Karen Bryson’s award-winning career spans over 25 years. She was awarded an MBE in 2017 for her services to drama and is widely known for playing Avril Powell in the critically acclaimed drama, Shameless.
Karen joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her powerful directorial debut, Monochromatic. Set in 1970s London, the film shares a story of the first time a young black girl finds out the world is bias.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful film. What inspired you to make this film?
It was kind of a happy accident. I was having a zoom meeting with the producers of Monochromatic about another project I had written and we started discussing the horrific murder of George Floyd. I’m going to be honest, I was floored. It unearthed years of racism I had personally suffered and had learnt to swallow. I had felt on many occasions gas lit. I knew I had to do something. I felt captivated after that point to write ‘Monochromatic’. Watching the global acknowledgement regarding racism and racial inequality unfold… And yet now it feels as though it has been reduced to ‘black squares on social media’.
I re-read Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech over and over and it held even greater power and resonated deeply.
How important was it for you to use the original footage from the 1977 riots?
So incredibly important. We live in an age of the visuals. It’s almost as though if you can’t see it, it didn’t happen. Well this penultimate National Front March on 23rd April 1977 did happen; in Haringey, a diverse neighbourhood in North London. Anti-fascist campaigners, councilors from various political parties, trade unionists, socialists, community groups, members of Rock Against Racism, and locals (co-ordinated primarily by Jeremy Corbyn) joined forces and with a contingent of 12 hundred strong protestors who fought back and disrupted the March, despite the police protection. This protest was a critical turning point in terms of stemming the rise of the far right and their political foothold in London and the U.K. What happened that day is now known as The Battle of Wood Green.
To be honest I didn’t know of this until one night I was researching the political climate in London and the rise of the National Front and I stumbled across details of their final March in Lewisham, another ethnically diverse area of London. It turned into a riot ended with violent clashes with police. I dug further and found a forum discussing the penultimate march in Wood Green where the film is set. Obsessed at this point I search more and found footage. I live up the road from where it took place all those years before. It was astonishing to see protestors chanting “Nazi’s Out!!” on the high road I know so well. My first thoughts were the BLM marches in London in 2020 the parallels to 43 years before. My heart sank and the phrase ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ sprung to mind. This is the time to make real change.
Your young actress is very talented, what was it about her that you felt was right for the role?
Kenedy McCallum Martin is a HUGE talent, that was apparent from her tape. There was absolutely no question she was perfect for the role, which a difficult one for a girl of that age (6yrs). Her open face and incredibly expressive eyes, I just knew…In my gut. The character of Grace is complex; she’s playful, mischievous, innocent yet wise and we needed to see a certain vulnerability in the final scene. Kenedy is a natural, with outstanding technical ability, an absolute joy to have on set. Her nuanced performance still brings tears to my eyes, proving my instincts were completely spot on.
Why did you choose to shoot in 4:3 Aspect Ratio?
I understand there is a trend to shoot in this aspect ratio but I needed as many mechanisms to take an audience back to 1977. 4:3 is what was the standard TV format at the time. Monochromatic has an immersive feel as it’s entirely told Grace’s from POV (apart from the final scene). To heighten the sensory experience for an audience it felt like the perfect thing to do, it allows an audience to get closer to any given subject in the frame. We see what Grace chooses to focus on. The tension between Grace’s innocent view of the world and the reality of the brutality her family try to protect her from.
What does it mean to you to play in the American Black Film Festival and what do you hope viewers to take home for the film?
It’s a huge honour to be selected for the ABFF the biggest Black Film Festival in the world. The festival has, for 27 years been showcasing Film and TV content created by and about people of the African Diaspora from all over the world. It’s a festival that celebrates and acknowledges the talent the hard work, determination and achievements of emerging filmmakers like myself. A space where we see ourselves and feel represented. Many Black filmmakers that I admire have started out there. It’s so incredibly exciting.
I hope viewers get an understanding of what it was like for those entering the U.K. during Windrush era. Invited from commonwealth countries to hep rebuild a post war Britain. A peep into how many families like Grace’s did their utmost to work hard and protect their children struggling to fit in amidst this new incredibly hostile place that promised them a better life.
I would love to see this played on mainstream TV like the BBC, is this a medium you would like the film to be seen in?
The BBC or any mainstream outlet would be amazing. I would love the opportunity for the film to be seen by as many people as possible. I believe the film is an important one as it asks of the audience to question how far have we truly come as a society in terms of racism. The parallels made in the film echo what we all globally experienced during the black lives matter movement in 2020. What better way to tell a story of how mindless racism is than through the eyes of an innocent little girl. Like or hate it, I’d love Monochromatic to spark much needed debate around the difficult, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about racism and ways to truly move forward.
What was it like for you to work behind the camera for the first time as a director and would you like to do more?
Amazing! A long time coming… I have been writing for years. I was put off by a director about 15 years ago because I wasn’t writing about what was deemed as “fashionable subjects for black writers” by that, I mean gun/knife crime or drugs, you know that narrative. I have now learnt that someone’s opinion is just that an opinion. One should never allow anyone else to dampen your dreams or ambitions. Well I’m here now with 15 years more experience. As a writer/director I plan to do more… Much more. Having been in the creative industry for nearly 30 years as an actor working on others people’s stories it’s time to offer up a creative voice like mine to the landscape.
The name MONOCHROMATIC is a brilliant choice for the film, what was it about this name that you like for this film?
The definition of Monochromatic: adjective/ of, or having one colour or of, relating to, or having tones of one colour in addition to the ground hue.
Grace who is six years old thought that everyone was one colour but different tones. Until the moment she realises that’s not the case. Our short film is the exploration of her curiousity. Despite her family’s efforts to shield her, she pieces together moments and works out she is Black and that her Blackness could be an issue for some. An element of her innocence is lost.
Have you considered making a feature of film?
That would be amazing and certainly what I want to work towards. I have a feature written and I’m developing another.
What is next for you?
I’ve written another short I’d love to direct. We’re in the process of funding it. Any takers?!!!