Onwurah, Ngozi 1966(?)–
Ngozi Onwurah 1966(?)–
In 1994 award-winning Anglo-Nigerian filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah became the first black female to direct a major motion picture in Great Britain. Like much of her work, the film, Welcome II the Terrordome, provided a harsh, intensely personal look at racial discord. The noted Women Make Movies website, “Onwurah tackles the clashes and ironies of the apparent gulf separating black and white, whilst showing that under the skin, emotions are universal.” It is a subject Onwurah knows well. As the black daughter of a white mother, growing up in a white working-class neighborhood, she was mercilessly taunted. Later the same dark skin that brought her so much pain helped her become a successful model. These conflicting experiences fuel her often autobiographical films. The result is a powerful body of work that unflinchingly, almost painfully, examines what it means to be an outsider. As Simon Bright, producer of the acclaimed film project Mama Africa, said on www.mama-africa-online.org, “Ngozi is determined to confront the difficult emotions that no one else is brave enough to treat.”
Ngozi Onwurah was born in Nigeria to a black Nigerian father and a white Scottish mother. She and younger brother Simon enjoyed a happy early childhood until the war broke out in Nigeria. Onwurah’s mother fled with the two children to the safety of England while her father stayed behind to fight. However, the safety of England did not come without a price. In an interview for the German film festival Feminale, posted at www.feminale.de, Onwurah noted, “We left Nigeria because of the war in Biafra. Then we arrived here in England, and realized that we had entered another war zone. But we were the only ones to be aware of it.” Onwurah and her brother had dark brown skin, their mother fair white. The family moved into a public housing unit in the small city of Newcastle. It was an area “where they had never seen Black people before,” Onwurah revealed in an interview with The University Record. She and her brother immediately became the target of extreme harassment. They were called names, had excrement smeared on their front door, and were pushed head first into toilets. Desperate to fit in, the siblings would scour their skin with bleach, trying to become white. Onwurah’s emotionally jarring first film, Coffee Coloured Children, depicted these harrowing baths.
When Onwurah reached her teens she turned the tables on her tormentors. “I kind of realized I was twice the size of everybody else,” she told The University Record. “I turned from the person being bullied to the person who was the bully, and I was a very good bully.” However, by the time she was 15 she had tired of this lifestyle and with her mother’s blessing decided to leave home. Soon after, while on a train to London she was approached by a modeling agent impressed by her exotic beauty. This led to a successful modeling career in London. She juggled her schedule with film classes at St. Martin’s School of Art and the National Film and Television School. According to The University Record, after three years of modeling, “she was tired of
At a Glance…
Born in Nigeria, ca. 1966; daughter of Madge Onwurah; married Alwin Kuchler (a cinematographer); one daughter. Education: Studied film at St. Martin’s School of Art and the National Film and Television School, both in the UK.
Career: Fashion model, London, mid-1980s; filmmaker, 1988-; films include: Coffee Colored Children, 1988; Who Stole the Soul?, 1990; The Body Beautiful, 1991; Under The Sun, 1992; And Still I Rise, 1993; Monday’s Girls, 1993; Flight of the Swan, 1993; Welcome II the Terrordome, 1994; White Men are Cracking Up, 1994; The Desired Number, 1995; I Bring You Frankincense, 1996; Behind the Mask, 1996; Hang Time, 2001. Television director, Episode 5, Heartbeat, BBC Television Series, 1995. Founder, with brother Simon Onwurah, Non-Aligned Films, London, UK. Lecturer, film studies, University of California at Los Angeles, New York University, and Michigan State University. Paula and Edwin Sidman Visiting Fellow in the Arts, Institute for Humanities, University of Michigan, 1998.
Awards: Coffee Colored Children: First Prize, Short Feature category, BBC, UK; Prized Pieces Award, National Black Programming Consortium, US; Golden Gate Award, San Francisco Film Festival. The Body Beautiful: Best Short Film, Melbourne Film Festival, Montreal Film Festival. Also honored at: the Berlin Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival, the Birmingham International Film Festival, and the Chicago Film Festival.
Addresses: Office —Non-Aligned Films, PO Box 16037, Hampstead, London NW3 5WS, UK.
trying to stay thin through starvation and popping diet pills” and decided to focus on filmmaking.
Onwurah completed Coffee Coloured Children in 1988. It debuted to rave reviews and won first prize in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) short feature category. Stateside, it won the National Black Programming Consortium’s Prized Pieces Award, and the San Francisco Film Festival’ Golden Gate Award. Semi-autobiographical, the 15-minute film depicts the experience of two black siblings growing up under the painful shadow of racial harassment. “It was a film my brother and I simply had to make,” she told www.feminale.de. “Like an exorcism.” With the film, Onwurah demonstrated her stylistic skill. The Boston Globe noted that, “the film’s flashes of power spring from its marriage of starkly poetic narration and its dreamlike enactments on screen.” Onwurah has since become known for her sleek style that is at once openly raw and emotionally provocative. Weaving together fantasy and memory, she tells visually compelling stories that prompt the viewer to think. Onwurah credited her creative skill in part to the same force that made her a bully in school. “I think people who are creative have a lot of energy,” she told The University Record. “… I was putting all my energy into how I bullied and manipulated people at school. I could be in prison now, or I could be a filmmaker, there isn’t anything in between. I was so angry that bullying was the only way I could satisfy the anger that I had, whereas now it all goes into my filmmaking, and so it’s all very creative. The difference between it’s being a creative thing or being destructive is as thin as a line on a sidewalk.”
Fortunately Onwurah stayed on the creative side of the line and in the nineties produced a series of provoking short films. In 1993 she wrote and directed And Still I Rise, an adaptation of a Maya Angelou poem which explores the stereotypes surrounding black women. Monday’s Girls, also from 1993, questions African cultural traditions in a modern world defined by individuality. It tells the story of two young Nigerian women facing their traditional women’s initiation ceremony. One considers it a sacred honor, while the other thinks it an outdated indignity. Other noteworthy films from the decade include: Who Stole the Soul?, which examined white ownership of black music; Flight of the Swan, a haunting story of a black girl’s dream to be a ballerina; and I Bring You Frankincense, which follows the black son of a single white mother who thinks his father is Marvin Gaye—after all Gaye is the only other black person the child has ever seen.
However, the most acclaimed of Onwurah’s short films was 1991’s The Body Beautiful. Called “bold and stunning” by Women Make Movies, the autobiographical film explores the relationship between Onwurah and her mother Madge. As Onwurah is embarking on a career as a fashion model, where the body is exalted above all else, her mother is confronting her own deteriorating body, marred irrevocably by a radical mastectomy, the result of breast cancer. Not only does the film confront the weighty effects of body image on a woman’s psyche, but it tells the highly personal story of their mother-daughter relationship. “[The film] was an attempt to give my mother a place,” Onwurah told The State News. “I am her daughter, but I physically bear almost no resemblance to her. There are a lot of issues in it, not the least of which is the evolution of our relationship.” It was a powerful homage, made all the more so by the fact that Madge Onwurah portrayed herself in the film. In a particularly poignant scene, mother and daughter are in a public sauna when the mother nods off, letting her towel slip down. Her mastectomy scar horrifies the other women in the sauna and causes Onwurah (played by an actress) to see her mother through the distorted lens of public perception. It is a scene that is both brutally honest and beautifully filmed. The film won best short film at both the Melbourne and the Montreal Film Festivals. It also became a favorite subject for women’s and film studies courses at universities worldwide, making Onwurah much sought-after in academic circles. She has lectured at the University of California at Los Angeles, New York University, and Michigan State University and was a Humanities fellow at the University of Michigan.
In 1994 Onwurah made her only feature length film, Welcome II the Terrordome. It was notable because it was the first major film in Great Britain to be directed by a black woman. True to her style, the film glaringly confronted difficult issues of race including interracial love and racial hatred. The reviewers at the Feminale Film Festival called it “a blow to the face” and said that Onwurah “hurls a portion of despair and hate at the public with considerable brutality.” The film opens in 1652 on a South Carolina beach where several Africans are being branded as the white gentry look on. Rather than enter into slavery, the Africans turn to the ocean and begin to swim back towards their home. Through the wizardry of Onwurah’s filmmaking, they are transported instead to a futuristic ghetto dominated by gangs and punctuated by incredible acts of violence. The Feminale review continued, “[the film is] about gang warfare, black and white chauvinism, the hate directed at a white woman carrying the baby of a black man in her belly, and a mother who runs amuck with a gun because her son was killed.” It was both hailed and panned by reviewers, though all agreed that it was an unparalleled film in its confrontational capacity.
Welcome II the Terrordome further cemented Onwurah’s reputation as a fearless story teller. Tom Trautmann, Director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities told The University Record, “This brilliant storyteller has much to tell us about the world we live in but hardly know, and about the power of narrative to illuminate what is painful and important to understand.” Onwurah further explained in the same article, “I think the Africans are a great story-telling people. “That’s how they’ve kept their history. If I go back to Nigeria now, an uncle will come and sit and give me a story that takes me all the way back 400 years to whoever I came from.” She concluded, “I would say I am a story-teller and a story-based director.” However, telling her story is not always easy. The world of independent film is fiercely competitive and often dependent on the whims of fickle funders. One problem she has run into is funders giving her projects less money than other films. In an interview with The Independent Onwurah expressed this frustration saying, “I don’t know why people think black filmmaking is inherently cheaper.” In the same article she slammed the British film industry for relegating black television programming to non-primetime slots where it is assured a small audience. Finally, she critiqued the concept of black filmmaking as something only black people could relate to. “A lot of black stories, especially black British stories, would not have an absence of white people.”
Onwurah is also a fierce promoter of African filmmaking. In 2001 she contributed a film to the project Mama Africa. Designed to highlight the talents of African women filmmakers as well as confront stereotypes about contemporary Africa, Mama Africa featured six short films. Onwurah’s contribution was Hang Time. It followed a teenaged Nigerian boy and his dreams of finding basketball fame in the NBA. On www.mama-africa-online.org Onwurah elaborated, “It is about the allure of America, especially from an African perspective.” Along the way the basketball hopeful becomes involved in a crime, sells his soul, and learns what family loyalty means. “I made a conscious decision to link the African and African-American experiences,” Onwurah told the San Diego Union And Tribune. “African cinema is a tough sell; money is very hard to come by. If we’re going to grow, our natural growth market is going to be with black Americans.”
Considering the astonishing body of work she has completed at her young age, Onwurah has the talent to engage not only African Americans, but Americans of all colors and cultures. In describing I Bring You Frankincense, she told The Independent, “[it’s about] an outsider trying to find himself…. I’ve only ever met four or five people who were insiders growing up. Anyone could relate to (the film).” This could easily be said of most of her films as the binding theme throughout is the perils of human existence. They apply whether the audience’s skin color is black, white, yellow, or red.
The Boston Globe, July 2, 1991, p. 27.
The Independent, November 25, 1996, p. 15.
Newsday, October 3, 1991, p. 75.
San Diego Union and Tribune, January 24, 1999.
Austin Chronicle, www.austinchronicle.com/film/pages/movies/2083.html
Feminale e.V., www.feminale.de/dyn/1355.htm
Mama Africa Online, www.mama-africa-online.org
The State News, April 20, 1998, www.statenews.com/editionsspring98/042098/ms_film.html
The University Record, March 11, 1998, www.umich.edu/~urecord/9798/Marll_98/onwurah.htm.
Women Make Movies, www.wmm.com
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