Last Friday saw the launch of the Legacy Film Festival in Brighton. Organised by a small group of artists – including a friend of mine, the photographer Paul Jackson – the Festival uses film to provide positive representations of black and minority ethnic people, both on screen and behind the camera. It provides a much-needed platform for black and ethnic minority filmmakers, whilst giving access to a more diverse range of films – in turn, encouraging a more diverse cinema audience. The Legacy Film Festival might have launched during Black History Month but its purpose – embedded into its name – is to create a legacy of positivity that is maintained throughout the year, rather than limited to a single month.
Whilst film is at the core of the Festival, it is much more than a series of screenings. Paul and his colleagues have proved themselves to be talented curators, creating a wonderful programme of events that turns the Festival into a community experience. In addition to the feature films and a selection of shorts, there are spoken word performances, an animation film festival featuring black superheroes (brilliant!!!) and an animation workshop for kids.
Friday’s event kicked off with some wonderfully humorous and thought-provoking spoken word performances by Brighton’s Snakes and Ladders group of artists. The content originated from a series of workshops that took place as part of Brighton’s Positive Hair Day project, which examined people’s experiences of growing up and how they felt about their hair.
We were treated to a series of strong one-woman performances, based on excerpts from the workshops and set against a backdrop of powerful visuals. Then we listened to some of the interviews that had been recorded for the project. The heart-warming tales really struck a chord with me and being audio-only somehow made the interviews seem of another era, almost as though you were listening to an old-fashioned wireless – and making them all the more touching. Talking about her hair, one elderly lady described how, when she was young: “My one ambition was to be able to feel it moving in the air”. That may not make sense to some people but as a black woman, I totally identify with it. For I too remember striving for the unobtainable ‘glamour’ of long hair, when I was young. This was way before the days of extensions and weaves, so if your hair was naturally short, that’s how it stayed. Stuck to your scalp, rather than blowing romantically in the wind. The closest I’d get was tying towels and cardigans to my head, so that I could flick the remaining material around my face and feel it on my shoulders – just like the white ladies on the telly and in the movies. Think of it as little girls wearing their mum’s high heel shoes – only one, slightly weird, step further.
It wasn’t just women who were interviewed for this project. We hear one gentleman reminisce about the afro he used to have, which he’d spend all day patting into shape and which was so big it made it difficult for him to get in and out of his friend’s mini cooper. Another gentleman described how he used to grease his head when he was young, in an attempt to achieve “Tony Curtis hair” – a wonderful reminder you that it wasn’t just young girls who tried to emulate the white movie stars.
The interviews – and the play that has also been developed out of the workshop – are beautifully soundtracked by Shirley J Thompson who, aside from being black, was the first woman in Europe to compose and conduct a symphony in the last 40 years, with her composition recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Snakes and Ladders indulged our senses whilst showcasing a mixture of established and emerging black artists. A fitting way to open the Festival.
The main feature of the night was the multi-award-winning film, My Nappy Roots, which was made in the US in 2006. At first glance, it may simply be a story about hair. But in truth, it’s a story about politics and economics.
Nowadays, the word ‘nappy’ is almost a gentle insult, primarily used amongst black people. It means hair that is unruly, with really tight kinks or curls that are difficult to get a comb through. Quite the opposite of the long, flowing, straight locks that people had aspired for. Dictionaries tell us that it originates from the 1950s, when it was a derogatory term to describe black people’s hair. Over the course of My Nappy Roots, the filmmaker, Regina Kimbell, takes the viewer through the historical journey of black hair. She starts with slavery – not in a self-pitying way but as a historical compass. Pre-slavery, hair not only had a spiritual connection, hairstyles told a story about people’s cultural standing – such as their level of wealth or their marital status. By studying the carvings and images of women on Egyptian tombs and wall paintings, you can see just how far back plaits and the ‘cane roll’ go. During times of slavery, the masters found many ways to demoralise and weaken their captures, to exert control: from separating those who spoke the same language, to shaving their heads to dehumanise them.
Fast forward to the very early 1900s, slavery had been abolished but black men and women were looking for ways to ‘control’ their hair and remove the kinks – part of the currency of respectability. The use of soap, heavy oils and goose fat to straighten hair was widespread and – despite the damaging side effects – people had started turning to chemicals. Along came a feisty young black lady called Annie Malone, who had studied chemistry and whose aunt had taught her herbal medicine. Not only did she invent a chemical that didn’t damage the hair, she created a training and distribution system that taught young black women how to apply it and enabled them to sell the treatment door-to-door, creating an unprecedented army of confident and economically independent ladies. Some say that one of Annie Malone’s recruits was a lady called C. J Walker. Learning from the best – and with scalp issues of her own – Madame Walker went on to develop her own hair care system and open a college where she trained other women to run their own businesses. Madam Walker was to become not only the ‘wealthiest negress’, as the New York Times called her when she died in 1919, but also America’s first self-made female millionaire.
Crucially, the money generated from the hair industry gave the black community an element of control over its life. So in 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white male passeger on a segregated bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it was the barber shops and hairdressers that paid for the gasoline needed to ferry black people around in taxis during their year-long protest.
During the rest of the film, we learn the prejudices that people encountered whilst trying to develop their businesses over the following years – from the obstacles put in their way when people thought they’d never succeed, to the curveballs they were later thrown when the mainstream brands realised that black hair care was a lucrative market. We learn how Martin Luther King put the politics firmly back into hair, decreeing that Black Power meant that people should feel able to let their hair be natural: a point that even James Brown took to heart for a short period, turning his usually treated hair into an afro and writing the song: “(Say it Loud’) I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Not only were afros sported by members of the Black Panther movement, but also by the stars of the blacksploitation movies – which for the first time put black heroes on the screen. We even learn how George Johnson, founder of the still-going-strong, Johnson Hair Care Product range, had the idea of paying for a little, unknown television programme called Soul Train to be produced in the 1970s, so that he could use it to promote his products – the first TV sponsorship.
The film brings the story up to date, covering the retail competition that’s resulted from the Korean community arriving and selling fake hair, and the current, very fashionable, ‘hair wars’ between stylists. Interviews with key industry players are interspersed with those of modern-day stars – including a surprising appearance from the now grown-up Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played ‘Theo’ in The Cosby Show. All have varying, and equally-valid, opinions about the underlying meaning and importance of particular hairstyles – natural vs treated, ‘good hair’ vs ‘bad’. The film gave me food for thought, highlighting the connection between race, power, economic struggle and hair. A sentence that I never imagined I’d write.
To someone like me, who loves to find out new facts, My Nappy Roots is a gift. My brain and my pen could hardly keep up with the plethora of information that kept coming.
I absolutely loved it and without meaning to sound clichéd, I think the film is a must for any black person, simply because it picks up on little nuances of life that it’s nice to see recognised somewhere. That, combined with the wealth of history that it divulged, meant that it was an hour and a half extremely well spent.
Throughout the film, I was struck by just how much it resembled the comedian Chris Rock’s film, Good Hair – which was made many years after My Nappy Roots. I think Chris Rock is very funny and so I rushed out to see his film when it was released in the UK last year and then I raved about it for ages afterwards. Watching My Nappy Roots burst my Chris Rock bubble. It’s clear that that he completely copied Regina’s film – albeit on a bigger budget and without some of the detail. I’m sure if you storyboarded the two movies, you would think they were the same one.
Paul and the Legacy team had flown Regina over from New York for the Brighton screening and there was a Q&A afterwards, so I was able to ask her how she felt about the similarities.
I was saddened to hear that she’d actually been invited to meet Chris and his production team before they started making their film. She’d taken My Nappy Roots along and talked them through it and through her research – and then she’d heard no more. A few years later, she saw the film that they had made… She did try to sue them but I’m gobsmacked to say that she lost the case. In my mind, that’s definitely an issue of money and power over justice.
That situation highlights another important role of events like the Legacy Film Festival. Giving small independent filmmakers – of any race or background – a platform for their work, makes it harder for the big guys to rip them off.
The Legacy Film Festival runs until Sunday 30th October. There are still a lot of great films and performances to see. If you can get to Brighton, I’d highly recommend it.