Rioting broke out in several cities in England in 1985—and it wasn’t for the first time. Racial tensions played a big part in triggering clashes with police, looting, and arson attacks. Handsworth Songs examines the unrest and its aftermath in Birmingham’s Handsworth district and in London, and does so in a different way than the mainstream media did. It places the riots in a broader perspective, and refrains from pronouncing a final judgment.
Social engagement and a hunger for experiment mark this associative mosaic: raw street footage, scenes of commemorations of the victims, and testimonies from witnesses and others contrast with photographs and news footage from the more hopeful years, when immigrants from the Caribbean arrived by ship and Blacks and whites mingled on the dance floor. This gives room for moments of reflection, accompanied by poetic texts and a soundtrack that is both seductive and discomforting.
This award-winning directorial debut from John Akomfrah, a member of the Black Audio Film Collective, was commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK for its Britain: The Lie of the Land series.