Interview with Ngozi Onwurah


Written by Dan Haze
25 Thursday 25th January 2018

Ngozi Onwurah is the director of the first independent black British feature film to be released in UK cinemas. Her trailblazing career spans decades and includes multiple short films that still resonate with relevance to this day. Like many black British female pioneers, her contributions to her craft have been pushed to the peripheries of the British film industry, but she is still celebrated within the circles of film history and critique; in 2016 she was honoured by the BFI and this year The London Short Film Festival held a legacy screening of her rare works.

Born to a white mother and a black father in 1960s Nigeria, Onwurah was raised in England by her mother, alongside her two other siblings. Now residing in LA with her husband, a cinematographer and their daughter, I was lucky enough to grab some of her time over the phone to discuss her seminal oeuvre and its long lasting relevance in today's conversations.

Her first work, Coffee Coloured Children (1988), uses Onwurah’s own personal narrative to look at the experiences of being a black mixed-race child in England. It inspires my first question as the young girl in the film wishes to be a princess.


Do you think Meghan Markle’s new role in the royal family will mark a change in race relations in the UK and affect young women of colour?

I mean you can't deny that there's been improvement and I do think that it is different now because little girls growing up now have a much larger range to choose from than we did when we were growing up. Not just Meghan, because although Megan is great, she's very fair skinned.  Some  of the press has talked about her not being visibly black like her mother is. There have been moments, recently like when Lupita won her oscar and collected it in that beautiful pale blue, princess dress was great.  Events like these are fantastic and give black girls much more of a range to look up too.  

I think you can see that colourism still goes on now because, a lot of the black women that girls look up to are very light skinned like Beyonce or Rihanna which means we still have a long way to go because we don't want girls to think they have to light their skin or straighten their hair to fit the mould of the Megans or the Rihannas. What I'm trying to say in a very long winded way is, that we’ve made a lot of progress but we’ve still got a long way to go!


Do you think we are in a time of progression or regression?

I feel very split, sometimes it feels horrifically regressive and there's a news story everyday that makes me feel angry. The good thing about that man (Trump) is that he exposes something that was already there. For a long time black people were saying that these views existed, this is our reality and this is what people think but because of Obama and stuff like that a lot of people thought it had improved. A lot of people believed that we’re “post-racial” but these people existed and they always have and they got angrier when Obama was elected.  So the silver lining to “that man” and Brexit and things like that is that they expose uncomfortable truths that lurked below the surface because a lot of people wanted to believe that we lived in that post racial world.


The reception that Onwurah’s first feature received upon its release was similar to this common misconception of a “post racial” world she discusses. Steve Beard of Empire claimed that she was “quite unaware of how black concerns have become far more global in the more peaceable 90s” and Variety described it as an “angry first feature”.


Do you think that Welcome II The Terrordome was ahead of its time?

I call Terrordome my angry film because I was really, really angry, I’m older now but I’m still angry. In the film I put together true stories and had it happen all in one day because I thought that if you showed it in a short period of time then the horror is much more amplified rather than as it happens and then there are newscasts and then it goes away

If you fast forward to now, living in America  and you hear about the police assaults and all the things going on, if I tried to make a Terrordome now, you’d have to have everything happen in the space of 20 minutes to try and amplify it. Things nowadays are even more extreme than what I was portraying in the film, the kind of oppression and the brutality that is going on now is so similar, if not much worse.


At the time you were painted as an angry black woman, how do you feel about that negative stereotype did you welcome it in a way? Considering your feeling at the time.

I think that the term “angry black woman” is our cross to bear. That is how people think, whenever you see a black woman trying to assert her rights or trying to say what's on her mind it's where people’s minds go to quickest. Sometimes you feel yourself censoring yourself so as not to appear as the angry black woman. What happened with Terrordome was that I just decided to let it all go and be as angry as I wanted to be, as I was very angry.

I would say if I made it now pure anger doesn’t work in the sense that there's no space for people. I’m pleased I made it like that because it was of its time and it was of my time and the age I was and the place I was at. If I made it now I would have more subtleties and more degrees of gradiations. Not to say in any way that I regret what I created I was angry and I felt like I had the right to be angry.


In The Body Beautiful I thought it was really interesting how you portrayed older female sexuality, do you think that our societal attitudes towards that have changed since the release of that film?

No. Where you can see some progress in the areas around race I think that the things about women disappearing at a certain age, especially in Hollywood and the sexuality of older women and people with disabilities has remained rather stagnant. I’m interested to see where this wave of movements like #MeToo and acknowledging the role that gender violence plays in offices and things like that whether that will start the bowl rolling. But I think that women's sexuality disappears at a certain age from the mainstream in a way that a man's does not. For example someone like Woody Allen Older, all these leading men with younger leading women there's always some good tv shows that show it but in the mainstream, in the Fast and Furious movies or James Bond, nothing has changed.

The way that women are seen in the world and the way that men view women and the believed functions of women is what is limiting. This is how men view women and this is how they want to keep them.

Onwurah makes sure to tell me that she is not talking about me when she says all men, but I assure her that I can recognise the structures at hand in the suppression outside of myself.


Would you describe yourself as a feminist?

You know what I don't.

I believe completely and utterly, without a doubt in equality between men and women and that women are just as good as men in every sense and I believe in equal pay and most of the parts of the feminist agenda. But I don't use the word, for me the word is too tainted by the history of what feminism is. For me feminism is a movement built for and by middle class white women. There have been some inroads where white working class women can speak but I think right at the centre it is very exclusive.

The very early feminists a lot of them were eugenicists I find the history of the feminist movement very dishonourable in terms of their positioning around issues to do with race and as a filmmaker I have several really bad experiences in terms of women only screenings where white women were allowed in but black men weren’t. For example there was a screening of one of my films and some mixed race kids had travelled down from Derby to see the film and some of them were boys and I had to stand there and say I actually made the film for you guys not for them.

Recently when I was in Nigeria filming a documentary which I thought was about choices that the women there wanted in Nigeria but in fact had a real feminist agenda. These women were saying that they wanted primary healthcare but I had to keep pushing them to say what they really wanted. Which was abortions and contraception. Basically western feminist ideals were being just applying it to everyone around the world.

So I have always identified as a womanist. However, I’m aware of things like intersectional feminism that's trying to forge where these lines of crossover and If that takes off I may reclaim the word and start using it again. But at the moment I don't use that term.


From 2007 - 2016 only 5.1% of directors were black, how do you think we can change this?

Well we’re trying, everyone’s trying! Haha ! But you're tackling one of the most competitive, most intragent industries in the world. For us as black people, it's unfair but the burden is on us in terms of that we just have to keep plugging away, we have to keep making our point and we have to keep making stories. I think there's been a lot of democratising in terms of the way that it's easier to make short films, you can do it yourself, you don’t need editors or studios, access to equipment means making films is much more achievable.

What we have to avoid though is always doing the low budget films, creating a ghetto for ourselves, always being the ones creating the Low budget stuff. You can bypass quite a lot of the industry this way. The access used to be a lot more difficult as it was much more of a boys club where you had to work your way up from the bottom to get to the top.

Yet there is still so much resistance. Destiny Acarada is a filmmaker in England, she did this same route. She went from short film to directing a feature film, had she been a white man she was on a trajectory that would take her in a certain direction but because she isn’t she keeps getting pigeon holled in these different areas. She's finally directed an episode of Silent Witness that a white male director would have done ages ago but she's done it now so hopefully she has transitioned into what the industry would see as a safe pair of respectable hands that can handle budgets that aren't just about black subjects.

I think as an audience too we have to go out and see the films that are made we really have to keep making noise, you know Mudbound wasn’t nominated at the golden globes! We have to be really assertive and we have to support our own filmmakers. Even if we don’t feel like going out that opening weekend, we need to go out and see the films and show them that our voice is there and that people actually want to hear and see our stories.


What do you think of films like 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained that show these antiquated portrayals of the black experience and are so often critically acclaimed

I don't have a problem with people making films about slavery or the civil rights movements because I think the luxury about being white is that you get to see lots of different types of films about a myriad of topics. What tends to happen to us as black filmmakers is the films that get picked up are the ones that deal with our pain over time or they deal with us as comedians. They’re the two popular strands, like funny funny or howling in pain. And there seems to be very little space in the middle and that's the area that we need to expand.     


With a feature film set in Nigeria against the backdrop of the the oil corruption as well a novel in the works Onwurah continues to inspire and create. However, one can't help seeing a similar trajectory that she highlights in our interview. A director of her talent and vision should be at the helm of blockbusters by now, but her debut was deemed too angry, too vocal. In a time where POC were told to not bite the hand that fed them Onwurah exposed surface level truths that the public wanted to deny. Despite this, her work won’t be forgotten, Onwurah will forever be a trailblazer of modern cinema.   


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