MENELIK SHABAZZ JOINS THE ANCESTORS
Editor’s comment: Today we received the news that Director Menelik Shabazz had transitioned to become an ancestor while filming his latest movie, The Spirits Return, in Zimbabwe on 28 June 2021.
Menelik was Britain’s Spike Lee before there was a Spike Lee. A humble man with an incomparable legacy. I met him briefly in 2018 at The Ritzy in Brixton, London, at a screening of Step Forward Youth/Breaking Point/Blood Ah Go Run which also had a Q & A after they were shown. At the time I was compiling and writing the book Black 365.
Not extrovert by nature, I summoned the courage to go and ask him when his birthday was. As part of my research, I had looked far and wide for his birthdate but could only find his birth year. He asked me why I wanted to know and I explained the concept of the book and how I needed his birth date so that I could include his entry on the correct date page. He looked at me long and hard as though feeling my spirit to determine if I was a trickster and then volunteered the information.
Menelik showed us the beauty of our people, covered the breadth of our experience growing up as princesses and princes, then queens and kings in the UK (and especially London), documented our struggles and successes and made us proud to be precisely who we are as people. Rest well, King. And thank you.
Note: Wherever possible I have used Menelik’s own words. Other entries are taken from today’s obituaries.
The Spirits Return
It’s a fabulous feeling to be once again making a movie. Sprits Return journey started with a vision to make a documentary drama about ancient Zimbabwe, it’s now a movie. It’s feels like another Burning An Illusion, with a central female character on a journey.
What’s the film about?
Spirits Return is a feature drama ancestral love story about Nubia a British woman who visits Zimbabwe searching for her cultural and ancestral roots. She gets more than she bargains for when she meets the ex-boyfriend who dumped her in the UK. But there is an ancestral dimension that comes into play as she tries to make sense of her emotional and spiritual turmoil.
The idea for Spirits Return was hatched during lockdown in Zimbabwe. It didn’t start off with a love story it was intended to be a project similar to my last docu/drama Pharaohs Unveiled.
I wanted to retell the story of ancient Zimbabwe based on the work of Neferatiti Ife. Yet even though I was seeing an version of my previous film I always want to do something slightly different creatively. This opened me up to the ideas of using actors acting out dialogue in a monologue format.
I had a number of readings with the actors that helped me continue to develop the idea. Once I went down this road more ideas opened up, until I introduced a new character Nubia, from outside of the world I had created, a character who was on a journey of discovery that pulls the narrative together. Then the question then becomes ‘who was she?’ ‘What is her back story and where was her emotional centre?’
Love finds a way in…
On this journey love had to rear it’s head and that opened the door for the love story which took over and now drives the story. It was now a movie which I never saw coming. So here I am standing in the palace of my dreams. The question is can I afford to live in a palace?
Now I am shooting the film in stages being creative with a team of talented actors and crew members. I am in the midst of making this film shooting as I can afford.
Step Forward Youth (1977)
Menelik directed his first documentary, Step Forward Youth in 1977.
We lived in the shadows of Enoch Powell’s speech predicting Black immigration would lead to conflict and ‘blood on our streets’
Step Forward Youth was my very first film back in 1977. I was in my early twenties just out of film school with my partner in crime David Kinoshi. David‘s presence, encouragement and talents was key in me making this film. He was both cameraman and editor (some of you might remember him as an actor in the movie ‘Pressure’)
Reclaiming the narrative
I had the idea to do this film to counter the negative targetting of Black British Youth by the media. Then, the catchphrase was ‘mugging’ – today it’s ‘gun crime’. We lived in the shadows of Enoch Powell’s speech predicting black immigration would lead to conflict and ‘blood on our streets’. I was living in another reality of Macolm X, Black Panthers, Angela Davis and George Jackson which was shaping my views about the world I wanted to change.
The title came from a reggae tune of the same name by Prince Jazzbo. I wanted this film to be relevant to my community more than looking for outside recognition.
Funding the film
In those days we were shooting on raw 16mm film stock which was expensive, but we were not daunted. With the help of a few donors we managed to gather enough to give encouragement.
The main funder was David’s uncle who was a fairly rich Nigerian. He owned an apartment in St Johns Wood, London. To get his money we had to turn up at his apartment at 10am regularly. He kept us waiting for hours whilst he had a bath, and talked on the phone. His display of power didn’t go down too well with us till eventually we got tired of playing his game.
Anyway, he coughed some of the money but it wasn’t enough so I had to make a decision about whether we should stop and wait to get more money or keep going. I decided to keep going – it was the most important decision of my life – aged 21.
(Pictured: David Kinoshi with camera on set)
With a few favours, we managed to edit and complete the film and Uncle came in with some more money that helped us through the film procession costs. Despite the way he treated us, he wanted to support David.
What was sad was that in the same year we completed the film, 1977, David died of sickle cell anaemia which was a real blow. He was so talented – a sad loss… This film is dedicated to his memory.
Breaking Point (1978)
I was happy as a lark. I’d reached the mainstream – life was good! I didn’t realise the stir I was causing in this exclusive white world…
I had a screening at the Filmmaker’s Co-op back in ’77 of Step Forward Youth which was attended (unbeknownst to me) by Richard Creasey who was then the head of Documentaries at Associated TV/ ATV – one of the commercial ITV companies. He saw my film and invited me to propose a new film idea for his strand.
I came up with a film about the Sus’ Law which was being used by the Police to criminalise young Black men and women. This police injustice was raging in the black community. Creasy liked the idea and before I knew what was happening, I was in their Portman Square office with my own researcher.
Battling the mainstream
I was happy as a lark. I’d reached the mainstream – life was good! I didn’t realise the stir I was causing in this exclusive white world.
We shot the programme with no problem. During the editing problems arose as the TV censorship body The Independent Broadcast Authority (IBA) didn’t agree with the cut as they thought it was too biased in favour of our voice. We argued that it was in fact counter-balancing the one-sided media approach to Black youth issues.
Eventually they agreed with the Controller of ITV Charles Denton that the film could only go out with a statement at the front of the film. It read “This film is made by a Black director, it’s about people’s feelings”. I couldn’t believe it! Unprecendented!
The film went out after News at Ten in 1978. In those days there were only three channels and commercial TV had the biggest audience, so ‘Breaking Point’ was viewed by millions. The film helped to repeal the Sus Law a year later which I am proud to have contributed.
What was different and perhaps revolutionary about this film was that all of the voices of authority in the programme were black (Rudy Narayan, Stuart Hall, Paul Boteng) this was the first and last for mainstream TV.
My original title for this programme was ‘Battering Down Sentence – from a Bunny Wailer Song but they didn’t go for that and instead I agreed reluctantly to ‘Breaking Point’. This experience made me realise that I was a rebel soul and working in mainstream TV was not the way forward for me.
Burning An Illusion (1981)
Burning an Illusion was written in 1980 and is a meeting ground for romantic love and politics.
The main character Pat is seeking love against the backdrop of racism in Margret Thatcher’s Britain. It was a volatile period that came with stronger police powers and toughness on immigration.
The meaning behind the title
Being on the set of Horace Ove’s movie Pressure fuelled my inspiration to make Burning an Illusion. I hadn’t known Horace prior but my then business partner David Kinoshi was playing one of the characters in the film and invited me along. Seeing a black director at the helm made me see that creating that kind of film was possible.
The title Burning an Illusion, as with many of my films, comes from a reggae song. In this case, Culture had a lyric ‘Burning an illusion inna Babylon’ which became the inspiration for the title. In the context of the film, it was about the main character confronting her romantic notions that came from Mills and Boon books that had no relationship to her cultural reality. She has to burn this illusion in her mind to reclaim herself. This is the main message of the film – that without black people claiming their culture we become black skin wearing white mask as Franz Fanon noted in his book.
Burning An Illusion won the Grand prix at the Amiens International Film Festival in 1982.
Watch the BFI’s Special Footage!
The BFI have created a special DVD edition of the film, which includes a more in-depth introduction from myself as well as a full commentary from Cassie McFarlane and Victor Romero Evans. This version also includes Blood Ah Go Run and an introduction.
Blood Ah Go Run (1981)
A no holds barred, hard-hitting documentary about the Black People’s Day of Action march protesting about the New Cross fire, in which 13 young people died and the uprising that followed thereafter, in Brixton, London.
Ceddo Film & Video Workshop (1982)
As part of his commitment to supporting and enabling black film-makers, Shabazz co-founded the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop in 1982, a collective supported by Channel 4 and the BFI; this was part of a movement that included the Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa Film and Video Collective. For Ceddo, Shabazz directed the 88-minute TV documentary Time and Judgment, a blend of science fiction, poetry and religion, which Shabazz called “the most radical film about the black experience ever shown on British TV”.
In 1996, Shabazz was commissioned by the BBC to make a drama documentary for the Hidden Empire series, about Jamaican preacher Paul Bogle, who was executed by British colonial authorities in 1865 after leading the Morant Bay rebellion.
Having grown frustrated with the film industry’s refusal to back any of his other projects, Shabazz turned to publishing and set up Black Filmmaker Magazine in 1998, with “the intention to pass on information to the next generation about the film industry”. This was swiftly followed by the BFM film festival, which operated from 1999-2011.
Soon after publishing BFM magazine Menelik founded the bfm International Film Festival in 1999. The Festival provided a siginificant platform for black world cinema and British talent.
A foundation template for the screening of black cinema, inspiring future generations, the bfm International Film Festival became the biggest of its kind in Europe and lasted eleven years.
In 2007, Menelik went to Nigeria to work with investors to produce film projects in the burgeoning industry known as Nollywood. This experience lasted only eight months but the experience and change of scenery rekindled the passion in Menelik to return to filmmaking. The digital technology experience in Nigeria offered a way back into filmmaking on his own terms. Source: Menelikshabazz.com
Time and Judgement (1988)
I wanted to make a film that took a panoramic view of events happening within the pan-African World during an eight year span…
Time and Judgement (view synopsis) was a film where I could be creatively free; I had a guaranteed TV slot on the newly formed Channel Four under Commissioner Alan Fountain. I wanted to add many layers to the film, and I was deep into my Rastafari phase and so I wanted to combine spirituality, symbolism, politics, poetry into a blender. Out came a film that even today I am not sure I fully understand.
After transmission on Channel Four the following day, a conservative MP made a statement in Parliament condemning the film. I wish I could remember his name. His statement got coverage in the Evening Standard which was where I found out. It was only after a decade had passed that I realised that my film was the most radical film about the black experience ever showed on British TV. Never to be repeated!
From the Archives: Original Programme Notes
I recently uncovered the original programme booklet from when Time and Judgement was first released. It gives a rare and detailed insight into the symbolism and meanings behind what you see on screen.
Below are some excerpts but you can look through the full programme here.
Catch A Fire (1996)
I travelled to Jamaica with historian Cecil Gutzemore. Whilst in St Thomas at the grave site of Bogle, I met an elder woman who walked with a limp. Meeting her was one of those ‘chance’ moments that transform your life…
The late Philip Bogle – Paul Bogle’s great-grandson
Aimimage Productions was commissioned by the BBC to produce a drama-doc series Hidden Empire. One of the ideas included Jamaican Baptist leader Paul Bogle. He was a national hero in Jamaica and many of the reggae artists including Bob Marley sang about him – yet hardly anything was written about him in the history books.
I was approached to see if I could put some meat on the bone to make this project a reality. I realised that a trip to Jamaica was necessary to make any sense of who Bogle was and to connect to his spirit.
I travelled to Jamaica with historian Cecil Gutzemore. Whilst in St Thomas at the grave site of Bogle I met an elder woman who walked with a limp. Meeting her was one of those ‘chance’ moments that transform your life. She put me in the way of Bogle’s great grandson Philip Bogle whose story played an important role and gave life to the film.
I went back to London with the meat on the bone I was looking for. Philip Bogle agreed to be interviewed. The only problem was that he had lost his hearing aid and I was concerned about his answering the questions I wanted to ask. As it turned out, no questions were needed and he just spoke recounting the story until he was done. That was it!
He spoke as if he was there – I could hang the film on his story. He died a year later. I felt a deep sense that he was hanging on to tell this story.
Catch a Fire received the Prize pieces Award the national Black programming Consortium in 1996.
The Story of Lovers Rock (2011)
At first the idea for a film never crossed my mind. It was a process that began with seeing an advert for the The Lovers Rock Gala Awards in the Voice newspaper…
The line-up read like a ‘who’s who’ of Lovers Rock artists. It came to me that this was a historic moment in time as the artists were now in their twilight years. That the show should be documented for posterity was my only thought. I followed this up and contacted the organiser, Castro Brown, and we agreed for me to cover the event.
Covering the Lover’s Rock Gala Awards
I had four cameras covering the event and one backstage doing short interviews using digital SP format. It was after the shoot I began to think that this could go further by adding more in-depth interviews that would complement the performances. Along this thought process a film began to form – a film for the cinemas rather than a straight to DVD. I thought that Lover’s Rock was important and should be shown in the cinemas to give it the value the genre deserves.
The makings of a cinema-ready documentary
We were now moving into a new era of digital projection in cinemas which was a revolution as my project could, on my simple format, be shown at a fraction of the costs compared to previously. But to make it for the cinema I needed to add other elements other than talking heads and music.
I added two other elements, the first being humour. Experiencing the reggae party/blues/dance scene, I recognised elements that had the potential for humour – from sneaking out, the styles, dance etc… so I assembled comedians who could bring that aspect.
The second element was the dance itself. It had to be reminiscent – it couldn’t be just middle-aged people talking about it. With this dance we had to see it, experience it and it had to take you back to that feeling as young people. Getting young people to do the dance was a little strange as they were not used to intimate dancing. I had to bring a dance teacher H. Patten to take them through the moves.
Distrubuting the film
At first, my thinking was to get one-off screenings and late nights but the distributor began taking cinema bookings for a week and in some cases for much longer.
However, getting the cinema is not enough, you need their support with promotion and as a small indie film you have to push hard for cinemas to act. Most didn’t show the trailer, some didn’t put the posters up under various guises and sometimes the phone lines gave the wrong information, so I had to be on the ball.
There were many great memories on the journey of this film like observing the many full houses up and down the country with audiences eating popcorn, watching my film on the big screen and laughing in all the right places!
Watch my recent interview for Kweli TV about the Story of Lover’s Rock here.
It became one of the highest grossing documentaries in UK cinemas in 2011. It also won the Jury award for Best Documentary at the Trinidad International Film Festival in 2012.
Looking For Love (2015)
We carry a lot of psychological baggage from childhood that many of us don’t even know we are carrying and this plays out in our relationships
When embarking on my documentary feature film LOOKING FOR LOVE, I was struck by the absence of documentary films on the subject.
Documentary offers an opportunity for real people to talk frankly about love and relationships without feeling threatened by the camera. This is what I tried to do in the film with particular focus around Black British voices speaking – no holds barred.
I talk to a range of people including comedians and psychotherapists to provide layers of understanding around modern day relationships, how we negotiate our emotional spaces and how does this impact on our sexual and other relationships? These are fundamental questions about our lives that we rarely engage with.
The Importance of Representing ‘Black Love’ on Screen
Black love is hardly portrayed at all in the UK media. If we see black couples there is never any tenderness or intimacy. There are virtually no character portrayals that reflect our sensibilities or ones we can empathise with. Unfortunately black love is not on the agenda of mainstream media.
I have experienced this with my previous film The Story of Lover’s Rock which portrays a different more loving image of black young people in the 70s and 8O’s. It was one of the most successful documentaries at the UK box office at the time of release but TV wasn’t interested. I even had resistance in the cinemas with the film poster of a black couple embracing. Yet had it been a poster of guns and sex then there would have been no difficulty. It’s the same with LOOKING FOR LOVE.
Highlighting Our Need for Self-Love
We are a community in need of love more than any other. The impact of enslavement and African colonialism is still affecting our mindset and our sense of self.
How come some women are using bleaching cream to make themselves lighter? This lack of self- love and low self esteem feeds into every aspects of our lives. It feeds into inter-racial dynamics, black on black violence, sexual and domestic abuse against women. We carry a lot of psychological baggage from childhood that many of us don’t even know we are carrying and this plays out in our relationships.
To view Menelik’s Q & A from the screening at the BFI, click here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAFPq9l2_DY&t=8s
Pharoahs Unveiled (2019)
From early in my teens and through most of my life, I set out to find the truth through books and visits to Egypt.
Pharaohs Unveiled is the culmination of a quest to find the truth about ancient African history and explores Kemetic history, spirituality and psychic channelling.
From early in my teens and through most of my life, I set out to find the truth through books and visits to Egypt. I realised there has been a lot of misleading information – at best – about black history before enslavement. From the religious to the historical books there was very little about my history before enslavement, one had to read between the lines, this was especially true about ancient Egypt/Kemet where the cover-up is so enormous by Egyptologists, museums, institutions, TV and Hollywood alike.
Having visited Kemet a number of times since the late eighties, I saw the truth face to face. It was during my trip in 2014 that the seeds of a film was sowed. A film that retells the narrative based on authentic information.
Discovering higher knowledge
What futher encouraged me was that the information I was getting from a very different source. This source was called channeling.
I was familiar with channeling through books since the eighties, known then as clairaudience and of course knew it was present within all cultures, but it was through channeller Neferatiti Ife that I had direct experiences. She had been connecting with the ancient Kemetians for a number years and recorded these conversations.
I realised that this source was very authentic, and perhaps controversial, as no one has used this knowledge to retell history. I believe it presents a new way to open up the past and tell our history which has largely been colonialised or unavailable.
The Hand of Ken (2020)
The work of artist Ken McCalla resonates beyond time, portraying strong spiritual, philosophical and African centred themes. His versatility as an artist working in fine art, sculpture and print for over three decades set him apart.
The Hand of Ken came completely out of the blue. I had known Ken for decades and admired and bought some of his work. He worked with me as Set Designer on my Channel 4 sci-fi documentary Time and Judgement back in 1988.
Celebrating Ken’s work and generosity
In my recent film Pharaohs Unveiled, I drew on his work which he so graciously allowed me to use without asking for a penny. I believe in reciprocity and thought to myself how can I return his generosity?
As an artist myself I understood the value he had brought with his work to my film and decided that the best way I could return his offering was to make a short film about him. He is, after all, one of our great living artists, though largely unrecognized.
Editing the film remotely
Winstan Whitter played a key role in the making of this film shooting the interview and other elements along with editing. We both gave up our time freely to make this film possible. We worked on the project remotely during latter part of editing with me being in Zimbabwe which was a unusual experience. This meant the Winstan would send me a version and I would accept or suggest ideas. We did this on and off for a month. It underlined a new way of working and open the way for further collaboration in this way.
The premiere Q&A brought out a large audience beyond what was expected via Zoom. The response was very powerful – some were surprised at the standard and consistency of his work and for others sheer admiration. I am glad to be a conduit to share his talent with the world.