Howard Johnson obituary
In his evocative documentary series Deep Roots Music, the film-maker Howard Johnson, who has died aged 78, provided tantalising glimpses of the world of reggae that have seldom been seen by outsiders. Filmed in his native Jamaica in the summer of 1981 on a shoestring budget as one of the first commissions for the newly established Channel 4, it employed a fly-on-the-wall approach that put Johnson’s subjects at ease, allowing for an organic realism that contrasted with the obvious staging of Jeremy Marre’s earlier documentary, Roots Rock Reggae.
Jamaica’s recording studios constitute a notoriously insular realm, yet Johnson gleaned naturalistic footage of Prince Jammy engineering a dub mix at King Tubby’s studio, of the producer Bunny Lee busting wild dance moves, of Dennis Brown, Delroy Wilson and Johnny Clarke voicing their hits, the saxophonist Tommy McCook leading what is left of the Skatalites through some classic instrumental reveries, and the percussionist Scully Simms presiding over a Rastafari groundation ceremony, giving a tangible sense of reggae’s African roots.
Lee “Scratch” Perry is also shown at work in a thoroughly dilapidated, graffiti-strewn Black Ark studio, its upstairs control room still fully intact, dispelling the myth that Perry’s studio was destroyed by fire in the late 1970s. Marcia Griffiths and the producer Sonia Pottinger are unfazed by the male-dominated environment, and footage of foreigners dancing dirty at a north coast sound system event points to the island’s problematic relationship with tourism.
Narrated by the Jamaican vocalist and broadcaster Mikey Dread, with historical commentary from the poet and folklorist Louise Bennett, Deep Roots Music was one of the first television documentaries to take a serious look at a musical genre that has often been maligned by the media outside Jamaica, giving kudos to reggae just as big labels were ceasing to promote it after Bob Marley’s death.
With a background in drama and grassroots theatre, Johnson gravitated towards documentary making almost by default, during a time when opportunities for black actors and film-makers were severely limited. Nevertheless, as his business partner, Mike Wallington, recalled: “His approach to music on TV was groundbreaking: make it real, find the music where it’s made, and keep the spit in the trumpet.”
The second of six children born to Agnes (nee Townsend), a probation officer, and Granville Johnson, an accountant, Howard was raised in the Kingston suburb of Red Hills. After attending various boarding schools, he moved to New York to study art, and also drama with the theatre director Joe Papp and the actor Uta Hagen. This led to work as an actor at the New York Shakespeare Company for five years and at the Albany theatre in 1971-72.
Johnson then moved to the UK to continue his work as an actor, appearing in Black Macbeth at the Roundhouse, north London, and was subsequently mentored by Sidney Poitier as a student director during the filming of A Warm December at Pinewood. He later enrolled at the National Film School (now the National Film and TV School), where he produced the documentary Rasta in a Babylon, exploring London’s Rastafarian communities, which was awarded a prize at the 1979 Los Angeles film exposition. Johnson also worked as a theatre director in London at the Keskidee arts centre, Islington, the Tricycle theatre (now the Kiln theatre), and at the Black Theatre of Brixton.
He established the independent film company Mirus Productions with Wallington in 1981 to make Deep Roots Music and went on to produce a large body of work, including hard-hitting documentaries addressing social issues from a black perspective, often critiquing capitalism and colonialism, as well as films exploring jazz and reggae, beginning with Rockers Roadshow (1983), a 10-part series for Central Television presented by Dread that acted as a showcase for black music in Britain, filmed mostly in gritty urban nightclubs.
For Channel 4, Black Hollywood (1984) detailed the struggles of black actors in the American film industry, with testimony from Harry Belafonte, Alfre Woodard, Poitier and others; Songs of Freedom (1985), which profiled the life and work of the actor and activist Paul Robeson, was nominated for the Grierson award for best documentary at the Baftas, while This Joint Is Jumpin’ (1986) was a sympathetic portrait of the jazz pianist Fats Waller.
After CLR James Talking to Stuart Hall (broadcast in 1988), a series of in-depth discussions conducted with the Trinidadian author and activist, Johnson’s Colonial Madness: Marcus Garvey and the Question of Colour (1988) explored the lasting legacy of the Jamaican hero of black self-determination. And, after an accessible filmic profile of the jazz pianist Art Tatum titled The Art of Jazz Piano (1989), came Black Faith (1990), a three-part series on the rise of black churches in Britain.
For the four-part series Us (1991), exploring the complexities of contemporary black British life, Johnson employed a docudrama format, returning to the more standard documentary form for One Love (1992), a three-part series on Rastafarianism in the UK. Black and Blue (1993) was an innovative look at the mental health of Britain’s black communities, and Blood Count (1994) focused on sickle-cell disease.
For the regional station HTW West, Johnson made a six-part series on black music in Bristol titled Sounds of the West (1997), as well as Carrying the Swing (1998), a standalone documentary exploring the influence of Jamaican music and culture in the same city.
He then began working as a part-time editing tutor at the National Film and TV School, where he remained until 2000. His final film, Guns in the Afternoon: The Life and Times of Kidco and Tribel (2008), examined the senseless murder of Kieron Bernard, an aspiring rapper from Shepherd’s Bush, west London, and the growing epidemic of gun and knife crime.
Johnson’s marriage to Barbara Stoddard, an art director, ended in divorce. Their son, Julian, died in 2017. He is survived by five sisters.
• Howard Lincoln Johnson, film-maker, born 24 August 1944; died 14 October 2022