Vanley Burke’s photograph Boy with Flag, Winford in Handsworth Park, 1970 appears in films by two of the most important figures in British cinema of the past 35 years. Handsworth Songs, directed by John Akomfrah of the Black Audio Film Collective, was first broadcast on Channel Four in 1986 during the channel’s experimental phase, and Red, White and Blue, directed by Steve McQueen, was released as part of the Small Axe series on BBC1 in 2020. What parallels and contrasts are evident across these two deployments of Burke’s image, and what do they tell us about the aesthetic and political strategies of Akomfrah and McQueen, and their particular engagements with Black British experience?
Often called the godfather of Black British photography, Burke emigrated from rural Jamaica to the UK in 1965 at the age of 14 to join his parents, who ran a grocery shop. Kieran Connell notes: “Within two years [he] had begun taking photographs in Handsworth, Birmingham, making a ‘conscious decision to document the lives and experiences of black people’.”1 Burke has stated:
History is normally written by the victor, and […] as a group of people we were complaining about the way our history was written and I felt it was important that I, having the opportunity to take photographs, should do something to document our own history [..] the history of the Black community in Handsworth.2
The photograph under discussion depicts a Black boy, Winford Fagan, aged about eight, standing with his bike in the park, with a Union Jack flying from the handlebars. Burke comments:
It evoked a strange feeling in you. This whole thing about belonging and identity was very strong at the time, and here is this young kid, just bold, cutting across all those arguments with his bicycle and his flag, and I just thought it was so brave and wonderful of him, so I took the photograph.3
In a 2015 interview, Fagan asserted his identification as British, even while he was the victim of racist abuse as a child:
I had that flag on my bike for as long as I had the bike. A union jack was something you would have then, not just for bunting. People asked me, ‘Why not a Jamaican flag?’ but I didn’t know about Jamaica. I was born here. […] At the time, there was a lot of racial hatred and gang violence. I remember being chased by skinheads, most of them a lot older than me, but some my age. […] There were certain hours of the night when you couldn’t be on the road in case you were beaten up or stabbed. It was frightening. It wasn’t just skinheads who gave us abuse: it was English people in general. They saw us being in their country as an invasion.4
Fagan’s statement chimes with W.E.B. Du Bois’ influential concept of ‘double consciousness’, an attempt to capture the ‘two-ness’ of African American experience developed in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. In his posthumously published autobiography, Du Bois wrote of: “that dichotomy which all my life has characterized my thought: how far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country? And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?”5 A similar social and psychological investment in the “oppressing country” (here, Britain), even in the face of everyday and institutional racism, is traced in both Handsworth Songs and in McQueen’s portrayal of the Black police officer Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue. But there are also salient formal and political differences between the two texts, which an inquiry into their respective remediations of Burke’s photograph helps to clarify.
Black Audio Film Collective’s most celebrated production, Handsworth Songs interrogates and reworks mainstream television and press coverage of three days of violence in September 1985 in which police were attacked and shops damaged in Handsworth, Birmingham. It does this in part by splicing such material with archive footage of Afro-Caribbean immigrants arriving in the UK and building new lives there, thus tapping into intertwined currents of optimism, melancholy and foreboding. Akomfrah has said: “one of the things I’m obsessed with [is] archives, because on the one hand they’re repositories of official memory, but they’re also phantoms of other kinds of memories that weren’t taken up.”6 Of the footage of the riots and their aftermath, he noted:
[we] needed to slow it down, open it, stretch it out. Because although you might say this happened in one afternoon, actually what happens in one afternoon has decades in it. We were going to open it up and show you how there are five decades there.7
Boy with Flag appears 17 minutes into the film as the final image in a short montage of five of Burke’s black and white photographs showing Black children on the streets, or, in one instance, at school with a white teacher. The sequence is accompanied by musique concrète, and follows on from a clip of a Black woman complaining to journalists about unemployment and police harassment of Black youth in the months preceding the uprising. An earlier montage of images from the 1950s and 1960s includes new immigrants’ wedding photographs, along with footage of them at home, going to work, and dancing on a night out. Ratik Asokan has commented on the impact of this assemblage: “Now it is impossible for us to watch the crass television coverage of the riot, which is introduced later in the film, without thinking of the previous generations that settled in Handsworth and tried to make a life there.”8 Another consequence of this use of bricolage is to capture a sense of disappointment among the first generation of immigrants, which Ben Highmore has compared to unrequited love: “The secret history of disappointment is freighted with the unrequited love of migration.”9 By the time of the civil unrest of the 1980s, the offspring of those postwar immigrants were confronted with unemployment, everyday racism and police harassment. Situated within this historical framework, Burke’s image of Fagan and his union jack becomes a challenge to the racialised stereotype of the “black bomber”,10 and is instead redolent of the complex subjectivation of the young (male) Black Briton, who is both at home and never at home in the country.
Akomfrah has commented on the difficulty of trying to escape reductive racist expectations of what Black people in the UK can and cannot be:
[there is] that mirror moment when you suddenly realize that actually, this figure, this ghost that you’ve been trying to run away from […] the fiction of the black figure, was in fact, and is in fact, you […] You suddenly realize that all the news accounts and the TV reportage—about a young man or woman who is causing trouble, and who you were trying to avoid because you were trying to be a good British subject—were talking about you.11
Akomfrah’s account here echoes Frantz Fanon’s seminal analysis of the accretion of racialised constructions, and their impact on the Black self when subjected to a white person’s gaze, in Black Skin, White Masks:
I was responsible at the same time for my body, my race, my ancestors. [..] I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism [sic], racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin’.12
Asokan glosses Akomfrah’s experience and his filmmaking response thus:
The trauma, as it were, comprises growing up black in a racist country. The (self)diagnosis is the belated recognition that this society made you want to escape your skin color. Having understood that escape is impossible, and indeed misguided, you then search for a therapy. Here’s where the archive comes in. The visual history of imperialism serves as a master key to your complexes. By deconstructing the archive you reframe your relationship to society.13
It is instructive to compare and contrast the use of Boy with Flag in Handsworth Songs to an untitled image of a young Black boy in a cowboy hat in Raoul Peck’s documentary on James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro (2016) is a film which also deals with the liminal social positioning of Black citizens in a racist country, in this case the United States. Baldwin’s words in the film are either read in voiceover by the actor Samuel L. Jackson, or recorded in his television appearances and public speeches. The following passage is taken from footage of Baldwin’s speech to students at Cambridge University in 1965:
At the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face [in dominant media] is white, and since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock at the age of 5 or 6 or 7, to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.
Twice Peck cuts away from archival black and white film of Baldwin at Cambridge. The first shift is to an image of a young Black girl looking at white mannequins of children in a clothes shop window; the second is to the boy in the cowboy hat. The latter matches the last sentence of the speech, which lasts for 15 seconds. A slow zoom in to the photograph ends with the boy’s head and face occupying the majority of the frame as he looks directly at the camera.
In this and many other sequences in I Am Not Your Negro, words and images are organised in a mutually supportive logic in order to secure meaning. Baldwin’s verbal eloquence is illustrated by stills and clips from the archive, such as the boy in the cowboy hat. At the same time, the significance of these images is clarified, their meanings delimited and anchored, by his words.
By contrast, Handsworth Songs employs Burke’s photograph metonymically, rather than ‘underwriting’ it with spoken text. Akomfrah elaborates on the process in a discussion of metonymy in his later film, The Nine Muses (2010):
I work to find poetry in the metonymic, to work with images that have authority and autonomy and value in their own right. So [in one sequence from The Nine Muses] it’s a horse in a field, it is free, it’s running around, and at some point it approaches the camera. But its meanings free float, they can be commandeered, not just as magic or mystery, but also from the juxtaposition of images. […] Here is an image of a creature, a horse, it’s roaming free, it’s ‘wild’, no saddle on its back, so the viewer knows in some way that you are working with ideas of freedom. But the trick is not to state it, not to underwrite it. Then it merely becomes symbolic. There is a value in the metonymic, a vitality, a truth. […] So we have images that have a value and an autonomy in their own right, and an aura at the same time. But one is not being forced to see a meaning.14
In Handsworth Songs, Burke’s image functions as one of several figurations of the complex social positioning of Black Britons but, like the horse in The Nine Muses, it still retains some autonomy, with meanings floating free. Its polyvalence is neither simply self-evident nor entirely contained within the armature of the film’s argument.15
Red, White and Blue
The second deployment of Boy with Flag that I want to discuss occurs in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe pentalogy. Red, White and Blue tells the true story of Leroy Logan, a second-generation immigrant who left a career as a medical research scientist to join the Metropolitan Police in 1981. Logan, played by John Boyega, has to cope with relentless racism from fellow officers, ostracisation by members of the local Black community, and the vehement disapproval of his father, himself the victim of a brutal attack by white police officers. McQueen has said:
I’m still struggling, to be honest with you [to understand Logan’s choice] .. he had so much going against him, being in the police force, the racism in the police force, as well as his father, who was attacked and beaten. [..] [Logan was] up against so much [..] the effort, mental, physical, emotional, is gigantic.[..] it’s a titanic effort that he made to keep on going in that situation.16
In his career as an artist and filmmaker, McQueen has worked across diverse modes and registers – from the experimental to popular genres – and the Small Axe series is certainly closer to the popular end of this spectrum. Compared to the essayistic and experimental techniques of Handsworth Songs, Red, White and Blue offers a far more conventional narrative, one that is realist, immersive and character-centred.17 The drama is clearly aiming for a much larger audience, but it, like the other Small Axes, remains utterly political in both intent and impact, by calling attention to relatively neglected histories of Black people in Britain. McQueen has said: “I wanted to make Small Axe for my mother, in a way that you could turn on the telly and have it accessible to her.”18
Following the final scene of Logan and his father sharing a drink in the kitchen, and the subsequent end credits, Burke’s photograph is the last image of Red, White and Blue. Here it takes on a summative function, condensing the complexity of Logan’s preceding journey. It is never made clear whether or not viewers are to think of this image as that of the young Leroy. However, as a result of the photograph’s positioning, it remains tethered to the story of Logan, a loyal public servant who quotes Robert Peel (“the police are the people and the people are the police”), but by the end of the narrative has not been allowed full entry to the state he sets out to serve.
To this extent, Boy with Flag reiterates Logan’s liminality as one seeking inclusion but repeatedly excluded and discriminated against due to his racialisation as a Black man. This process has been foregrounded throughout the drama, not just through events such as the micro-aggressions and isolation he endures from white colleagues at the station, but also through the texture of mise en scène. The latter registers the ‘environmental press’19 of white institutional spaces, including his superior’s office and the training facility at Hendon College, that are adorned with pictures of Queen Elizabeth II and ‘great white men’. Logan’s persistence in the face of institutional and everyday racism is both signalled and validated by the union jack that adorns Winston Fagan’s handlebars in Burke’s image. But the photograph still operates metonymically, with a degree of autonomy that exceeds the narrative of Red, White and Blue, and without the verbal underwriting provided in the sequence from I Am Not Your Negro discussed above.20
In his contribution to the 1993 collection Vanley Burke: A Retrospective, Stuart Hall cautions against simplistic assumptions about the transparency and neutrality of photography: “‘Making visible’ […] cannot be simply documenting what is already there. [Instead] framing ‘fixes’ what is not elsewhere fixed […] a whole way of life, largely unrecorded (and undervalued) acquires a value, a surplus of meaning, a ‘representativeness’ it did not know it had.”21 The multiple resonances of Boy with Flag as both a recognition of and an active intervention in the complex and often embattled social positioning of second-generation Black immigrants in the UK have been further extended and amplified by the image’s filmic remediations considered here. As Evelynn Hammonds has argued, “visibility in and of itself does not erase a history of silence nor does it challenge the structure of power and domination, symbolic and material, that determines what can and cannot be seen.”22 Nevertheless, Burke’s photograph and its productive reframings by Akomfrah and McQueen make a contribution to this (still) urgent and ongoing confrontation by claiming space from which to articulate something of Black British experience.
- Kieran Connell (2012) “Photographing Handsworth: photography, meaning and identity in a British inner city”, Patterns of Prejudice, 46:2, 143, citing his own interview with Burke. ↩
- Burke interviewed on video, nd, online at: http://www.vanley.co.uk/about-vanley. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Wilford Fagan, “Winford Fagan in Handsworth, 1970”, The Guardian, 11 September, 2015. ↩
- The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century, H. Aptheker (ed.), New York: International Publishers, 1968, p.169. ↩
- Akomfrah quoted on p. 45 of interview with Kieron Corless, “One from the heart” Sight and Sound 22:2, February 2012, pp 44-46. ↩
- Nina Power, “Counter-Media, Migration, Poetry: Interview with John Akomfrah” Film Quarterly (2011) 65 (2): 59–63, p.61, cited in Ben Highmore, “City of Strangers (Qualities of disappointment)”, in Cultural Feelings: Mood, Mediation and Cultural Politics, London: Routledge, 2017, pp. 93-118, p. 109. ↩
- Ratik Asokan, “Memories of Underdevelopment”, Art in America, 1 October 2018. ↩
- Highmore, “City of Strangers (Qualities of disappointment)”, p. 116. ↩
- Connell, “Photographing Handsworth”. ↩
- Akomfrah in Asokan, “Memories of Underdevelopment”. ↩
- Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press <1952> 1986), p. 112. The original ‘petit-nègre’ phrasing of the marketing slogan which ends this litany of stereotypes is: “Y a bon banania!”. Banania is a French cereal comprising banana flour, cocoa and sugar. For an excellent analysis of Fanon’s argument, along with racist tropes in the promotion of Banania, see Lewis R. Gordon, What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (London: Hurst and Company, 2015), pp. 50-52. On petit-nègre, “a form of simplified French developed by the French military overseeing Senegalese soldiers”, see Gordon, p. 159, n6 ↩
- Asokan, “Memories of Underdevelopment”. ↩
- Akomfrah in Thomas Austin, “Temporal Vertigo: an Interview with John Akomfrah” Senses of Cinema, Issue 79, July 2016. ↩
- Perhaps the most striking instance of metonymy in Handsworth Songs is derived from archive footage of a foundry. The screen fills with a monochrome image of a huge pile of chains, on which is superimposed the single word “CHAINS”, then “For Workshop and Factory” and “For those who go down to the Sea in Ships”. Reframed and repurposed, these found images and words resonate with the spectre of slavery, without mentioning it explicitly. ↩
- Film at Lincoln Center, Steve McQueen on Red, White, and Blue, Collaborating with John Boyega, and Police Reform | NYFF58, YouTube, October 2020. ↩
- Nevertheless, in this and other Small Axe titles, McQueen occasionally holds shots longer than is strictly necessary for narrative purposes. For example, when Leroy, now in uniform, leaves the youth club that he used to attend as a teenager, the camera cuts to a flock of pigeons in flight and the image is held for 20 seconds. The birds are implicitly from Leroy’s point of view, and so gesture to his interiority, but their exact meaning is not entirely clear. That is, they function metonymically, not unlike another shot of birds in Handsworth Songs. ↩
- “Lovers Rock: Sir Steve McQueen film wins film of the year award”, BBC News, 11 December 2020. ↩
- I have borrowed this concept from gerontology, where it refers to “psychosocial stressors” in the built environment. “The environmental press theory is a theory of adaptation that focuses on person variables (competencies), environmental variables (environmental press), and the interaction between the two variables.” Jennifer Adler, “Environmental press: revisiting the concept in current research,” Peter A. Lichtenberg, Susan E. MacNeill, and Benjamin T. Mast, “Environmental Press and Adaptation to Disability in Hospitalized Live-Alone Older Adults,” The Gerontologist, 40: 5, October 2000, 549–556, p. 549. I suggest that this model could be reworked to register something of the naturalisation and reproduction of whiteness as a dominant force in the built environment of the UK and beyond. ↩
- Photographs are also inserted into two other Small Axe titles, Mangrove and Alex Wheatle. In the former, a rapid 20-second montage of images of the construction of the Westway in London visualises the passing of time during the trial of the Mangrove Nine in 1970. In the latter, 45 minutes into the 65-minute episode, McQueen cuts to a 4-minute montage of black and white photographs of the 1981 New Cross fire, in which 13 young Black people died, and subsequent protests, accompanied by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem New Crass Massakah. This sequence initially disrupts the diegesis, temporarily shifting its visual register from screen drama to documentary photography, and its soundtrack to a solo spoken word performance. As Wheatle’s story continues, the material is partly re-integrated within the narrative, motivated as a gesture to his growing politicisation and understanding of himself as a Black Briton. But both the photographs and the poem retain some autonomy as cultural artefacts in their own right. ↩
- Stuart Hall, “Vanley Burke and the ‘desire for blackness’,” in Vanley Burke: A Retrospective, ed. Mark Sealy (Lawrence and Wishart, 1993), p.14, italics in original. Hall writes of Burke’s later images of Handsworth: “(T)he variety of ways of ‘being black in Britain’ which these images re-present cannot be defined or placed any longer solely in relation to racism (…) Racism persists, but the black people in Vanley Burke’s photographs cannot be defined by, or their value exhausted through the relationship to, racism alone.” Hall, p.15, italics in original. This reading is also applicable to the Small Axe series, insofar as it celebrates Black community, resilience and creativity as “hard-won victories in the face of racism”, but also as something more than this. Small Axe website. ↩
- Evelynn Hammonds, “Black (W)holes and the geometry of Black female sexuality,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 6.2-3 (1994), cited in Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, The Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Duke UP, 2007), p.11. ↩