The film director, producer and activist Henry Martin, who has died aged 70, following a long illness, created a groundbreaking body of work depicting black British life, highlighting the structural inequalities and racism, but also the effervescent creativity and shared experiences that allowed black communities to thrive.
Martin began his career through the independent production company Kuumba Black Arts, which he founded with Menelik Shabazz and Imruh Bakari in the late 1970s. In Grove Carnival, a short documentary broadcast by Channel 4 in 1981, he captured the unique creative expressions of the Caribbean immigrant community of Ladbroke Grove, west London, allowing viewers to experience the intensity of its steel-pan bands and costumed masquerades, as well as the multicultural character of the carnival audience.
Carnival and Ladbroke Grove also provided the backdrop for the full-length Channel 4 feature documentary Grove Music, broadcast in the same year, which afforded viewers intimate glimpses of the community’s close-knit nature. The film included the testimony of older Caribbean expatriates and first-generation young black British people, and invigorating performances by Aswad, Sons of Jah and Brimstone, interspersed with contextual commentary from band members, and a rehearsal by the lovers rock group Black Harmony.
Snippets of archive footage underlined the fact that prejudice against the community ran deep. Martin said that Grove Music was the film he was most proud of, because of the upfront accounts provided by Ladbroke Grove residents, which revealed the hostility they frequently faced.
Martin’s 1987 television drama Big George Is Dead cast Norman Beaton and Rudolph Walker as old friends who reconnect after a funeral through a night-long Soho bender, revealing various challenges facing Caribbean immigrants, as well as the ageing protagonists’ regrets. Channel 4 commissioned the film before its screenplay was written, and after engaging Michael Abbensetts, who had worked on the popular television series Empire Road, Martin chose Beaton and Walker, who welcomed the chance to play roles that were free of the stereotypes they were often saddled with.
With the Guyanese blues singer Ram John Holder and the Jamaican vocalist Count Prince Miller in minor roles, Big George Is Dead offered a nuanced portrayal of the intergenerational tensions experienced by Caribbean migrants in Britain, as well as the opportunities that inevitably remained unrealised in an unsympathetic host nation.
Born in Lewisham, south-east London, to Trinidadian parents, Vida, a secretary, and Claude Martin, a civil servant, Henry moved to Trinidad as an infant and was raised in Woodbrook, a vibrant neighbourhood in western Port of Spain, then at the heart of the island’s creative arts scene. Growing up across the street from the Little Carib theatre exposed Martin to the work of notable Caribbean artists, including the St Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who held weekly theatre workshops there. Martin went to St Mary’s school, and being close to the headquarters of the Invaders steel-pan orchestra also kept him grounded in local street culture.
He returned to London in the early 1970s, and studied at West Surrey School of Art and Design, Farnham. By this time he was a committed pan-Africanist and anticolonialist and found similar sentiments in Shabazz and Bakari. Kuumba Black Arts produced Shabazz’s 1977 debut, Step Forward Youth, challenging the negative stereotypes facing young black Britons, and a later Kuumba production, Blood Ah Go Run, documented the woeful state failures and prejudicial atmosphere exhibited in the aftermath of the New Cross fire of 1981, which had resulted in the deaths of 13 young black people at a house party in south-east London.
Shabazz and Bakari then launched the Ceddo collective, with support from Channel 4 and other funding bodies, to nurture aspiring black film-makers. Although Martin was never officially a member, he would later collaborate with Ceddo as a producer and mentor.
Retaining a strong working relationship with Channel 4, he contributed to the educational children’s series Everybody Here, presented by the poet Michael Rosen, in 1982-83. In the same year Martin produced Grenada – Is Freedom We Making? and produced and directed Trinidad and Tobago – Money Is Not the Problem.
In 1987, Martin produced The Mark of the Hand, Bakari’s exploration of the artistry of the Guyanese painter Aubrey Williams, and in 1991, Bakari’s Blue Notes and Exiled Voices, about exiled South African jazz musicians who had made Britain their home after fleeing apartheid, including the trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the pianist Mervyn Africa, and the band Brotherhood of Breath. The latter film’s sensitive portrayal of their debilitating struggles to adapt rendered it one of the best documentaries to emerge from the Ceddo workshops.
Martin was also the founding force behind Screenwrite, a screenplay development programme for black writers instigated by Ceddo in 1993 in association with Channel 4 and the British Film Institute, though he subsequently withdrew from the film industry, frustrated by what he saw as its strictures.
With his former wife, Shirley, he had a son, Kwame, and daughter, Femi. With his partner, Paula Spencer, he had two sons, Omari and Karim. Paula and his children survive him.
• Henry Goule Martin, director, producer and activist, born 3 April 1952; died 13 May 2022