Menelik Shabazz, an award-winning and pioneering UK film director, producer, writer, publisher and inspirer, pivotal to the development of Black British cinema, passed away on Monday 28th June 2021, aged 67.
Born in St. John, Barbados in 1954, Menelik founded the ground-breaking black filmmakers magazine (bfm), now re-established online as bfmmag.com, in 1997 and the bfm International Film Festival in 1999, one of the first international festivals of its kind, and the largest in Europe.
He was also founder and chief executive of SunRa Pictures and co-founder of the CEDDO film collective. Considered the Godfather of Black British cinema, Menelik’s body of work includes ‘The Story of Lovers Rock’ (2011), ‘Looking for Love’ (2015) and his milestone film ‘Burning an Illusion’ (1981).
Menelik is an alumnus of the London International Film School and has won many awards for his work. In 1982, ‘Burning An Illusion’ won the Grand Prix at the Amiens International Film Festival in France and was honoured with a Screen Nation Classic Film Award in October 2011. The film’s lead Cassie McFarlane won the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Newcomer.
Alongside being one of the highest grossing documentaries shown in UK cinemas in 2011, ‘The Story of Lovers Rock’ won the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Trinidad International Film Festival in 2012.
Menelik had begun shooting a new feature film in Harare, Zimbabwe called ‘The Spirits Return’, starring Eyarah Mathazia.
Step Forward Youth . Breaking Point . Blood A Go Run . Burning an Illusion . Time and Judgement . Catch A Fire (The Paul Bogle Story) . T'he Story of Lovers Rock' . Looking For Love . HEAT . Pharaohs Unveiled . The Hand of Ken .
Menelik loved black people. Deeply. With a passion that remained undimmed. He fought for and represented us on screen with care, passion, authenticity and style, often without a funding pipeline or mainstream support.
A funny, serious, warm, creative, radical, spiritual, generous and talented soul, Menelik had so much agency, belief and vision that his passing at 67 was, and still is, shocking. His prolific filmic output, entrepreneurship and community activism were inspiring. Like many, I believed he had many more years left to gift us with his fertile imagination and vision. Like many, I was wrong.
Menelik Shabazz was a mini legend in my teens. I remember when, on the cusp of leaving home to study politics, news filtered through my grapevine that CEDDO had launched in Tottenham with a focus on independent black filmmaking and telling of black stories. For us burgeoning black creatives, being guided away from artistic careers, it served as a positive marker of what was possible.
Around 10 to 11 years later, I received a call from Menelik. I was surprised that he knew who I was. He wanted me to meet him at his office, the home of the black filmmakers magazine (bfm) and the bfm International Film Festival.
I was excited and intrigued. After a wide-ranging conversation about politics, media representation, film and storytelling, he said he’d like me to edit bfm. I was stunned, and torn, because I had just set up a black and of colour led media company with four other likeminded journalists, and I had taken up an editing position. Reluctantly I had to say no but that was the start of a 20 plus years connection, fuelled by our mutual love of film, desire to create platforms for black people to tell their stories and nurturing young talent.
Menelik would check in, reach out when he was working on or launching a new project or pass on positive vibes for a project I had launched. I remember when, in 2015, he contacted me and said that he personally wanted me to interview him and host the audience Q&A at the premiere of his beautiful and resonant documentary ‘Looking for Love’ at the BFI. I was honoured and said yes.
Looking out at the overwhelmingly black audience piling into the large screening room, spanning many generations, I soaked up the excitement, the love and the rarity of seeing so many of us in a space like the BFI to see a film about us as Black Britons.
Another memorable, long conversation was sparked by his foray into TV drama with HEAT, set in Barbados. He sent me the link to the pilot which I watched. I was so happy for him and once again humbled by his ability to produce such great work under challenging conditions, including funding disappointments. What made him happy with this project was that he was edging his way back into feature films.
Menelik was always ahead of the curve and was taken for granted by the mainstream film and TV industry. His body of work is invaluable to black people and essential for filmmakers globally.
He has left us with a robust legacy and has enriched our lives in ways that can never be erased. He told me that he wanted the hearts of black people to heal, to be unburdened, so they could be light to free us with, and through, love.
My thoughts are with his wife Neferatiti Ife and family.
Menelik Shabazz may your soul be blessed, at peace and sitting with the ancestors as I know you so strongly connected with them and used them to guide you in your daily life and creative endeavours.
Your purpose wasn’t focused on recompense, but on the education, empowerment and freedom of black people across the world. You never sought to be mainstream. Your elevated consciousness and true rebel nature wouldn’t allow that, but you were disappointed that the mainstream (when you were alive) didn’t recognise you as an important pioneering filmmaker, documenting and creatively retelling the story of Black British culture: our struggles, defiance, hopes and triumphs.
Now you have passed, many are calling your name, although they never really knew you personally. It’s sad that it is only when we cease to exist on the physical plane that we are suddenly given credit and lauded for a short while, especially if the mainstream jumps on the bandwagon and says we should be recognised.
Yet it was the same mainstream that didn’t recognise you appropriately when you were here, toiling away - year after year - embracing struggle and strife, all for the upliftment of your people.
Menelik, when I first came into this film game and met you 23 years ago you had stopped making films as you had lost the motivation, due to a lack of support, including the difficulty of raising funds through mainstream channels. But you realised that a platform was needed to support all the other many black filmmakers out there. The vital and important black filmmaker magazine (bfm) was born, and from that came the UK’s first international black film festival (funny how these important things have been missed by sections of the mainstream media when reporting on your passing).
We spoke deeply on a higher level so many times and you became a big brother to me over the years. We discussed for many a year our deep desire to find our place in the world, and a home in Africa, the motherland. Once again, as a guiding light, you eventually accomplished that.
I know (just like me) you wanted your work to affect the mainstream and be rightly recognised, but you wanted to do this with the freedom of being outside the mainstream, where truth and knowledge of the self prevailed. You never wanted to sell-out or just fit in. After all, your films challenged the mainstream narrative about black people.
When we first met, we were friendly rivals: yo at bfm, me at Kush Films. You told me how impressed you were with my tenacity and endeavour, especially as someone with no film industry background. You said I reminded you of a younger version of yourself (you would remind me of this years later).
We hit it off immediately through our similar ‘take no prisoners, rebel with a cause’ spirit, our Caribbean origins and the additional bond of both coming from the ‘hard knocks’ streets of Tottenham, north London. We grew to become more than just industry colleagues.
It was only on Wednesday 9th June 2021 that you called me from Zimbabwe. We enjoyed a long empowering discussion, especially as I was so tired that day from a month-long deep dive into focused work building my new pioneering online VOD platform.
You were so excited for us both - and the future - as you had just wrapped on your first film made in Zimbabwe. We also enthusiastically discussed something we had discussed before - making part two of your iconic documentary ‘The Story of Lovers Rock’ which you had asked me to be in this time.
Our vision of always leading from the front, doing things in our unique and individual way to empower our community, have always, and will always be the same, and as long as I have breath on this physical plane. I will continuously champion your work and legacy.
Rest well my brother. Your physical presence and connection will be sorely missed.
I first met Menelik when he was running bfm magazine and international film festival with Charles Thompson. It must be around the time of the BFI Black World in 2005 when, on the back of the success of 100 Great Black Britons, I ran a similar campaign called 100 Black Screen icons which was sponsored by the BFI and BBC and featured black people in front of and behind the camera, reflecting the diaspora in the UK and internationally. The magazine featured the campaign and Menelik was on the list.
In 2008, I launched my documentary ‘A Charmed Life’ featuring the life of WW2 veteran Eddie Martin Noble and kick started my campaign for a national Windrush Day. The film was accepted as part of the bfm International Film Festival.
I got to know Menelik and learned about his politics and the importance of filmmaking in controlling the black narrative of our lived experience. His films ‘Burning an Illusion’ and ‘Blood A Go Run’ capture the Black British experience of racism in the 70s and 80s, which still resonates today.
We sat on various panels and events where we started to have regular dialogue over the last decade. He would contact me for advice and information around executing some of his ideas. At one stage we had various conversations about a film project he was considering making on black mental health.
During these conversation over the years there was a sense of frustration and bitterness around the lack of support for his films and raising money for future projects. His film ‘The Story of Lovers Rock’ was based on crowdfunding and independently distributed and still hasn’t received the recognition the recent Steve McQueen film covering the similar subject has.
The last contact I had with Menelik was late last year when I informed him that he was included in the 2020 ‘100 Great Black Britons’ campaign and the book, which acknowledges his contribution as a trailblazer.
Menelik has made a significant contribution to filmmaking and distribution. He has inspired two generations of Black British film producers and directors. I hope that a film scholarship is established in his name to provide support for future filmmakers.
As a young graduate from drama school 20 years ago, Menelik Shabazz was a huge inspiration to me. His filmmaking had an honesty and truth that felt ahead of its time.
In 2019, Menelik approached me in my role as artistic director and CEO at Theatre Peckham with a bunch of enlightening projects that he was looking to find a home for.
We screened his beautiful film ‘Pharaohs Unveiled’ and started planning a tribute event to mark 2021, being 40 years since the screening of his film ‘Burning an Illusion’.
Menelik also gave me a script of a musical play he wrote called ‘THE AWAKEN ONE’. He called it a ‘from street to immortality’ play that could go some way to support the enlightened journey of young people at Theatre Peckham.
The pandemic put a pause to all these projects, but what rides through me, as always, is Menelik’s desire to share his skill and knowledge for the generations to come, to embrace the creation of films that talk about the fullness of their heritage.
I will always remember Menelik saying to me that “We are all Gods and Goddesses living a human experience”.
I had the privilege of working with Menelik on the bfm International Film Festival he founded. Menelik was a joy to work for. It was refreshing to be in a context that was black-centred as well as LGBTQ inclusive. I also was thrilled to have discussions with him about the UK film industry and his films.
He has gone too soon as I feel he had so much more to create and give to the UK film and TV culture. I do hope that we get a proper retrospective of his work at the BFI. I feel gutted, on a personal level, that he is gone. RIP Menelik Shabazz.
Menelik Shabazz was a pioneer and a filmmaker we can all look up to. He was the second black person in the UK to make a distributed feature film.
‘Burning an Illusion’ is a brilliant film. It’s on point and was exactly what was needed at the time. With the circumstances he was forced to work under, it wasn’t easy to go out and accomplish a vision. Menelik was serious. He knew the deal and accomplished his vision. One that inspired filmmakers like me to do the work.
He didn’t play a game of ‘intellectual hopscotch, finding reasons why he couldn’t push forward with his career or pretend that things were fine, narratives which some filmmakers are addicted to.
He had no desire to make ‘Grease’. The world had not presented itself to him in that way. He lived in the real world and his work is evidence of this reality. So, when dealing with racial matters, his films reflect all dimensions of our humanity and real emotions.
A true and honest filmmaker, Menelik was a black filmmaker who made a difference.
Menelik Shabazz. REST IN POWER.
The reach of Menelik’s work is significant. He gave so much and had so much talent. The work he created lives on, but it is also important that we chart the stories of the storytellers.
We have experienced being written out of history before and it is thanks to artists like Menelik that this can no longer happen. No matter what the population of these islands looks like in the future, no one can pretend we were never here. African and Caribbean communities, who are living longer, make his films even more precious. Through his body of work, he captured love, affection and resilience in the face of hostility, which is still moving to watch.
This has prompted me to build a digital museum, to honour creatives, like Menelik who have contributed significantly to British culture, but largely remain unknown. To have a space where we record these journeys - the highs and the lows, the obstacles and the triumphs - for this generation of creatives and those to come.
In these times of necessary resistance and constant challenge, it’s vital that the generations link arms and form a chain of cultural continuity that cannot be broken. Menelik will not be forgotten and we must continue the work to ensure that those entering creative careers now, do not get caught in the web of permanent beginnings, but forge the routes of progression and leadership that are needed.
Thank you Menelik for all you gave to us living now, and those yet unborn.
I first met Menelik maybe 20 years ago and have followed his work. I'd bump into him at functions or see promos for his latest film and was saddened to hear of his passing. Though most of our recent interactions were via social media, we really have lost another great.
His humble persona will always be remembered. It took me years to realise he also produced the film ‘Burning an Illusion’, such an enlightening film about life when I was a 70s baby. ‘The Story of Lovers Rock’ and the equally compelling ‘Looking for Love’ lifted the lid on the Black British experience, which had been missing. UK black audiences are constantly fed American experiences that, as we know, are sometimes irrelevant to us.
I don't believe I ever met his wife or daughter in person, but I’m connected with them on social media. I know he has an extremely supportive and loving family. I was looking forward to his latest film in Zimbabwe, but I hope it can be finished by a trusted person in his honour.
Thank you Menelik for touching my life, like thousands of others, with your art, your gift of filmmaking and directing. Travel safe with the Ancestors who met you in the Motherland.
The community will love, hold and support your family. Light blessings. Asè Asè Asè
I am lucky to have been a progeny of Menelik and his generation of filmmakers and artists who understood that our identities are forged in the space between the intimate and the geo-political.
‘Burning an Illusion’ is still, I think, Black Britain's most tender and true cinematic love story and revealed Menelik's belief in speaking intimate truths to the people who experience them.
There is always a tugging at the heart of a Black Cinema around who is the audience. Not for whom are you speaking but to whom are you speaking. I think Menelik and his work was always clear. He spoke to the people whose stories he chose to frame - which is perhaps why the British film establishment did not care much for him. But then again, he did not care much for it. He cared about the people he came up with - those who crossed seas and managed to keep their language, rhythm and stories close; people who passed those stories down the generational line rather than share them out to white people.
His ‘The Story of Lovers Rock’ documentary is a case in point. I watched this film in Birmingham in a large room with Big People - Caribbean mothers, fathers, uncles and aunties and their offspring. Menelik was there among them, sharing food and tales of the dark corners of rooms where our bodies were imprinted.
He made this film as a homage, not just to the scene but to the people who loved themselves in that space. Yes, that was Menelik. He loved his people. He loved his space. I hope he knew how much we loved him for cherishing us.
My deepest condolences to Neferatiti and all the family at the loss of a husband, father, brother, uncle, friend, friend, creative, film director, pioneer and change-maker Menelik Shabazz.
Menelik was a trailblazer, a pioneer, a man ahead of his time, a creative activist who told our stories brilliantly through the medium of film. The film ‘Burning an Illusion’ (what a brilliant title for a film) will be forever printed in my memory, such was the powerful impact and force when I first watched the movie as a young 19-year-old, which has stayed with me throughout the years.
Our people come from the Caribbean Island of Barbados, and we were both always proud of that shared heritage. Maya Angelou was right when she said that what stays with us most is the way people make us feel. Whenever we were in contact, those moments when Menelik called to invite me to engage in one of his latest film projects, I always found him to be kind, humble, a deep, creative thinker who was always affirming of me and my work. What I remember most was the meaningful conversations we always had. Never chit chat or banter. Always present and soulful.
What I imagine now is that for everyone who worked with him over the span of his career, and to his close family and friends who knew him well, is that we are lucky, and blessed in fact, that Menelik has left behind a blazing cinematic legacy; a body of outstanding work that will live on for generations to come.
He was a spiritual man. A man on purpose. A mission maker. He really was inspirational in a quiet, understated way.
I wish he would have known the magnitude of his impact. Gone way too soon, I believe. I know he was not done, but just beginning.
Thank you Menelik for all you gave us. May your soul and spirit rest in peace.