Blacks Britannica (1978)

A film deemed too “dangerous” by the British Information Service? Well, I’ll just have to watch it now!

Blacks Britannica is a documentary, commissioned by WGBH and produced and directed by David Koff, that takes a critical look at race relations in 1970’s Britain through the perspective of black people in Britain. The strong anti-capitalist sentiment in the film framed from an emotional, yet intelligent and extremely compelling standpoint that had its own network deem the picture ‘too provocative’.

WGBH had Blacks Britannica recut in such a way that altered a lot of the central meaning of the script. They didn’t agree with the politics represented, specifically the Marxist perspective and so fought and even filed a lawsuit against Koff to prevent the original from being distributed. they succeeded to a great extent as at the time of release, the original was only shown in Boston while the recut version was released in the rest of the US and at the time and no version of the film made it to UK theatres.

While it’s true that certain aspects of the subject matter of the original are hard to swallow which may make an uncomfortable watch for some viewers, the documentary is a brilliantly edited, truthful and rousing piece of media that was often acclaimed for an honesty that content of this type does not often have. This thorough accuracy and candour capture aspects of distinctively British black cultures and language. This was a pleasant surprise as I was sceptical about a film from an American company covering the subject matter of race in the UK.

Even watching the film in 2021, it felt sadly refreshing to see a black perspective represented completely unhindered, so unapologetically. But I still couldn’t help but look into the recut version after being so moved by the original.

While no more than four minutes were removed, the censored recut dampens at best and at worst outright removes what makes this film so uniquely impactful. It almost literally apologises for the lack of apology that was so poignant in the original with an opening statement “while this film does not include the views of those who disagree with it, we feel it is valuable to hear these voices.” Having watched the original, these words land with almost a cowardly thud.

Additionally, the recut changes the meaning of one of the most impactful moments of the film in a scene which shows former Commissioner of Police Sir Robert Mark state that the worst crime even more detestable than murder is “the tendency of people to use violence to achieve political or industrial ends.” The original edit intercuts this statement with chilling overhead shots of a demonstration crowd that police are violently ploughing through and unmistakably beating mostly white demonstrators. Cut to black demonstrators chanting: “The pigs, the pigs, we gotta get rid of the pigs.” The brilliance of this editing choice shows police hypocrisy as they are the ones using violence to achieve political ends. It also presents police violence as not simply a black issue, but a systemic problem.

The recut, on the other hand, shows the black crowds chanting followed by police violence with the commissioner’s words. This simple reorder shows police brutality as a reaction to black anger rather than vice versa. This offers a much more flattering perspective of the institution and power structures that the original film sets out to criticise. When a large segment of this criticism in the film is around police willingness to lie, this edit feels tone-deaf and clunky as the words of an anonymous young black man’s experience with the police just a few scenes earlier ring in your ears. “I never thought that they could lie so much”

That said, the criticism of this recut is strictly from the viewpoint of having watched the original, and through the contextual knowledge that the recut was born of suppression and censorship. From what I could find about the recut, this version would still be as informative about the injustices of how black people of this generation were treated in the UK which may be a more accessible starting point of race theory, especially for viewers of the 1970s.

However, with so many other mediums that explore this subject matter simply identifying racism as an issue without much further examination, maybe we should celebrate access to forms of media that challenge this status quo. Whatever you may believe about the politics that this film covers, the message of the second version is undeniably watered down. Ultimately, the existence of both films is a fascinating capsule of what elements of conversations about race that audiences of this time were expected to be able to handle.

Blacks Britannica is available to rent from BFI Player.

Eleanor Othieno

Bid/Proposal Writer and graduate of English with journalism and creative writing. She has proficiency in creating marketing, blog and social media content for a range of audiences.

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