OWN IT! Interviews: Join Jude Yawson – Author of Stomzy’s Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far – for this absorbing and fascinating interview with the talented Courttia Newland, author of 7 books including his much-lauded debut THE SCHOLAR, to discuss his upcoming Sci-Fi Novel A RIVER CALLED TIME.
An inspirational and empowering conversation any writer should listen to.
. —————— A RIVER CALLED TIME – OUT 7 JANUARY 2021 ——————
Set in an alternate world where slavery and colonialism never happened, Newland’s staggering novel is both a timely exploration of social inequality and a story about love, loyalty and the search for the truth.
The Ark was built to save the lives of the many, but rapidly became a refuge for the elite, the entrance closed without warning. Years after the Ark was cut off from the world, a chance of survival within its confines is granted to a select few who can prove their worth.
Among their number is Markriss Denny, whose path to future excellence is marred only by a closely guarded secret: without warning, his spirit leaves his body, allowing him to see and experience a world far beyond his physical limitations.
Once inside the Ark, Denny learns of another with the same power, whose existence could spell catastrophe for humanity. He is forced into a desperate race to understand his abilities, and in doing so uncovers the truth about the Ark, himself and the people he thought he once knew.
Courttia Newland is the author of seven books including his debut, The Scholar. His latest novel, The Gospel According to Cane, was published in 2013. He co-edited The Penguin Book of New Black Writingin Britain, and his short stories have featured in various anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. He was shortlisted for the 2007 CWA Dagger in the Library Award and the 2010 Alfred Fagon Award. In 2016 he was also awarded the Tayner Barbers Award for science fiction writing and the Roland Rees Busary for playwriting. As a screenwriter, he has co-written episodes of Steve McQueen’s 2020 BBC series Small Axe (See more here).
Jude Yawson is a multifaceted writer of essays, articles, poetry and Film Reviews. In 2018 Jude became an author, co-writing and editing Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far with Stormzy and the Merky team. Jude curates his eclectic writing through his website turned Blog House Of Horous, where his entire personal writing journey is hosted.
He has also contributed an essay entitled “Existing as a Black person living in Britain” to SAFE : On Black British Men Reclaiming Space. An anthology edited by Derek Owusu.
My eyes well, as if a cloud ready to tell the Earth to cleanse itself. My chest started to swell with a linger of heartfelt anxiety. I felt enamoured by emotion. Maybe because short animations with Black characters are so rare, or the implications that lay bare on the screen which motivated me to daydream about age, losing my loved ones, and the grace we live on with, in memory of them, stared at me in the face. Canvas is a short film that acts as an empty canvas. The dialogue was evident in the facial expressions that lead you along the way through a stream of emotions. This canvas like setting of the film lay empty to exact an idea of loss and rekindling what you have almost forgotten. For me, it is a timely and beautiful 9-minute short film that boasts a benevolence we can all relate to.
Immediately it steers you into a dreamspace, one which offers no date, but a scope of what the film is capturing. Latching onto the thoughts in my mind, of our limited time here, exemplified in the old worn out face of the main character – a visibly exhausted Grandpa, wheelchair striken, lonely and reserved. Having lost his wife, survived by memories of the small of her back in the vision of dreams, the Grandpa leans on the pact of the new. His Grandchild, a playful mischevious little girl visits him with an enthusiasm that could carry the world. She sheds a joy and innocence for life that immediately captivates him. She enjoys pens and paper, creating art to embark on some journey. It is through their respective canvas’ the short story unfolds.
Doing a little research, the animator Frank E Abney III details the film as a reflection, a personal portrait of loss, contemplation regarding creation, and the innocence of children and the carefree attitude that comes with that. The film was originally picked up, optioned, and somewhat left aside by a production company until Abney rekindled the project after claiming the rights back. Canvas was put together by a team who dedicated off work hours to piecing together the project over a span of 6 years. Abney also executive produced Matthew Curry’s Hair Love, an Oscar-winning and somewhat game-changing short, and like Canvas both projects utilised Kickstarter Campaigns to garner enough money to finish the project. Like Hair Love, Black features are important but not upheld as the main factor. We are finally reaching a point of such projects just existing without the stance of racism prompting it to be. Canvas encompasses the feeling of loss and projects it into your own mind forcing you to consider your own. The main character was based on Abney’s own Grandfather, who he referred to as being “stoic and quiet” in his own life and conception of him, it was this idea of him that he always knew. As for the Granddaughter, during Abney’s own creative loss or rather dulled passion, it was the carefree demeanour of his nieces and nephews that enticed him. He lost his Father at an early age and witnessed his single Mother work throughout life to fill the void and provide them with more. Considering this all, Canvas is a compilation of such personal ideas that really epitomises Abney’s personal insights to life and loss.
Keeping the investors from the Kickstarter campaign updated and such a widespread acknowledgement of the film put Canvas on Netflix’s radar. Today, I sit here at the edge of my bed watching this film acknowledging its necessity as a black person, but generally as a wonderful and empathy drawing short, boasting rich colours and a lovely story. The power of animation and a heart toying story, not much has to be said or done in terms of a narrative to make it such a solely Black experience, rather the characters just have to be brought into life. It is as simple as that. I felt a wave of emotions just by the scenes, the angles that imply in his interview with Variety, Abney also highlighted that there are some more things to come with working alongside Netflix. I for one am excited at the potentiality of Black animation, likewise, with Black anything, so many stories can thrive through such a medium. Having worked on animated greats like Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Kung Fu Panda, Abney’s wealth of experience with heartwarming and emphatic works is not so foreign. I can just wonder about the magic Abney intends to bring to the screen.
Perfectly placed between the first film in the Small Axe anthology, MANGROVE (based on the Mangrove Nine – Black British activists from Notting Hill that clashed with the racist police force there) and the third of the series, RED, WHITE AND BLUE (the origin story of Leroy Logan, a first-generation Brit who joined the police force in 1983 in hopes of changing the system from the inside – sits Lovers Rock.
In contrast to the vicious, honest depiction of the suffering many first and second-generation West Indians were subjected to in London, Lovers Rock is a portrayal of the sweet young love, found by many within the safe spaces they had created for themselves. In a city that continued to find ways of rejecting them, including the ban from attending white clubs, the birth of ‘blues parties’ was inevitable. Such as the one in Lovers Rock, set across one night at a house in Ladbroke Grove in 1980.
The Dapper Franklyn (Michael Ward) swaying with Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) to “After Tonight” by Junior English, portray a rare moment of representation on British Television of mainstream Black experiences.
Whilst I am thankful for the honest, hard hitting and necessary truth delineated in McQueen’s Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, I am even more thankful for a glimpse of the other beautiful end of the spectrum. Of the soft smoky light shone on the era of Lovers Rock. 68 minutes of intoxicating energy, vibrant choreography and most importantly, a soul feeding, nostalgia-filled soundtrack. Sound, image and mood melting together to create an immersive cinematic experience.
Set against the backdrop of a hostile city, Lovers Rock provides an essential part of the Small Axe anthology, an authentic reflection of the West Indian experience in Britain, of the soulful culture that runs deep throughout Britain’s history. Where films such as Mangrove serve the purpose of highlighting the trauma and suffering of the Black community, Lovers Rock serves as a beautiful and timely reminder that Black history is also full of joy, community and celebration.
Scenes shift through the party, like you might find yourself moving from room to room, exploring things, discovering people. As the viewer we venture through an evening of pulsating celebration, energetic dance sequences and songs played out at length. There is an almost spiritual moment to Janet Kay’s Silly Games, 5 minutes of aching romance in the voices of everyone in the room, attempting to hit Kay’s signature falsetto. As the music stops, the young people are so lost in it, continuing the song in acapella, hands clutched against chests, eyes shut. Not wanting it to end, the night or the song. The hypnotic lull of it seduces us, its ethereal flow carries us throughout the rest of the film, slow grooving through the crowd. At this party we are not just the fly on the wall, we are every song carried across the floorboards, through the swaying bodies, lingering on faces.
The intimacy of the moment is so striking. As a viewer its clear many people in the room are strangers, but the music, the soft looks, the sharing of food, it’s so pure. What makes Lovers Rock so piercing, is the details. Everything about Lovers Rock is done with consciousness, to say something, with a purpose. The power of music, the sense of community, Lovers Rock is a reflection of people living in the moment.
There is even an appearance by Dennis Bovell who wrote Silly Games and a man seen carrying a large white cross on his shoulders, an ode to the actual man seen frequently in Ladbroke Grove, well known to locals.
Alongside the romance of the evening, are threatening undertones hinted at throughout. Including the group of white boys that harass Martha and the quietly threatening aura of Bammy. All of which are overcome by the power of community.
Lovers Rock represents the power of community, the power of music, the power of letting go of all the tensions they would have been faced with Monday to Friday and leaving them at the door. To be able to enter a room full of strangers and feel so connected. To drink, smoke and slow whine to good music, Lovers Rock encapsulates a romantic point in time where many fell in love at these parties, despite the social injustice that raged on outside of them. These parties provided escapism from that hostility, a euphoria amongst those that could connect with each other, blossoming together in a sacred space where culture, music and good food was met in its rawest form and individuals were allowed to be themselves without judgement. Complete and utter human connection.
I found myself spending the rest of the day hoping and wondering if Martha would call Franklyn at 5 after church like she promised.
Much like Janet Kay’s – Silly Games lingers throughout the room and throughout the film… Lovers Rock lingers on my mind.
For a minute or so, a rocking pot cradles to a stop, as a Kitchen’s stationary is left to rot on an abandoned floor. It would seem a scene from War, normality torn apart by the tenacity of it and displacement. Although this wasn’t a shot cropped from 1917, but a lasting frame of the remnants of Police brutality. The Mangrove has just been raided, and the Police orchestrate a racist attack. With bats swinging, uniforms in droves clinging onto innocent Black people manhandling them for existing, the restaurant is trashed and PC Pulley acts as if justice was served. I thought of those cries fading to silence as the shot of the pot drowns out the noise of vile Police and screams of the people they apprehended. This moment plagued my mind, clasped my throat, and I grieved about the horrors invoked by racism untold and unaccounted for. The afflicted Black livelihoods in our collective past, and the racism our society is structured upon even still prevalent today. We are essentially having the same conversations in a difference space, notwithstanding the dark depths of a racialised past. Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology series Small Axe intends to weave a web of Black and underrepresented realities, true histories, starting with a captivating episode called Mangrove. Such an endeavour embarks on the task of alleviating that undefined past, if such a story basked in common knowledge not many would dare to question and ask about racism embedded within the Police and general Society. Based on the Mangrove Nine and their breakthrough Old Bailey Trial, which became the first judicial recognition of racism within the Metropolitan Police, this episode captures a moment in time, 1970’s Notting Hill instilled with a buzzing Caribbean community that is subject to Police harassment and a system of racism.
The Mangrove restaurant was recognised as a cornerstone of building a Caribbean community in Notting Hill. Serving food tailored to such a community, engaging with its people and acting as a base for community-led meetings. The Mangrove was a prime meeting spot for the Black community, a hub for authors, artists, musicians, and even white radicals. The restaurant hosted the likes of Bob Marley, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, C. L. R. James and many other prominent figures stemming from Black communities. Although, the show was not immersed in the fame of those who graced the walls of the Mangrove. But the culture and aspect of community and the fight the Black community faced was the most captivating notion throughout the film. A joyous colourful setting betting on good vibes, unrestrained afro’s and Caribbean jives, their pride in unapologetic culture, and gems of thoughts and feelings regarding race that represent a theme of Blackness constant throughout our lives and still relevant today. As Darcus Howe turns the page of C.L.R James The Black Jacobins, a complex study of the only successful slave revolt in Haiti, he utters the same ideal we still feel today “this book should be studied in schools” which makes it all more dejecting knowing we have had the tools to change these perceptions though still fight against this phenomenon today.
This first episode of Small Axe offers an impassioned spread of performances from a wonderful cast, including Shaun Parkes as the owner of the Mangrove restaurant Frank Crichlow. Frank Crichlow was described a shy and reserved man, who unknowingly became a community leader able to inspire communal change by the importance he held within it. Shaun embodies that aloofness which was marred by harassment from the Police and the racism evident in the streets. The Mangrove was regularly raided for drugs, despite Frank’s own anti-drug policy and eventual rehabilitation programme which saw no support from such Police. It is within such a space, being subjected to systematic racism, a necessity to combat it is born. The constant accusations the Mangrove faced, the games and raids the Police would play and undertake, and the sheer racism in which Black people fought against, builds an uncomfortable, debilitating watch. An inspired performance by Letitia Wright donning another Black Panther cowl this time as Altheia Jones-LeCointe is spell binding. Her tone is of excellence, words so powerful, Altheia’s proactive campaigning positions the nine and community to demonstrate alongside the contemplative Darcus Howe who is the other leading voice in the protest.
The most disturbing scene captures them both at the protest elevated with a speakerphone. Grenfell rests in the back. A very poignant scene that acted as an intense realisation of the collective oppression minorities have faced while ringing sentiments we still live by today. A monumental performance by Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe relaying everything from his protesting scowls to pitch perfecting his voice made me realise how suitable the star-studded cast was as they lived and act in recognition of all these incidents of oppression. For instance, Letitia Wright had been plotting on playing Altheia since 2015 when IMDB announced that Steve McQueen was starting this project. “Hey, this is about the West Indian Community” – Letita said “I got that culture within my blood, I need to know what’s going on there” In an interview with Cinema Blend, she claims the insightful research undertaken by the team in order to build the conception of the period drawing from true examples such as museums, documents and also a meeting with Altheia Jones-LeCointe herself. Letitia goes on to describe Steve McQueen himself, highlighting the Oscar Winning Director brings the best out of his actors through mere trust and his presence alone.
The first time I saw Malachi Kirby perform was in a BBC Docuseries alongside John Boyega, who plays Leroy Logan in the next episode of Small Axe, called My Murder. This is a sort of full circle moment as two young Black men’s career spans from capturing trauma in our youth to acting to bring to fruition the historical abuse of Black people in this country. Malachi Kirby has also had immense roles in Black Mirror and a remake of Roots as Kunta Kinte. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Kirby highlighted the fact that he had never heard of the Mangrove Trial before – which is unsurprising for me as a common understanding of Black British History is hosted in America. Working alongside Steve McQueen was essentially a history lesson for him. It is that very same necessity born to fight against systematic racism that such interested Black actors and directors endeavour to work from in presenting the past. Rochenda Sandall as Barbara Beese offered a unique perspective to the trial I personally had not considered. That these were normal people, glorified by their communal endeavours which in an ideal world would not be necessary at all. Barbara lives in fear of losing her child while on trial, at times reasonably fearing the worst in losing and facing a 10-year sentence in which she would lose her child. Sometimes, glaring back into the depths of Black activists, their heroic endeavours overshadow fragility as people.
All the actors invigorated and instilled a belief in their characters, drawing upon much more about their individual experiences and the perceptions of a Black community they all relate to. Even within Mangrove, the community gathers in order to educate Black youth on how to act around Police. Having to always live in fear of oppression, orchestrating a way in which to see it all and make sense of it, is an imposing reality we still share now. Today, there are youth organisations leading workshops to teach youth their rights when it comes to stop and search and general interactions with the Police and the criminal justice system. Such as the 4Front Project – a grassroots community movement that tackles youth violence, challenges a racist criminal justice system, racial inequity and unaccountability within our society. The fight against the system in its various ways of subjugation has existed for a long period of time, such an episode and show do the justice in bringing such ideas to fruition.
Even throughout this pandemic, Governmental statistics regarding the systematic oppression of Black people in stop and search, the disproportionate deaths by COVID-19 and the deaths of NHS staff of an ethnic origin. A widespread Society’s ill reaction toward the BLM’s protests and toppling of a slave statue, as well as the incessant conversations on whether racism exists as a phenomenon in this country or not shows the position, we are collectively still in.
Watch MANGROVE here + the next part of Small Axe, LOVERS ROCK here. Don’t miss RED, WHITE AND BLUE on BBC One this Sunday.
This Sunday saw the release of Mangrove – the first of a series of 5 films by award-winning director Steve Mcqueen, which celebrate West Indians In Britain. Mcqueen’s five-part anthology series – Small Axe – takes its title from a West Indian proverb about collective struggle (“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”) and encompasses true stories from the late 60s to mid-80s. The films each tell a story involving London’s West Indian community, a celebration of Black joy, beauty, friendship, love, music and food, despite subjection to rampant racism and discrimination.
Mangrove follows the story of Frank Circhlow’s restaurant. The local police raid Mangrove time after time, making Frank and the local community take to the streets in peaceful protest in 1970. When nine men and women, including Frank and leader of the British Black Panther Movement Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot, a highly publicised trial ensues, leading to a hard-fought win for those fighting against discrimination.
It is no surprise that our own Courttia Newland is a part of this iconic moment for Black British TV, having written the screenplay to the second part of the anthology series – LOVERS ROCK (airing this Sunday, BBC One) and having co-written RED, WHITE AND BLUE, which airs the following Sunday.
LOVERS ROCK tells a fictional story of young love at a Blues party in 1980. The film is an ode to the romantic reggae genre, Lovers Rock, and to the Black youth who found freedom and love in its sound in London house parties when they were unwelcome in white nightclubs. A vital exploration of cultural identity.
RED, WHITE AND BLUE tell’s the true story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a young forensic scientist with a yearning to do more than his solitary laboratory work. When he sees his father assaulted by two policemen, he finds himself driven to revisiting a childhood ambition to become a police officer – an ambition borne from the naïve hope of wanting to change racist attitudes from within.
Small Axe provides long overdue representation for viewers of Caribbean descent, opening up a space on television for the celebration of British-Caribbean Culture. These luminous stories are powerful recreations of the history of Black Britain. A landmark moment for British film and television.
Small Axe not only brings to attention questions about the history of British Racism, it is a shining luminous beacon aimed at the UK film and television industry, who so far have failed to value and represent Black stories.
Following the Black Lives Matter Movement, McQueen’s Small Axe aids the transition into a new age of British film and television, where Black stories and Black voices are no longer marginalised.
These films will remind some viewers of moments from their past that might be challenging and uncomfortable. But for many of those, these stories are unknown, and are a trove for discovering history from a different community, stories that would not have been told if McQueen had not made these films.
“Although all five films take place between the late 1960s and mid-80s, they are just as much a comment on the present moment as they were then. They are about the past, yet they are very much concerned with the present.” – Steve McQueen
The last of the two films include:
ALEX WHEATLE, following the true story of award-winning writer, Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), from a young boy through his early adult years. Having spent his childhood in a mostly white institutional care home with no love or family, he finally finds not only a sense of community for the first time in Brixton, but his identity and opportunity to grow his passion for music and DJing. When he is thrown in prison during the Brixton Uprising of 1981, he confronts his past and sees a path to healing.
and EDUCATION, the coming of age story of 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) with a fascination for astronauts and rockets. When Kingsley is pulled to the Headmaster’s office for being disruptive in class, he discovers he’s being sent to school for those with ‘special needs’.
Distracted by working two jobs, his parents (Sharlene Whyte, Daniel Francis) are unaware of what was the unofficial segregation policy at play that is preventing many Black children from having the education they deserve – until a group of West Indian women take matters into their own hands.
Watch the first film of Small Axe – Mangrove – on BBCiPlayer here.