Director: Anthony Simmons
Screenplay: Jamal Ali, Anthony Simmons
Based on a Play by: Jamal Ali
Starring: Norman Beaton, Trevor Thomas, Dawn Hope, Floella Benjamin, Paul J. Medford, Oscar James
Running Time: 99 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
In the 1970s, the blaxploitation boom meant Hollywood was finally producing films with majority-black casts and often black writers and directors. They were problematic perhaps in their frequent portrayals of African-Americans as pimps and drug pushers, offering up no end of stereotypes, but at least the long-marginalised community was getting represented on screen and audiences were flocking to the films. In Britain however, despite the high level of multiculturalism within the country, no similar movement ever surfaced. I can think of numerous British TV series set in African or Asian communities, but very few feature films.
In 1977 however, the respected British-Jewish director Anthony Simmons approached the Guyana-born poet and playwright Jamal Ali to adapt his play ‘Dark Days and Light Nights’ for the big screen. Simmons’ early film career was influenced by the British documentary movement, particularly the poetic approach of Humphrey Jennings, and he had an interest in naturally yet artistically portraying the real lives of working-class communities. Ali’s play must have seemed like an opportunity to put his skills to depicting the large black community in London, which had not been effectively represented yet on screen.
The finished film, Black Joy, was critically well-received and even one of Britain’s entries to the Cannes film festival in 1977, so there was a fair amount of buzz surrounding it. However, due to a legal oversight with regards to music licensing, the film was pulled from cinemas after only 3 months (a big deal in those days before box-office relied on opening weekends and home entertainment sales). It was re-released four years later after licenses were obtained, but it was deemed out of date so did little business and has since disappeared into obscurity. It’s a real shame as the film is a groundbreaking piece of British cinema, being one of the first films from the country to feature an all-black cast and the first to see a black actor win a prestigious award in the UK (Norman Beaton took home ‘Actor of the Year’ from the Variety Club), yet little is spoken of it. Looking to address this balance, Powerhouse Films are releasing Black Joy on Blu-Ray in a typically well-restored and special-feature-laden release on their Indicator label.
The film sees Ben (Trevor Thomas), a Guyanese ‘country boy’ immigrant, arrive in London with a suitcase and a wad of cash, in search of a relative’s address. During his fruitless search for this location, his money is stolen by a young boy, Devon (Paul Medford), forcing Ben to stay at a hostel for the night. He later tracks down and follows Devon and is introduced to Dave (Norman Beaton), who is the lover of the boy’s mother. Dave offers to help Ben get settled in, whilst simultaneously milking him for cash. Despite using Ben in this way, Dave does become a friend to the painfully naive newcomer, who eventually grows street smart as the film goes on.
It’s quite a sparse story then, largely just the gradual development of Ben’s character from being perpetually used to finally turning the tables and hustling people himself. What’s interesting about this structure though, is the film doesn’t pass judgement on whether Ben’s new street smarts are a good or a bad thing. Those with high morals may be saddened by how this innocent tee-total virgin becomes a local player, but others may feel empowered by the fact he learns to stand up for himself in the dog-eat-dog world he’s found himself in. This ambiguity means the film’s finale feels a little underwhelming, but it allows for a rich experience with more nuance than Hollywood’s blaxploitation counterparts.
Where the film truly shines though is in its vibrant portrayal of life in the African-British community in Brixton in the 70s. Despite a lack of narrative drive, the film motors along with a great energy. This is achieved largely through two means – the dialogue and the performances. The endless, fast-paced banter from writer Jamal Ali is a joy to behold, with plenty of humour in the refreshingly frank and raw exchanges between characters. The cast, although not all perfect (I found Thomas a tad bland), are largely charismatic and authentic. Beaton is particularly strong, delivering a hugely enjoyable and memorable central performance (Ben’s story may anchor the film, but Dave has equal screen-time). The women in the two men’s lives, Miriam (Playschool’s Floella Benjamin) and Saffra (Dawn Hope), also hold their own, playing strong female characters that make their voices heard.
Black Joy is nicely shot in a typically gritty 70s style, with Simmons’ frames always filled with life in naturally presented locations. The soundtrack is fantastic too, crammed with reggae, soul and disco classics. So the film has a wonderfully infectious zest to it.
It’s not all fun and games though. The film doesn’t shy away from the racist attitudes and social problems in Britain at the time. Indeed, shortly into the film we witness Ben being given an unnecessary cavity search at Heathrow and soon after getting abuse from some of the white locals. Prospects seem low for our protagonists too, which is partly why they’re driven to constant hustling and swindling to get by. What sets the film apart from the typically grim kitchen sink dramas we’re used to though is that the characters here don’t wallow in their problems or get overcome by them, but enjoy the life they’ve got, making the best of every situation with a smile on their face and a fire in their soul.
Playing things on a smaller scale than black cinema in America at the time, Black Joy is a more believable look at the black experience than, say Shaft and its ilk. Ben and Dave aren’t running drug cartels or robbing banks, they’re just playfully hustling a few quid here and there. As mentioned, this lower key makes for a slightly unsatisfactory conclusion to the film, but it offers greater depth and authenticity as a slice of life. Gritty yet exuberant with enjoyably witty no-nonsense dialogue, charismatic performances and a cracking soundtrack, it certainly gives its American brothers a run for their money. It deserves to be much better known and held up as the groundbreaking classic it truly is.
Black Joy is out on 24th June by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. The picture and audio quality are both excellent as is to be expected from the label.
There are plenty of special features included:
- High Definition remaster, newly re-graded and approved by cinematographer Phil Meheux
– Original mono audio
– The BEHP Interview with Anthony Simmons (1997): An archival audio recording, made as part of the British Entertainment History Project, featuring the prolific director in conversation with filmmaker Rodney Giesler
– Interview with actor Trevor Thomas (2019)
– Interview with actor Floella Benjamin (2019)
– Interview with actor Oscar James (2019)
– Interview with playwright and screenwriter Jamal Ali (2019)
– Interview with producer Martin Campbell (2019)
– Interview with cinematographer Phil Méheux (2019)
– Featurette exploring the film’s London locations (2019)
– Bow Bells (1954): Anthony Simmons’ nostalgic short film about London’s East End
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Josie Dolan, recollections by director Anthony Simmons and star Norman Beaton, Michael Brooke on Bow Bells, an overview of contemporary critical responses, archival articles, and film credits
– World premiere on Blu-ray
– Limited Edition of 3,000 copies
The Simmons interview, which runs like a commentary over the film, only touches briefly upon Black Joy, but it provides an interesting look at the director’s career. Bow Bells also gives you a glimpse of Simmons’ past work. The large collection of interviews with everyone else involved does more to explore the history and legacy of the film, with all contributors seeming genuinely proud of it. I don’t think I’d have noticed that Casino Royale’s director, Martin Campbell, was the main producer on Black Joy either, if it weren’t for his interview here.
As always, the booklet included in the limited edition copies is indispensable. There’s an essay that delves into the significance of the film on a racial level much more deeply and eloquently than I have here, as well as plenty of other illuminating content, so I thoroughly recommend giving it a read.