Posted 18 July 2019
Interview by Indi Davies
Written by Anoushka Khandwala

Filmmaker Akinola Davies on creating the Afrocentric world of ‘Black to Life’ for the BBC

When filmmaker Akinola Davies was contacted by Liv Little – founder of gal-dem who was then working with the BBC – last year, he was excited at the prospect of realising a project that had been a long time in the coming. As part of a new series, the brief was to create short-form films that celebrate and unearth the Black British stories that are left out of mainstream history and culture. The result is a set of mesmerising films that recreate untold histories in dreamy, vivid shots, united with period costumes and a dramatic soundtrack. Here, Akinola speaks about bringing together the team, trying to avoid watering down the script and why success to him means changing curriculum.

Project Background

I got an email in September 2018 from Liv Little, the CEO of gal-dem, who was working with the BBC in an editorial and production capacity. My first interaction with Liv was a year or two ago, when she invited me to put together a film programme on the topic of Black masculinity for gal-dem. Aside from that we would always cross paths socially and have a lot of conversations, and so for this project she thought of me straight away.

As part of Liv’s work at the BBC, the team were launching a series called Alt History, in order to celebrate stories that aren’t in the mainstream curriculum. She sent me this brief directly, which was for a series predominantly based on the Black British history that wasn’t taught in schools.

Black to Life – BBC, Alt History

Early Development

I’d had the idea for a similar project three years ago, so I’d done a certain amount of work on it already. It was pretty much ready to go, it just needed more structure. The way I think is in terms of pictures, so I knew the tone I wanted, and who I wanted to be involved, so it was just a case of seeing if those people were up for it, and if the BBC would allow them to be part of it.

I sent the BBC the existing treatment I had, and they got back arranging a meeting. I was a bit hesitant at first, as I thought they would end up changing the idea too much from the original; but Liv kind of coached me through the process and assured me that it would be as free and uninhibited as possible. I guess what interested me most was the fact that they wanted to do something associated with an element of risk-taking and surprise.

All together the process took about seven months, and the preparation from the first email to the final shoot day took about three months. We shot five days before Christmas and the first edit was done by February. One of the lengthiest parts of the project was the process for getting things signed off from such a big institution, since it needs to go through a certain level of executives. This was newer to me, as I would normally just make something and send then it to the client.

Stills from the shoot

Getting the Team Together

I already knew all the people I wanted to work with. My creative assistant was Moyà DeYoung, who was crucial on the research side of things as she has a strong background in academia. Some of the research was actually quite hard in the early stages due to not being able to find certain historical documents, and this detail was something we ended up putting in the copy that accompanies the films. Through that research we collected about ten pages-worth of different characters, which then had to be whittled down before the shoot.

My producer Nick Hayes was involved from the beginning, and came with me to the BBC meetings. Then I got the art department involved, including Ibrahim Kamara, who did the styling, and I did all the casting for it. We then picked a director of photography, Olan Collardy, who then selected his team.

Ibrahim and I had spoken years before about doing this exact project together, because he’s very interested in costume. The initial idea was to use recycled materials for all the outfits, but that didn’t work out with the time frame and budget, so we had to pull from [costume] archives.

“Some of the research was quite hard due to not being able to find certain historical documents.”

After the shoot, Kit Wells edited it and Ruth Wardell colour-graded. For the music, I got a young German producer called Gilles Snyder involved. On the BBC side, Daisy Griffith, Amil Niazi and Liv were also part of the core team, and were pretty crucial to everything.

For the voiceover, [presenter] Clara Amfo was probably the last piece of the puzzle. Initially we weren’t going to have it narrated, it was just going to be some text and be a bit abstract, but in the end we felt it needed it. I DM’d Clara and she said yes straightaway, which was a bit of a surprise. Most people who got involved were just really keen and up for seeing these characters come to life.

Stills from the shoot
Stills from the shoot

The Shoot

The shoot took place over one long day on 20th December. Our priority was filming five main characters, but there were probably about 40 people on set; the camera department was four people, and then you had hair, make-up, their assistants.

Since it was so close to Christmas, a lot of people were already on holiday, so no-one from the BBC was on set. This was probably the best-case scenario, as there needs to be a certain tone on set in order for there to be the best possible outcome. That means it’s best if the client isn’t present to avoid having any extra pressure.

The way I try to run a team on set is for everyone to be briefed about what we’re going to do beforehand; then when we get there, each person is responsible for their own part. In the build-up to a shoot I’ll be demonstrating what I want by using things like deodorant sticks! I’ll film stuff on my iPhone as a mockup, showing the movement of the camera, which I then send to the DP.

Everything was shot digitally and my producer shoots photos on 35mm, so there’s only film analogue pictures on set. I like as much as possible to be done in cameras. We had a lot of fun making it and I think the cast really enjoyed the day as well. Once the shoot was complete, the next stage was to send what we thought was as close to a finished draft of the video as possible.

On set
Akinola on set
On set

Copywriting, Editing and Voiceover

The copywriting for the script came together after the shoot, before we started editing the videos. We had a brilliant writer, Abigail Newton, who wrote fantastic copy from the research; it was just a matter of trying to get the right tone for a BBC audience. A lot of us making art have political leanings, but that didn’t always fit with this project. Not to say that the language or the discourse is any different, but a lot of the research and issues it raises are all things we’ve been looking into for a while – so we can’t assume a position where everyone should know this. Therefore we had to spell things out a little bit more.

What made our research harder was the fact that some historical documentation had been written from a very particular point of view, which just didn’t match the humanity of these characters’ experiences from their own perspectives. Most of the back-and-forth was down to explaining to the client how important it was that things didn’t get watered down, or whitewashed. We didn’t want to provide more misinformation, so we tried to find really efficient words for what we were trying to say. That was probably the hardest process, amongst everything. We just tried to be really honest.

“[It was] important that things didn’t get watered down, or whitewashed.”

We felt really protective of these characters, almost maternal, and wanted to fight for them. If I were to imagine walking in that person’s shoes, you realise that if it’s hard to be a black person in 2019, or in the ’80s or ’50s, then it must have been incredibly hard way before that. It’s just having those nuanced conversations; the book might be telling us one thing, but the reality was very different. For most of the research it literally felt like archaeology: you’re having to sweep the bones of these characters really delicately, with an acquired knowledge, in contrast to what’s written. It’s a sort of emotional juggling act, and that was quite tricky.

Around March we got into the edit, which was two or three days in total. After that, for the voiceover, it was just me, Clara and the guy recording us. Once that was completed, we took it back into the edit again. The project was completed by April, producing a three-minute hero film, and five smaller clips. The entire process sounds pretty demanding, but I had a really good producer, so it didn’t feel as challenging.

Black to Life on the BBC website
Examples of the histories told on Black to Life

Looking Back

On reflection, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I think timing plays a key part in things being as good as they can be, so I was really fortunate with that. I think the most significant thing about the whole project was actually what I experienced on a personal level. It highlighted the fact that, actually, history is told by the victor. This means that if you are from an oppressed group, your history is told by someone who doesn’t really represent you; you’re working through stuff that’s supposed to be factual but once you’re breaking it down, you realise it’s subjective.

We were dealing with stories of people being captured then enslaved, and also sexual assault: this was probably the reality for Black females being brought to Europe at that time. Without having access to a broader range of historical facts, we were speaking to well-meaning execs who said, “You need to be able to prove this,” but this wasn’t always possible, because we only have a certain version of history available.

This became a big factor in choosing people within my community to be characters within the film. We were trying to get people to see themselves in these characters. If you know these people, then you know what they stand for, and you know it’s not as black and white as it seems.

“We were trying to get people to see themselves in these characters.”

View this post on Instagram

“Power made me realize that racism was about so much more than personal prejudice. It was about being in the position to negatively affect other people's life chances.” - Reni Eddo-Lodge. . Edward Swarthye (played by writer & model - @00abolaji) was a respected Tudor porter of a Sir Edward Wynter, around the late 16th Century in rural Gloucestershire. Although not common place in wider society, the purpose of African servants during the Tudor era was practical. Later however, the majority were treated as ‘decorative’ objects to be admired in people’s homes. . . Sir Wynter, ordered his porter Edward to flog his white steward, John Guye for misconduct in the middle of his stately home in front of all the staff. Wynter, who was known for his violent temperament, imposed his violent games on his household. Pitting a black porter on a higher ranking white steward was a dangerous and humiliating punishment. . . The matter was so severe that when Wynter was taken to court for on charges of assault, Edward Swarthye was required to appear as a witness to testify. The records claim that it was “unchristian” for a porter to flog someone considered higher in rank, and therefore class, than him. . #linkinbio #BlackToLife @bbc Written by @bwalya_b Researcher Moyà DeYoung 📸 @nick.hayes_ Styling @ibkamara MUA @mariellemm21 Hair @jembomb Set design @studio_augmenta

A post shared by 🇳🇬 Akinola 🇳🇬 (@crackstevens) on

Project Feedback

The immediate response has been very overwhelming; a lot of positive messages, a lot of people telling me it’s really important work. The BBC said that the social team have had a great response too, with people messaging them specifically asking for a link to see more content – which is something they’ve not seen much of before. It also outperformed averages on all their social platforms within its first day of being released.

With my filmmaker’s hat on, I think the real measure of how something like this has performed is how well it stands up in one to five year’s time. I don’t necessarily think immediate hype is always representative. The other main thing for me, is whether or not there are any conversations around curriculum. Not even just for the Black community which I’m part of, but also the Pakistani community, the Indian community, the Bangladeshi community and beyond.

Colonial histories need to be taught in a more in-depth way, because on a macro-level, it gives everyone a richer sense of culture. And on a micro-level, it really makes people from those communities feel British and see themselves reflected.

Stills from the shoot

Mention BBC
Mention gal-dem
Mention Akinola Davies (Crack Stevens)
Mention Liv Little
Interview by Indi Davies
Written by Anoushka Khandwala