Discussing which Black icons should have films made about them

29 Sep 2021

8 mins

For last year's Black History Month, some brilliant educator contributors touched upon the serious lack of films that depict iconic Black figures from the UK and the Republic of Ireland. This year, we wanted to continue that crucial discussion by inviting our audiences to highlight what historical/famous Black individuals they would most like to see portrayed in a film and the educational reasons why. 

Truly exceptional films that portray important figures from The British Isles and/or approach Black history from this perspective certainly exist, which we previously partly covered in our round-up of the best of Black-British film. Some of those films such as A United Kingdom and Belle are also easily accessible through our new free* streaming service, Into Film+ and are accompanied by additional teaching resources.

Meanwhile, recent strides have been made to represent more of Black history and culture, most prominently, Steve McQueen's seminal Small Axe anthology from last year. When it comes to the full breadth of individuals, periods and movements though, the surface has barely been scratched.

Below, we've brought together a variety of contributors including young people, teachers and members of Into Film to discuss their choice of person. We also received some great feedback from other Into Film employees and our audiences on Twitter, which you can find out more about at the bottom of the article. The figures discussed in this piece range from Seaman ‘William Brown', the first Black woman who joined the Royal Navy, to lifelong Bristol activist and civil rights campaigner, Paul Stephenson and iconic Welsh singer, Shirley Bassey. You can use this article to both learn more about the specific people outlined and to initiate a broader conversation with your students on who they would most like to see portrayed on screen.

First up are some inspired suggestions from four of our female Young Reporters, whose original video for our Get Into Film channel is listed below as well as their more detailed written responses. That is followed by three of our Education Ambassadors and finally, Into Film's Curation team, Editorial team and CEO Paul Reeve.

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Young Reporters

Krysstina (19) - Benjamin Zephaniah

I would really love to see a biopic made about Benjamin Zephaniah because of the contributions he has made to modern poetry, music and literature, overcoming many barriers whilst doing so. I would hope for the film to document the difficulties he faced at school being dyslexic and how he still grew up to become such an iconic wordsmith. He has always channelled his experiences and kept the art of spoken storytelling tradition alive, whilst also using his platform to spread awareness on an array of issues.

Dominique (19) - Seaman ‘William Brown'

Seaman ‘William Brown' would be my most anticipated potential figure because I would love to see the progression of her time serving within the Royal Navy and the process of disguising herself as a man. Though historians are unable to locate her exact story, it is speculated she is from is from Caribbean and depending on what source you go to, either served for a few weeks or many years. This film would provide the opportunity for new Black stories to be told outside of remakes or White originals.

Emmanuella (19) - Idris Elba 

I would love to see a film about Idris Elba because I think he has accomplished so much as a Black-British actor and deserves to receive his flowers. Finding out that he was actually from the UK instead of America made me realise that British actors are more than capable of making it to Hollywood in these amazing films. I am so happy that his talent has taken him so far and he is definitely a role model to his many Black fans from the UK.

Ella (19) - Mary Seacole

A Black figure that I would most like to see a film on is Mary Seacole. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, Mary Seacole went on to become a nurse in the Crimean War. She persevered after being rejected from funds and jobs because she was a Black woman and went on to set up a facility of her own called the British Hotel, which nursed soldiers back to health. She is a perfect example of perseverance in the face of adversity.


Denise and Wayne Saunders (BossCrowns Film and Drama School) - Darcus Howe 

We would love to see a feature film on Darcus Howe who was a political activist, magazine editor, British broadcaster and one of the Mangrove 9. Darcus was arrested in 1970, Notting Hill because he was protesting the racial abuse and constant harassment by the police on Caribbean restaurant, The Mangrove. He was acquitted and continued to make history by taking over as editor of Race Today; a black radical journal that was the voice of the radical movement of Black people in this country. Race Today has already been made into a film by Wayne who was born at the time when the journal was establishing itself as a serious political voice in the Black community. The film features the late Darcus Howe and many more of our heroes. Darcus Howe left Race Today to become a broadcaster of shows such as Bandung File and Devil's Advocate.

Nuvvy Sibia (Warrington Youth Club) - Cyrille Regis

Cyrille Regis was one of the first Black footballers to leave a stamp on topflight British football. Cyrille played for West Bromwich Albion and was part of the original First Division of English Football in the late 1970s and 1980s. At this time, the UK was dealing with increased unemployment, trade union turmoil, political unrest, and significant racial violence. Football grounds across the UK were sadly a hotbed for racial unrest, with very few spectators of colour in attendance and only a handful of Black footballers. Black footballers had to endure some horrendous verbal and sometimes physical abuse, and Cyrille Regis was one of them. Cyrille exuded grace, speed and ability, but above all, a mental strength and determination to both excel as a footballer and not let racism/ignorance affect him. Whist I've been a season ticket holder at Manchester United for almost thirty years, I adored Cyrille Regis growing up. I always remember Manchester United playing against Coventry City in 1988 when Cyrille was signed to them, and there was a genuine affinity and love displayed towards Cyrille by United fans. A documentary that focusses on Cyrille Regis and also highlights the more recent abuse that Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Sako had to endure after the Euros, would be an important reminder that we still have some way to go to eradicate racism in sport in this country.

Into Film

CEO Paul Reeve - Walter Tull 

Walter Tull is a hero of mine but unknown to many. He was born in 1888 and came from a dual heritage family, and was a pioneer twice over. He was one of the UK's first black professional footballers, playing for Tottenham Hotspur and then Northampton Town. It's thought that, during his time with Spurs, he may have been dropped from the first team to the reserves because of racial abuse he received at matches. When WWI broke out Walter joined the army and is recognised as the first Black officer to lead white British soldiers into battle. He was killed on the battlefield in 1918. Walter Tull's story would make a wonderful film and the underlying theme of racism in sport would resonate especially loudly right now given what some of our present-day footballers have faced recently.

Curation Team - Shirley Bassey

Before Charlotte Church and Katherine Jenkins, there was Dame Shirley Bassey. Born in Cardiff in 1937, she would find fame as a singer from a young age, earning her first number one single in 1959 and becoming the first Welsh person to do so in the process. She would then go on to record multiple James Bond theme songs for Goldfinger (in 1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and Moonraker (1979), remaining the most prolific Bond theme singer to date. In 2020, Bassey became the first female artist to chart an album in the top 40 in seven consecutive decades.

Editorial Team - Paul Stephenson

Paul Stephenson is a lifelong activist and campaigner for civil rights in Bristol. Born in 1937, he rose to prominence in 1963 when he organised a boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company for refusing to employ Black or Asian drivers/conductors. The boycott lasted sixty days and successfully forced them to revoke the policy. In 1964, he achieved national fame when he refused to leave a public house until it served him and he was taken to court as a result. His work was instrumental in the passing of the first Race Relations Act in 1965 and at 84, he is now a Freeman of the City of Bristol and an OBE honouree. If you want to study the more recent history of civil rights in the UK and shine a light on a movement that is far less discussed than its American counterpart, Paul Stephenson is a perfect person to start with.

A massive thank you to the other members of Into Film and everyone on social media that have engaged with us on this topic. Just some of the additional names put forward include community activist and Wales' first black head teacher, Betty Campbell; Scottish/Xhosa singer, Jessie Margaret Soga; English footballer and the first in his sport to be openly gay, Justin Fashanu; Welsh social activist, Mercy Ngulube; and Irish musician and front man of rock band Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott.

It's about time the UK film industry make more films about the sort of figures so passionately put forward above. In the meantime, we can continue these conversations in as many spaces as possible and delve into all the existing Black-British films mentioned at the beginning. There are also countless more films that approach Black history from a UK and a more international perspective, many of which are accessible for free on Into Film+, including White RiotDo The Right ThingMandela: Long Walk to FreedomThe Hate U Give and Blackkklansman.

* Screenings for an entertainment or extra-curricular purpose require a PVS (Public Video Screening) Licence from Filmbankmedia. State-funded schools in England are covered by the PVS Licence.

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