Robert Beckford Interview: Faith, Films and Theology
Kay Parris meets theologian, author and Bafta-award-winning broadcaster Robert Beckford
On a grey but close day, with no windows open, the low-ceilinged lobby outside Robert Beckford’s office at Goldsmith’s College in London – at the top of what feels like a high-rise portacabin – can leave one feeling a little claustrophic. The lift is small and tinny, the main reception for the college is more like a school caretaker’s office. Things are on the scruffy side, which works for Goldsmith’s College, Beckford says as he ushers us into his only marginally more airy quarters. The college takes pride in offering a welcoming, if understated, home to “some of the best working-class minds in the country”.
As a Bafta-award-winning and highly productive broadcaster for Channel 4, Beckford has made 22 films in the last 10 years, travelling the world to research and present socio-political and religion-themed documentaries. But currently, in tandem with his TV work, he is happy to spend part of each week here at Goldsmith’s as visiting professor in the sociology department, feeding his radical blend of socially-engaged theology and cultural criticism into the student experience.
He is a bundle of energy and ideas, his passion for social justice informing his faith, and his faith inspiring his social activism and campaigning documentaries – relating to empire, slavery, poverty and black culture. In a bid to silence his bleeping answerphone before our interview he flicks through 25 messages, no doubt from people who are anxious to progress the impossible number of projects he is involved in. On top of his academic and documentary work, he is busy developing access degree courses for kids without A levels, supporting the development of black talent in TV and music, continuing his efforts, as one of Britain’s pioneers in the discipline of black theology, to encourage black church ministers of the future – and collaborating on two TV drama projects.
What is your religious background?
My parents are immigrants from Jamaica who came to this country as Pentecostal Christians. I was raised in a denomination called the Wesleyan Holiness Church in Coventry. It was part of the holiness tradition, which is exemplified by moral rigidity and hostility to the social world, meaning no social analysis, no socio-political engagement.
How did you feel growing up in that environment?
I loved it, because it was an expressive place. You could be physically expressive, verbally expressive. It affirmed Caribbean language – we spoke in Patois. The social world was quite hostile. It empowered us to feel good about who we were, despite the world outside. People who were bus drivers, kitchen workers, hospital workers during the week – were ministers, deacons, superintendents, bishops on Sundays. But there were problems too.
Problems relating to the lack of social engagement?
Yes. The church said work hard at school, be a good citizen, avoid trouble. And for young black men of my generation that was an important, powerful message – it made sense. But what they didn’t do was have an explicit politics that made sense of the structural forms of discrimination that we faced outside.
I’m always amazed when people speak about the 70s with such great nostalgia. It was an awful time to be black. Rampant racism on the streets, incredible hostility from every quarter, explicit forms of discrimination. Facing racism at school, and just walking down the street, made me think, what’s the church saying about this? And they had nothing to say.
How did you start to develop your own religious and political views?
Like most black kids of my generation I wanted to play professional football. But when I was 14 we had a new teacher come to the school and we used to speak to him about politics. He told me I ought to read the autobiography of Malcolm X so I went and read it, and I found that was the turning point. Because it showed how you could bring together identity, activism and politics under the banner of a mainstream religion, although for Malcolm it was a derivation of Islam, the Nation of Islam.
Reading Malcolm X provided part of the answer for me. But the other part came from Rastafari. They made sense of what was happening: Africans in the Caribbean were indoctrinated by a form of Christianity that was set up to make them passive, anti-intellectual, apolitical, and it colonised them by suggesting that God was European.
What is black theology?
James Cone’s work in the 1960s was an attempt to bring together the black nationalism of Malcolm X and the Christian theology of Martin Luther King. And that’s part of what black theology is: How do we think about God in a way that is inclusive, counters injustice and liberates the oppressed? How do we relate those themes to the historic struggle of black and brown people in overcoming racialised oppression? That’s the issue. What does God have to say about the last 500 years of black history? How does God liberate us? Can God liberate us?
With the focus of black theology on overcoming oppression, do theologians have to look beyond the Bible, as well as at the Bible, for inspiration?
Black theologians don’t just look to Christian figures and ideas to shape their theology. They look to anybody who has been Christ-like. They would say Ghandi and Mandela are examples of what it means to be Christ-like – to struggle and overcome evil; and there’s John Brown who helped to liberate slaves. They would look to people who are outside of the black church tradition; they draw on literature, the work of Toni Morrison and so on.
How did your own theology take shape?
I studied for my first degree at Houghton College, New York, which exposed me to black political theology, feminist theology, and various forms of liberation theology from Latin America. American theology is applied – it’s much more dynamic and engaged with the real world. It got me excited about seeing theology as something serious. Not something marginal to real life, but something at the centre of it.
When did you decide to become a theologian?
When I was 17 I felt a call from God for ministry. I didn’t want to be a preacher, but I felt God saying to me there is more I want you to do than just play professional football. My mum felt that and she started praying against me playing football. She and her friend used to get together and pray. They’d say we feel God wants Robert to do something different from what he’s doing – that’s Pentecostal-speak!
Then back in Birmingham, at Queen’s College, you became Britain’s first black theology tutor.
John Wilkinson did a lot of work before me to develop the course. It was a good experience on the whole, but it made me aware of how resistant mainstream theology was to racial justice – and it still is. I would say theology is the last bastion of white supremacy in Britain. Most disciplines have woken up to the need to engage with critical theory. They’ve engaged with diversity at the core, thinking more critically and constructively about how they shape things. The sociology students here at Goldsmith’s take courses in “critical whiteness”. In theology circles they’d think you were dealing with the table cloths they have at different times of the year!
So I started working on recruiting black students. We went from one black student to about 13 by the time I left – recruiting and developing black people for ministry in the Anglican, Methodist and United Reformed churches.
How did you get into film-making?
I got into film by mistake. I went on Right to Reply in 1996 to complain about “BadAss TV” on Channel 4, where they were looking at the under side of black popular culture – just focusing on the grotesque. They had me on the show and the commissioning editor said to me during quite a heated discussion, if you think you can do any better, do it.
I thought to myself: wrong thing to say to someone from Coventry, because we like a fight in Coventry! I didn’t do anything for a year but then in 1999 I sent through an idea about the white Beckford family that enslaved my family – the black Beckford family – and became the richest family in Britain at the end of the 19th century. It so happened that Trevor Phillips was making a film on Britain’s slave past in three parts, so I was invited to be in it. Then I started pitching more ideas. Now my commissioning editor Aaqil Ahmed has left Channel 4 and gone back to the BBC, so the Barack Obama film I made this year was for the BBC, because I’ve just tended to follow Aaqil. He’s a brilliant, multicultural-literate commissioning editor, which is rare to find.
Do you find TV an easy medium to work in?
Like most children of my generation, I spent a lot of time watching rubbish TV, so you become familiar with the language. It’s not an easy medium for me, but it is something you have to do because of the reach and the politics. It’s a bit like writing books – I may not be a great writer but I have to discipline myself.
Which do you prefer, your religious or political films?
Both weave together things I am interested in. This year for example I did something on the book of Revelation, but in the film I ended up in Boston talking about how Revelation can be applied to encouraging boys to get out of gangs; it’s this whole applied thing again.
How do your parents react to the way your films tear apart traditional ideas?
Like any good Jamaican parents, they love me. That’s all they’ve ever done. My parents may disagree with some of the conclusions I reach, but nonetheless they see it as important. They worked and did jobs they didn’t really want to do so their children would have an opportunity to do work they did want to do and would have a voice.
Making your film The Great African Scandal, did the anger you felt at the way the west “is screwing Africa” make you feel like ditching theology and turning to full-time political campaigning?
No, because without faith I am nothing. That’s what motivates me, gets me out of bed. It inspires me to be a better person than I am – faith for me is central. The Great African Scandal took on a life of its own. It has fronted three campaigns in North America against multinationals working in Africa, and it was an instrumental part of the campaign to get Cadbury’s to change its trade policies.
Faith and politics, for me they are not separate. Because they weren’t separate for Jesus. Jesus was a colonised Jew. I interpret his teachings from that social location. He is somebody who is engaging with empire, like many of my ancestors had to. In a context where the Romans starved people, taxed them to death, to have Jesus say in the Lord’s Prayer: give people their daily bread, forgive their debts – it means we are going to counter this unjust system that starves and oppresses people.
How do you explain the separation that does nevertheless exist between faith and politics?
I think people who try to depoliticise Jesus aren’t really doing faith. That’s a feel-good club. Real faith has to deal with poverty. Poverty has a face in this world, and it is southern hemisphere, primarily poor black women. If you’re concerned with a God who is a God of justice, then we’ve got to be doing something about helping people change the unjust economic and trading systems we have, that keep people poor. Jesus is a man of colour from the ancient near east. How then did we make him an Aryan and use that image to oppress other people? Faith doesn’t stand outside politics. In fact it is a political move to separate the two.
How do you make faith seem relevant to everyday life?
Faith is at its best when it is prophetic. God raises up the biblical prophets to challenge injustice. And I think we need to raise up leaders who are concerned with that. Where the church has campaigned, on issues like trade justice and the Jubilee Campaign in 2000, it has made a difference. Sadly the black church tradition is still politically quiet in this country.
But a lot of inner-city black churches are very actively involved in social issues.
They are and they do great things. But I distinguish between social welfare, which is mentoring, education work, prison visiting, after-school clubs, women’s groups. I distinguish that from social justice, which is the advocacy, the campaigning and the addressing of the structures that cause the mess in the first place. So we’ll visit men in prison, but we won’t tackle the criminal justice system – how race in sentencing works against us – or challenge the media for its persistent criminalising of black youth. I think that is short-changing the community and it’s short-changing the Gospel.
Is it depressing to you that more socially progressive forms of Christianity aren’t the ones that are really thriving in the world?
The left over here in Christianity hasn’t done a great job of organising, campaigning and developing a really dynamic religious experience. They have in America. The best example of that for me is Trinity United Church of Christ, the church Barack Obama went to, which is unique in the world. Because they marry the best of African American spirituality – the vibrant worship, the expressive physicality, the sense of an all-pervasive holy spirit working in gifts and miracles – they couple that with a radical commitment to inclusion.
But it doesn’t upset you that’s not happening here?
I come from a culture that has to hope, I think there is always hope. Also because I believe that at the end of the day Paul says: you know what, the Gospel’s being preached and that’s the main thing. Some people are liberal, some people are conservative. I’m more liberal myself but I’m happy the Gospel is being preached.
I’ve been in conservative churches for most of my life and I’ve seen the good work they can do. OK they’re not as inclusive or progressive as I would like, but we’ll keep pushing and prodding them. In the meantime they are doing good work. I’ve seen people who’ve been murderers, robbers, men and women whose lives were wrecked – through coming to the church, through the support and the services the church offered, they’ve seen their lives turned around. The Gospel is hope.
Are you with a conservative church now?
I’ve reached a point where the anti-intellectualism and anti-politicism of black Pentecostalism makes it impossible for me to sit down in most of those churches. I’ve decided to set up a group in Birmingham called Progressive Pentecostals. The idea is to use film as a medium for discussing what it means to be Christian and pro-active in the world.
How do you see your future?
I’m in a preferential position right now, but that may not be the case in a year’s time. There still isn’t the cultural literacy in the higher echelons of TV to do meaningful work that represents the diverse and complex lives of people in Britain. But if you’re from an immigrant family like me, you make the most of every opportunity.
I love Maya Angelou’s poem “And Still I Rise”, where she says: “I am the hope and the dream of the slave.” That line has always struck me, because if you look back in history at the limited opportunities some people have had and so many still have today – it’s a reminder that you have to take the opportunities that come.
This article was published in the June 2010 issue of Reform.