Falling in Love with the Work of Black British Filmmaker Cecile Emeke

by Hannah St. Jean

Seven months ago, I sat at home doing nothing productive with my summer but meeting up with friends as we walked by the River Thames and discussed what it is like to be a Black British woman in London.

We concluded that being a Black British woman equates to being pretty much invisible in every influencing aspect of our lives, including history and most forms of media.

While browsing Tumblr one day, I came across the third episode of Cecile Emeke's Strolling, an online documentary series exploring stories within the Black Diaspora. Suddenly, this feeling of invisibility was almost washed away. Emeke had taken the voice of someone similar in age to me, also frustrated with the invisibility of Black women, and put her story on YouTube for the world to see.

There are currently 11 episodes of Strolling. Each episode features a different person, with different issues and concerns that all relate to the Black Diaspora, specifically the Black British experience.

There is a large number of people who feel as though the focal point of black activism and black success is and has always been centered on Black Americans. With powerful Black American men and women from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis, to Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey inspiring black individuals from around the world, people forget about the complexities of Black life and experiences outside of the U.S. Trying to put together a similar list of powerful Black British men is difficult. And to trying to compile a list of powerful Black British women even more so.

The lack of visibility for successful Black British women in the public eye makes apparent the weighted scales, and leaves few role models for young girls longing to see people like themselves on television.

Cecile Emeke’s work not only provides a necessary platform for those she features—which they may not have had access to before—but it also provides a platform for the social and cultural issues that are rarely discussed within mainstream society. It is clear that those who partake in the Strolling series are not scholars. Instead they are real people who give their insights on issues such as gentrification, colourism, and stereotypes—and how all of these affect Black British folks directly. Her films serve to open up the conversation around these subjects, making it difficult for non-Black British people to deny these experiences. Her other films, Fake Deep and Ackee & Saltfish also serve the same purpose.

With over 100,000 views, Fake Deep is Emeke’s most viewed video on YouTube. Emeke describes it as a “short poetry-film visual that addresses the benevolent misogyny within society,” and has empowered many who have watched it. The variety of black women featured undermines the idea of the “perfect black woman,” and the body policing that “fake deep” black men attempt to enforce. The women featured bring the poem to life, also bringing with them affirmation and sense of unity.

Ackee & Saltfish, first screened at the Peckham & Nunhead Film Festival, follows Olivia and Rachel going to pick up take-away food after Rachel forgets to soak the saltfish.
With an empty fridge, a lazy Sunday afternoon state of mind, and hearts set on ackee & saltfish, the two friends decide to drive down the road to Dalston to get some Caribbean take-away. Their mission for nourishment turns sour as the social ills present in their native Dalston divides their opinions and tensions begin to rise. Their situation escalates and somehow things turn from empty-bellied banter about Solange Knowles and couscous, to heated conversations about society and the state of the world.
The short film is well written, funny, and tense. It shows realistic, interesting, intelligent, humorous black women that have opinions about their surroundings and the social influences it has on them. (Emeke is currently turning it into a web series, which should premiere at the end of February. )

This is the strength of Emeke’s work: she is able to both humanize and globalize the issues of the Black European community. In a blog post that she wrote on Afropunk’s website, Emeke had this to say:
My intention is for [Strolling] to go global. I want to go everywhere from France to China and give black people globally a voice and a space to exist honestly and tell their own stories. I want to dispel the myth that black people only exist in America, the Caribbean and Africa. It’s unacceptable to me that in 2014 when I travel people still gasp, “ What!? There are black people in England!?” We are everywhere and we always have been everywhere, from England to Russia. We exist.
She has continued this in her new series, Flâner, which is similar to Strolling in that it centers the perspectives and experiences of Black French women, which has rarely been explored or documented in film. 

It is this commitment to capturing the versatility of Black women’s lives that makes Emeke’s work so phenomenal. Even though Black women from across the world continue to be marginalized, representation of non-American Black women and our worldviews have been rendered nearly invisible. The presence of Cecile Emeke, her filmmaking, and her enthusiasm in telling and sharing stories makes her one of the few media and cultural producers out there doing truly innovative and revolutionary work.

And that’s why we’re falling in love with this Black British woman director.

You can learn more about Cecile and her work at her website: www.cecileemeke.com.

Hannah St. Jean is a regular contributor at For Harriet. You may find her online at sharkleberryfin.tumblr.com. You can also follow her on Twitter: @CatLadyTopia.