Only the second black directed movie to be made in Britain, this welcome re-release of Menelik Shabazz’s 1981 film charts the experience of a young back British couple as they try to make a life in Thatcher’s London.
The key point about Burning an Illusion is that it was filmed at a pivotal moment in the history of black resistance in Britain: 1981 began with the New Cross fire in which 13 black teenagers died, an event which was met with widespread indifference from the media and authorities, and which triggered a huge protest march through central London. The year ended with an explosion of anti-police rioting in Brixton, the result of persistent harassment and stop and search operations. Burning an Illusion carries within it the spirit of resistance of that time and its message is still relevant today.
The film is narrated by Pat (Cassie McFarlane), an office worker with her own flat and dreams of a settled life with her new man, Del (Victor Romero). A colour telly, holidays, and a steady relationship are all that Pat wants in life, however even these simple ambitions become unattainable. Del, frustrated and angry at his treatment by his white foreman, loses his job and quickly moves to spend his days hanging out with his mates and gambling. It is here that the film strikes its original and sensitive tone. Shabazz reveals how Del’s powerlessness becomes focused on Pat and shows the ways in which their relationship turns inwards and implodes under his violence and bullying.
Refusing to accept this, Pat, with the support of her friend, Cynthia, fights back to reclaim her life. The remainder of the story charts her growing awareness of what shapes and distorts her dreams and that of Del too, and the changes that she goes through to emerge as stronger, more aware and finally militant. The film reveals the internal struggle that the couple undergo, as they react to the brutality of the police, the prison system, and white racists.
The film’s steady pace and semi-documentary style was also important in its time for showing aspects of black experience on the screen; Notting Hill Carnival, black nightlife and generational conflict with the immigrant parents were shown for the first time, and worked to counter the cinematic/TV invisibility of black working class life in Britain. Its re-release is also a testament to both the level of integration and the impact the West Indian presence now has here – at the time of its first showing concerns were raised that some audiences would be unable to follow the patois spoken. Today, however, as the rhythms and vocabulary of black English speech have spread through urban centres and among a new generation of both black and white youth, the dialogue is probably more easily understood than in 1981.
The DVD includes some nice extras with the director talking about the film’s making, and there’s also a neat option whereby you can watch the film accompanied by an audio commentary where the actors and director talk through each scene as it unfolds.
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A pick of the highlights