Year Released: 1991
Running Time: 40 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: I Am Not Your Negro, Valley of the Black Descendants, The Other Race, Anomaly, Mixed, Little White Lie, Being Both, Armor: Biracial in the Deep South
-This is the most awkward name of a movie I’ve ever reviewed. I had never heard of that term until I did my research and it’s a racially-charged expression. When I use the term, I’m referring to this film’s title. I will discuss this in detail in the review.
-WARNING: Topics involving racism and my experiences being from an interracial family will be discussed.
-A Touch of the Tar Brush is a BBC-commissioned documentary (via BBC Bristol) that was created by Black Audio Film Collective for the channel’s Think of England series. This collective existed from 1982 to 1998 and it was started by students of The University of Portsmouth FKA Portsmouth Polytechnic before moving its operations to Hackney, East London after they all graduated. This is also the 2nd documentary I reviewed that was directed by John Akomfrah, but the first one I cover with him onscreen and narrating.
-Liverpool was considered to be the first multiethnic city in England, much less the UK. It has the oldest Black British community on average where multiple families have lived in that city since the 1730s. That’s right, you have Black British people who have lived in England longer than even European immigrants and they’ve been here since before America became independent. Outside of the African diaspora, the oldest Chinatown in the UK is in Liverpool as they can also claim to have the oldest Chinese community in that part of Europe.
-A name that provided a basis for this documentary was the late J. B. Priestley. He was an author, playwright, screenwriter, broadcaster, and social commentator who was originally from Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. The book that’s talked about that inspired this documentary was English Journey which is one of Priestley’s non-fiction works that covered his observations of then-contemporary (1933) England with the social and political fabric at the time. Interestingly enough, English Journey inspired George Orwell when he made The Road to Wigan Pier.
I can talk about returning to see John Akomfrah’s work which would have me excited, but this isn’t the time for that. If you read the title of the documentary I just watched and looked at the various stuff I put in my intro, then you can definitely guess that I’m reviewing one of THOSE kinds of documentaries again. If you feel offended, then why are you even on my blog? Watching documentaries and some narrative films involving race aren’t new to me, but the angle involved is something that had me intrigued on principle. I know I’ve mentioned this fact about me in a few other posts or with various interactions, but I will repeat this for newer viewers or those who haven’t read some of my other posts. I’m actually from a mixed-race family. My Dad is Caucasian and my Mom is African-American. While I grew up in a multiethnic area during most of my childhood, I dealt with subtle and overt bigotry in my life even to this day. I felt like I was a third-class citizen, had been discriminated against before, and felt like I didn’t belong in different groups regardless if said groups looked like either side of my family. One time when I was in Jacksonville, Florida during my university’s choir tour, there was a military guy who hosted me and a white choir-mate who asked me if I was an American citizen as he took us to breakfast at Panera at 6-something in the morning. My mind was still waking up, but I told him I was and he asked me if my parents were and I said yes like I had to prove everything. Of course, he never asked the other person about his citizenship. If I was more awake, I would’ve yelled in his face and tried to insult this bigot. Personally, I’m surprised I haven’t been called a tragic mulatto (I HATE that term), but I’m sure some jackoffs were thinking it. Also, if you think that just because I have a white parent that I never dealt with racism or god forbid believe I have a taste of white privilege, then you’re a godforsaken idiot and I don’t care what your ethnicity is if you think that way. You will be excoriated. I shouldn’t have to be dehumanized and lambasted for my heritage because it’s not my fault that I’m the son of an interracial couple and I love my family.
Okay, I had to vent about that subject because this post isn’t about me. Anyways, my interest was piqued when there was a documentary about mixed families and this case involves people hailing from The World in One City: Liverpool. I remember hearing about the multiethnic history in England when I read Black and British by David Olusoga (that’s also the same person who directed Namibian Genocide & The 2nd Reich) where Liverpool was mentioned as having a noticeable non-white population with the seafaring trade given how it’s a port city, but also it was a major slave trading hub in the British Empire centuries. While it’s currently not as diverse as let’s say London, Manchester, Birmingham, or even Leicester to name a few prominent English cities according to their demographics, this predominant urban area in Merseyside has a claim to having a multicultural backstory with Black and Chinese people living there for centuries. I could also talk about the Cheddar Man in regards to UK history, but he was found in Somerset and that’s a story for another day. John Akomfrah decided to make a trip from England’s capital all the way to the North West to learn about this obscured history while also talking to Scousers of biracial and multiracial heritage.
How will this journey affect him and others?
A Touch of the Tar Brush is a snapshot and journalistic documentary involving mixed families living in Liverpool. John Akomfrah was inspired by Yorkshire author J. B. Priestley’s English Journey book which had a specific section about Liverpool in 1933. There were pictures of diverse classrooms, interracial couples, and mixed families while also claiming that this could be a new England to challenge the internalized racism in the UK at the time. Fast forward to the early 90s, some of those arguments were still relevant to the times. Akomfrah got to interview several families of different mixed heritages with younger adults (roughly in their 20s at the time), their parents, and even grandparents. There’s a contrast with some older newsreels bashing the Black community and even frowning upon mixed marriages or biracial people (AKA’d as “colored” back then similar to the South African term) existing. These various families discuss their experiences of being melanated Scousers and many of them challenge the term “English(ness)” as a dog whistle for whiteness even though they were born there. These stories from those from multiple heritages are told as the lesser-known history of Liverpool and their multicultural community is brought to the forefront.
I typically get invested in learning about the African Diaspora at large, and this one was no exception even if it was about those from mixed families. One of the earlier interviews came from this one woman named Christine Quayless who acknowledged her Black and European sides but knows she has never and will never be treated like a white person given her family and visibly being darker than most of England. YOU GO, SISTER! This is a personal thing even though I’m not the only one who thinks this way, but I appreciate it when other biracial/mixed people know about their ethnic backgrounds, yet are self-aware enough to know they will never be seen as white even if they have a white parent or avoid playing what I call the “Black (or another ethnic group) When Convenient Card” only when the situation benefits them. At least she’s not like Dwayne Johnson who only claims his dad’s parentage whenever he’s in a movie with Kevin Hart or Ludacris. There, I said it! Getting back to the matter at hand with this documentary, it was a great glimpse into race relations in the UK and seeing how these interracial families live there. Many of them were from families with Black and white parents, but there were a few couples where both of them were mixed, there was one person who was half-Chinese, and a family that can claim Caribbean, Irish, and Filipino descent. Given the multicultural history of Liverpool, I can see why this got the nickname “The World In One City”. There were some very relatable moments with these interviews such as filling out a job application and having to pick a race (two or more races wasn’t an option back then), clapping back at racists saying they should “go back to where they came from” while saying they were born in England, and Colin Birch admitting to playing a guessing game with others about what his heritage is. Colin could pass as my brother and I am guilty of playing that guessing game with people who were innocently curious. Here’s something funny for you, I’ve been mistaken for Arab, Native American, Polynesian, and Indian (as in India), but the last example is hilarious because I’ve met two separate Indian nationals on the same day at different times who legitimately thought I was Indian-American when they first met me. I cannot make up these stories if I tried. It was good with the arguments that destroyed the bigoted logic in the society like calling out the Englishness dog whistle (America is guilty of this too with that American=white logic), talking about how white artists took from Black artists including The Beatles themselves, and trying to find places where they can be accepted. John Akomfrah as an onscreen figure and narrator was something I wasn’t used to, but he used his time wisely. The emphasis was on the families and not him, so he’s more in the background or you just hear his voice. He is definitely an intelligent man with his questions and narratives in the documentary. From a production standpoint, this looks very minimalist compared to his other directorial works especially The Last Angel of History, Handsworth Songs, or Purple. It’s straightforward documentary filming with the occasional usage of archived footage or the occasional photomontage, but nothing like the more avant-garde or experimental filmmaking that Akomfrah is wont to do. This isn’t a bad thing and it would be awkward if it went all arthouse with this film. Those were some quality aspects of this documentary.
Normally I would make a pun or wordplay with the title of the movie when I segue into talking about the shortcomings, but I don’t want to try that when I mention the flaws. While the natural production is alright despite the editing and filmmaking being against type given John Akomfrah’s filmography, this does have dated elements. The intro with the CGI English flag screamed early 90s visual effects and the titling looked straight from that part of the decade. It’s also obvious that it was made in the early 90s with the then-modern music playing in some segments or in the background, the hairstyles, fashion, and corded phones on display. I half-expected someone to make a “NOT!” joke, playing Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive to those outside of the US), or bopping along to MC Hammer with the times. Some aspects of Liverpool’s history did feel short and it’s not because of the running time. I thought the class of ‘33 would play a much bigger role, but it was just mentioned in passing in dialogue and this Chinese/British mixed graduate barely got any interview time despite being in that same class back then. There were other missed opportunities like how some of these original Black Liverpudlian families are the descendants of slaves given how Liverpool imported and exported enslaved Africans centuries ago for example. I did get uncomfortable with some of the interviews. Not the archived news footage which clearly shows some racist imbeciles from the 50s and 60s where they can easily be debunked even by people who aren’t so woke, but Patsy Birch claims that mixed people can adapt to any situation. I get the message of what she was trying to say while trying to be positive, but it felt so patronizing and was close to whitesplaining given her heritage. Just because you’re married to someone melanated doesn’t make you an expert and also, it wasn’t cool where you casually quoted someone using the N-word. I got bad deja vu from the worst part of A Class Divided when that happened. My biggest gripe with this documentary is the title. This was definitely a British expression because I had never heard of that expression ever used in America. I did a basic Google search on the origin of the expression and I facepalmed. Even before, I felt uneasy given the imagery and what it implied, and my search confirmed it. There’s a reason why the term is considered a racial slur and I wondered why they called it that. Say what you will about the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, but at least the title was intentionally meant to bash racial stereotypes and the subjugation of the Black community. John Akomfrah should really know better even if he wasn’t born in England since his family moved there from Ghana when he was only four, but he should’ve picked a better title especially since these multiracial interviewees are doing their best to challenge the term “Englishness”. Okay, I know a couple of the people self-identified as Black Liverpool instead of Black British, but my point still stands (Yes, I’m also aware of the “Scouse, not English” mindset that some people have in that city). It’s a major disappointment because the content is good, but I had to dock points from my final score after really thinking about the situation. If someone wanted to find out about documentaries involving biracial people outside of America or at the very least wanting to know about Black European history and someone comes to me to ask for movies I know, it would be SEVERELY awkward for me to even mention the name of this documentary. While I didn’t think it was as excellent as The Last Angel of History regardless of the title, the name of this movie isn’t the best decision Akomfrah has made.
A Touch of the Tar Brush has a bad name, but the content was still worth watching. It was very informative learning about Liverpool’s multiculturalism and seeing those of mixed heritage wanting to shatter negative preconceptions about them. There were great stories and strong arguments against bigoted mindsets. However, this has aged production and a poor choice of a title. If this had a better name, then this would’ve easily gotten a very high score. Because the title is offensive, I had to dock a few points. Mr. Akomfrah, you’re a talented director and very creative at what you do. I don’t know if it was all you or if the BBC was suggesting names, but you could’ve christened this as something much different when talking about this community in this part of North West England. It’s good that you want to show Black excellence with your movies, but the naming choice wasn’t your best decision.
Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you like documentaries that focus on people’s lives.
-Add 1 point if you’re intrigued about the African Diaspora.
-Subtract 1 point if you prefer modern documentaries.
-Subtract 1-4 points if you need in-depth Black and other minority ethnic history.
-Powerful stories from the multiethnic Scousers
-Natural production techniques can work
-John Akomfrah’s interview skills and narrations
-Clearly made in the early 90s with the titling, CGI flag, and fashion
-Some interviews feel skipped
-A Touch of the Tar Brush should’ve had a better name for this documentary
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Advisory: A Touch of the Tar Brush would be alright for teens and up. Racism plays a major role in the interview topics and there are two racial slurs used in dialogue with the N-word and the P-word when one of the interviewees was mistaken for being of Desi/East Indian descent and the person wanted to racially humiliate her. There’s some discussion of cultural appropriation, colonization, and brief implied sexual discussions as part of racist propaganda. Also, please don’t use the term this documentary is named after to describe people who are biracial or multiracial. I’m warning you for the sake of your own health and well-being.
All photos and videos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. A Touch of the Tar Brush is the property of BBC. The screenshot is from YouTube and is the property of BBC.
A Touch of the Tar Brush Review