial never materialised.
Why? He repeats.
This is the one question Ford leaves with the audience.
Why is this OK? Why does this keep happening? Why don’t you believe what you see? Why do you deny our humanity? Why?
These questions remain unanswered because the Ford family is still waiting for justice, and the American legal system responds: no comment.