“Let’s get rid of the ghetto,” urges Ayo Akingbade in her brief yet conceptually rich short film Tower XYZ (2016). The first in Akingbade’s public housing trilogy No News Today, it screens April 21 as part of Images Festival, the often thrilling Toronto-based showcase of independent film and media, which is being presented virtually this year (you know why).
Tower XYZ offers an impressionistic glimpse at less-seen slices of London, the British Nigerian filmmaker’s hometown. Bathed in red light, a curly-haired young woman bares her teeth to the camera in an early scene, more grimacing than smiling as she holds a hunk of watermelon — a fleeting reclaiming of racist Jim Crow caricatures of Black people. Elsewhere, three young femmes of color board an elevator, wearing bantu knots and curls, one of them applying purple lipstick “like Bianca Jagger.” They’re steely-eyed and stylish, inured to our gaze. In voiceover, Akingbade remarks on the dead culture of the city, where people “fetishize our culture, my culture.” It is this appropriation of not only the customs but also the physical spaces of London’s public housing (or council estate) residents that she so incisively critiques throughout the trilogy, honing in on what can (and does) happen when the nefarious forces of gentrification creep in on vulnerable communities.
Interestingly, the second (and most poignant) film in the series, Street 66 (2018), came out of a failed attempt to shoot a narrative film in Brixton, a rapidly gentrifying Caribbean borough in South London. As Akingbade described to Fade to Her, she came across an article that introduced her to Dora Boatemah MBE, a British Ghanaian housing activist who rallied the residents of Brixton’s Angell Town Estate into a political force to be reckoned with, securing crucial legislative wins that, for a period, transformed a once notoriously blighted estate. Street 66 resuscitates Boatemah’s work via stunningly edited sequences of archival footage and contemporary recollections from her neighbors, friends, and fellow organizers, revealing a rich legacy that has gone sorely under-recognized in recent years.
Alternating between still images of a young (and very stylish) Boatemah, digital footage, and dreamy 16mm sequences that blur past and present, Street 66 astutely points to the power of organizing and coalition-building in the face of legislative disenfranchisement. “You felt what she was saying was actually going to happen,” recalls one friend of Boatemah’s, “and it did.” Discussion of the unraveling of progress that occurred in the wake of the activist’s sudden death particularly sting in the context of such a thoughtfully constructed tribute.
It’s fitting that Akingbade occasionally appears onscreen herself throughout the series, sitting near her subject in the watermelon scene of Tower XYZ, or seen in profile walking through a shopping area in Street 66. Her brief appearances remind the viewer that she’s making work about places she knows well. (She grew up in the East London borough of Hackney, on a council estate.)
This spirit of activism in the face of bureaucratic acrimony doesn’t dissipate as the series progresses. The final installment is Dear Babylon (2019), whose title recalls Franco Rosso’s unforgettable (but long-suppressed) Babylon, which brilliantly dissects the racism and xenophobia confronted by young Black Brixtonites in the ‘70s. In Akingbade’s contemporary portrait, three young estate residents are reeling from the passage of the fictional “AC30 Housing Bill,” which would effectively evict them for the very reasons they live in low-income housing in the first place. Not ones for complacency, they quickly strategize, embarking on an effort to create “a living document” of their community. Wide, upward-tilted shots of the estate feel like a nod to the grand aims of many public housing projects, and later show the characters crisscrossing floors, knocking on doors to no answer. The score momentarily lilts, underlining the slow, monotonous work of organizing. As much as I usually love a film within a film, Dear Babylon’s strongest elements are its documentary-esque ones, whereby the accounts of residents come to the fore via intimate, meticulously shot interviews. You get the sense that while there’s work to do, there’s also still hope.
Writing (and watching) as a born-and-raised New Yorker, ensconced in a part of Brooklyn undergoing yet another wave of gentrification, No News Today strikes a particularly resonant chord. Amid citywide calls for rent suspensions in the face of a nosediving economy, I’m hopeful that some of the energy and optimism of Akingbade’s trilogy catches.
No News Today (Tower XYZ, Street 66, Dear Babylon) screens April 21 as part of the Images Festival livestream, which continues through April 22. The main program was organized by Steffanie Ling, Aaron Moore, and Karina Iskandarsjah.