Speculations… The Making of the BBC’s “Black Sci-Fi”

In July of 2013, three fascinating clips were posted to YouTube. The videos were entitled “Black Sci-Fi” and consisted of very stylized documentary footage of interviews with Mike Sargent, Steven Barnes, Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany and Nichelle Nichols. It was a fascinating look into the minds of, a very rare breed – the Black science fiction writer, as well as at the groundbreaking Star Trek actress. It was produced by the BBC in 1992. The clips eventually spread like wildfire around the internet and were eventually seen on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, on SF websites like SF Signal and TOR, on pop culture sites like The Absolute Mag and eventually on the Black film news site, Shadow and Act. My take on the overall reaction of people who commented on these clips, was of excitement and confirmation of the idea that Black people have a future that is feasible and hopeful.

As I move toward completion of my Black Sci-Fi documentary, Invisible Universe, which explores the history of representations of African Americans in speculative fiction books, movies and comics, I was excited and somewhat anxious to watch these early glimpses into their worlds. I was also curious as to how this documentary would compare and contrast to my own upcoming work. One similarity is that all of the personalities profiled in the existing “Black Sci-Fi” documentary are also interviewed in my project. One difference is that while I am interested in the works of the writers and their personal history, I am also interested in SF as an industry and how Black people have fit into it since its origins. I also wondered why the BBC would be interested in producing a program on African American science fiction writers and actors in the early 1990’s. This last interest led me to doing a little research to understand the story behind the documentary. And I soon discovered the man who researched the project and conducted the interviews. His name is Paul Coleman.

As Paul remembers it, to really begin telling the story of the making of “Black Sci-Fi”, we must begin in Brixton, England. Brixton, England, during the years of Margaret Thatchers’ premiership and in a London where at least five major Black rebellions occurred between 1981 and 1985. Rebellions ignited in the Black communities as a consequence of the repressive and brutal behaviors of the police and its racial profiling policies. Policies like the SUS Law, which allowed police officers to Stop and Search and possibly arrest people on suspicion of intent to commit an arrestable offense. And rebellions that were also a consequence of the inadequate housing in the Black districts of the UK and the high unemployment rates, which reached 50% in the Black communities in the early 1980’s. In my interview with Paul, he explained the connection between the numerous uprisings and the reluctant efforts in the early 1980’s by the British public television institutions to commission TV programming that focused on issues in the Black communities in Britain and would also create a system that would train and employ Black people as television industry workers.

“Commissioning in those days…an explanation requires some context.

Issues of race arose in the UK in the 1980s – chiefly fired up by racially charged policing of young black men in UK cities that provoked violent public disorder.

Pressurised public institutions reluctantly tried to find ways to offer young black people more skills and career opportunities.

The BBC and the newly constituted Channel 4 created such mechanisms.

The BBC set up two programme units – Ebony and Eastern Eye.

Ebony received a budget and set of offices to produce programmes aimed at younger black people of African-Caribbean origin.

Eastern Eye, similarly, for programmes aimed at Asian people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin.

Later, the BBC and Channel 4 set up a special commissioning ‘pathways’ for ‘ethnic minority’ films produced by independent film production companies…”

Some magazine programming aimed at Black (African and Asian) audiences in Britain in the 1980’s and 90’s:

1980: Skin (BBC)
1982: Ebony (Channel 4)
1982/87: Asian Magazine/Network East (BBC)
1982: Eastern Eye (Channel 4)
1983: Black on Black (Channel 4)
1985: Bandung File (Channel 4)
1991: Black Bag (Channel 4)

Moonlight Films was an independent production company that was commissioned by offices of the public television institutions to produce content for their new programming. Founded in 1989, by Terrence Francis and Kamscilla Naidoo, who worked for the BBC prior to the forming of their new company, Moonlight Films would go on to produce four films for the BBC and Channel 4, including “Black Sci-Fi.” Their first film in 1991 was called “Marked for Life?” and explored early multicultural education in the UK and how children dealt with issues of race at school. Their second film in 1991 was called “Europe 1992: Fortune or Fortress” and examined the lives of African and Bangladeshi migrants who lived, worked and/or traveled in France, Italy and the UK. This was the first film that Paul, who left the BBC to join Moonlight, worked on with the company. “Black Sci-Fi” was the third film. The last film they produced was called “Many Rivers to Cross” in 1992. It explored the experiences of refugees from Zaire, Somalia and Ethiopia as they attempted settle in the UK. A fifth and a sixth film, the first about the history of African American cowboys and the second about the experiences of African American veterans from the Vietnam War, both reached pre-production but were never produced. Paul worked extensively on the research and writing of the last two film projects, but Moonlight Films folded before they could go into production. The four films that were produced ran from 20 – 25 minutes.

Paul says that the BBC tried to source at least 25% of its programming from independent producers, which eventually became a way for Black producers (African and Asian) to get a foot in the British television industry door. “Black Sci-Fi” was specifically commissioned by the BBC’s Continuing Education department. The idea was originally pitched by the producer and director, Terrence Francis to the BBC, but Paul worked on extensive rewrites of it. Paul also noted that he did research for the possible inclusion of Black British SF characters from programs like UFO, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Doctor Who, but these angles were dropped before the beginning of production.

Initial contact with the personalities included in the actual documentary was made by Paul, himself, who travelled to the United States to pre-interview the possible subjects. He initially met with Nichelle Nichols, Steven Barnes, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler. He met with Octavia in her Pasadena home (before she moved to Seattle in 1999) and remarks:

“(I) was mightily impressed with Butler’s fierce single-minded focus as a writer.”

In 1992, Paul returned to the U.S. with Terrance, Kamscilla and a small crew, first to Los Angeles, to interview Butler, Nichols and Barnes, around the time the Rodney King verdict was announced. He remembers feeling a sort of tension in the air, that was reminiscent of the situation in Brixton, around a decade earlier. Initially they had a rough start, as their camera person had an accident that resulted in him breaking his ankle. After the L.A. shoots, they travelled to New York, where Delany and Sargent were located and where their new camera person refused to shoot in Harlem after dark. However, they persevered and eventually completed production in two weeks. On the way home to London, though, their film cans were mistakenly sent to Dusselfdorf, Germany. After much frustrated communication with the brass of British Airways, the film cans were later recovered and then safely delivered to the Moonlight Films offices in London.

Paul says of his experience with the production and post-production of the project:

“Personally, I had several reservations about the film’s production and post-production.

I thought the editing was quite slick and smooth…but some details were missed…including the horrendously incorrect spelling of Samuel R. Delany’s name on captions…Rightly, he was furious!”

He also mentions the time he pursued a follow up interview with Octavia after the documentary, for another project:

“Post-Moonlight, I tried to interview Butler for a written piece several years on…but she complained Moonlight didn’t pay her properly for Black Sci-Fi.

Unfortunately, the business side of Moonlight didn’t always match its creativity.”

Paul concludes by mentioning that the BBC was very pleased with the final project and that the media reviews for it were positive. As for the audience reaction, he wasn’t sure because he said in those days there was very little meaningful audience measurement, in general. On a personal level, though, he received quite a few positive acknowledgments, as people commented that the documentary really taught them something new about the world.

Paul, who considers himself to be a working-class, Londoner of mixed heritage (English-Irish-Scottish-Guyanese-East Indian-West Indian-Caribbean), has had an interest in science fiction since he was young and says that it “gripped his imagination” quite early. He rates Star Trek, UFO, Doctor Who, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 among his favorite programs. Paul has also had an interest in writing since he was a child and has previously worked as a journalist for the Caribbean Times, a weekly newspaper that serves the Black communities in Britain. He currently runs a blog called London Intelligence where he chronicles the lives of the “often overlooked, ignored or misrepresented” Londoners and the challenges they face in the 21st century. He also spoke about his early political influences:

“I was also heavily influenced in my 20s by Caribbean political events and figures – Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, Walter Rodney’s writing and Guyana politics, C.L.R James, and Manning Marable.

Also my uncle and influential mentor, Professor Mohammad Kazim Bacchus, who extensively researched and wrote about the history of education in the West Indies.

My uncle Arif Ali owned the publishing company. (Caribbean Times)

In the end, Paul reminisced about his fond memories of working on the Black Sci-Fi documentary.

“Octavia Butler’s work continues to inform and influence my own writing to this day.

I was very sad to learn of her passing.

Nichelle Nichols was totally charming…and remains one of the most professional and engaging people I’ve interviewed.”

Paul says he has hopes for the improvement of representations of Black people in SF for the future, citing the heroic roles played by Will Smith in I Am Legend, I, Robot and the Men in Black series and Denzel Washington in Deja Vu. He does however await the day when a more authentic or genuine Black perspective will appear in SF films.

In the end, I believe that my quest to understand why the BBC would produce a documentary project on African American SF writers and actors, reveals that it is not so much about the BBC, as it is other factors. From the personal interest in science fiction by the producers of the project, to the overall commitment of the producers to creating documentary projects that explored subjects relevant to Black people, to access to the financial opportunities to produce such a project, and to the historical conditions that would cause the British public television institutions to address the inequities in their television programming. If any of these are actually true, I am not sure, it would take more research than this brief blog post to really explore this subject. However I am grateful that the documentary exists. If it is anything, it is an important view into the creative minds of this rare breed who knew that Black people had a future and were determined to express it in their art. It is also a testament to the connections that exist amongst the African Diaspora around the world and the similar struggles we all face.

Finally, I wonder how many of the Black residents of Brixton (Toxteth, Lambeth, Tottenham and Handsworth), who no doubt lived with the memories of the uprisings were able to see it when it aired and how it affected them. I also wonder how many African American youth, who are moving to the forefront of the struggle today have seen it and how it may affect them too?

Note: Terrance Francis and Kamscilla Naidoo are a husband and wife team. Their company, Total Eclipse Films, founded in 1994, is an independent production company in South Africa that produces ground-breaking films and documentaries. I was unable to reach them in time for this blog post.