‘Handsworth Songs’ Is Essential Amid Today’s Social Unrest
John Akomfrah’s documentary about the 1985 Handsworth riots in England mirrors racial issues
The issues the United States is reckoning with right now—racism, police militarization, social inequalities—are by no means limited to this country in 2020. There’s a reason that Black Lives Matter protests have popped up all across the world in addition to the U.S. recently. Among the cities participating in such protests was London. England, of course, has had its own troubles regarding institutional racism and oppression at the hands of overzealous policing. Recently, a reminder of that past resurfaced on YouTube in the form of Handsworth Songs, an hourlong 1986 documentary essay film that offers a fascinating depiction of a moment in British history with striking parallels to our own.
The “Handsworth” of the film’s title refers to the inner-city suburb of that name in the West Midlands city of Birmingham, an area dominated by Blacks and Asians back then. A simple parking ticket was the inciting incident, with the recipient of the ticket fleeing from police clutches and into a nearby cafe. The stones and bottles that greeted back-up officers arriving on the scene was the beginning of two days of rioting that merely served as an explosion of racial tensions between the police and ethnic minorities in the community, friction exacerbated by massive unemployment and housing and education problems. Putting aside the COVID-19 pandemic, that prescription for violent unrest sounds not too dissimilar from the social inequities fueling the Black Lives Matter protests.
In articulating the forces underlying the 1985 Handsworth riots, British-Ghanaian director John Akomfrah, along with his production company Black Audio Film Collective, take an unusually dense formal approach. There are elements of conventional nonfiction cinema here, to be sure: newsreel footage, interview segments, still photos, and voiceover narration. But instead of putting the film together in a chronological or other similarly logical way, editor Anna Liebschner creates something more mosaic-like.
Handsworth Songs alternates between the perspectives of both members of the ethnic minority communities in Handsworth and police and government officials (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher offers her own commentary at one point). The film weaves between past and present in ways that inform and enrich each other. Some shots and scenes serve no larger purpose beyond adding detail and texture to the film’s evocation of the daily lives of these minorities. Trevor Mathison’s music score and multilayered sound design perform a similar function. And the aforementioned voiceover narration, delivered by Pervais Khan, Meera Syal, and Yvonne Weekes, occasionally tends toward the literary rather than the expository.
The resulting palimpsest of sounds and images isn’t always easy to follow; this is a film that deserves to be seen more than once to fully grasp all of its nuances. But the activist impulses behind Handsworth Songs—the sympathy for oppressed Black and Asian minorities in Handsworth, the suspicion towards law enforcement, the frustration at how little racist attitudes have shifted over decades—still comes through loud and clear. If anything, the film’s formal experimentation adds to its cumulative poignancy: It’s as if the filmmakers were trying to come up with their own distinct aesthetic, one that challenged the status quo both substantively and stylistically. Thirty-four years later, while similar struggles shake the global streets, it’s an especially good time to behold the film’s impassioned, invigorating radicalism.