SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.
Menelik Shabazz, director of films including Blood Ah Go Run (1981), Burning an Illusion (1982), Catch a Fire (1996) and The Story of Lover’s Rock (2011) died this week from complications related to diabetes. He was in Zimbabwe, working on a new film, at the time of his death.
Shabazz’s work is vital to British film culture and holds a personal significance for T A P E Collective. When we included Burning an Illusion in the season, Nellie Alston shared: ‘This film more than any other has made me feel like I understood my mother’s generation from their struggles to their joys.’
In a feature for Monthly Film Bulletin in 1989, Shabazz talked beautifully about his work and his vision for the cinema: ‘Film unifies most of the art forms. In fact, all the art forms can fit into film. The paintings serve as a summing up. I think that helps, especially in places where people don’t speak English… the image helps to encapsulate what has gone before. I’m very impressed when I go to a place like Burkina Faso, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they have a major film festival. I’ve never seen queues so long. African cinema has a lot to offer, but it’s suffering from problems of finance and lack of continuity. Souleymane Cisse has shown that African cinema is continually evolving and reaching new heights.’
Sight & Sound, bfi.org.uk, 2 July 2021
Three decades after it was made, why does Menelik Shabazz’s first feature, a simple tale of a young girl’s relationship, hold such attention? Firstly, because it foregrounds the experience of a young black British woman, breaking with the tradition of placing white males at the centre of a story. Even today, that is highly unusual. Secondly, it focuses on her life as a young woman, not as a symbol of black experience.
Pat, an ordinary working-class London girl, has a caring family, a job she enjoys and her own flat. Like all drama, the film is about characters facing conflicts. But unlike most dramas about black people up till then, for most of the story it dramatises personal conflicts, not socio-economic or political ones. Pat’s goal is to settle down. The most radical thing about Burning an Illusion is that it’s about black people who aren’t radical. It’s about a male-female relationship.
Shabazz neatly avoids trapping his main characters inside the bubbles (‘victim’/’noble savage’) that suffocate most black figures in movies. This is the third reason for the film’s longevity: designed as fallible people, his characters can breathe and grow. For the first 40 minutes we’re in a love story. We see the courtship between Pat and her suitor, Del, culminating when he moves in. Then Pat’s ‘mister right’ turns wrong.
The second half of the film dramatises how social forces and character traits work to derail Pat’s goal, the breakdown of their relationship and how she and Del react to the pressures they face. When they become politicised by the end of the film they’ve changed because of the experiences the plot has taken them through. We’re shown how and why they change.
The final reason why the film still grips is that, even now, nothing else quite like it has been made.
Ade Solanke, BFI Screenonline, screenonline.org.uk
A contemporary review
In all the major film-producing countries – assuming that Britain is one – films about the black experience are minority films. As such, they tend to come in three varieties. Blaxploitation films like Superfly and Cleopatra Jones, which celebrate a ghetto situation without really questioning it. The British market has never been able to support these. Liberal conscience pictures in the Stanley Kramer mould. We haven’t bothered much with them either. And independent features made by and about black people. There, there are signs of life in Britain, of which Burning an Illusion is the most recent as well as potentially the most interesting and the most problematic. One of the ways in which it is problematic is that, because it looks like getting wider distribution than Pressure, Blacks Britannica or Babylon, it necessarily strays into the wider (liberal) arena.
Liberal films belong in the wider arena. They demand guilt – a comfortable, nonspecific guilt which can be equally comfortably assuaged by allowing the (white) audience to identify with the (black) underdog, and take pleasure in him/her beating the system. It’s called having your cake and eating it, and it makes for a great night out. Menelik Shabazz doesn’t play that game, though he does flirt with it. Burning an Illusion has most of the hallmarks of militant cinema. Del (Victor Romero) is jailed for slashing a policeman in circumstances which are, from his (and therefore our) point of view, highly ambiguous. At the very least, he is provoked. In prison, he embarks on a course of self-education, writing to his woman Pat (Cassie McFarlane) that ‘black people have got to fight back’. Pat becomes politically active and the film ends with her on a bus, presumably on the way to a picket or a demo, celebrating her new consciousness and her black sisterhood with a clenched fist on which the frame freezes.
On the other hand, the devices which Shabazz uses to bring his audience to this point are, by comparison with the militant films of the 60s and early 70s, fairly traditional: a progression towards increased consciousness through a series of individual circumstances whose wider repercussions are not initially stressed, accompanied by a first-person voice over from Pat to guide us through the transitions. Shabazz is not really concerned with questioning the nature of cinematic representation. What he is concerned with is reaching the people the film is about (who may be affected by the nature of cinematic representation but are not fundamentally concerned with it), and he has apparently been very successful with screenings followed by discussions among London’s black community. The film makes certain concessions to other audiences, notably by softening the West Indian patois in the dialogue scenes and removing it entirely from the voice over. But it is not really for another audience. Which is what makes reviewing it in that context problematic. To welcome the film is not enough. To comment on its suitability for its intended audience is, for a white middle-class reviewer, presumptuous.
With the proviso, then, that my opinion is handicapped, if not actually invalid – the film is about a black, working-class woman and I am a white middle-class man; even the pretensions of liberal empathy are limited – there are two things that are particularly impressive about Burning an Illusion. The first is that, like Horace Ové’s Pressure, its militancy is gradually arrived at. Most of the film avoids the immediate impact drama of conflict with the systems of a white society, and concentrates instead on everyday problems which are primarily male/female and only secondarily black/white. Pat’s aspirations are those of the world in which she has been brought up: an annual holiday; a new carpet for her neat, tower-block apartment; a colour TV. Del’s are universally male. ‘My dignity come first,’ he tells Pat. ‘Man must be free, you know … Trouble with you, man, you’re too possessive.’ By which he means that Pat, having taken over the financial responsibility entirely when he is sacked, and having cooked his food for him, expects him not to go out every night with his friends, nor to assume she will bring them beer when they take over the apartment to play cards.
In the end, she throws him out. This in itself is a major breakthrough, not just for her but for the film. Instead of showing the problems of Britain’s black communities to be the result of directly negative intervention by white authorities (employers, teachers, police), Burning an Illusion treats a black relationship equally threatened by unconsciously adopted external attitudes (on Pat’s part) and traditional male West Indian attitudes (on Del’s). In other words, it focuses on ordinary life in the black community, rather than making that community an inevitable focus for crisis and drama.
But the last part of the film rather abandons this tack for the easier task of consciousness-raising through conflict (however inevitable that conflict may be). Pat’s assertion of her rights as a woman is partly channelled if not actually subverted into her being ‘part of the struggle for equal rights and liberation’. It is Del’s demand for books to read in jail that occasions this change. ‘What was funny,’ she says, ‘was that his interest in books was rubbing off on me.’ Why funny? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, having taken the lead in the struggle for equal sexual rights – not just in her own case, but in advising her friend Sonia not to allow herself to be pushed around by her man – she takes second place once again in the broader political struggle. That the lessons learned in the first part of the film are carried over into the second part is assumed rather than demonstrated. Is Pat black first and a woman second, or a woman first and black second? And do I have the right to ask that question, being neither? What is more, does it matter that I think the film is fine but flawed? The important thing is that it should work. And that it seems certain to do. It reflects an experience, burns an illusion and portrays a consciousness. That, in the context of its production and its potential distribution, is more than enough.
Nick Roddick, Sight & Sound, Autumn 1982
But You’re Not Black
A Chinese-Caribbean-Canadian woman tries to embrace her parents’ Trinidadian identity.
BUT YOU’RE NOT BLACK
Director: Danielle Ayow
BURNING AN ILLUSION
Directed by: Menelik Shabazz
©: Menelik Shabazz
Production Company: British Film Institute Production Board
Production Supervisor: Vivien Pottersman
Production Assistant: Matthew Burge
1st Assistant Directors: Chris Rose, Mike Shoring
2nd Assistant Director: Imruh Caesar
Continuity: Caroline Sax
Written by: Menelik Shabazz
Photography: Roy Cornwall
Camera Assistant: Steve Harrison
Electricians: Bruce Kington, James Lennon
Graphic Designer: Anum Iyapo
Editor: Judy Seymour
Assistant Editor: Rosalind Haber
Art Direction: Miranda Melville
Assistant Art Direction: Shakka Dedi
Wardrobe Assistant: Jane Moss
Make-up Artist: Audrey Foster
Hair Stylist: Juliana Julien
Music: Seyoum Netfa, Ras Angels
Sound: Edward Tise
Assistant Sound Recordist: Rosemary Straker
Additional Sound: John Anderton
Dubbing Mixer: Tony Anscombe
Fight Arranger: Derek Ware
We would also like to thank: Film Lighting Services, Nellie Frocks, Lady at Lord John, London Co-Operative Society, Omnibus Theatre, Grassroots Bookshop, West London Media Workshop
Cassie McFarlane (Pat Williams)
Victor Romero (Del Bennett)
Beverley Martin (Sonia)
Angela Wynter (Cynthia)
Malcolm Fredericks (Chamberlain)
Chris Tummings (Scotty)
Larrington Walker (Tony)
Trevor Laird (pest)
Corinne Skinner-Carter (Pat’s mother)
Janet Kay (singer in club)
Marva Buchanan (Lorna)
Millie Kiarie (chairwoman)
Nicola Wright (Christine)
Ruddy L. Davis (father)
Suzanne Auguiste (Angela)
Brian Bovell (Nat West)
Basil Otoin (first waiter)
Vinny (second waiter)
Trevor Ward (man in restaurant)
Stella Orakwue (woman in restaurant)
Andrew De La Tour (foreman)
Lynval Dunn (Andy)
Errol Edmondson (pool table youth)
The Government (band in club)
Eunice Allen (girl in club)
Junior Green (man in club)
Ian Cullen (desk sergeant)
Les Clark, Steve Kane, Brian Lintz, Gary McDonald, Derek Moss, Charles Pickess, Jeff Silk, Byron Sotiris, Doug Stark (policemen)
John Cannon, Dean Garfield, Eric Kent, Angelo Papini, Terry Paris, Tony Powell (prison warders)
Leroy Anderson (Richard)
Loftus Burton (solicitor)
Graham Rowe (appeal judge)
Alan Cumnor-Price (man with gun)
John Challis (man in car)
Tim Condren (kerb crawler)
Paula Sinclair (girl in street)
Malcolm Davidson (doctor)
Ras Angels, Ras Messengers (singers and drummers in minibus)
T A P E PRESENTS: BUT WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM?
Burning an Illusion
Sat 3 Jul 14:20; Thu 8 Jul 17:45
While We Live (Medan vi lever)
Sat 3 Jul 17:30; Tue 20 Jul 20:30
Sun 4 Jul 18:20; Mon 19 Jul 20:40
Eyimofe (This Is My Desire)
Fri 9 Jul 17:40
Sat 10 Jul 20:50; Sat 24 Jul 11:40
Head-On (Gegen die Wand)
Sun 11 Jul 18:30; Tue 27 Jul 20:40
Black Girl (La noire de…)
Mon 12 Jul 18:20
Wed 14 Jul 17:40 (+ live spoken-word performance); Wed 21 Jul 20:40
What Will People Say (Hva vil folk si)
Fri 16 Jul 20:30; Sat 31 Jul 17:30
In Conversation with Nikesh Shukla
Fri 23 Jul 18:20
Sat 24 Jul 17:20; Fri 30 Jul 20:40
Shoot the Messenger + Q&A with director Ngozi Onwurah, hosted by T A P E’s Angela Moneke
Thu 29 Jul 17:45
Culture Shock: Short Film Programme + Q&A with UNDR LNDN
Fri 30 Jul 17:40
T A P E was founded in 2015 as a response to the lack of representation on screen.
Find out more about this curatorial collective at tapecollective.co.uk
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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