Menelik was a pioneer in the emerging ‘Black British’ cinema in the 1970s. My introduction to his work was of his first feature Burning an Illusion (1981). This was only the second British feature by a Black director and writer, following on from Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975).
Burning an Illusion follows the relationship between Pat Williams (Cassie McFarlane) and Del Bennett (Victor Romero Evans). Pat has imbibed the dominant values of British society regarding work and order; Del is laid-back and rebellious, though not in an obvious political sense. Over the course of their relationship their attitudes evolve and change, very much due to the racism of British Society and central institutions such as the police. The resolution of the film offered both a critical but positive stage in their lives.
I was really impressed; in fact I saw it twice over in a year. Since then I have followed Menelik’s work. In fact he had already made two shorter documentaries and in the 1980s was a key member of both Kuumba Productions and the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop. He also made several documentaries including for Channel 4 and the BBC.
The major title at Ceddo was Time and Judgement (1988) which Menelik described as a ‘sci-fi / documentary. This was a avant-garde film constructed with a sophisticated montage [Soviet style] of film footage from both Britain and from Africa and presenting a variety of political standpoints on fighting racism. The film had a strong interest in Rastafaria, an abiding theme in Menelik work. It gave a powerful testimony of experience and resistance. The film was not easy to see; I caught it years later at the Hyde Park Picture House in essentially an archive screening. Rather like the experimental films of the Black Audio Film Collective this does not seem to have impacted on more recent Black British film-making.
Menelik has scripted several of his features and has also worked as a producer. Despite the critical success of Burning an Illusion Menelik has found it difficult to obtain funding for his work. Both the more recent documentaries, The Story of Lover’s Rock (2011)and Looking for Love (2015), were produced independently with Menelik also organising the distribution of the titles.
I saw The Story of Lovers Rock at Bradford’s Media Museum, presented by Menelik himself. The genre ‘Lovers’ Rock’ was new to me but the film, and indeed the audience, made it a memorable event. I caught Looking for Love at Seven; a small community venue in North Leeds. This was also presented by Menelik, working not just as a filmmaker but as publicist and distributor for his work.
Most recently I saw his last release, Pharaohs Unveiled (2019) which is a documentary setting forth a Rastafaria history of the roots of African culture. Given to a Marxist perspective I did not really get to grips with the film; it was done with Menelik’s usual skill. However, whilst some of Menelik politics are way removed from mine I have found his uncompromising recording of the Black experience and Black resistance powerfully relevant whilst his drawing together of pan-African and British movements is stimulating.
Menelik was a a tireless activist as well as filmmaker. He founded and edited for a number of years a journal bfm / black filmmaker magazine with its own festival, celebrating Black filmmaking here and abroad. The Magazine continues on line from the USA. He also was involved in education and production work. I met him when he was a participant in student film production workshops at the Bradford International Film Festival. And I was able to record an extensive interview with him.
Menelik had his own Web Pages which his family are maintaining. There is also a link to a Vimeo site with information on and trailers for his films. This is helpful because the other sites I checked [like IMDB and Wikipedia] only showed selected titles. There are trailers for his main features and a number of the shorter documentaries, many complete for viewing. There is his first film Step Forward Youth: Blood Ah Goh Run which addressed the New Cross Fire massacre of January 1981, but also relating it to State, Police and Media racism and Black Resistance leading to the uprisings in the same year: and Breaking Point: the SUS Law Controversy, an issue especially in the 1970s.
Menelik was a key pioneer in a Black British Cinema. The S&S latest ‘Weekly Film Bulletin’ carried a short tribute and his Burning an Illusion is currently available on the BFI Player. I think that his contribution does not currently enjoy the resonance it deserves. Roy has written on the BBC ‘Small Axe’ series. These dramas built on earlier films like those of Menelik Shabazz but the publicity and material surrounding the series did not really give the pioneers the attention they deserve. For most of his filmmaking career Menelik had to work outside the dominant film and television industries. The films’ overt critical political standpoint could not find a space there. But his films remain worth watching and his political commentaries are still relevant today.