Across the water to Darkest Islington

A small band of intrepid APs went on an exploration to discover what was to be found in the Mildmay Community Centre where Reel Islington hosted free screenings of Sapphire (1959) and The Black Safari (1972) on the final day of their season entitled ‘A Place Called England’. Thanks to the DLR, Jubilee line and Overground, all working this weekend, it was not the arduous journey it might appear from the postcode.

‘Sapphire’ tells the story of a young mixed-race girl who is found murdered and dumped on Hampstead Heath. As the two detectives investigate her murder, we are shown a snapshot of prevailing attitudes towards ‘coloured’ people in London. Some are openly hostile, others ambivalent. As a ‘lily skin’ Sapphire has elected to forsake her erstwhile black companions and pass herself off as white. Her brother appears as a black man, having inherited a different colouring from his parents. Attention is naturally focussed on the family of the white boy she is involved with, and by whom we discover, she is pregnant. The film, which was made a year after the Notting Hill Riots, has a rich musical score accompanying scenes of squalor which still existed years after the war.

‘The Black Safari’, a BBC film, references the explorations of Captain Scott, Shackleton and others which helped create the idea of English identity during the C20th, and parodies the language and images used well into the mid C20th when describing Africa. The four explorers are all African, wearing traditional dress, and their journey along the Leeds – Liverpool canal takes them to the heart of ‘Darkest England’. They describe the natives and their tribal customs, and how the friendly ‘piccaninnies’ have an extensive knowledge of the medicinal qualities of the strange plants growing in the fields. The anthropological studies mirror those of the Edwardian explorers. At a time when the legacy of European colonialism is part of the zeitgeist, both these films are relevant today.

After we had availed ourselves (several times!) of the well-priced tumblers of wine and the refreshments for sale, it was time to head back to Plumstead. Even though it was a ‘school night’, the 7pm finish meant we were back on familiar territory in good time, thanks to the improved transport links.

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