Barbara Blake-Hannah: filmmaking, barrier-breaking, and Jamaica on-screen (full interview transcript)

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Barbara Makeda Blake-Hannah is a Jamaican filmmaker, cultural consultant, journalist, author, and the first Black female reporter on British television in 1968. She returned to Jamaica in 1972 and is a figurehead for promoting Rastafarian culture and history. Having introduced ourselves in (virtual) person and managed to navigate the time-zone situation, we quickly began the interview.

Stephanie: The first main question I had was about the 1974 Jamaica Film Festival, you organized. What was your experience of organizing the festival like?

Barbara: Well, I was staying in Hollywood with a Hollywood movie star girlfriend of mine, who was one of the stars of the Blaxploitation genre at the time. And she said: “You know, there are all these Black films and filmmakers, why don’t you do a film festival in Jamaica?” She helped me get in touch with the producers, of five of the best films and we brought them to Jamaica. Through my father, I got help with Eastern Airlines sponsoring flights to Jamaica for some of the actors and producers, we got the local cinema to agree to show the films each night over a week, and the Jamaica Tourist Board, arranged for their accommodation. Then the Prime Minister and his wife said they would be Patrons. When they said they would be the patrons that made everybody, everything else fall in line. So that’s how it happened.

Stephanie: Oh, that’s interesting. So, I’m guessing it was still Manley at the time.

Barbara: Yes, yes. Michael and Beverly Manley.

Stephanie: Okay. From that, would you say that the Jamaica film festival put Jamaica on the map when it came to the film industry? Or would you say that it was a combination of that, and another film you’ve helped promote: The Harder They Come from 1972?

Barbara: The Harder They Come is what put Jamaica on the map for film without a doubt. I was very fortunate to have been asked to do the PR for its launch in 1972. We took it to the Venice Film Festival, the Cork, Ireland film festival, and then we launched it in Brixton. That film was the film that made everybody realize Jamaica was a filmmaking country. But before that, don’t forget the James Bond movie Doctor No (1962) had been filmed in Jamaica. It had been written in Jamaica set in Jamaica. And foreign film companies have been making films in Jamaica for a very long time before that. It’s just that The Harder They Come was our first Jamaican feature film. And there have been quite a few since.

Barbara: I wouldn’t say that, you know, the film festival, put Jamaica on the map – not at all. I hoped it would, but it didn’t it. It was an event that happened in 1974, and I tried to do it again in ‘75 and ‘76, with less successful results each time. But it was a landmark event. We brought thirty-six Hollywood celebrities to Jamaica, and that never had never happened before. Black Hollywood celebrities. And that’s what was best of all. Jamaica was glad to see people they’d only seen on the screen. William Marshall, and Gloria Hendry, who’d been in a Bond movie, she was the first Black Bond girl. And we did bring the writer and director of the film The Spook That Sat by The Door (1973), but the film never made it for many reasons – that’s another long story. But it was a very good week. It was a very star-felt week, and a lot of good came out of that.

Stephanie: Yeah, I can imagine it would have been quite intense for people in Kingston as well – like seeing all these stars suddenly on their doorstep that they’d only seen on film before.

Barbara: Yes, it was it was.

Stephanie: One of the big things about what has driven you and your personal beliefs has been being Rastafari. So how much would you say that has influenced the direction of your career?

Barbara: Well, I don’t know. I mean, The Harder They Come is what made me really see what Rastafari culture was like, it was the first film that showed the world what Rastafari culture was like. And it influenced me to want to be a Rasta. I had been in Britain living with racism and what was happening in Black America in the 60s: “Black is beautiful”, Angela Davis, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Franz Fanon. It all opened my Black awareness. I had been brought up to be an English woman and consider myself inferior because I was Black, but what happened in the 60s opened my Black awareness and to then discover that my own country had created a Black culture and a Black religion, obviously I wanted to travel down that path and see where it led me and I’m still on that path.

Barbara: I mean The Harder They Come really exposed Rastafari culture to the world but no films since then have gone that way.  Right at this very moment, Paramount Pictures is in Jamaica making a Bob Marley film about his life – a biopic is the right phrase – which I know will expose his Rastafari links. But the culture has mostly been around reggae, reggae music, because that’s what The Harder They Come really introduced to the world more than even Rasta. It introduced reggae to the world – reggae music, and the thing of reggae music. So, the films we’ve had since have mostly been about reggae music, which is why in 2008 I then put on a reggae Film Festival that ran for six years, films about reggae, films that included reggae music, films that depicted the biographies of reggae practitioners, reggae in every way was the culture that got exported much more than Rasta.

Stephanie: So you would say it’s more because Rasta was seen as more of a niche but also to some people it wasn’t seen necessarily as something to follow as popularly as reggae, would you say that sort of impacted the level of exposure it got?

Barbara: Well, no not really. Rasta is not an easy thing to understand, you know. Everybody thinks it’s just you put on red, gold, and green, and smoke some ganja, and grow your dreadlocks. But it is much more than that. It’s a religious philosophy and unless you are part of it and willing to explain it, in some way it’s best left alone. After The Harder They Come which showed practitioners, you would then have to refer to films that directly told you about Rasta, films about Marcus Garvey that could touch on it, films about Leonard Howell – those kinds of biographical films. But Rasta is about seeing Emperor Haile Selassie as an epitome of the perfect man, and as an Ethiopian, and as the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. You then come to religion, you then come to African history, you then go right back to the birth of Christ, the crucifixion. Those are huge themes that cannot be touched on lightly. And that’s probably why film has avoided Rasta quote unquote as a theme and just dealt with the music. I mean, it’s easy to just do a film about a reggae practitioner like Lee Scratch Perry, you can make a film about Scratch, and anything mentioned on Rasta, about making music and what made him make this kind of music. Or you make a film like a German girl comes to Jamaica gets lost and all she can do is play her guitar and then she ends up you know, playing guitar in a club. That’s another way you can touch on Rasta but it’s like saying: “Can you make a film about Catholicism?” Yes, you can. But it’s not going to tell you the whole story. It’s much more than that. It’s much more than that.

Stephanie: You mentioned in your article on the Jamaica Reggae Film Festival that you collected an archive of around 300 films from when the festival ran from 2008 to 2013. And since then, have you found somewhere to keep them like preserve them for is this still something that’s being developed?

Barbara: No, you know, I could just take the 300 of them and give them away to put in the National Library. And they would be forgotten and so would I be. I keep hoping that the government or some agency of the government would invite me to set up a reggae film archive and make some income from that. I didn’t make any money during the film festivals. I mean, at the last one, I stopped because at the end of it, I had to live without electricity for three months until I could pay my electricity bill. I earned absolutely nothing. Then I decided I can’t continue anymore.

Barbara: So, for me to just say “here’s 300 films, all the work I did for six years,” for who? Give it away for what? So, I still have them sitting down here. One day, someone might say: “Barbara, here’s a fund, here’s a building, come in there and catalogue your films, make an archive so that people can refer to it, refer to the films come and look them up.” Students can come and sit down at a machine and watch a film about Lee Scratch Perry, for example. Or even The Harder They Come. That’s what’s necessary, otherwise, it’ll all just be among the things I leave behind when I pass from the flesh – The Barbara Blake Hannah Museum. There’s so much more like all my papers on reparations. I’ve done so much more work in Jamaica than just films. All my writings, my books. So maybe my son or his children would make a Barbara Blake Hannah archive one day that will include the film’s as well. I hope so I don’t want to just give them away to some dusty corner.

Stephanie: No, it’s good to want to preserve everything that you’ve done. And you’re very right in saying for all the work that you’ve collated together, you don’t just want to give it away to someone.

Barbara: But my son won’t let me do that. He says: “keep everything mommy keep everything.”

Stephanie: When I brought up The Harder They Come to my mother who was at the time way too young to see it in cinemas, she remembered the film from her island.

Barbara: Excellent, excellent. Yes. You know, it’s amazing what Jamaica has done in the world. People are in awe of what Jamaica has done as a little teeny island. I mean, look at Trinidad, look at Barbados. Yeah, we know. Barbados, we hear about it because the Prime Minister has done so many good things with climate change. She even removed her country from being ruled by the Monarchy. For Jamaica to have created a world religion, a world culture that everywhere in the world you go, you will find red, gold, and green you will find Bob Marley, you will find reggae music, you will find at least one person who will tell you “I am a Rasta” in every single country in the world. Do you know they have something like more than 200 reggae festivals every year? You can go on Wikipedia and look up reggae festivals and see a list of the countries in which reggae festivals are held, even Iceland! You know every single country in the world has had or is having a reggae festival. And that’s amazing. They not having a steelpan festival or Calypso festival although these are good musical genres. But reggae yes. Jamaica has done that.

Barbara: When we say Jamaica, you know, we call God “JAH”. As Psalm 64 says, that’s the name we are to call God. So, there’s JAH and then maker, the maker of JAH. “JAH-Maker”, we are the maker of God. We say that when Selassie passed from the flesh, he lives now in Jamaica, the throne is in Jamaica. That’s why we print his picture every day. We crown him every day. We’re soon going to have a statue of him built in our national Heroes Park. So, we see Jamaica as the last outpost of heaven on earth. And even though it’s imperfect, we say the devil just fights to make Jamaica not have its rightful honour because JAH lives here, JAH is made here. That’s why our culture has spread across the world. And we come to spread it across the world, we come to spread the word of Peace and Love, which is the Christ message. We say that Selassie is Christ in this earthly dispensation, and we come to spread Christ’s message of Love. Rasta is not an easy thing to overstand. But I just explained to you the basics of Rasta.

Stephanie: I feel like you have given me a crash course in Rasta!

Barbara: Yes!

Stephanie: Returning briefly to the 1980s, you mention about all the films that you’ve worked on, one of which was been collaboration with Channel Four, where you returned to Britain for ‘Race, Rhetoric, and Rastafari’ (1982). How did you feel about working there once again, where racism had originally driven you from the screen?

Barbara: That film came about in a very interesting way. I was returning through Britain coming from a film festival, a Palestinian film festival in Iraq where I met Saddam Hussein. I stopped in London and called up an old friend, who is Jeremy Isaacs. Jeremy used to be the producer of the TV program that I worked on in London. He took me to lunch, and he was now head of a new TV company just starting up called Channel Four. And I said: “You know, since I left, Jeremy, I was the first Black woman on British TV, and nobody’s replaced me. That was 1968 and this is now 1981, ’82 – how come? You know, the media should have done so much with that opening to change racism in Britain?” And he said: “Well, Barbara, why don’t you make a film about that for us?” And I said: “Done.”

Barbara: That’s how ‘Race Rhetoric Rastafari’ came to be done and I was the producer. He said I couldn’t produce and direct but as producer, I got to be the company directing. So, I had a director and then I tried to get an all-Black film crew and that wasn’t really allowed. That was considered racism. I had to write to the National Union of Journalists and get permission to advertise for, I couldn’t say Black employees, but to advertise that it was a Black film to be produced and persons from that group would be welcome as employees. And I got a very mixed crew which was nice. I had a white director. My cameraman was Jamaican, but he was very white skinned with freckles and red hair. And my editor was a Trinidadian of Indian origin. So, I got quite a nice mixed crew of people. I got two assistants, an assistant-sound and an assistant to the director, both young, Black British. I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell, which was to show Black Britain and to ask some questions as to why racism still existed when the media could play such a large role in changing it. That’s how that came about. It was shown in the opening months of Channel Four’s broadcasting in Britain. Very proud of that film.

Stephanie: And the fact that the only main Black broadcaster at the time was Trevor McDonald. If I remember correctly.

Barbara: I think he got his job in 1978. And this was 1982. That film was made, and Moira Stewart hadn’t got her job yet. She came on in the 80s.

Stephanie: So really not many people?

Barbara: Nobody, nobody. Yes, nobody had replaced me.

Stephanie: What was your favourite film that you’ve produced or directed? But perhaps you’ve already answered this question?

Barbara: No, no, my favourite was the two little Kids Paradise (1992 and 1997) films that I made. I have some very good friends and family that own a chain of hotels across the island, and we were staying in one of them. This particular hotel was one for kids, parents with children. So, my friend gave us a weekend there and my son loved it so much to be at a hotel for kids. He said: “Mummy, why don’t you make a film here? You could make a film about how we find a treasure map and the kids go hunting!” My friend thought it was a great idea. She gave us enough money to hire a crew and she gave us the hotel for a weekend with a beautiful suite. I found three other children: his cousin, a little Chinese boy and a white American boy. And then my son asked Freddie McGregor the reggae star if he would star in it. And Freddie said yes, but everyone said: “oh, he won’t do it.” But, lo and behold, he did. He came and he was the star of the movie, a nice little movie and it worked out very well. So we had him performing and the hotel really went all out to accommodate the film. They laid on a lovely show on another night with Karen Smith, who was another Jamaican singing star. And it was just wonderful to make the film, which was half an hour long.

Barbara: We loved doing it so much, we thought we could make a sequel. So we made one with a different story. The same two children – my son and his cousin – met two children on a vacation and they have an older sister who is discovered as a fashion model because she’s so beautiful. But she misses her life in Jamaica and runs away, so the four kids go to find her. They go out on the road with bicycles looking for their sister, eventually find her, and the brothers are so happy they invite my son and his cousin to come down to Negril where they live and have a holiday where they go on an adventure, capture coral thieves. Just having a little adventure being sweet and nice, that showed the beauty of Jamaica and had reggae music throughout. So those are my favourite films.

Stephanie: That sounds like a great time!

Barbara: The two boys whose sister ran away, they loved being in the movie so much they went on to become filmmakers. In fact, Jamaica’s best young filmmakers: Storm and Nile Saulter. Shasta was the girl. And it was just lovely doing these films. Those are my best, but I’m not allowed to put them online. They all say “no, we feel very self-conscious.” But one day, we’ll show them.

Stephanie: Since the Reggae Film Festival ended, there have been an uptake in national film festivals across Caribbean, like GATFFEST, Hairouna FF, Trinadad and Tobago FF, to name a few, do you believe that a younger gen of Jamaicans could revive a reggae film festival again?

Barbara: Yes. There was one year when the government film Commissioner decided that she would put on a reggae film festival or Jamaica Film Festival. Although I objected to them using the name Jamaica Film Festival, because I used it in 1974, they said I hadn’t copyrighted the name. And then, they didn’t invite me to be involved in any way. It turned out that the festival, despite having all of the funding I wished I had had, it turned out to be a major disaster and the Film Commissioner had to resign! In fact, she went and lived in another country altogether for four years.

Barbara: GATFFEST is a film festival that has sprung up. They invite independent films, not necessarily reggae films, they’ve had some success. They show films, not films that have come to any fame after. And I’ve not been invited to participate in that festival, ever. So I don’t really know what happens to their films after they’re shown except we don’t see them being shown anywhere. Mary Wells has done a very good film festival in Canada, where she shows Third World films, she’s a Jamaican filmmaker, and she shows some semi-successful Caribbean films. Films that at least get shown on circuits throughout the Caribbean, some in North America.

Barbara: I keep hoping that we will do another major film festival, but I noticed that no reggae films are being made anymore. It seems like all the major reggae artists or reggae producers or reggae themes that could be covered have been covered for now, at any rate ’til a new crop rises up. The present Film Commissioner who just either resigned or retired recently, her idea was short films. And she got a lot of funding for that. Each year they made five-minute-long short films, I think they’ve made five or ten each year – five minutes short films, a lot of short films made, which trained a lot of young people in different aspects of filmmaking. But again, I haven’t seen any of these films achieve any success. Seven years she held that post and I haven’t seen any of the films reach Sundance, Cannes, LA Film Festival, New York Film Festival. So how can we – how do we judge the work that’s been done? I think personally, what would have been better is if all the money that had been spent on those short films had been pulled together, they could have made at least one feature film. That’s my opinion, at any rate.

Barbara: In the meantime, there have been films like One Love (2003) which was made by a Norwegian producer, starring Kymani Marley and Cheree Anderson, both of them reggae artists in their own right and it was a nice little love story, very nicely done. A film [directed] by Rick Elgood, who is a white British Rasta filmmaker, very professional. He also worked on Dancehall Queen, which was one of the two films produced by Chris Blackwell, following up on his links to The Harder They Come. He did Third World Cop (1999) and Dancehall Queen (1997) – two films by Palm Pictures, the company he set up. ‘Third World Cop’ was the most successful Jamaican film ever. But, Blackwell stopped making films after those two. An independent Jamaican lawyer made ‘Kla$h’ (1995). That was a film about Dancehall culture, with Giancarlo Esposito long before he was as famous as he is today, and Jasmine Guy who was much better known than Giancarlo. But that was an interesting film, which unfortunately didn’t make any money and didn’t get the kind of international exposure it could have if it had been released now when Giancarlo Esposito is so well known you know. It’s such a shame. He was almost a complete unknown at the time. Jasmine Guy was the star and, you know, there we go.

Barbara: Storm Saulter, one of the two young kids in Kids Paradise, he went on to make some very interesting Jamaican films. He did a film that was based on a very infamous political event, when some bad men were ambushed and shot at a place named Green Bay, he made a film about that political event. But you must be a Jamaican to understand why that story was important enough to make. And he made ‘Sprinter’ (2018), which is a film very much based, I would say on the fame of Usain Bolt, about a young athlete who, you know, becomes famous – that film also won some awards. Yet we still are waiting to get a film in the Cannes Film Festival, or the Venice Film Festival, or the Sundance Film Festival, or the Los Angeles Film Festival, or the Pan African Film Festival in LA. I don’t see why reggae music can be so important, but our films also can’t be. So I don’t know. The Paramount film about Bob Marley, which is yet unnamed – it doesn’t have a title yet. It’s still a Paramount movie so I don’t know what will happen with that. You can’t really call it a Jamaican film.

Barbara: A Jamaican film would be when a Jamaican writes the script and directs the film. We have very few script writers at the moment unfortunately, although we have good authors, I think what we need is someone who will set up a training course for the writing of film scripts. The Minister of Finance, just announced this year’s budget that he’s setting up: he has set up a $2 billion fund for filmmaking, not money that we can access but a fund that if someone comes along with a proper production, script, budget, everything that looks like it can be a success, it will be able to draw on this fund to proceed into filmmaking. But that’s just a month ago, he announced this. So let’s see what happens to that for the future of Jamaican filmmaking. That’s really what I would say about film in Jamaica right now.

Stephanie: Indeed, there is very much like a global movement as well to really have a lot more display of Black filmmakers, directors, script writers, costume designers on screen, especially considering the Oscars where there’s been allegations, especially from those individuals have been snubbed about receiving recognition for their work. So there’s definitely traction growing in that. And I wouldn’t be surprised in a few years’ time if there is some shift, even if it is small, because obviously an industry like that does not change overnight, as you are very much aware of.

Barbara: Yes. But what I want to say I’m not only talking about Black people making films, because in Jamaica, we have all the races. You could make a film about white Jamaicans, the Chris Blackwell set of people, for example, the Uptown people, you can make a film about Chinese Jamaicans – why not? There’s a whole bunch of people coming to live in Jamaica from China setting up businesses, rather, you know, almost like another generation. So where are the Chinese? Where’s the Chinese story? Where’s the Jamaican story? We have a young white Jamaican who is trying to be a Lewis Hamilton. He’s driving, he’s young, he’s 12 years old, but he’s driving as good as Lewis Hamilton. He’s a white Jamaican. Where is he? A white Jamaican tennis player in the Davis Cup.

Barbara: So, I just speak about Jamaicans, since there are a lot of Jamaican stories that need to be made. We haven’t made our Maroon feature film yet about the fighting Maroons and Queen Nanny, the woman who is now a national heroine. The film about that lady of the Crimean War, Mary Seacole, our Black Florence Nightingale. Where are the films about those people? Where’s that film about Windrush? Where are our movies coming out of Jamaica about the families that went to live in England, and who was left behind in Jamaica when everyone went to live in England and left the babies to be brought up by grandmas, where are those stories? So, maybe, you know, I’m just being premature, but ‘The Harder They Come’ was 1971. And that was a long time ago. That was 50 years ago. I want to see something else happening now. You’re right you know; Hollywood is crying out for more diversity. But I want diversity not just in terms of Black skin, but in terms of those stories, diverse stories. I mean, we want to see something other than the, you know, the Black crime films, you know, the Black “ghetto” films.

This interview was conducted on 30th March 2023. All information was deemed accurate at the time of recording.

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