In the last few years, the world has seen a surge in films fighting for change within racist, corrupt social systems of power. However, Ngozi Onwurah’s pioneering film, Welcome II the Terrordome, highlights the reality of how long people have been fighting for this change and in some cases, how little there has been. Part of HOME’s 2019 campaign to celebrate women in global cinema, Onwurah’s film is just as relevant today as it was in 1995 when it debuted as her first independent feature film, the first in Britain directed by a black woman.
It is an Afrofuturist science-fiction set in a near dystopian future, exploring, very explicitly, the racism, gang violence, and police corruption of late 20th century Britain. It has none of the subtlety of today’s films but made in a time when racism itself wasn’t as masked as it has become, Onwurah is not interested in subtlety. The film starts with a family of slaves who decide not to ‘brand their souls’ and so walk, shackled but together, into the sea. Here, Onwurah incorporates Ibo mythology as we learn that the souls of these slaves travel to the future Terrordome, where the same actors play the main characters – now, their shackles are hidden behind prison walls.
The film’s documentary style becomes evident as we, the audience, are placed in the driver’s seat of a car, cruising through the exaggerated ghetto that is the Terrordome. The traditional fourth wall created by the camera, allowing audience passivity, is broken as we are assaulted with the looks, shouts, and fists of its inhabitants: they are angry. Angry at their lives and at their audience, who, at the time sat and watched the injustices and were inactive on and off screen. That anger is pushed to the brink when a young boy is killed and a violent revolution begins.
Dr Amy C. Chambers, a Senior lecturer of film at Manchester Metropolitan University, introduced the film, stating that Onwurah was widely criticised in 1995 for this palpable anger, fuelling the familiar label, ‘angry black woman’. The few critics who recognised she was a woman used this label to describe and undermine her and it is a label we still hear today. It’s true, the film is angry, violently so, but this was exactly the driving force that led Onwurah to make it in the first place. Tired of the daily injustices they incurred and the voices and stories unheard in the media, black people, including Onwurah, were by and large angry. Through the film, she creates a space to express this; it is not quiet or humble, described by Onwurah herself as ‘a primeval scream’ that what was happening was wrong.
The film is hardly perfect, the dialogue at times is simplistic and repetitive and some of the acting doesn’t quite meet Suzette Llewellyn’s emotionally charged performance. But despite her low-budget, Onwurah has achieved a piece of art which, as Dr. Chambers acclaimed, “packs a powerful political punch”. She cleverly uses form, specifically narration, bringing the African oral-tradition of folk-tale into her imagined future, using rap as a form of story-telling.
In this way, we see how Welcome II the Terrordome bridges links between past and future, a future that has become our present and for this, it is more relevant than ever.