Black history is British history.
There were Black Tudors and Stuarts. Henry VIII had a Black trumpeter. Black people were actually brought over from Jamaica to fight in World War One. There were race riots in the 1980s in response to racist experiences from police raids. But you might not have known about any of this — and that’s a testament to the erasure of Black British history.
In the wake of the uptick in global racial justice protests and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, stories about Black historical and fictional figures have resurfaced, galvanising the arts and culture sector to hand Black filmmakers and directors the mic.
From Steve McQueen's Small Axe to the hit Netflix drama series Bridgerton, which drew 63 million viewers in its first month and featured a diverse cast set in Regency England, the appetite for Black British stories is undeniable.
But there’s still much work to be done. In this country, a disproportionately high number of people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds die as a result of use of force and restraint by police, according to investigative charity Inquest, such as was the case with Chris Kaba. Incidents such as the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the Windrush scandal illustrate the ways in which anti-Blackness is entrenched in our political and social systems.
While making sure these stories are told and heard is of the utmost importance, it’s just as crucial to tell the tales of Black excellence, Black creativity, and Black innovation.
This UK Black History month, we’ve rounded up some of the most exciting depictions of Black British experiences, art, and culture throughout the decades. If you’re looking for a watch-list that will challenge, educate, and inspire you to fight for racial equity, look no further.
1. 'A Moving Image'
Released in 2016, A Moving Image is an award-winning multimedia feature film about gentrification in Brixton, incorporating fiction, documentary, and performance art. The film follows Nina (Tanya Fear), a young, stifled artist, as she returns to her community after a long absence — but is soon painted as a symbol of gentrification herself.
2. 'White Colour Black'
Part of the official selection of the BFI London Film Festival 2016, White Colour Black follows a young London photographer on his journey to Senegal to bury his estranged father.
3. 'Small Axe'
Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen had already secured his place in the history books when he became the first Black director of an Academy Award-winning best picture with 12 Years a Slave, a film set in the 19th-century United States. An equivalent epic about Black British history had never been made. Until Small Axe.
With an absolutely banging soundtrack, Small Axe is a five-part anthology series that tells four true stories and one imagined, set between the late ’60s and mid-’80s. Each one is sensitively told, cinematically astonishing, and deeply moving.
As one reviewer wrote: “In all my 49 years on this earth as a black male, I have never been so touched by drama.”
4. 'Chewing Gum'
Chewing Gum is a hit comedy series created and written by actor, singer, poet, and award-winning playwright Michaela Coel, based on her 2012 play Chewing Gum Dreams.
The series follows religious, Beyoncé-obsessed, 24-year-old Tracey Gordon, who fast finds out that the more she learns about the world, the less she understands.
5. 'Hair Power: Me and My Afro'
A taboo-busting look at how Afro-textured hair shapes Black experience in modern Britain, Hair Power: Me and My Afro is a documentary in which director, Nicole Charles, and presenter, Emma Dabiri, share their personal stories of hair discrimination and talk to men and women about their hair stories.
Watch on Channel 4.
6. 'Top Boy'
Ronan Bennett’s drama about “shotting” [selling] “food” [drugs] to make “Ps” [money] on a Hackney council estate aired for two series on Channel 4 and then was cancelled, only to be revived for Netflix in 2019, by none other than Grammy-winning rapper, Drake.
The Canadian legend-turned-Top Boy superfan was so eager to find out what happened next to Dushane (Ashley “Asher D” Walters), Sully (Kane “Kano” Robinson), and their nascent narcotics empire that he signed on as executive producer.
How’s that for an incentive to get stuck into this gritty tale of the pursuit of money and power?
An original comedy drama series set in south-east London, Youngers follows a group of friends aiming to become the next big thing on the urban music scene. They slowly make their way to the top of the music charts in London, but the higher they get, the more problems emerge.
8. 'Black Earth Rising'
Black Earth Rising follows Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel), a legal investigator who, as an infant, escaped genocide in Rwanda in the arms of her adoptive mother, Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), an international lawyer specialising in prosecuting war lords.
Eve agrees to prosecute a Tutsi general credited with bringing about the end of the Rwandan genocide. He is charged with a horrific crime, but it remains unknown to all but a few.
Kate, a Tutsi woman herself, is horrified as she cannot understand why her mother would choose to prosecute the man who put an end to the horror.
9. 'I May Destroy You'
Michaela Coel again! This time she’s on the list for creating, writing, co-directing, and executive producing the triumph that is I May Destroy You for the BBC.
A fearless, frank, and provocative series, I May Destroy You explores the question of sexual consent and features a scene with a tampon that simply cannot be unseen.
10. 'Blue Story'
There was a 10% increase in knife crimes to 49,027 offences in the year ending March 2022. In London last year, 30 of those attacks were fatal and 27 victims were stabbed to death in public places, including two within an hour of each other in unconnected attacks on opposite sides of the capital.
Blue Story takes this epidemic as its subject matter — and it’s brutal, raw, and often difficult to watch.
Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Top Boy’s Micheal Ward) are friends from rival postcodes who inherit a feud and fatalities ensue.
The documentary-style iPhone footage, TV news clips about gangs, guns, and knife crime, and the writer-director as a rapping Greek chorus all hammer home the film’s message.