‘Being Blacker’ is a unique, uncompromising and radical 90 minute documentary and both Molly Dineen and Steve’Blacker Dread’ Martin take to the road to launch the film in a cinema near you prior to it airing on BBC2 on March 12th.
Filled with anticipation I checked into BAFTA on Picadilly for a BBC press screening of Being Blacker – the latest documentary from the award-winning Molly Dineen. It delivers an intimate profile of the life and times of Brixtonian sound man, long-time record shop owner and producer, Blacker Dread. While I was hyped about the film but I’d also picked up on the odd rumour that Being Blacker had sparked alarm bells within the walls of the BEEB. Maybe the moral panics were down to the film central character, Steve ‘Blacker Dread’ Martin, being jailed for fraud during the making of the film and that his closest friend, Napthali – also a pivotal character within the film – is a convicted bank robber. Thankfully, the winds of political correctness gave way to the power of reality and the result is truly compelling and rewarding insight into the world of Blacker Dread.
Molly is one of the UK’s most unique film makers. There’s no crew. It’s just Molly Dineen and her camera. She was awarded The Grierson Memorial Trust 2003 Trustees’ Award for “Outstanding contribution to the art of documentary” and won a BAFTA and Grierson Award for her penultimate film The Lie Of The Land – a raw portrait of the British countryside and the demise of farming. You might have seen her TV series The Ark – where she spent 6 months at London Zoo or The Heart of The Angel which led her to film over 24 hours in the Angel tube station in London. All her films are available via the British Film Institute (BFI) and Being Blacker arrives after a 10 year hiatus. The only film of Molly’s which isn’t on sale via the BFI, is Sound Business – the film she submitted for her degree at the London College Of Printing. It’s within Sound Business that the roots of her long standing relationship with Blacker Dread lies.
If my memory serves me well I met Molly via Maroons Tunes, a short lived reggae emporium in Greek Street, Soho, where I did the odd day behind the counter alongside DBC’s Leroy ‘Lepke’ Anderson, Rae Cheddie (Bullwackies) and the erudite Steve Barrow (Blood & Fire). She wanted do a film on sound system and I became her link to Sir Coxsone Outernational Sound System. That was 1981 and her 45 minute film – narrated by the late Michael ‘Dread At The Controls’ Campbell – takes us into the dancehall, visits the dub-cutter and amp builder and offers interviews with the Coxsone team – Lloydie, Blacker, Festus, Bikey Dread and Levi Roots (yes…reggae reggae sauce and tings!). At that time Blacker lived in Armoury Way in Wandsworth and the same block of flats was also home to up ‘n’ coming youth sound Young Lion. Alongside Coxsone they also became the focus of Molly’s film – which, in a somewhat visually depleted form, you can peruse at your leisure on You Tube.
Molly and Blacker stayed in contact over the years and when his mother passed he asked the film-maker to document the funeral for him and his family. It’s a portion of this footage that opens the film and the viewer is immediately struck by the access that she’s been given. She is right there at the beating heart of a grieving family and we are there with her. It’s during the funeral that we encounter Naphtali. He’s driving and Molly’s riding shotgun. It’s his job to clear a path that enables the horse-drawn hearse to reach the cemetery without delay. It’s in this sequence that Molly declares, “Naphtali, you drive like a getaway driver… “. To which he replies, “I am…I am a getaway driver!” The plot opens up and another intriguing narrative emerges.
I know both Blacker and Naphtali from Coxsone sound. Having spent an evening in their company, while banged up in Hinkley jail, I am well aware of their humour and resilience when confronted with the long arm of the law. That was back in the early 80’s. We were on our way to a dance in Huddersfield. The sight of two dreads batting along in a transit van on a Saturday evening was simply too much for two bored motorway police officers. A stop and search ensued. Once in the station both Blacker and Naphtali made a clear impact on the officers on duty. From my cell I could hear them calling the name “Blacker… Blacker..” They seemed drawn to sound of the name. It was weird. Meanwhile, Naphtali appeared to have the run of the police station. Upon our eventual release we were given a police escort – lights flashing – to the motorway.
However, Being Blacker is not about sound system or the reggae business. This is a film about being black and growing into manhood in Britain. It’s about making decisions – good or bad. As Blacker packs up his shop in Coldharbour Lane under the shadow prison the dread has to deal with the trial and tribulations of his own children. The traumatic death of one son in a drive by shooting continues to haunt him. Ever conscious and active within the black community he is drawn to others – parents, brothers, sisters, friends – who have lost their own children to the gun or the knife.
For Blacker, passing the 11+ produced not a step up the social ladder but a nightmare of racist bullying. So, when confronted with his own youngest son being considered “difficult” at school both he and his partner stepped in. They were met with a form of institutionalised racism within the education system that I thought no longer existed – especially in the inner city. Watching the film I was thrown back to the time when I did teaching practice and read Ben Coard’s hugely important ‘How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system: The scandal of the black child in schools in Britain’. The decision they make as parents is radical and profound and leads Blacker back to the place he grew up in Jamaica.
Paralleling Blacker’s trials are those of Naphtali. Anyone who reads or watches the news is aware of the scandalous state of our prison system and the potential for up to 70% of prisoners from some prisons to re-offend within a year. After a spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure Naphtali is trying hard to stay on the straight and narrow. As Naphtali works to stay afloat financially the camera of Molly Dineen captures the sheer desperation and humiliation of her subject. For me, it’s painful to watch. I can only hope that someone from a serious casting agency watches this film and seeks out Naphtali to offer him a career in acting. He could be as sensational as The Wire’s Omar.
Both Blacker Dread and Naphtali maintain the Brixton they knew growing up is a gentrified shadow of it’s former self. As a local business-man Blacker responded to that shift and was a prime mover of the annual Brixton Splash – an Afro Caribbean street festival that celebrates the diversity of the community and continues to attract thousands of revellers. It’s an event that’s a far cry from the ’81 riots. In my mind Blacker and his sound system bredren – from London and beyond – have undoubtedly shaped the cultural landscape of this nation. It’s a story that’s yet to be articulated in the way it deserves. Brixton’s poet laureate Linton Kwesi Johnson and voice of youth during the Seventies declared, “It Dread Inna Inglan” and Blacker, along with others from that first generation of Rastafari growing up in our inner cities, had to hustle to survive.
Just as Molly’s previous documentaries made me question my own stereotypical prejudices one hopes this film will provide a similar experience for those future BBC2 viewers. Hopefully they will be drawn into Blacker’s world and the film’s constantly evolving narrative which takes shape over 90 minutes. We not dealing with angels here, we are dealing with real people shaped by their experiences of growing up in London from Sixties, through the turbulent Seventies and beyond. Being Blacker provides a unique glimpse into a real life drama within Britain’s long standing Afro Caribbean community. Rather than judge I hope people will intuitively find common ground and feel empathy with a father troubled by loss and bad decisions. This is a man with more than a crown of dreadlocks. He is witty, laid back but sharp as a razor. On the streets of Brixton he is respected by those around him and thanks to the tenacity of “Miss Molly” and her camera we – the people – are given a moving and thought provoking insight into an alternative, yet distinctly familiar, face of contemporary multi-racial Britain.
WORDS: Paul Bradshaw / Straight No Chaser
In line with the radical nature of the film itself, Being Blacker is being shown in cinemas around the UK prior to it being aired on BBC2 on MARCH 12th. The template of showing the doc on a big screen followed by a Q&A with Molly and Blacker is real treat!
As part of the theatrical tour of BEING BLACKER, there are a few invite-only screenings in Q&A with Molly & Blacker. To request an invite email firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 3 – TBC, St Paul’s Bristol
March 6 – Home, Manchester
March 7 Everyman Mailbox, Birmingham
March 8 – Ritzy, Brixton
Tickets are on sale for screening + Q&A @….
March 3 – Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford (3pm)
March 4 – Rio Dalston, London
March 4 – Peckhamplex, London
March 5 – BFI Southbank,London
March 7 – Bertha Dochouse,London
March 9 – Somerset House,London
Book now… check https://www.facebook.com/events/411828805933127/</spa