The BFI and BBC lead the way in archive documentaries and dramas that have now become essential historical studies
One of the few good things to be said about this very bad year is that by the time Black History Month came around at the start of October, it didn’t feel like an isolated commemoration so much as a further prompt in an ongoing project. Since the global Black Lives Matter protests this summer, a fresh popular syllabus on black history, culture and anti-racism has begun to be constructed. Reading lists have been compiled by the dozen; viewing lists too, though as soon as you start to build one with a British focus, the enduring gaps and blind spots of a national cinema become soberingly apparent.
Black British history remains the most occasional concern of a film industry that churns out historical cinema by the bucketload. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series – telling five separate stories from London’s West Indian community between 1969 and 1982 – will offer viewers a rare retrospective view of black British society when the BBC airs it next month. But many of the most essential screen studies of black history in Britain are not period pieces, but contemporary films that have become history themselves.