Pioneering Black British independent filmmaker, Henry Goule Martin, died at 70 years old on May 13th of this year after months of a struggle with cancer, which he, characteristically, kept private. Though his name might be unfamiliar in the United States, Martin started the important production company, Kuumba in 1982 along with two other Black pioneers—Menelik Shabazz and Imruh Bakari. This company would provide a base for the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop founded later that year. In an era of notable Black film/media collectives such as Isaac Julien’s Sankofa and Black Audio, Ceddo made a significant mark as the center of radical Black filmmaking in London for over a decade. For example, the workshop would produce seminal films, including Milton Bryan’s, The People’s Account (1985), Shabazz’s proto-Afrofuturist Time and Judgement: Diaries of a 400 Year Exile (1988) and D. Elmina Davies’ groundbreaking womanist documentary, Omega Rising: Women of Rastafari (1988).
Shabazz was the well-known director of Burning an Illusion (1981), only the second film directed by a Black director in British history and winner of the Grand Prix at the Amiens International Film Festival in France. He would direct others including, Step Forward Youth (1976), Time and Judgement: Diaries of a 400 Year Exile (1988), The Story of Lovers Rock (2011), and publish the magazine, Black Filmmaker in the 90s. Imruh Bakari directed films such as Riots and Rumors of Riots (1981), Street Warriors (1985), The Mark of the Hand (1987), and Blue Notes and Exiled Voices (1991). Devoting much of the years since Ceddo building the filmmaking infrastructure of the African continent, Bakari directed the Zanzibar International Film Festival (1999-2004) and has developed screenwriting and production projects in Tanzania while teaching and publishing critical works as well as collections of poetry.
Martin was never a member of Ceddo. But he worked closely with the collective, producing Bakari’s Blue Notes and Exiled Voices and The Mark of the Hand, and devised and ran Screenwrite (1993), an influential screenplay program for Black writers, in association with the British Film Institute and Channel 4 Television. While maintaining this commitment to Black independent film and filmmakers, he worked in the wider British film industry, even directing a season of early 80s children’s television program, Everybody Here.
Born to Trinidadian parents Claude and Vida Martin in Lewisham Hospital, London, in 1952, Henry Martin returned to the island at three months old to spend his formative years in the heady climate of Carnival culture in the capital city, Port of Spain. Across the street from his home in the Woodbrook neighborhood was the legendary Little Carib Theatre. This hub of cultural activity drew into its orbit everyone from Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott to dance pioneer Katherine Dunham, and the great African American singer/activist, Paul Robeson. Also nearby was the pan-yard of the equally legendary Invaders Steel Orchestra. It was in between those spaces of cultural activism that he would develop his political and artistic sensibility in advance of his return to England in the very early 1970s. He returned already a pan-Africanist, but one who had discovered that ideology as much in the anti-colonial street culture of Port of Spain as in the zones between theatre and pan-yard.
His experiences with film in the Caribbean had taught him the power of the moving image. This led him to study film at the West Surrey College of Art and Design. There he committed himself to bringing Afro-Caribbean street culture and politics into film, a mix he believed could be revolutionary. His first film expressed that Trinidadian influence, a short documentary for the Arts Council of London called Grove Carnival (1981). Without dialogue it told the story of a day in the life of the Black community as it prepared for the Notting Hill festival. But like his colleagues in Ceddo, his work was also made in response to the almost annual series of riots that had rocked England since 1976. That first film would inspire his next, the controversial documentary on the militant music and culture of Ladbroke Grove, Grove Music (1981). It was a community he’d become a part of, the late night shebeens, the squats, the hustlers, and revolutionaries. That was why the film featured local musical legends Aswad, and the Sons of Jah. It remained Martin’s favorite of his films. He felt it enabled Black people to finally speak honestly about their interactions with the police as well as express unfiltered views of their lives in England.
However, the honesty that the film portrayed would lay the foundation for why he would eventually abandon filmmaking. Despite the enthusiasm of viewers and the fact that the very influential Channel Four bought the film, its release and advertising was so limited as to effectively ban it. It seemed to Martin and his comrades in Kuumba that this was due to the allegation by theater owners and others in the film industry that Grove Music affirmed and encouraged the violent confrontations between racist police and the Black community. This charge was not unfamiliar, having been made against many of the early films of Shabazz and Bakari, and later, in relation to Ceddo’s, The People’s Account. As well as documenting lived realities, these films had in fact been made to document the police harassment and violence towards Black people that instigated the uprisings in the first place.
That charge would also feed a level of street-level support that other collectives could not boast. Yet despite this support, his authentic voice as a filmmaker, which blended the music and cultural activism of street culture with Pan-Africanism and anti-colonialism, had been stunted. The sabotage of Grove Music, though, wasn’t enough to diminish his commitment to independent filmmaking. Nor did it diminish his radicalism: his next two films focused on transformations in the Caribbean as the islands lurched from colony to neo-colony: Grenada, Is Freedom We Making, and Trinidad and Tobago—Money Is Not the Problem, both from 1983.
He returned to his interest in Black street life and culture with the drama Big George is Dead (Kuumba Productions, 1987) made for Channel Four. On it, Martin worked with one of the very few Black female producers at the time, Deanne Edwards. This film starred two of Britain’s finest and most highly praised Black actors, the late Norman Beaton, and Rudolph Walker CBE. Both relished the freedom to perform outside of the stereotypical roles available to them in mainstream British media. But beyond its notable performances and a script by Black writer Michael Abbensetts (1938-2016), the film is remarkable for its depiction of Caribbean migration and generational change. Told over the course of one long night carousing in Soho, Big George is Dead remains one of the most evocative stories about the racial transformations of British street culture ever filmed.
Where Shabazz and Bakari remained engaged with the ups and downs of independent filmmaking, particularly after the drying up of formal support from the British Film Institute, Channel Four, and the Greater London Council, Martin made a momentous decision. Feeling that too much of the support for his films required that he betray his independence, he retired. In his own words, he was a revolutionary, not a hustler, though he freely admitted that the latter could be just as vital to the task of liberation.
Henry G. Martin leaves behind a loving family, many friends, and a network of Black writers and filmmakers grateful for his work and mentorship.