Afro-Queer Artist and filmmaker Topher Campbell has over 20 years of experience in film, theatre, performance, writing, and site-specific work. His work focuses on sexuality, masculinity, race, human rights, and climate change. I recently had the honour of speaking to Topher about his latest documentary: Moments That Shaped Queer Black Britain.
Moments That Shaped Queer Black Britain is an incredible documentary. What is the inspiration behind it?
I saw an opportunity to do what I’ve been doing a lot of my life [as] an interpreter of Black queer life and also as an agent for making [queer Black communities] visible to the wider world.
I’m from a generation where it was almost laughed at and seen as improbable that Black LGBTQ people even existed. But I was part of rich cultural networks of cultural entrepreneurs and political activists, in the UK and internationally. I saw this rich culture, but at the same time, I saw the denial of the culture in wider society, Black society, white society, and white gay society as well.
We were denied access to clubs and spaces on one level and also denied access to a voice in mainstream spaces, magazines, newspapers, television, or films. So constantly, people were asking about our existence and this gave me an opportunity once and for all to do something to contribute to archiving and celebrating our existence. It’s about us, by us.
Documentaries on the Queer Black experience aren’t often produced in collaboration with mainstream television networks. What was it like to work with BET?
I was approached by BET but the original idea was not a documentary but something that highlighted the Black queer experience in the UK. I had some conditions before agreeing to the project and one of them was completely rethinking [the concept] and proposing a whole new idea.
I was very excited about it because I thought, this is a world I know and easily have access to and it’s something that I’d like to do. The challenge was in creating a doc that was under an hour, condensing amazing stories and choosing what to keep in. If you say everything, you say nothing. I decided to focus on the Black British Afro-Caribbean space more than the African space or particular segments of the community like the trans community or lesbians community. It was really a way of introducing the world to our community in a condensed history.
The doc really resonated with me and I absolutely loved it, but I thought I did think it was far too short. I don’t even know how you managed to edit it down to 45 minutes.
I’m an independent filmmaker, I’m all about asking questions, finding out, and discovering. I did an hour or 90-minute-long interviews with almost everybody featured in the documentary. So there was a lot of material I couldn’t put in. Even from that material I actually struggled to decide what is the most important way of telling the stories.
I decided to start in the 70s and bring it up to date with Pride now. That’s how I started to think about condensing it. But then also thinking, we needed to make sure that trans stories are highlighted and activism and culture are there. Once you start realising these are the main building blocks, it becomes clear.
I could do seven parts, hey Netflix! I could go deep into representation and conversation around what’s happening in your communities. There are so many amazing people out there!
Although we were working with a Black production team on a Black channel, nobody else was queer. So it was challenging to constantly interpret why certain things were important over other things, why everything was important. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.
Is there anyone that you interviewed who had a lasting impact on you?
Yvonne Taylor had a really big impact on me. I knew of her but I didn’t realise how dope she was. She was doing so much culturally, setting up the club night Sistematic and she basically created space that created a movement.
To see her dedication to the community and the building that she did was just mind-blowing to me. I mean, everybody’s stories were interesting. I found out stuff I never knew like Marc Thompson’s story on how he became an activist. We think about Marc as a HIV activist now but I didn’t realise the sort of pressures he was under as a teenager in the 1980s. Even the story of UK Black Pride, there’s so much I didn’t know about in detail.
You’ve talked a lot about community, how do you think the Black queer community has changed in Britain over the last couple of decades?
I think it’s changed in terms of confidence, the confidence of Black LGBTQ people in the UK has grown exponentially and it’s exciting to see that.
When I was younger, there was a group of us that were probably a few of the first pioneers in that space including people slightly older than me. I think that was something that I was always conscious of, looking around and realising that we were part of the first out Black LGBTQ generation to be aging visibly [in the UK].
Millennials and Gen Z coming after us, the confidence with which you have taken the space, the people that are doing Batty Mama, you guys at AZ Magazine. I love the confidence that says – “we’re here!” That wasn’t there when I was younger, it just wasn’t. You were sailing your boat into a dry ocean. We’ve got a long way to go, there are lots of conversations to be had in different spaces. But I love the [increase in] confidence.
AZ probably wouldn’t exist without people like you. There are a few people featured in the film that I’d never heard of. Do you think more work needs to be done in sharing the history of our community and if so, how do we get younger generations to engage with it?
One of the problems of the younger generations that has emerged is this kind of juxtaposition between visibility and individuality. That has come from the socials. Social media promotes a sense of individuality. I grew up at the tail end of collectively, there were more pressures upon the communities that I was part of.
You had HIV and AIDS in the 90s, there was section 28, no legal marriage or civil partnership, prosecution of gay men for public indecency, ostracization in employment and so on and so on. So the sense is that we had to come together in order to make things happen. What I’d like to see for Gen Z and Millennials is more collectively. It’s not just about you, it’s not just about what you’re achieving, [acknowledging that] you’re part of a wider stream of cultural production is something that is a bit…lost.
It’s fantastic to see individuals thrive, but what we’re not seeing is a collective understanding that we’re together and strong. They don’t give a shit about us, they’ll ban us, they’ll ostracise us and silence us in a heartbeat.
We’re in a very, very precarious place in this country. They want to keep us out of the picture and what happens in America will happen here. Don’t say gay laws, anti-trans legislation and conversion therapy. You know, it’s a slippery slope towards lack of power, lack of visibility, so we need to get it together.
But also we need to learn about our histories. I created ruckus! Archive with Ajamu X which I’m hoping in the next couple of years it will be digital so it can reach more people. But at the moment you can access it at the London Metropolitan Archive. What I’m saying is that we need to be collective in our endeavours.
There are several themes throughout the documentary but what is the main thing you want the audience to take away?
Celebration. It’s a celebration of us and our culture. It’s an introduction to the rest of the world into what we’ve done and where we are. I’m hoping that the wider communities, both Black and white, will understand that we’re part of the Black British story.
If you weren’t working in TV or film, what would you be doing instead?
I’d be an astrophysicist! I love the universe and sci-fi, so I’d be a scientist. I think we’re all connected by the same kind of materials in the universe, there’s both spiritual and physical reality to the way that we are. I think it’s a fantastic space for discovering mysteries and miracles and it breaks down the idea that we’re somehow separate.
Moments The Shaped Queer Black Britain is available to stream on My5