Black Joy is more important as a historical document than for its quality as a film. It’s one of the earliest films ever made about the black experience in Britain. It predates the more famous Babylon by a few years, and Black Joy attempts a mashup of blaxploitation elements combined with the more typical kitchen-sink realist stuff, to mixed results. Unsurprisingly, given how white and middle class the British film industry was then and still is, white director Anthony Simmons was in charge. Simmons came from the Free Cinema movement, along with Lindsay Anderson.
The film is about a slightly unrealistically naive black guy, Ben (Trevor Thomas), who ends up in Brixton after flying over from Guyana to visit a relative. He is soon mugged and is forced to stay in a hostel. Eventually he tracks down the kid and is introduced to Dave (Norman Beaton), who offers to help him out, but in reality stole the money off the kid. There isn’t much of a plot, but Ben soon starts to gain some street smarts, despite Dave’s initial ulterior motives.
What the film does offer is a pretty extraordinary snapshot of London Afro-Caribbean life, primarily in Brixton in the ’70s. You really get a feel of how Brixton was at the time and its community, but there is also a strong sequence in Soho showcasing its late-’70s seediness. Both areas are a pale imitation of former glory now due to the gentrification of London in the last few decades. The soundtrack is a great mix of reggae, including Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” and various soul and R&B tracks from the early ’60s to the mid-‘70s. The soundtrack was so cost-prohibitive that it actually derailed the film’s release for a couple of years, after it received some acclaim as one of the British films at Cannes 77.
It’s most certainly more realist than its American counterparts, although Black Joy is not as entertaining as those for sure. But it’s a breezy enough 90 minutes, and just about managed not to outstay its welcome. It’s willing to look at some of the issues the Afro-Caribbean communities were facing at the time, including racism and other social issues, but it’s only a skin-deep glance. Simmons would end up mostly working in television, with only releasing one more theatrically released film in 1989, Little Sweetheart, which starred John Hurt.
The disc includes plenty of interviews, mostly with the film’s actors, but also Yamal Ali, who co-wrote the script and the play it’s based on. There’s also one with future Bond director Martin Campbell, who acted as a producer on the film. Audio of an interview with Simmons acts as a commentary track, and his 1954 short film, Bow Bells, is included on the disc. The usual trailer and image gallery round off the extras on the disc, along with a booklet with new writing on the film and on Bow Bells.