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:

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Part 3 – Handsworth Songs

Handsworth Songs (1986), is a vital representation of much that Les Misérables avoids. Produced by Black Audio Film Collective, and directed by John Akomfrah, the documentary montage was commissioned by Channel 4 for the series “Britain: The Lie of the Land”. The film unpicks the violence that took place during the late summer and autumn of 1985 by refusing to obey narrative expectations of a single story.[i]

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Part 2 – Rehearsals and Riots, a chronology

Les Misérables was in rehearsals when the so called Handsworth Riots took place. During 9–11 September 1985, Handsworth, an area to the north-west of Birmingham, experienced widespread protests and street violence. In this post, we’ll look at the context for that Autumn and see how the chronology overlaps.

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Staging race, protest, justice and revolution in Thatcher’s Britain: Les Misérables and the autumn of 1985

I’ve been sitting on this academic article for a couple of years – I meant to come back and edit it and revise it, but decided that ultimately I wanted it to exist. As ever, I’m writing from the position of a white British academic in making these arguments. It explores the relationship in much further detail and thinks about how whiteness is coded into what we experience in megamusicals. Because it’s written in the ‘before-times’ – it doesn’t mention the most recent summer of protest. Also, academic articles are generally massive – I’ve posted it as a series of blog posts and slightly edited it so it works on a blog series rather than an individual piece.

Part 1: Staging race, protest, justice and revolution

Part 2: Rehearsals and Riots- a chronology

Part 3: Handsworth Songs

Part 4: Staging Revolution in Handsworth Songs

Part 5: Les Mis, white optimism, and Autumn 1985

Part 6: The Megamusical and Whiteness

Part 7: White Women in Les Mis – a sense of an ending

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