" Welcome II the Terrordome"
” Welcome II the Terrordome”

As part of its BLACK STAR season, the BFI is shining a light on British-Nigerian filmmaker, Ngozi Onwurah and her ground-breaking films. From her short film debut, “Coffee Coloured Children” in 1988, to her feature debut, “Welcome II the Terrordome” (1995), where she became the first black British woman director to have a feature film theatrically released in UK cinemas, Ngozi is known for blazing an important trail in the British film industry, bringing challenging storylines and insightful black characters to the screen.

Ngozi Onwurah
Ngozi Onwurah

The BFI will celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Shoot the Messenger” with a special screening and event on Tuesday, 15 November at the BFI Southbank in London. Starring David Oyelowo and Nikki Amuka-Bird, the film aired on BBC at a time when it was rare for UK television to showcase films that focused exclusively on black casts, while also bringing to the forefront, provocative and disturbing subject matter.

Cast and crew will reunite at the BFI’s event, with a discussion led by Nikki Amuka-Bird (work permitting) and Charles Mnene, producer Anne Pivcevic and vice chair of the Mental Health Taskforce, Jacqui Dyer.

The discussion will be chaired by Patrick Vernon OBE.

“Welcome II the Terrordome,” available on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Black Britain on Film project, is Ngozi Onwurah’s sole feature to date. With its title co-opted from a fierce track by legendary rap group Public Enemy, the film provokes questions about race relations, drugs, crime and police brutality – many societal themes which are still relevant today.

A selection of Ngozi’s short films are also available on BFI Player, including “Coffee Coloured Children,” “The Body Beautiful,” “Flight of the Swan” and “White Men are Cracking Up.” The full selection can be found here: http://player.bfi.org.uk/search/?q=ngozi+onwurah

The BFI’s BLACK STAR season, which runs until the end of the year, is the UK’s biggest season of film and television dedicated to celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors. The season’s aim is to bring the work of black actors to a new generation of UK audiences, helping to reposition them and their performances in our collective memory.

Black Britain on Film complements the BFI’s new blockbuster season BLACK STAR and is available to view on the BFI’s VOD platform, BFI Player, mostly for free. It is part of the BFI’s five-year Britain on Film project to digitize, and make available online, 10,000 films, from the BFI National Archive and the UK’s national and regional film archives, by 2017.

BLACK STAR will be available to audiences everywhere in the UK; in cinemas including BFI Southbank, on BBC Television, on BFI DVD/Blu-ray and online via BFI Player until December 31.

The Ngozi Onwurah retrospective lineup of films follows below:

“Shoot the Messenger” (2006)
With David Oyelowo, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Brian Bovell
Rarely does a UK TV film focus exclusively on a black cast and subject matter like this provocative, disturbing and bleakly funny drama. Oyelowo brings electric intensity to the role of Joe, a teacher on a mission to save his black students from a life of gangs, crime and underachievement. When a seemingly minor incident spirals out of control, Joe turns against his own community, and his mind begins to unravel. Join us as our panel discuss the important issues this very brave and unique film raises.

“Welcome II the Terrordome” (1995)
With Felix Joseph, Saffron Burrows, Suzette Llewellyn
With its title co-opted from a fierce track by New York rappers Public Enemy, Ngozi Onwurah’s sole feature to date is a rough diamond of 1990s British cinema, a harrowing blast of grungy exploitation. It begins with a haunting prologue set in North Carolina in 1652, where an Ibo family calmly drown themselves rather than succumb to the chains of slavery. It then jumps forward to immerse the viewer in a fetid slum of the near-future – the titular Terrordome – where drugs, crime and racism are as rife as the brutality visited upon the majority black inhabitants by the police.

The first film directed by a black British woman to receive a UK theatrical release, this low-budget yet visually imaginative work was widely derided at the time, but it should be commended for its eyebrow-scorching passion. Moreover, it forges surprising links between near-mythical pasts and imagined futures to provoke prickly questions about contemporary race relations, police brutality and the limits of ‘progress’.

“Coffee Coloured Children” (1988)
An intimate experimental monologue about the trauma of racial harassment and self-hate that accompanies growing up mixed-race, this short film examines the complexity of Britain’s racial ‘melting pot’. Performance art based in rituals of water and fire explores the psychological journey of trying to assimilate to and overcome the unachievable standard of whiteness.

“The Body Beautiful” (1990)
This autobiographical narrative redefines female beauty and sexuality by reflecting on filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah’s relationship with her mother. Onwurah’s discovery of her sexual appeal as a young model is combined with an intimate account of her mother Madge’s experience of desexualisation after having a mastectomy. The cinematic treatment of the female body challenges viewers to acknowledge the rarely-seen sexuality and desire of (mature) women, outside of dominant beauty standards.

“Flight of the Swan” (1992)
A young girl leaves her Nigerian village to attend a ballet school in England. Fascinated by Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, she dreams of performing as lead ballerina Princess Odette, but the girls in her close-minded ballet school mock her ideas of a ‘black swan’.

“White Men are Cracking Up” (1994)
Masie Blue is an enigmatic Black Widow figure under investigation by detective Margrave for her involvement in the suicides of successful white men. Through the blurred lines of perception and reality, the myth of the black feminine mystique is explored under the guise of a murder mystery. Written by playwright Bonnie Greer, the film explores the fetishisation of Black women as a manifestation of white male insecurity.