Why Cinema Means More Than Awards

By Roger Griffith

It’s film award season, with the BAFTA’s last Sunday and Oscar night on 26th February.  Following the ground-breaking BFI (British Film Institute) Black Star film season last autumn, it’s great to promote and preview through Come the Revolution curators and Ujima Radio’s Love season such highly anticipated films such as Fences, Loving, Moonlight and Hidden Figures.

Fences directed by Denzel Washington is written by the famed playwright August Wilson and became a smash Broadway hit. Set in post-World War II working class America, Washington also stars as a father struggling to raise his family around the turbulent events of his past and present. Washington is ably supported in every sense by Viola Davis as he was in the New York theatre production.

Film still from ‘Loving’ by Jeff Nichols.

Loving is the true story of Mr and Mrs Loving, who had to fight for their right to love and be together as an interracial couple in Virginia, USA and took their struggle to the US supreme court. The fact that interracial dating was banned in many southern states during his childhood is often spoken of by President Barack Obama in his memoirs when he reflects on being the son of a Kenyan black father and a white mother from Kansas.

We love art, because at times, it can provide depth into our human actions and fresh insights into global events. I’m interested to see just how far we have come on the silver screen with interracial dating since the late 1960s in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Spencer Tracey, Kathrine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier. Sir Sidney was my black and white celluloid hero, starring in racially charged classics such as The Defiant Ones (1958) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). See more of why I am a Poitier fan here. Washington is his natural heir, complete with trademark dazzling smile that can turn into a steely glare at the merest hint of danger.

For all Hollywood’s faults, cinema has taught me many things that school did not.  Washington joined Poitier as one of my on-screen heroes and I first came across him in Oscar winning form as a rebellious civil-war soldier in an all-Black regiment in Glory (1989). His moving portrayal of murdered anti-Apartheid campaigner Steve Biko, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough helped educate me about some of the evil tentacles of racism stretching across the world. This was at a time, when I was fighting against discrimination and a far more openly racist police force than we  have today.

Film still from 'Moonlight' by Barry Jenkins. A24.
Film still from ‘Moonlight’ by Barry Jenkins. A24.

With Moonlight opening next week, I’m reminded that at the height of 1990s AIDS hysteria, Washington’s role opposite Tom Hanks in the Oscar winning Philadelphia (1993), asked many heterosexual cinemagoers to confront their own homophobia and prejudices. I drew strength as well as learning from these films and went on to seek new inspiring stories including travelling to the graves of the three murdered civil rights campaigners I had first seen in the film Mississippi Burning (1988).

Washington also portrayed a Black-British paratrooper in Queen and Country (1988) returning from the Falklands War to the inner city struggles of poverty during Thatcher’s 1980s Britain. That film was coincidentally written and directed by Martin Spellman a graduate of University of Bristol and who also wrote two powerful yet contrasting illustrations of British youth culture, Quadrophenia (1979) and Babylon (1980). Washington’s acting pyrotechnics and acclaim are for roles that include Malcolm X (1992), The Hurricane (1999) and Training Day (2001). However in He Got Game (1998) and Antoine Fisher (2002) he movingly depicts the complex struggles of masculinity, love and fatherhood that many of us recognise as sons and fathers.

At last year’s BAFTA’s Bahamian Sir Sidney Poitier received a lifetime achievement honour for his work which included playing a London school teacher in To Sir with Love (1967) which we re-screened at Watershed and was introduced by legendary DJ Norman Jay as part of the Black Star film-season. This year I predict that many black films will pick up awards and belated recognition all over the world, a far cry from the #OscarsSoWhite furore. For me however, the real prize is to have a chance for audiences to see different aspects of black life, identity and culture beyond gangsters and slavery.

Next step is more filmmakers on and off big screen in the UK and increasingly thanks to our thriving independent production companies into television and home entertainment here in Bristol and throughout the southwest.

Roger Griffith is the author of My American Odyssey From the Windrush to the White House (2015), Executive Chair and broadcaster at Ujima Radio CIC and a member of the Come The Revolution Film curators supported by Watershed.

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