Menelik Shabazz, the director and writer who blazed a trail for black film-makers in the UK, has died. The news was confirmed to the Guardian by Shabazz’s daughter Nadia Denton, who said that the director died in Zimbabwe on Monday of diabetes-related complications. Shabazz was working on a new project, The Spirits Return, his first full-length fiction feature since his 1981 debut, Burning an Illusion.
In a statement his family said: “Menelik was a passionate film-maker and forged the way for many black film-makers … We have been touched by the tributes from those that knew him, worked with him and were inspired by his work.”
Born in Saint John in Barbados in 1954, Shabazz emigrated to the UK as a five-year-old, becoming interested in film-making as a teenager after discovering early portable video technology. After briefly studying at the London International Film School, Shabazz made his first short in 1977: Step Forward Youth, which was funded by the uncle of his film-making partner David Kinoshi.
Having earlier visited the set of Horace Ové’s Pressure (in which Kinoshi had a small acting role), Shabazz was inspired to make his own full-length film, which, after Pressure, was only the second feature by a black director to be made in the UK. Funded by the BFI and starring Cassie McFarlane, Shabazz later wrote that Burning an Illusion was “about the main character confronting her romantic notions that came from Mills and Boon books that had no relationship to her cultural reality. She has to burn this illusion in her mind to reclaim herself.”
As part of his commitment to supporting and enabling black film-makers, Shabazz co-founded the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop in 1982, a collective supported by Channel 4 and the BFI; this was part of a movement that included the Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa Film and Video Collective. For Ceddo, Shabazz directed the 88-minute TV documentary Time and Judgment, a blend of science fiction, poetry and religion, which Shabazz called “the most radical film about the black experience ever shown on British TV”.
In 1996, Shabazz was commissioned by the BBC to make a drama documentary for the Hidden Empire series, about Jamaican preacher Paul Bogle, who was executed by British colonial authorities in 1865 after leading the Morant Bay rebellion.
Having grown frustrated with the film industry’s refusal to back any of his other projects, Shabazz turned to publishing and set up Black Filmmaker Magazine in 1998, with “the intention to pass on information to the next generation about the film industry”. This was swiftly followed by the BFM film festival, which operated from 1999-2011.
Shabazz returned to film-making in 2011 with the reggae documentary The Story of Lover’s Rock, telling the Guardian: “The media focus has often been on our parents’ generation, the Windrush generation, but my generation, the ‘rebel generation’, who came in the 60s and those who were born here in the 70s, we have been very influential to mainstream British culture.”
Re-energised, Shabazz then released another documentary, Looking for Love, in 2015, about dating and relationships in the black British community, to positive reviews; the Guardian called it “engaging and sympathetic”.
Shabazz began shooting The Spirits Return in April 2021. He described it as a project “hatched during lockdown in Zimbabwe … an ancestral love story about Nubia, a British woman who visits Zimbabwe searching for her cultural and ancestral roots”.