Handsworth Songs + The People’s Account

Handsworth Songs + The People’s Account
May 5th 2024

The documentary poetics of John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986) provides fresh tonic to the traditional realism that so often reinforces the hegemonic politics of representation. Produced in response to the police brutality, corruption, and racist policies that sparked a trio of uprisings in Britain’s Handsworth, Brixton, and Tottenham areas in 1985, the debut film from the Black Audio Film Collective deftly quilts together archival materials, original and found footage of the riots and their aftermath, interviews with local Black and Asian communities, and Trevor Mathison’s electronic compositions to develop an intricate dialectic between past and present, memory and history, and presence and absence. The film’s freewheeling structure conflates each concept, evincing the difficulty in disentangling one from the other in a society that is structurally oppositional to difference.

Handsworth Songs subtly navigates the rupture between dominant discourses and the realities of the oppressed. Eschewing the talking heads of didactic nonfiction cinema, the film turns to first-person accounts from Handsworth’s Black community, whose experiences undercut local politicians that can only speak to the “senselessness” of the riots. Countering mainstream reports that espouse spontaneous lawlessness and unwarranted rage, Akomfrah rearticulates archival fragments to implicate Britain’s colonial past in the events of the present. Newsreel footage of West Indies migrants arriving on ships coalesce with footage of militarized police parading the streets. Nationalist newspaper reports, with headlines like “The Bleeding Heart of England,” are layered in palimpsest as patriotic trumpets overtake the reggae samples on the soundtrack. The disjunction in what history makes available through the narrative of Empire and the lived reality for Britain’s marginalized communities under Thatcherism is crystallized through an associative bricolage of sound and image.

Though less opaque in form, Milton Bryan’s The People’s Account (1986), which was produced by the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, is no less searing in its condemnation of state-sanctioned violence. The film is an underseen sibling to Handsworth Songs that turns to the Afro-Caribbean community of the Broadwater Farms Estate in Tottenham for oral histories and personal testimony of the racist conditions leading to insurgence. The developing counter-discourse dispels popular coverage of uprisings following the death of one Black matriarch and the crippling of another at the hands of the police. Made for the public television station Channel 4, the Independent Broadcasting Authority took issue with The People’s Account’s explicit depictions of police culpability in the riots. Ceddo refused to relinquish editorial control and, in an ironic validation of its damning representation of popular media, the film was never broadcast on British television.

As an oft-quoted recurring line of voiceover in Handsworth Songs goes, “there are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.” Today, as police violence, state oppression, and sensationalist reportage pervade all pockets of the world, the archival meditations and grainy videos of Handsworth Songs and The People’s Account possess their own spectral qualities, haunting in their prescience and maddening in their need to continually be reconjured.

Handsworth Songs + The People’s Account screens this afternoon, May 5, and on May 9, at BAM as part of the series “Uncharted Territories: Black Britain on Film, 1963 - 1986.”