When it comes to film-making, the general industry view is that there is not enough demand for black stories in the mainstream. Cecile Emeke’s work decimates that ridiculous theory. Wednesday’s Decolonising Our Minds event at SOAS was testament to this. With over 3000 people clicking “attending” on the Facebook event page, the venue had to be changed to accommodate the demand and social media was awash with last minute pleas for extra tickets. As Cecile related as she introduced her work, clearly overwhelmed by the turnout, this event began as an idea for a small talk with an audience of 30 people. Even the creator was unaware of the power of her narrative.
We began the night with a screening of three episodes of Ackee and Saltfish, a web series that accompanies a short film about the lives of best friends Olivia and Rachel. Despite having already seen every episode, I was again brought to hysterics by just how relatable the characters were. Never before have black British female characters been so real and multi faceted. Similar to the way you can watch an episode of Friends multiple times without getting bored, I was struck by its staying power. Around me, the auditorium was transfixed, some reciting the lines along with Olivia and Rachel like the lyrics to a Beyoncé song. There was something electric about watching the series in that auditorium with so many people; all reacting and laughing and exalting in the same unique experience. Every joke was amplified and every story tugged deeper, because we all saw ourselves reflected on that big screen.
Cecile’s work is so powerful because it doesn’t attempt to limit the Black experience to one particular place or story. Next came a screening of a never before seen episode of Flâner, a continuation of the Strolling series based in France. As the familiar sounds of the opening credits played out, I had a sudden realisation: I had been waiting for this. This episode followed Fanta as she strolled with Cecile around Paris discussing the deconstruction of truth, French slavery, and emotional labour. As a student of Linguistics, I found it incredibly interesting that language was used as a way to “other” black women in France- ‘la fille black’ instead of ‘la fille noir’ the use of the English word instead of the French ‘noir’ serving as a way to accentuate that they are “not from here”.
Similarly, she touched on the fact that she did not have a sufficient vocabulary to talk about race in her own language and so had to use English to convey her thoughts. It reminded me of the Akala song where he talks about “tryna fight colonialism with a colonised tongue”, highlighting just how deep colonialism’s roots lie; it has become a mental block, limiting the ability to acquire any knowledge of or talk comfortably about the self. I actually think that English itself lacks sufficient vocabulary to discuss race, which I have always felt has limited our ability to be understood and for further progress to be made. We need to have a more nuanced approach when discussing race, as currently we are stuck in a society that limits racism to just the inappropriate use of the n word, when in reality the word ‘racism’ encompasses a myriad of different complex systems and experiences. For example, Fanta discusses body image, and the odious idea that black women lack femininity. It was heartbreaking to hear her state that she did not think she would ever view herself as beautiful, particularly as we watched the camera focus in on her (to us, obvious), ethereal beauty.
Following the screenings Cecile sat down for a Q and A. She was refreshingly humble. Speaking of her future goals she stated, “I just need to stay true and be honest”. There is a tendency, because of the nature of their work, to hold black creatives to a higher degree of responsibility or accountability. Breaking away from this, she states, “I don’t think of myself as a representative. My work is trying to deconstruct the need for that”. Instead, she views her work as part of a new generation of Black Brits who are carving out their own spaces, naming The Lonely Londoners, Sorry You Feel Uncomfortable and the Ain’t I a Woman Collective as just a few examples. She regards her projects as more of a platform for other creatives and different stories, joking, “I am not the Black Saviour”.
She was unapologetic about the nature of her work, asserting that she “can’t see the world through a gaze that’s not black and female”, and that her content will always reflect that. Similarly, she refuses to allow stale stereotypes to have any influence on her work. When asked about the trope of the ‘Angry Black Woman’, she said “I am angry. We are angry. If you’re not angry tell me how!” Reminiscent of bell hooks and her belief that rhetoric concerning race must include ‘everyday folks’, Cecile creates content decidedly outside of academic spaces, which is why her work is so immediately accessible.
I was left stunned when Cecile revealed she only began to dabble in film- making around this time last year, as a “hobby”. The popularity of her work in just that short amount of time is testament to the fact that there is a need for more diverse content in all aspects of life, and for the Black British experience to be more accurately represented on-screen. It is clear that this idea of decolonisation has very firmly taken root. Everybody left the event on a high, standing outside the venue chatting to old and new friends, wanting to preserve and prolong the good vibes.