Socialist Worker

500 Years Later and the legacy of Africa’s enslavement

Director Owen ’Alik Shahadah spoke to Charlie Kimber about his film 500 Years Later — a searing study of slavery and its effects on the African Diaspora.

Issue No. 1965

Chains of oppression - an image from the film

Chains of oppression - an image from the film


What makes 500 Years Later different to other films about slavery?

500 Years Later represents a fresh, unapologetic African narrative on the crisis and legacy of enslavement. The film not only embodies the story of the African Diaspora, but also carries the culture of our people in its subtext.

The single most compelling factor in the making of 500 Years Later was an overwhelming desire to produce a single body of work that summoned up, chronicled and addressed the critical issues facing Africans globally – one which spoke in positive reaffirming terms to African people in the Diaspora.

This film also serves as a reference point for our generation and future generations. The techniques employed did not rely on emotions to build the case from an African standpoint. We dealt with facts over emotion and truth over everything. So the film also re-examines our own failings – I believe this makes it unprecedented.

There is a strong sense in the film of how the legacy of slavery continues, how it was not a one-off historical event that has now passed.

That was one of our main objectives. Enslavement and the legacy of enslavement are not over, are not something in the past that ended in the past.

It was only 40 years ago that Africans won the vote in the US. It was only ten years ago that South Africans became somewhat liberated. Right now in Mauritania and Sudan there are people who are enslaved.

We walk around with European names speaking European languages – how could any of us believe enslavement has stopped just because the physical chains have been removed?

How important was is to have the film made by Africans and people of African descent?

The media has generally been very derogatory of African people. Our voice, culture and history are typically shown through European eyes, compromised to appease a European palette. We firmly believe that for equality to be served, we must tell our own stories freely. We must be active agents in the representation of our image and history in a multicultural world.

It’s interesting to note how few of these “ethnically inclusive” programmes on mainstream television are actually produced by African people. We see programmes on Africa with all the Africans on the other side of the camera. We have British people writing African-Caribbean television series. We have completely white crews producing hip-hop documentaries.

White people occupy all of the decision making posts of all the media institutes. How is this diversity? People must be allowed to tell their own stories – this is a basic principle in the right to self-determination.

The most honest Christian white man cannot accurately make a film about Islam, slavery, colonialism, or African kingdoms. Apart from the blatant conflict of interest, the complexities of African culture are only known by people of that culture. Until the lion writes his own story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

Do you want the film to lead to, say, an reinvigoration of the campaign for reparations, or a new perspective on how Africa is viewed, something more than as a continent of victims?

500 Years Later is more than a film – it is a social base for arguing and bringing about change. It serves to normalise African culture and African issues into the mainstream of African people globally, in order to galvanise us and make us, as a collective, aware of the task ahead.

The film makes the case for reparations and for African-centered schools. By foregrounding the most critical issues, it allows universities, mosque, schools, churches etc to educate our people, instruct them in a better understanding of what we need to do.

I believe the film also sets a new benchmark for African productions in terms of its production values and its African cultural aesthetic. It takes a bold and honest step into professionally and constructively addressing our issues and solutions,without any apology or permission slip from any non-African interest.

I saw the film at a Day of African Remembrance in east London, where it generated much discussion and inspiration. What has been the experience at other screenings?

We’ve had an overwhelming response to the film – most people had never seen a production on this level before. I think we achieved something that was exciting to watch, saturated with culture and information, and something that spanned our journey in a way that makes the viewer feel proud of their African heritage.

People are waking up after seeing the film. I believe it can help usher in a much needed cultural revolution, like the one we saw in the 1960s. It is influencing young children to believe their ancestors were so much more than slaves. It is also causing our own people to re-examine stereotypes of Africa. To date no one who has seen the film has not been blown away, from Zanzibar to Bridgetown.

It would be nice to see the film more widely shown. Why hasn’t this happened?

I first blame our African communities. The people would love to see it, but the so called “black” newspapers, who are very conformist, have not even contacted us or returned our calls for a review. So I first have to put the blame, not with the average African on the street, but with those who claim to represent our interest.

The film was given to key African-British political figures, but nothing has come from it. Clearly we are not surprised that the European establishment wants to keep this kind of self-determining media out of their system – that goes without saying.

Channel 4 said it was not something they believed would be interesting enough to show – which is funny, since it has sold out everywhere it has been shown.

The Ritzy cinema in Brixton, south London, the heart of the African-British community, has avoided and deflected our calls for them to show it. I personally know of ten filmmakers and film production companies that have approached the Ritzy and had the same treatment of non-engagement.

This is something that needs to be addressed. This film sets the challenge to this so called multicultural all-inclusive world they claim to be building – because again it is them deciding what can and can’t be included in this melting pot.

Because 500 Years Later was made without their money or authority, it is authentic. And their dilemma is how to stop this thing from spreading. But if the African-British community was organised and had the right people in the right places, we would rally and force these issues onto the table. The recent African and Asian heritage commission should serve to ensure that this exclusion of our authentic work is addressed institutionally.

We have no industry as a people and the European agents and distributors will not touch this kind of material. None of the mainstream broadcasters wants to deal with products which reaffirm African identity.

This is the racism we have to deal with. And even if we overcome the initial racism, which blocks us at the funding level, we are confronted with so many barriers in spreading the film.

I believe there is to be a follow-up film to 500 Years Later called Africa In Chains

Initially 500 Years Later spanned the issues which Africa faces. But we realised that would have made the film four hours long, so the decision was made to split the topics. Africa In Chains will be the continuation, not the sequel, to 500 Years Later. We will cover a broad range of topics from ancient Egypt to the trade crisis and poverty which haunts Africa today.

500 Years Later will be released on DVD shortly. For more details about the film go to www.500yearslater.com


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Sat 27 Aug 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1965
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