Blacks Britannica
A clear case of censorship

by Peter Biskind

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

Question: When is censorship not censorship?

Answer: When the liberal management of a local Public Broadcasting affiliate (WGBH-Boston) with a reputation for progressive and innovative programming recuts a film for reasons of "editorial integrity." At least, that is how WGBH executives and a U.S. District judge see the matter. The latter recently refused to issue a restraining order preventing the station from showing its version of an hour-long documentary on blacks in Britain, called BLACKS BRITANNICA.

The film's producers, David Koff and Musindo Mwinyipembe, see it somewhat differently. As Koff put it,

"It's a clear case of censorship. They simply don't like the politics of the film."

The recut version, prepared by executive producer David Fanning, was aired nationwide on August 10, 1978, and the original version was shown a few days later in the Boston area only, after pressure was brought to bear on WGBH by a coalition of local groups called the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend BLACKS BRITANNICA.

There the matter stands, except that WGBH has filed a lawsuit against producer-director Koff aimed at preventing him from distributing his version of the film. Meanwhile, the British government has gotten into the act. Conservative Mr. Dudley Smith reportedly complained about the film to the U.S. Ambassador in London. The Deputy Director of the British Information Service in the U.S. called BLACKS BRITANNICA "dangerous," and the BIS has asked WGBH for a program showing race relations in Britain in a better light. The British Commission on Racial Equality has initiated a campaign to counter the film by placing prepared statements on the editorial pages of friendly newspapers.

Do the changes in BLACKS BRITANNICA amount to censorship? Or is this just another chorus in the perennial lament of filmmakers deprived of final cut?

It is easy to see why BLACKS BRITANNICA raised hackles at WGBH. It is no comfortable exercise in class nostalgia like UPSTAIRS/ DOWNSTAIRS. This documentary breaks every rule in the book. Instead of being "balanced" and "objective," it is a harsh, relentless, and passionate indictment of the British ruling class for manipulating and exploiting British blacks in the interest of profit.

Through skillful use of interviews, verité, and stock footage, Koff and the film's editor, Tom Scott Robson, draw a bleak picture of British blacks trapped at the bottom of the heap, dual victims of race and class oppression. The film doesn't only present blacks as victims, however. It shows them as articulate, intelligent and militant. The film justifies street crime in the name of class warfare. It attacks traditional liberal nostrums like urban renewal and integration as no more than disguised methods of social control. Worse, it omits the voices and images of moderation. It doesn't show bobbies helping little black children across the street. There are no prosperous black doctors telling us how fast and how far they have come. Unlike most films you're likely to see on TV, BLACKS BRITANNICA is not content to identify the "problem" and wring its hands. Rather, it sees British racism from an uncompromising Marxist perspective, showing how racism is used to create a permanent underclass and to set the working class at war with itself. ("The danger of BLACKS BRITANNICA," according to Stephen Wright, Deputy Director of the British Information Service, "is that it is not merely an emotional approach to the problem of racism, but it is a highly scientific one in the Marxist sense.") Finally, BLACKS BRITANNICA builds logically and inexorably to a call for violent revolution as the only solution.

Blacks first came to England in great numbers at the end of WWII. They filled the dirty and difficult jobs nobody else wanted. Forty years later, with the disintegration of the British empire and the downhill slide of the British economy, many of those jobs don't exist any more. (Unemployment reaches 80% among black youth in some industrial centers.). Blacks are still expected to fill those that do exist, no matter how menial. For both reasons, because they can't get work and don't like the kind of work they can get, they are in a state of permanent unrest.

The film regards government policies towards blacks as aimed more at controlling potential violence than at meliorating endemic unemployment, discrimination, and so on. BLACKS BRITANNICA opens with the destruction of black ghettoes like Moss Side in Manchester and "Brown Town" in London. Demolition balls crash through brick walls; the camera tracks past shells of what once were homes and are now condemned, abandoned or just rubble. "I was born here," one woman tells the camera. "It's not an ideal community, but it is a community where people know one another, and they don't want to move out." The government bulldozed the area anyway and relocated the population into huge, fortress-like cement buildings like one the camera shows in Hulme. Ron Philips, an educator, observes that the building just happens to have only two entrances, easy to monitor in case of riots.

Britain's political parties are part of the problem, not the solution. One brilliant scene collapses England's electoral spectrum into one color: white. Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, John Kingsley Read, and Harold Wilson are quoted in quick succession, all making essentially the same speech:

  • Powell: "The picture is not that of a province, or a corner of the country occupied by a distinct and growing population — though that would be perilous enough — the picture is that of the occupation of key areas…"
  • Thatcher: "People are afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture."
  • Read: "We will fight you with every bone, every nerve …"
  • Wilson" "We have reached the absorptive capacity in respect to new immigrants … the strictest control is now necessary."

As the Director of the Institute of Race Relations observes: "What Enoch Powell says today, the Conservative Party says tomorrow, and the Labor Party legislates the day after." Another man underlines the message:

"I don't want you to believe that… if we get some blacks, and put them in the exact position where those are, everything is going to be alright … (You have to) understand that we are dealing with a system of exploitation of which those people are only the political organizers."

While the parties do their electoral dance, the burden of enforcing de facto racism falls on the police. For this they are admirably suited. With the aid of a law novel to the annals of Anglo-Saxon justice, called "sus" (arrest on suspicion of being about to commit an arrestable offense), bobbies make it virtually impossible for black youths to walk the streets unmolested. One scene shows police taking target practice at life-sized human cutouts, unmistakably black. Cut to a procession of marching policemen — a sea of white faces.

The response of black people themselves to all this has not been to turn the other cheek. One man, discussing the case of three black youth arrested for something or other, says this:

"To me, it's not a case of guilty or not guilty. We know we're engaged in a war. It's whether we win or whether we don't."

BLACKS BRITANNICA views these problems as unsolvable. Black sociologist Cohn Prescod sums it all up at the end of the film:

"One thing we have to remember about Britain today is that it's not so great any more. Its empire has been taken away, and the economy is technically bankrupt. The predicament of blacks highlights the inability of British capitalism to deliver the goods … (If) we can't get (what we want) under capitalism, well then capitalism has to go."

Shock cut to blacks trashing a police car during the last year's Notting Hill riots. The camera pulls back to reveal a full-scale street battle in progress. Cut to a recording studio where Steel Pulse, a reggae band, chants "revolution … revolution." Not very subtle, but there's no mistake about the film's message.

It is hardly surprising that WGBH found this a bitter pill to swallow. The trouble started when Koff, who is American, returned to the U.S. and showed the fine-cut to station personnel. They were impressed, but worried about the effect of the film on their audience and sponsors. Koff said that David Fanning's first reaction was: "What about the guy in the wheatfields in Kansas. He'll call us Communists." They discussed ways of "framing" the film for a U.S. audience — disclaimers, discussions — but never tampering with the film itself. Fanning told Koff to go back to England and cut the negative, which Koff understood to mean that the film had been accepted, since it would be unusual to cut the negative if changes were anticipated. Koff did so, only to find out a month later, at a second Boston screening, that the July 13 air date was to be cancelled and the film was definitely to be recut. At this screening, according to Koff, Fanning's boss, program manager Peter McGhee, charged that he had handed the film over to a small group of people who share the same ideology. "What ideology is that?" Koff asked. "It's clear from the moment when somebody mentions the word 'Engels,'" replied McGhee.

Publicly, Fanning claimed that the film would confuse U.S. audiences. On July 13, he released a statement saying: "I strongly disagree with the arrangement of the material within the film which, when viewed out of context by an American audience, would be confusing." WGBH officials stoutly maintained that censorship was the last thing they intended. "I never had any dispute with the central premise of the film or with its content, said Fanning. "In no way is the content or message of BLACKS BRITANNICA altered." Later, however, he told Newsweek: "I was concerned with the films endorsement of a Marxist viewpoint."

When the film was finally aired, his concern was evident. The recut version provides an object lesson in the anatomy of censorship. WGBH was truthfully able to deny that little had been cut (no more than four minutes, including, however, the revealing shot of bobbies blasting away at black targets), or that the content had been altered. But it was clear that the film's meaning had been changed by the simple expedience of rearranging the sequence of shots. There are numerous instances of this. For example in the original, there is a remarkable quote from former Commissioner of Police Sir Robert Mark to the effect that crimes of violence (murder, rape, etc.) are less serious than "the tendency of people to use violence to achieve political or industrial ends." Cut to a demonstration at which police are unmistakably beating up white people. Cut to black demonstrators chanting: "The pigs, the pigs, we gotta get rid of the pigs."

There are three points made by this sequence of shots. First, that by beating demonstrators, it is the police who use violence for political ends. Second, that whites are beaten as well as blacks when it is in the interests of those ends. Third, that black anger at the police ("We gotta get rid of the pigs") is a result of police provocations. In the Fanning version, the third shot in this sequence ("We gotta…") comes first. The logic of the argument is disrupted, and it is made to seem as if black anger provokes police violence, and not the other way around. Moreover, Sir Robert Mark's words go voice-over the shot in which police beat white demonstrators, so that it seems like this shot is an illustration of his point of view, rather than a contradiction to it. Regardless of whether or not one agrees or disagrees with Koff's analysis, to say that the rearrangement of this footage makes no difference to the meaning of the film is at best disingenuous.

The most crucial change comes at the end. The unabashed call for revolution that concludes Koff's version arises largely from the ordering of the shots. In Fanning's version, the street fighting scene is buried somewhere in the middle of the film. It therefore ends on a softer note, a series of lyrical dissolves and a humanistic appeal for black "dignity." The song remains, but isolated from its context.

WGBH is the showcase station of the Public Broadcasting System. It is run by a collection of Boston's elite educational and cultural institutions (Harvard, MIT, Tufts, the Boston Symphony) along with board members of large corporations like New England Telephone and Telegraph. Station president David Ives recently told a Federal Communications Commission hearing that WGBH "pours into this community programs reflecting the highest ideas of civilized society." WGBH pioneered the practice of importing British series like the MASTERPIECE THEATER, the FORSYTHE SAGA, and UPSTAIRS/ DOWNSTAIRS. It developed shows like THE ADVOCATES, NOVA, and the WORLD series of which BLACKS BRITANNICA was a part, and which was supposed to provide a platform for "voices from within." The trouble with BLACKS BRITANNICA was that the voices from within were saying things that WGBH executives did not want to hear. They substituted their own voices instead.

Over the years, the station has been involved in a number of collisions with Boston's black community. First, Boston's blacks blocked the cancellation of WGBH's only black program, SAY BROTHER, won the right to co-select the producer, and to have ongoing input into preparation of the show. Then there was the mysterious erasure of a videotape investigation of Polaroid's role in South Africa. (Cambridge-based Polaroid is a major financial backer of the station.) Most recently, the local chapter of the African National Congress forced cancellation of an ADVOCATES show on U.S. investment in South Africa prepared without consulting the ANC.

As Chuck Turner of the SAY BROTHER Community Committee puts it,

"WGBH is a Yankee bastion. They run WGBH in the name of a public and see themselves as the arbiters of culture. That's a fiction. They don't represent us, and the only culture they know is white, Anglo-Saxon culture."

Another source close to the situation indicates,

"The station has a missionary complex. They're caught in the classical liberal dilemma. Sure, they want to engage social issues, as they do with THE ADVOCATES, but only within the usual on-the-one-hand-on-the-other format. Programs with strong points of view, with passion or anger, are either just not shown, censored, or buried in disclaimers, rebuttals, or round table discussions. They get the Eric Sevareid treatment."

BLACKS BRITANNICA was bound to collide with the liberal premises built into the concept of the WORLD series. "We believe that facts are important, but that a large portion of the world's troubles are "people problems," wrote Fanning in a memorandum to potential producers. "At least as important as physical facts are the ways that people perceive them." This happy notion, that enormous inequities in wealth and power, runaway exploitation of people and resources, disease, hunger, and so on are largely the result of a misunderstanding, is obviously antithetical to the analysis that Koff and Mwinyipembe present.

Koff is still fighting WGBH's four-part law suit, charging him with infringing its copyright, defaming the station, and so on. He would like to settle, retaining his right to distribute his film, but WGBH seems intent on crushing BLACKS BRITANNICA entirely. (WGBH lawyers in London tried to persuade the Edinburgh Film Festival to cancel the film.) Koff's attorney, Jeanne Baker, has counter-sued, charging WGBH with censorship and artistic mutilation. One key issue is whether the film was made on a work-for-hire basis or on a commission basis. If the former, the copyright may reside with the station; if the latter, the copyright may be Koff's. Whichever way the court rules, attorney Baker hopes the case will help establish in the U.S. what is known in Europe as droit morale, the doctrine that the artist has the moral right to control his or her own work, regardless of who owns the copyright.

If WGBH is upheld, it will be a serious setback not only for Britain's blacks, who rarely get a chance to make themselves heard, but also for American independent filmmakers, whose right to show their work on the airwaves has never been recognized by either the commercial networks or the so-called "Public" Broadcasting System.