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Revisit Lionel Ngakane's pioneering short film 'Jemima and Johnny'


Childhood tales and the short film medium go hand-in-hand when it comes to cinema, with the likes of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon joining Wild Lilly from Sanne Rovers and Jemima & Johnny by the British/South African filmmaker Lionel Ngakane. Able to tap into an inherent truth of youthful innocence and societal corruption, Ngakane’s incredible 1966 film would have a powerful impact on the British culture of the 1960s. 

A compact, beautiful and almost dialogue-free short film, Jemima & Johnny is set in the simmering racial hotpot of Notting Hill, London, a diverse community still feeling the effects of the 1958 race riots. Dealing with its central racial issue in a methodical manner, the story follows two children, one black and one white, who work to bring a fragile community together by way of their own innocent relationship. 

Whilst sweet and genuinely charming in its subject matter, Jemima & Johnny is captured in a gritty, monochrome social-realist style using a hand-held camera and a lack of narration to tell its story steeped in subtle drama. With the documentary short Vukani/Awake the only film under Ngakane’s belt, the filmmaker adopted a similar style for his latest project, taking inspiration from the Free Cinema documentary movement that was popularised in the 1950s. 

Whilst the film’s material thrives from its simplicity, the story goes deeper than its surface appearance, with the five-year-old Johnny being the son of a white nationalist and Jemima, the daughter of a Caribbean family. Breeding dramatic tension, as the two children interact and form a pure bond they explore the streets of ‘60s London, receiving strange looks as the audience is offered a peek into the manic everyday life of those living in the British capital. 

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Drawing the audience’s attention to the similarities between black and white people without delving into the racist attitudes that often pervaded the late 20th century, Johnny and Jemima become the perfect vehicles to illustrate such a fact, sharing an affinity with how they see and interpret the world around them. Remaining mute to each other throughout the film, the feelings between the two lead characters are shared instinctively, with their symbiotic relationship working to support Lionel Ngakane’s brilliantly simplistic message. 

Ultimately, both five-year-old’s are merely children, however, exploring the inner-city terrain with a naive impression of the world around them, ignorant to the dangers of a collapsing building for example as they wonder its ruins. Eventually rescued from the crumbling rubble by Johnny’s father, the film’s conclusion provides a hopeful bookend that suggests humanity and decency will prevail past any difficulty. 

Winning an award at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, Ngakane’s film became the first black British film ever to be honoured at an awards show and has since been pinpointed as a significant moment in the history of black filmmaking. Conscious of the racial tensions arising in Britain, Jemima and Johnny provides an optimistic point of view for the future of civil rights in the country, whilst working to demonstrate how such corrupted minds can be rehabilitated. 

Readers in the UK can watch Jemima and Johnny on the BFI website, whilst those in the US can rent the film online.