Part 4 – Staging revolution in Handsworth Songs

Handsworth Songs opens with an image of a Black security guard looking at a large engine (perhaps in a museum), intercutting with a series of unsettling images and sirens (birds roosting, a rotating clown face), before settling on the civic centre of Birmingham and the statues of the ‘great noble men of Birmingham’ outside the city’s library buildings. Images of the morning after street protests are intercut with the same clown; then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd visiting the residents of Birmingham. (Hurd had to leave the area quickly after his arrival, news footage records his unwelcome visit).

In one of the most distressing sequences of Handsworth Songs, which comes only minutes in, a young Black teenager is chased by police, we seem him violently restrained as other young Black people look on – watching but not surprised by what they are seeing. The film then moves into a series of archival footage of earlier Caribbean immigrants to the UK, of hopeful wedding photos and ballroom dancing. Homi Bhabha argues that Handsworth Songs resists time because it stages ‘the historic present of the riots’[i], it explicitly presents fractured time:

It is the time of oppression and resistance; the time of the performance of the riots, cut across by the pedagogical knowledges of State institutions. The racism of statistics and documents and newspapers is interrupted by the perplexed living of Handsworth songs.[ii]

Homi Bhabha

The film conducts ‘a radical critique of the social (and its economics) as a disciplinary apparatus’[iii]: by telling a story about the autumn of 1985, it explicitly reveals how the media tell stories.

Handsworth Songs presents real and recent political events involving People of Colour, and acts not only as an account of those events, but also as a reflection on the way in which participants in those events are made to appear by the dominant process of representation.

Revealing the media’s storytelling

The viewer is shown the way in which this apparatus, and the relationship between the UK’s mainstream news media and Government discourse, maintains white supremacist power structures by casting the subaltern ‘immigrant’ in the part of the wicked rioter disturbing orderly British society (which we are primed to read as ‘white’).

Coco Fusco argues Handsworth Songs shatters ‘the reductivism of previous media coverage’[iv] by revealing how such coverage is constructed, conducting what she describes as ‘poetic analysis of the representation of “racial” events.’[v]

It invites its viewer to see that to recognise the complexity of stories before and during 1985 is to reject any single explanation for the disturbances. Indeed, the most frequently quoted section of the film recounts an anecdote of an old woman telling a journalist who has asked for a story:  

There are no stories in the riots. Only the ghosts of other stories. If you look there you can see Enoch Powell telling us in 1969 that we don’t belong. You can see Malcolm X in 1965 visiting us when the Conservatives saying “if you want a [n-word] for your neighbour than vote Labour”.[vi]

V/O in Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs

In denying a singular narrative (this happened because of that), the film disputes the contemporaneous racist narrative, which dismisses the protests of immigrant communities as mere criminality; as looting and rioting rather than resistance or revolution. Director John Akomfrah has argued ‘the film was a polemic against the usual representations of the riots that took place in Handsworth’.[vii] 

Jean Fisher has argued that in the documentary ‘memory is to be understood not as a dead past waiting to be excavated but as a product of the present.’[viii] She suggests that memory (here configured as an archive) is ‘always in process, subject to additions, subtractions and reconfigurations which are interventions of the present.’[ix]

Paul Gilroy and the archive

Paul Gilroy’s discussion of the Handsworth Riots presents a very different story to the protests than the official ‘white’ media narrative: he argues that they allowed a sense of community unification to be found where people who are powerless move outside of traditional class analysis. He argues ‘people have shrunk the world to the size of their communities and begun to act politically on that basis.’[x] There is an agency and a joy in the riots/uprisings that mainstream narratives were unable to comprehend; Gilroy notes that even in the popular press, ‘spontaneous feelings of joy [were noted] as further evidence of the inhuman, alien behaviour of Afro-Caribbean people’[xi], quoting The Sun’s report that ‘Whooping West Indians sang ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ as they surveyed the riot wreckage.’[xii]

Handsworth Songs resists the lure of the individual story by explicitly stating collective stories about the community, about communities. Simone Sessolo argues that Handsworth Songs engages with the form of an epic story, but replaces ‘the individual hero with a collective body – the collective subject of the rioters.’[xiii] But the ‘collective’ is not a singular grouping – through complex directing, film and sound editing we are constantly primed to see the heterogeneousness of the events of that autumn.

The documentary materialises protest and invites its audience to sit with the complexity – the ungraspable complexity – of that.  In presenting these stories the film critiques the media and its reliance on the ‘official narrative’, by revealing the material processes through which a story is asserted over the events. In short, it resists whiteness by revealing white supremacist cultures which would rather construct these narratives than accept its own complicity in the power and racial structures which have led to ‘this’.


[i] Homi, K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture. (London: Routledge, 2012), 224.

[ii] Bhabha, Location of Culture, 223.

[iii] Kershaw, “Discouraging Democracy”, 270.

[iv] Coco Fusco, Young, British & Black: A Monograph on the Work of Sankofa Film/Video Collective and Black Audio Film Collective (Buffalo NY: Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, 1988), 18.

[v] Fusco, Young, British & Black, 18.

[vi] Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs.

[vii] Paul Gilroy, “Audiences/Aesthetics/Independence Interview with the Black Audio Collective,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, no. 35 (1988): 35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44111640.

[viii] Jean Fisher, “In Living Memory… Archive and Testimony in the Films of the Black Audio Film Collective,” in The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982-1998, ed. Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press : Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, 2007), 17.

[ix] Fisher, “In Living Memory” 25.

[x] Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (Routledge, 2013), 245.

[xi] Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black,238.

[xii] Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black, 238.

[xiii] Sessolo, “An Epic of Riots,” 743.

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