Everything I know about the British Empire has in-part, come from books by historians that have done the research. But more importantly, many of the stories I have learned have also come from the people that lived it. We tell ourselves that colonialism is this distant part of history that could not possibly impact us now. Yet, my family’s countries of Grenada and Jamaica were colonised by Britain and did not recieve independence until 1974 and 1966, respectively. My own father was born in 1970. Whilst in popular memory we relegate this concept of colonial rule to our Victorian and Georgian ancestors, for the colonised peoples, this morbid history is still within living memory.
Below I will talk about five films that people can use as a first step to aide in using as springboards into doing their own research on these topics. Whilst these films are dramatised or based on works of fiction, they are still worth watching. Additionally, the below list will not include narratives of transatlantic slavery. As I do think it’s important we discuss and educate ourselves on slavery, The Slave Trade is not the only example of British colonial rule. I will talk about chattle slavery in another post. Happy reading.
A Passage to India (1984) — Dir. David Lean (India, 1928)
Based on the early 20th century novel by E. M. Forster, A Passage to India and stage play of the same name by Santha Rama Rau, Passage follows a young Englishwoman Adela (Judy Davis) visiting her fiance — a British magistrate in a small Indian town. Travelling with her mother Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), they want to see India, not the tourists version of it, meeting the locals. Annoyed by British insistence that relations with the locals are not experienced, a friend introduces them to a Dr. Azis Ahmed (Victor Banerjee) Mrs Moore had briefly seen when she visited a mosque. After an expedition, events turn a sinister.
A Passage to India follows great adaptations like To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of the tropes between sexual violence, racial othering and the stereotypes that come with that. David Lean is one of greats of the Golden Age and this is certainly one of his most understated, even if it was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning two. Passage was Lean’s last film and I say understated because it’s not the first film people think about when we talk about David Lean, with other excellent credits, including The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965).
From the outstanding screenplay and direction to the original score and acting, the only thing I would pick at is Alec Guiness in “brownface.” Whilst there were Indian actors in this film, the need to include a white actor playing someone outside of his race throws us back into the racial politics that dominated the Golden Age. That whilst blackface was on BBC television until 1978, Hollywood, as usual, took a bit longer than usual to ger the memo.
Availability: Amazon Prime (MGM)
Zulu (1964), Dir. Cy Endfield (South Africa, 1879)
Predating The Somme by over thirty years, Zulu follows one of Britain’s worst defeats in history — fifteen hundred Englishmen massacred in Isandlhwana, South Africa. Soonafter, a Zulu force containing nearly four thousand warriors, close in on a British hospital manned by one hundred and fifty Welshmen. Starring Michael Caine, Zulu hones on this bloody twelve hours. Beautifully-filmed and written, this might be one of my favourites ever made, not to forget to mention the excellent cinematography too. Though, I am not sure I will ever get used to Caine speaking with a plum in his mouth. Following Spartacus written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1960, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) is up there with the great historical epics. Focusing on the Battle of Rorkes Drift in 1879, this film is at the peak of great cinema moments. Dramatised it is, like many historical biopics or epics, it’s inspirational and a good springboard into the subject of British colonialism in South Africa, making for a great double feature with Zulu Dawn (1979), also penned by Endfield, starring Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole.
Like many films of this nature to come out in the 20th century, of course the story is told from a white imperialist perspective, even if the South African political leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi did play his own ancestor which makes for fabulous watching. The Zulu leaders are respected for their military prowess but we do not hear things from their point of view. Indeed, when we talk about inclusive education and decolonising history and the camera, who is telling the story matters just as much as what kind of stories are being told.
Endfield’s Zulu is a British film, a classic, and a problem film, that successfully builds suspense through tension and tight storytelling. Every time I watch Zulu, I can’t help but get caught up in it. Whilst justifyably disliked by some, especially Black people, I can view it as “of it’s time”, like many films. I’m not sure it will be an easy watch for many but it’s certainly a picture I recommend for anybody wanting a springboard into the bosom of the British Empire.
Availability: Amazon Prime (Buy)
Hamilton (2016/2020) — Dir. Thomas Kail (America, 1776)
As we see protest and dissent ignite once again in America’s consciousness, I think the July 4 weekend was a great time to release a stage recording of the broadway musical Hamilton onto Disney+. The story of protest and resistance in America is the story of America and that concept of rebellion is a story blessed by history. Hamilton depicts the life of the ten-dollar founding father Alexander Hamilton and is also a story that shows an inkling of what British presence in America meant. When we think about the British Empire, we often think about the subjugation of people of colour, of which there were many in the US, at the time this play is set. However, despite the diversity of the cast, to our knowledge, these characters were white, mostly. Ham’s own ethnicity has been, debated, to say the least, by fans and historians alike.
Written as a broadway musical, lyrics penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is split into two acts. Act one depicts the life of Hamilton from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean to his arrival in New York in 1776, his work with George Washigton during the Revolutionary War and how he met and married Eliza Schulyer, daughter of Philip Schulyer (the politician and slave trader). In act two, we see his work during “peacetime” as first Secretary of the Treasury for the new United States, his postwar achievements and more.
Whilst the common narrative of empire follows one of “passivity to oppression” stories like American indpendence show that the people of colonies were anything but passive, but in every meaning of the sense, active resisters. I would levy the same sentiments at the enslaved Africans and their descendents in the Caribbean as well as the communities subjugated in places like India. There were always challenges to empire in both Britain and its colonies from people of all creeds. Whilst Hamilton is a dramatisation of a more complex history, it is one that will get viewers to do more research.
A United Kingdom (2016) — Dir. Amma Asante (Bechuanaland / Botswana, 1947)
It’s 1947 and Prince Seretse Khama of the Bechuanaland Protectorate (David Oyelowo) is studying law in England, preparing to inherit the throne. Whilst in Britain, Khama falls in love with a white woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), and they intend to marry. Whilst they know they will upset his uncle, nothing prepares them for the political upheaval their union will cause, international and national. With a white Briton as their potential Queen, the Botswanans are on edge. British resistance holds out with Botswanan lands as a protectorate, and the locals afraid of retaliation from apartheid South Africa. Two against the world, Khama and Ruth must keep the faith and help their people in a land that would one day become the Republic of Botswana.
After her film Belle making my all-time favourite films list, I have always got time for Amma Asante. Additionally, this film A United Kingdom, and Where Hands Touch, depicting a “controversial” Black history in Nazi Germany. Being only one of the three Black British women to have directed a feature-length film that was given theatrical distribution in the UK, Amma Asante breaks glass ceiling after glass ceiling — in addition to lead Oscar-snubbed David Oyelowo (Selma), showing again the range and power of Black British actors.
Its commentaries of race and colonialism aside, A United Kingdom is quite frankly a crowd-pleaser. You laugh when you’re supposed and sometimes cry when you’re supposed to. However, its commentary on colonialism and cultural apartheid is as important now in these turbulent times as it was when it came out and the time it is set in. Following Belle and the Zong, Amma Asante again makes British history accessible and the personal political and political personal, simply affirming her place as one of the most important filmmakers this country has produced since Ken Loach in the 1960s.
Availability: Amazon Prime (Rent)
The Nightingale (2018) — Dir. Jeniffer Kent (Tasmania / Australia, 1825)
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is what I wanted Joe Wright’s biopic on Winston Churchill to do, give audiences an honest depiction of figures and events associated to British colonial history. Churchill being one of the biggest tyrants of the 20th century, but is consistently written as the man that saved Britain from Hitler. Nonetheless, Kent does brilliantly depicting the brutality of British imperialist Australia in the 19th century. Whether we’re talking Dickens or Thackeray, the 19th century is lawless. The opening gives a catalogue of rape, murder, beatings and slaughter. The victims are women, and indigenous people. And predictably, the guilty are British soldiers.
The Nightingale does two things: the first is remind us Australia was colonised, a story which I think gets overshadowed by that of India and Slavery. The second is that in Britain’s taking of Australia, they slaughtered tens of thousand indigenous people. The graphic scenes prompted walkouts from critics in 2018, so it really shows us how disillusioned we are with this history, since much perception of colonialism are scones and good table manners.
When we look back over British colonial history and how it’s decided to be remembered in “official history”, there has been lots diluting of the facts. Australia is simply one example in the British colonial saga, along with parts of Asia, the African continent, America and the Caribbean. All of these places faced levels of violence under the British — from the massacre at Morant Bay (1865) to the Boer concerntration camps (1899–1902), Bengal Famine (1943) under Churchill to the Mau Mau Uprisings (1952–1960). When it comes to “empire films”, we would rather dwell on afternoon tea and table manners, when this film was set somewhere between Emma and Heathcliff.
TW: murder, slaughter, rape
Availability: Amazon Prime (Rent)
In five films, I hope to give readers a springboard into doing their own research. The British Empire is not something to be celebrated but an insight into some of the worst crimes of history. And it’s shocking (but not really) that it isn’t widely taught in schools or the higher education sector in universities.