Blackwood, Maureen 1960–
Maureen Blackwood 1960–
Maureen Blackwood was a founding member of the London–based Sankofa Film and Video Collective. With Sankofa’s other filmmakers, Blackwood has produced a number of experimental narrative and documentary works that examine black life in Britain from various perspectives. She has been described as “a formidable figure in black filmmaking in Britain” by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster in Women Film Directors: An International Bio–Critical Dictionary.
Blackwood, of Jamaican heritage, was born in 1960. She attended City and Islington College in London, and then earned a degree in media studies from the University of Westminster. In 1983 Blackwood, along with Isaac Julien, Martina Attile, Robert Crusz, and Nadine Marsh–Edwards, co–founded the Sankofa Film and Video Collective. According to the Collective’s archival papers that Blackwood provided to Wheeler Winston Dixon for an article in Film Criticism, the members chose the group’s name from a Ghanaian word that referred to the language of Ghana’s Akan people, and created a logo “of a bird turning back its head to look at its tail.” The article explained that the image “signifies going back into the past and discovering knowledge that will be of benefit to the people in the future.” In the interview with Dixon, Blackwood described Sankofa as “a resource” for the black community in the United Kingdom. “Black people have different stories to tell than whites do, and that’s what we’re about here. Whites also have stories they tell amongst themselves, but the work we do here is showing black people how to tell the stories that matter to them.”
Blackwood’s first Sankofa film, The Passion of Remembrance, was an 80–minute project co-written and co-directed with Isaac Julien, which Women Film Directors called “a moving, elegant feast of images.” The story centers on a young black woman of Caribbean heritage living in the conservative political climate of Britain in the 1980s. Against this background, issues of sexual politics and family life are played out. Writing in African American Review, Robert F. Reid–Pharr noted that the only romantic segment in the film occurs “between two Black men who consummate their passion in a kiss that comes neatly—and unexpectedly—after a night at the disco. And just when the audience is thoroughly shocked, the kiss is interrupted by white youths who are attacking the home of a Black family. Racism and racial violence are imagined, therefore, as disruptive of both the Black family, and the full expression of Black sexuality. Moreover, this image forces the audience to question what is truly shocking and ‘abnormal,’ homosexual passion or ‘normal’ racial terrorism.”
Blackwood’s next work, also done at Sankofa, was Perfect Image? in 1988. Two actresses deliver dialogue in which questions of identity, physical beauty, and blackness are raised. Dixon, writing in Film Criticism, called it “a much slicker film in its visual presentation” than her previous work. Dixon went on to paraphrase Blackwood’s discourse about it: “Using two actresses who constantly change persona, the film throws up questions about self worth in a variety of ways. A chorus of women takes us through the action, sometimes mischievous, sometimes sympathetic. They
Born in England, 1960. Education: Attended London’s City and Islington College; University of Westminster, degree in media studies.
Careen: Filmmaker with the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, 1983-97; served as visiting scholar, Simon Fraser University. Film Credits include The Passion of Remembrance, Sankofa Film and Video Collective; Representation and Blacks in British Cinema; Perfect Image?, Sankofa Film and Video Collective, 1988; and Home Away From Home, Channel Four Television, 1994.
Address: Office —c/o British Film Institute, 21 Stephen St., London W1T 1LN, England
add another layer of ‘wordsound’ to this short film. Using a mainly jazz soundtrack, Perfect Image? draws on the art of personal testament and the ritual of insult to ask questions relating to how black women see themselves/each other and the pitfalls that await those who internalise the search for that Perfect Image?.”
Foster also liked Perfect Image?, especially the way in which its performers “draw the viewer into an almost hyperreal experience through their disregard for the camera apparatus … Stereotypes of black women are thrown into a fresh perspective in this film.” Blackwood followed the work with A Family Called Abrew, a documentary look at a black British clan who were successful boxers and music-hall performers in the early years of the twentieth century. In the notes she wrote for the Sankofa archives, quoted by Dixon in Film Criticism, Blackwood explained her aim in making this film: “The worlds of entertainment and sport have traditionally been seen as the two most viable routes to financial success open to Black people the world over, with the achievements of African Americans taking center stage…. By turns warm and poignant[,] the film uses oral testimonies, archive footage, and a sound track which features music from the period, to chart achievements in these fields which emanated from members of one extraordinary family.”
Blackwood’s first true narrative feature was an 11–minute short done in 1993 for Channel Four Television, titled Home Away from Home. It details an episode in the life of its heroine, Miriam, who lives near her workplace, Heathrow Airport, with her family of four. She feels detached from her African roots, and the planes that constantly ascend overhead remind her of this faraway place. To connect with her heritage, she decides to build a traditional African mud hut in her garden. At first, her unruly teenage children mock it, but then join in its construction and decoration. Black–wood called the structure “a magical space which takes her out of, and away from, the loneliness which crowds her suburban existence,” according to Sankofa archive papers quoted by Dixon.
Miriam’s working–class neighbors, however, are aghast, and complain. Someone vandalizes it with the word “savages,” and then it is destroyed. Miriam plants sunflowers in its place. Foster’s Women Film Directors essay called the short “a moving film for all of the postcolonial peoples who live with no connection to their motherlands.”
Blackwood worked as assistant director with Julien for his well–received 1988 film, Looking for Langston. She also made the documentary Representation and Blacks in British Cinema, which chronicles the history of black cinema in Britain, from the 1959 work Sapphire to Burning an Illusion in 1981. A feature film titled Three Rooms is in progress. “We need stories that reference the totality of who we are just like the privileged white majority have,” Blackwood explained on a British Film Institute website. “I want to be writing material that puts black actors in dramatic or comic situations which actually allow them to fulfil their craft. Most of the time they are not given that space.”
The Passion of Remembrance, Sankofa Film and Video Collective.
Representation and Blacks in British Cinema, Channel Four Television.
Perfect Image?, Sankofa Film and Video Collective, 1988.
Home Away From Home, Channel Four Television, 1994.
Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, Women Film Directors: An International Bio–Critical Dictionary, Greenwood Press, 1995.
African American Review, Fall 1994, p. 347. Film Criticism, Fall/Winter 1995, pp. 131-143.
British Film Institute, http://www.bfi.org.uk/collections/ (August 21, 2002).
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