ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Black Joy (1977) starring Norman Beaton Blu Ray (Indicator)
An immigrant arrives in Brixton
This adaptation of Jamal Ali’s stage play Dark Days and Light Nights features Trevor Thomas as Ben, a Guyanese immigrant who travels to London in order to lay claim to a house which he has inherited from his deceased grandmother. Unfortunately, he runs into difficulties right from the start. Firstly, the customs and immigration officers at Heathrow decide to subject him to a strip and cavity search. Secondly, a young boy named Devon (Paul J. Medford) snatches his wallet and manages to escape from him down Brixton’s maze-like back alleys. Thirdly, he discovers that the house which he has been seeking has since been demolished.
The film follows his story as he navigates the local black community and attempts to make a life for himself with the help and hindrance of a conniving hustler named Dave King (Norman Beaton).
Watch a trailer:
An alternately bleak and warm look at British Afro-Caribbean culture
This well-acted, low-budget British drama has something of the feel of the country’s 1960s “kitchen sink” films. It’s an earthy, squalid affair with a distinctively documentary-like visual approach and an improvisatory feel to its performances. It provides a fascinating, warts’n’all window into Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community during this period.
In this case, the “Joy” part of the title shouldn’t be taken without a pinch of irony. After all, we get to see our hapless protagonist Ben get conned and tricked time and time again, along with facing occasional sundry episodes of casual (and not so casual) racism on the part of a few white characters. On the other hand, the film’s underlying bleakness is leavened by its intermittent freewheeling humour and its warm embrace of black culture, as evinced by a soundtrack studded with numerous soul and reggae classics.
Trevor Thomas is personable enough as our main audience identification figure. However, he is somewhat outshined by the supporting cast, especially Norman Beaton as the weaselly and charmingly persuasive Dave and Floella Benjamin as the latter's fiery girlfriend Miriam. Their heated onscreen sparring is a pleasure to watch and provides some of the film’s best moments. Incidentally, Floella Benjamin may be better known to viewers of a certain age for presenting Play School and a number of other children’s BBC TV programmes around this time. Well… let’s just say that her role here (along with the film as a whole) isn’t exactly suitable for a pre-teen audience.
Black Joy is a gritty but entertaining slice-of-life tale which definitely deserves to be better known.
Runtime: 98 mins
Dir: Anthony Simmons
Script: Anthony Simmons, Jamal Ali, based on a play by Jamal Ali
Starring: Norman Beaton, Trevor Thomas, Dawn Hope, Floella Benjamin, Paul J. Medford, Oscar James
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This restoration looks outstanding, providing a sharp and colourful snapshot of the period. While there’s some noticeable grain at times, it feels entirely appropriate for the low-budget, documentary-style nature of this film.
The BEHP Interview with Anthony Simmons
This audio interview was conducted by documentary filmmaker Rodney Giesler in 1997. It’s more interesting than average for this kind of feature, mainly due to the fact that Mr. Simmons spends a lot of time discussing his adventurous early years as a left-wing activist who crossed the Iron Curtain to make a documentary in Bulgaria.
Trevor Thomas: Good Stuff
An interview with the film’s leading actor. He tells us that he had a good relationship with co-star Norman Beaton (with whom he had worked previously) but was worried about the fact that that latter partied every night. Nonetheless, Beaton had no issues remembering his lines during the shoot. He also comments on how Soho has changed so much since then, and that his on-screen girlfriend was dating him in real life at this time.
Floella Benjamin: A People Story
This interview with the actress is a must watch. It is obvious that she’s incredibly strong-willed (she sits in The House of Lords today) and her observations about the difficulties in making it as a black performer are eye-opening, albeit quite saddening. She also talks about why she refused to do nude scenes and discusses how Black Joy is less of a “black story” than a “people story”.
Oscar James: Blazing the Trail
James, who played a supporting role as a neighbourhood gangster in Black Joy, discusses his experiences in making the film as well as his career as a black Shakespearean actor.
Jamal Ali: Dark Days and Light Nights
A lengthy (35-minute) but engrossing interview with playwright, poet and screenwriter Jamal Ali, who wrote the film’s source play Dark Days and Light Nights. After initially reading out one of his own poems, he talks about how he got into writing, a few of his most notable plays, his friendship with actor Norman Beaton and some disagreements that he had with director Anthony Simmons in relation to the film version. He notes that too many of the film’s characters come across as being overly villainous for his liking. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that it has endured with audiences because they still come across as being identifiable as human beings. Indeed, the central character of Ben was inspired by his own experiences as a country boy who came to the big city.
Martin Campbell: Guerrilla Operation
Campbell (who would later become better known for directing the James Bond films Goldeneye and Casino Royale) acted as the producer, 1st assistant director and production manager on Black Joy. He reveals that it was mostly shot on location in order to save money (e.g. the dosshouse where Ben resides during part of the film was a real one in Covent Garden) and that it came in on time and on its allocated £150,000 budget.
Phil Meheux: Slices of Life
The film’s cinematographer reveals that he was selected due to his experience in documentary work. He goes into a level of technical nitty-gritty which is interesting enough without being too anal. The film was shot using natural light and hand-held 35 mm cameras. It also used cheaper film stock which was notoriously red-sensitive, prompting Technicolor (who processed it) to advise him to steer clear of red objects as much as possible.
A brief but interesting montage taking a look at the film’s Brixton locations.
This nicely-shot 1954 B&W documentary short was directed by Anthony Simmons. It features some fascinating footage of life in London from the period, soundtracked with various music hall songs such as Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bow Wow and Row Row Row Your Boat.
The extras are rounded out by a trailer, image gallery and collector’s booklet.
In an age when the Windrush generation has recently hit the headlines (albeit for truly shameful reasons), Black Joy provides a fascinating portal back to a time when their communities burgeoned and flourished in parallel with wider British society. Even without the context, however, the tale weaves an involving and human story. Indicator has provided a wealth of extras here - including some particularly welcome interviews.