Black Joy Review

An early example of black British cinema, Black Joy lacks the self-imposed importance of the likes of Horace Ové’s Pressure, Franco Rosso’s Babylon or Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion. Primarily a comedy it understandably takes itself far less seriously than these works, but that doesn’t mean that it should be ignored. Firstly, it is considered to be the only example of a British blaxploitation movie, an aspect which exerts its own fascination; and secondly, it proves to be highly enjoyable in its own right. The plotting is highly familiar – country boy (in the case from Guyana) heads to city and finds his innocence gradually corrupted – yet director Anthony Simmons is merely using it as a basic framework. He’s more interested in capturing the mood of late seventies London and sharing in some of its energy.

This latter aspect arrives twofold courtesy of the warmth of its cast and the superb, if familiar soundtrack (Junior Marvin, the Heptones, Toots and the Maytals). Together they combine to put a skip into Black Joy’s step and neatly bypass criticism of its simplicity. Certainly, the film doesn’t compare to the realism of Pressure (or, to use a modern example, Bullet Boy) and there is undoubtedly a crudeness to some of the characterisation which may, at times, be read as stereotypical. Indeed, if this were a drama it could easily be denounced as lightweight, but as a comedy it instead comes with an additional edge.

Compare Black Joy to The Harder They Come, Jamaica’s first feature made five years earlier, and this becomes apparent through a number of similarities. Of course, the key one is the nature of their plots, but it’s also interesting to see that Simmons’ film does, albeit far less harshly, acknowledge the problems with drug, unemployment, money in general and barely veiled racism. Shot entirely on location, Black Joy is also afforded a certainly documentary edge, even if, at times, it is playing host to an almost vaudevillian centre or a scene featuring the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s Viv Stanshall, hardly the easiest to take seriously. Moreover, the film never shies away from the patois or, indeed, the foul language. From the opening scene it is abundantly clear that this is no mere white view of black culture despite Simmons in the role of director, even if that will mean viewers of a certain age being shocked by some of the words coming from the mouth of Play School’s Floella Benjamin.

Indeed, to return to Black Joy’s blaxploitation credentials, it has much in common with the likes of Superfly and Black Caesar inasmuch as it can function perfectly well as pure entertainment, yet strip away a few layers and there is a modicum of social commentary to be had as well. If you’re looking for a serious representation of seventies black culture, then hold out for the BFI’s forthcoming (at time of writing) release of Pressure. Others, however, should find this an agreeable, if flawed alternative.

The Disc

Black Joy comes to DVD as a Region 0 PAL release. Sadly the only extra is the film’s original theatrical trailer, but the presentation is reasonable. Particularly impressive is the DD2.0 sound mix which is remarkably clean for a film of this age and one which copes ably with both the dialogue and the almost continual soundtrack. Indeed, such is the clarity that overdubs on some of the exterior scenes are abundantly clear. The picture quality is less impressive and clearly hasn’t undergone any restoration work, though it’s by no mean unwatchable. The film is offered at a ratio of 1.33:1 which to these eyes looks open matte and as such doesn’t receive anamorphic enhancement. Plus there are signs of damage to print and lack of true definition is some of the darker scenes, but it is worth considering that the film’s location shoot would have prevented this from being a gleaming example of filmmaking in the first place. As a result, what we get isn’t the best possible presentation, but also one that is by no means awful.

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Last updated: 08/05/2018 20:13:57

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