Ngozi Onwurah: the forgotten pioneer of black British film

Posted in Articles, Biography, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, United Kingdom, Women on 2017-06-29 02:07Z by Steven

Ngozi Onwurah: the forgotten pioneer of black British film



The Body Beautiful‘ by Ngozi Onwurah. Image via BFI

Ngozi Onwurah, despite being the director of the first independent black British feature film to be released, is not a household name. For a long time, her film Welcome II The Terrordome (1995), was the only film by a black woman to have a UK release. Like many black British women pioneers, her contributions to her craft have been pushed to the peripheries of British film history, yet revisiting her films reveals them to be prescient explorations of race that are just as relevant today.

Onwurah was born to a white mother and a black father in 1960s Nigeria. She was raised in England by her mother, alongside her two other siblings (one of whom, Simon Onwurah, produced Welcome II The Terrordome). Her first work, Coffee Coloured Children (1988), uses Onwurah’s own personal narrative to look at the experiences of being a black mixed-race child in England. It begins gleefully with folk of all races gathered together, dancing, laughing, rejoicing, to the ever optimistic soundtrack of Blue Mink’s song ‘Melting Pot’. The tone of the film darkens almost instantly, its extended background monologue beginning with the question “our childhood memories are blurred, murky, why did the big boys throw dog shit on our front door?”. This is coupled with the visual of this particular act being reproduced for the viewer…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,

The Body Beautiful: A film by Ngozi Onwurah

Posted in Arts, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United Kingdom, Videos, Women on 2013-03-31 21:02Z by Steven

The Body Beautiful: A film by Ngozi Onwurah

Women Make Movies
England, 1991
23 minutes
Color, VHS/16mm/DVD
Order No. W99229

Melbourne Film Festival, Best Documentary

This bold, stunning exploration of a white mother who undergoes a radical mastectomy and her Black daughter who embarks on a modeling career reveals the profound effects of body image and the strain of racial and sexual identity on their charged, intensely loving bond. At the heart of Onwurah’s brave excursion into her mother’s scorned sexuality is a provocative interweaving of memory and fantasy. The filmmaker plumbs the depths of maternal strength and daughterly devotion in an unforgettable tribute starring her real-life mother, Madge Onwurah.

Tags: , ,

Interview with Ngozi Onwurah

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Media Archive, United Kingdom, Women on 2010-03-18 23:28Z by Steven

Interview with Ngozi Onwurah

African Women in Cinema
African Literature Association Conference
April 1997
East Lansing, Michigan

Originally published in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film Video and Television. Africa World Press, Trenton, NJ,  2000.

In another conversation, we talked about your identity as an African woman filmmaker based in London.  You stated that you wanted to describe some of the ways that you find that portrayal problematic, especially when it is imposed externally.

As a black woman filmmaker, I get invited to a lot of different things and sometimes they want me to wear different hats.  Sometimes I am a woman filmmaker and that’s the priority at that particular event.  Where it gets particularly muddy is when it has to do with being an African filmmaker.  Because the way that black America has appropriated the word African American, the context in which people refer to Africa gets very muddy.

As a filmmaker who works out of London, the problems that I have making films are completely different to a woman who, say, lives in Nigeria, who lives and works in Zambia, or Zaire, or Tanzania.  The problems that she has as a filmmaker are completely different to the problems that I have as a filmmaker, or the people who we make the films for are different.  So, in terms of who I am on a professional level, it gets very complicated.

It is less complicated on a personal level.  On a personal level, I know who I am; I know where I am from.  But in terms of talking about it, you cannot lump together a woman who lives in London, who gets funding from the BBC to make films, with someone who is living in Nigeria, where literally the budgets, the facilities, everything, would be completely different in terms of how she has to work.  So it gets complicated and sometimes I don’t think there is enough differential made between black people or people of African descent working outside of Africa and people of African descent working in Africa.  It is two different experiences.

In terms of how you bring your identity into your work, would you say that your work often centers around being of mixed race within the context of being British as well as Nigerian?

The fact that I have a white mother and a black father is essential to my identity.  Obviously, it gives me a unique perspective politically.  Politically I am black; emotionally I’m black.  But once you say that “unequivocally, I’m black,” there are specifics that come out of the fact that I have a white mother and a black father and that I lived half my childhood in Africa and half my childhood in an all-white neighborhood in Newcastle in England, that give me a specific viewpoint on everything I see.

On another level, there are issues around a kind of polarization, especially in America, but also in England, though nowhere near to the extent as in America: The two races are incredibly polarized in America, there’s black and there’s white and they seem to very rarely mix.  They seem to very rarely live in the same neighborhoods, and that’s not the case in England.

If I had to choose…if someone says to me, choose…if there was a war between black people and white people and someone says choose who you are going to shoot, obviously I’d go over to the black side, but I don’t particularly want my mother to be my enemy and I think that informs a lot of what I do.  Basically, the woman, the person who has loved me most in my life—who has loved me more than Malcolm X, who has loved me more than Mandela, has loved me more than any person on the face of this earth—is my mother; second my grandmother.  These are two white women.  These are the people who have formed me.  And yet I am completely removed from them culturally and politically, there is a whole world between us.  This is a strange place to be.  It informs everything you do basically.

In the context of African cinema, how do you situate yourself as a filmmaker in terms of being African, in terms of being black British?  You talk about different hats, I had not before necessarily associated you as an African woman filmmaker, I am familiar with you more as a black British filmmaker.  A lot of your work appears to address your experiences as a black British, as a mixed-race woman, where, as the director of Monday’s Girls, you are viewed as an African woman filmmaker.

It’s more complicated than that.

Could you talk about these complicated identities?

It is incredibly complicated.  All I can say is that my whole life has been a training ground to live this life.  Basically, since I came out of my mother’s womb it’s been a chameleon situation for me.  It’s much more complicated than saying I have a lot of hats I wear.  I have a lot of hats I have to wear but I wear them all simultaneously…

Read the entire interview here.

Tags: ,

Coffee Colored Children: A film by Ngozi Onwurah

Posted in Arts, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United Kingdom, Videos, Women on 2010-03-18 17:14Z by Steven

Coffee Colored Children: A film by Ngozi Onwurah

Women Make Movies
England, 1988
23 minutes
Color/BW, VHS/16mm/DVD
Order No. W99160

  • National Black Programming Consortium, Prized Pieces
  • San Francisco Film Festival, Golden Gate Award

This lyrical, unsettling film conveys the experience of children of mixed racial heritage. Suffering the aggression of racial harassment, a young girl and her brother attempt to wash their skin white with scouring powder. Starkly emotional and visually compelling, this semi-autobiographical testimony to the profound internalized effects of racism and the struggle for self-definition and pride is a powerful catalyst for discussion.

The work opens with a video essay showing adults and children of many ethnicities interacting harmoniously to an upbeat and soulful song with a chorus about “coffee-colored people.” Through narration by her and her brother and dramatization, Onwurah relays incidents from her own childhood. She recounts the brutal and racist vandalization of her apartment. In reenactments, she is seen making up her face with white makeup and scrubbing her body in the bathtub with chemical abrasives. At the close of the piece, she and her brother stand in front of a fire, burning symbolic mementos of their pain and confusion over their own physical identities. “Melting pot,” she asks, “or incinerator?” The work is approximately 16 and one-half minutes long.

Onwurah, Ngozi A.

Onwurah, Ngozi A.
Onwurah, Simon K.

Onwurah, Ngozi A.

Onwurah, Madge
McKay, Haley
McKay, Michael
McKay, Anette
Onwurah, Ngozi A.
Onwurah, Simon K.

Tags: ,

Review of Ngozi Onwurah’s “The Body Beautiful”

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2010-03-18 04:14Z by Steven

…Onwurah’s ending is not, however, Utopian; neither her own objectification and labeling by discourse nor her mother’s stigmatization is miraculously resolved. Onwurah’s comment on “a world that sees only in black and white” is both fitting and predictive, since viewers and critics continue to lean towards that very essentialism (if existing scholarship on the film is any indication). But on a fundamental level, Onwurah’s The Body Beautiful remains an unusual example of a film directed by a woman of white-black racial heritage, which centralizes the consciousness of the mixed-race identity. The film delivers a rare message by encouraging viewers to challenge ethnic absolutism and essentialist codes of gender. To borrow an appropriate quotation from Françoise Lionnet, The Body Beautiful effectively “subverts] all binary modes of thought by privileging (more or less explicitly) the intermediary spaces where boundaries become effaced and Manichean categories collapse into each other.” And it is precisely where binaries and essentialist codes of identity are subverted that the process of identification becomes constructive, rather than a site for problematic exclusion, inclusion, and marginalization.

Diana Adesola Mafe. “Misplaced Bodies: Probing Racial and Gender Signifiers in Ngozi Onwurah’s The Body Beautiful.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 2008, Volume 29, Number 1, pages 37-50.

Tags: , , , ,

Misplaced Bodies: Probing Racial and Gender Signifiers in Ngozi Onwurah’s The Body Beautiful

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United Kingdom, Women on 2010-03-17 22:30Z by Steven

Misplaced Bodies: Probing Racial and Gender Signifiers in Ngozi Onwurah’s The Body Beautiful

Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 29, Number 1 (2008)
pages 37-50
E-ISSN: 1536-0334 Print ISSN: 0160-9009
DOI: 10.1353/fro.0.0004

Diana Adesola Mafe, Assistant Professor of English
Denison University, Granville, Ohio

Exalted by poets, painters and sculptors, the female body, often reduced to its isolated parts, has been mankind’s most popular subject for adoration and myth, and also for judgment, ridicule, esthetic alteration and violent abuse.

Susan Brownmiller, Femininity

In her seminal text Femininity, Susan Brownmiller identifies what can simply be termed the mythic proportions of the female body. Idealized, worshiped, ravaged, and reviled-the female body is forever being measured (usually against the unattainable paradigms of a male imagination) and found lacking. The myth of the female body’s inadequacy is crucial to my discussion of Nigerian British director Ngozi Onwurah’s 1991 film, The Body Beautiful. In the spirit of Brownmiller’s claim that “biological femaleness is not enough. Femininity always demands more,”21 wish to posit Onwurah’s film as a seldom discussed yet highly subversive text where cinematic representations of the (lacking) female body and the racialized performance of femininity are concerned.

Neither a documentary nor a fictional film, The Body Beautifuloperates as a memoir, merging the memories and imaginations of both the director and her mother to create a twenty-three-minute film of their lives. Onwurah, played by actress Sian Martin, appears in the film as a confident, attractive, and sexual young woman of mixed race. Her mother Madge (who plays herself) is a visibly scarred older white woman who has undergone a mastectomy. The dissimilar female bodies of mother and daughter are constantly juxtaposed, reminding viewers that “how one looks is the chief physical weapon in female-against-female competition.” And, bearing out the epigraph of this paper, the young Ngozi, a fashion model, seemingly epitomizes the role of the female body as “subject for adoration” while Madge remains subject to “judgment, ridicule, [and] esthetic alteration.” But Onwurah, as director, points to the commonality of these raced and gendered bodies, both of which are subject to myths of inadequacy despite their differences.

Notably, race cannot be extricated from this discussion of the female body and its idealization. Even the beautiful young Ngozi is rendered lacking because her body is, in the words of Homi Bhabha, “almost. . . but not quite” the (white) Western feminine aesthetic. Ngozi’s modeling success thus hinges on her manipulation at the hands of a white male photographer, who urges her to fulfill the stereotypical role of the sexualized “black” woman as he clicks the camera, saying, “Give me sex. Give me passion.” For Madge, a survivor of breast cancer and a mastectomy, the “lack” is literal and symbolic. Although biologically female, she is consistently situated by social discourses (as represented in the film) outside the sphere of femininity.

Indeed, I suggest that discursive practices are unable to accommodate either Madge, an aging, arthritic, breastless woman, or Ngozi, an attractive, young, mixed-race woman caught between the myths of white beauty and black sexuality, except through essentialized notions of gender and race. Although excluded from the sphere of “real” femininity, Madge is included in the category of majority white British society. Her visibly raced daughter, on the other hand, while coded as highly attractive and feminine, is very much excluded from that white world and read, in typically Manichean terms, as a black model. But despite these respective exclusions and inclusions in vexed categories of identity as a result of their visibly marked bodies, neither of these women is ever adequately “placed,” and therein lies the fallibility of identification, which, as Stuart Hall aptly states, is “never a proper fit.”

Incidentally, the mixed-race woman of African and European descent has long functioned as a recognizable signifier for illicit sexuality and racial ambiguity in Western literary traditions. In both Europe and the Americas, the origins of the “mulatta” as cultural icon are linked to the erotic/exotic fantasies of a white (male) imagination. In early modern travel narratives dealing with the African coast and the Caribbean, European men often made careful observations about mixed race women. And the mulatta character appears with enough frequency in British novels to betray an ongoing British fascination with that figure. By critiquing her own stereotypical role as an eroticized/exoticized mixed-race woman, Onwurah also challenges the problematic iconography of the mulatta figure. Since the very process of identification is fraught, that is, “lodged in contingency,” the self-identification or self-representation of the mixed-race subject becomes a useful starting point for understanding and theorizing (white-black) mixedness. The Body Beautiful, a rare example of a film with a mixed-race woman behind and in front of the camera, literally speaks to these exigencies where representations of interraciality are concerned…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,