Handsworth Songs

Handsworth Songs

A film essay on race and civil disorder in 1980s Britain and the inner city riots of 1985, Handsworth Songs takes as its point of departure the civil disturbances of September and October 1985 in the Birmingham district of Handsworth and in the urban centres of London. Running throughout the film is the idea that the riots were the outcome of a protracted suppression by British society of black presence. The film portrays civil disorder as an opening onto a secret history of dissatisfaction that is connected to the national drama of industrial decline.


“We just wanted to say: ‘look, there are no stories in the riots, they’re just ghosts of other stories’. These are just infinite rehearsals for this moment, and in order to just understand this moment you need to sift through all of this. You’ve got to understand that nobody leaves their country saving up money for five years, getting up a boat to travel 10.000 miles to come anywhere to cause trouble. Nobody does this. So if someone with their family made this journey to come here and their kids are on the streets rioting, it means that something has happened in the nature of the pact made between them and you. Something has gone wrong. So in order to understand what has gone wrong you’ve got to go back, to look at the moments of affirmation and when this affirmation goes wrong. That is the only premise for the film, there is no other reason to make the film, because anybody else had done the other stuff before. You can still watch it every day on television: there will be a socialist MP and a conservative MP and a newscaster in-between – and he will say, ‘Mister socialist, why are these young black people doing this?’, and he will answer “Oh well, because there is unemployment and policing, etc.” And then the newscaster will turn to mister conservative who will say ‘Ah, but these problems you are talking about: white people in poor areas also face the same problem, so that can’t be the reason why they are rioting, the reason why is because they’re black, they don’t belong.’ There’s no amount of great storytelling that will get you around this problem. The problem is race. Everybody knows it, but everybody is trying to wish it away. So we had to confront it: yes, it is about race, yes, all the kids on the street rioting are black. But why is it about race? That’s the question.”

John Akomfrah1

UPDATED ON 11.03.2024