Spotlight: Ngozi Onwurah
What they expect a black woman film-maker to be making, is definitely, definitely not the kind of movies I want to make.
Ngozi Onwurah has always been ahead of her time. Her films are furious, fiery, and startlingly original, combining taboo-busting honesty with a dazzling visual imagination. Ngozi’s work shows us the world as it is, in all its mess and magic and refuses to make concessions to an industry dominated by white, male concerns. The story of Ngozi’s career also forces us to confront uncomfortable truths, truths that remain problematic and pertinent as we continue the struggle to build a truly diverse film culture.
Born in 1966 to a Nigerian father and white British mother, Ngozi and her siblings spent most of their childhood in North East England, raised by their mother in a predominantly white community. While attending St Martins College of Art in London, Ngozi began to make films, early experiments that offer an unusual portrait of life in 1980s Britain.
These early shorts frequently draw on autobiography, taking Ngozi’s experience as a mixed-race child growing up in white spaces as a starting point to explore race, gender, and intersectionality. Her graduation film Coffee Coloured Children (1988), opens with idyllic images of multicultural harmony, intercut with footage of a racist calmly smothering dog shit on the door of the Onwurah family’s flat. From there, Ngozi and her brother Simon narrate re-enactments of a childhood “lost in a blur of self-hate”, of schoolyard taunts and evenings spent scrubbing their skin to wash out the blackness. There are moments of hope, as we watch Simon and Ngozi enter nature and wash themselves in the sea, waterfalls, and rivers, but this glimpse of escape gives way to a brutal conclusion. In the final scenes, we see them stood before a pitiless fire, as a voiceover describes how the “melting pot” has become “an incinerator”.
Coffee Coloured Children is confrontational and confessional, but to describe Ngozi’s work only in terms of rawness and fury, is to miss the full scale of her vision. Ngozi’s films brim with rich imagery, manifest in surprising, sideways approaches to her subject matter. Take Flight of the Swan (1992), a magical fable that explores the merging of African and European sensibilities through the tale of a young black ballerina attempting to dance as a white swan. Or look at the slick and stylish White Men are Cracking Up (1994), which co-opts the clichés of the erotic thriller to pastiche the exoticisation of black female sexuality. And Still I Rise (1993) covers similar ground but with a brasher pop-video aesthetic, harnessing fizzing energy to put forward a provocative argument that connects slavery with contemporary fetishisation of black womanhood.
Perhaps her most beguiling work is The Body Beautiful (1990), which juxtaposes the story of Ngozi’s teenage years with that of her mother’s mastectomy. Madge Onwurah plays herself, and narrates her own story, with an almost unbearably tenderness. Madge’s naked body, her mastectomy scars visible, is the centre point of two pivotal scenes – one in which she lies with a younger black man who caresses her body, and another in which the teenage Ngozi (played by Sian Martin) lies naked with her mother. In both these scenes, black and white skin lie side by side, a visual representation of dual heritage. Racial identity is one theme, but The Body Beautiful covers many complex ideas in its 20-minute running time, from the invisibility of older women, to female sexuality, to beauty standards and the vexed relationship between mothers and daughters. Throughout, this commentary is counterbalanced by an abundance of beautiful images that haunt and linger.
As the depth and variety of her shorts demonstrate, pigeonholing Ngozi as an angry filmmaker is reductive. The stereotype of the “Angry Black Woman” is always a spectre for any woman of colour addressing political issues. But it’s also true that Ngozi’s only theatrically released feature is an undeniably (and justifiably) angry film. Welcome II the Terrordome (1994) was made on a small budget, raised largely through a pioneering early model of crowdfunding. It’s a film powered by fury, as Ngozi explained in a 2018 interview with Don’t Panic:
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.
Set in a racially segregated future where black ghettos are presided over by corrupt police, Terrordome builds on Ngozi’s key themes - colonial legacies, inter-racial relationships, intersections between race and gender. Perhaps most strikingly, Ngozi draws direct connections between present-day inequality and the history of slavery, using a haunting prologue set in Carolina in 1652 to draw out this continuity. Prologue aside, Terrordome wraps these issues within genre conventions, blending hip hop and lo-fi industrial design to blistering effect.
As Ngozi emphasises, the violent scenes that give Terrordome its harrowing power were based closely on true stories. While it’s tempting, in the age of Black Lives Matter, to describe Terrordome as ahead of its time, it’s perhaps truer to say that it was and is of its time – it’s just that the issues remain the same, 25 years on.
Terrordome was the first feature made by a black British woman to get a theatrical release in the UK. Ngozi was working at the vanguard, but the predominantly white middle-class film culture that received the film was ill-equipped to deal with her uncomfortable vision. Contemporary reviews were dismissive and sometimes inaccurate. A one-star Empire review manages to misgender Ngozi and dismisses Terrordome as:
A rabble-rousing black movie at least 20 years too late….Nigerian born director Onwurah, who has struggled for three years to make this, his debut film, seems quite unaware of how black concerns have become far more global in the peaceable 90s.
Variety is similarly dismissive of this “low-budget spit ball of militant black grandstanding and Brit dystopian grunge,” although Time Out at least acknowledges the film’s provocation, gleefully proclaiming that it’s “guaranteed to put liberals on edge”. Despite these thin concessions, the reception of Terrordome demonstrates the importance of a diverse media, one that could have looked beyond their “post-racial” bubble to acknowledge the resonant contemporary truths at the film’s core.
The story of Terrordome has interesting parallels with another film released in the same year, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995). A studio film made for upwards of $40 million by an all-white creative team and helmed by a “hot” action director, Strange Days initially seems miles away from a grungy, lo-fi debut Brit Pic. But despite these differences in context, there are fascinating overlaps between the films’ themes and the story of their release. Both films were directly inspired by the LA Riots and Rodney King, and translate these contemporary incidents into hellish visions of a segregated near-future, where acts of racist violence are a daily occurrence. Both also concentrate on the overlaps between race and gender, depicting powerful but vulnerable black heroines - Angela Bassett in Strange Days and Suzanne Llewellyn in Terrordome - as the catalyst for rebellion. Strange Days was an infamous flop, receiving mixed reviews and losing millions, but like Terrordome it has since been reassessed, and in recent years has begun to be seen as a landmark sci-fi.
For a female director, one infamous flop is often insurmountable, but while Strange Days did nearly derail Kathryn Bigelow’s career for good, it ultimately really just marked the start of new, more serious, ultimately Oscar-winning chapter. For Ngozi Onwurah, the stakes of her gamble should have been lower – a micro-budget self-financed first feature – but she has never followed up Terrordome with another theatrically released feature. Ngozi has however found her own route to continue to make work on her own terms. Now based in LA, she has continued to direct for television and most recently has been writing a novel and developing a film project in Nigeria. As the conversation around representation in cinema has grown, Ngozi’s work has reemerged, with her films frequently cropping up in festival roundups, her position as a black British film pioneer finally being acknowledged. With a large chunk of her back catalogue available to screen online a new generation has been able to discover and judge her work for themselves. At last, it seems that the world is catching up with Ngozi Onwurah.
Watch Ngozi Onwurah's films over at Women Make Movies.
“The Forgotten pioneer of black film”, Varaidzo, Gal Dem.
“Interview with Ngozi Onwurah”, Don’t Panic.
“Ngozi Onwurah”, Women Make Film.
“Ngozi Onwurah”. BFI Screen Online.
“Ngozi Onwurah,” Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. Women Film Directors: An International Bio Critical Dictionary.