Director Lionel Ngakane creates a swansong to migration, cultural diversity and racial harmony with his short film ‘Jemima and Johnny’

Lionel Ngakane was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1928. His father, a school teacher, set up a home for delinquent boys with the Alan Paton writer of the much acclaimed book ‘Cry My Beloved Country’.

After graduating from University, Lionel became a sometimes journalist for the African magazines ‘Zonk’ and ‘Drum’ while working in menial employment. He was involved in political activism with the ANC alongside Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. In 1950 Ngakane interviewed film director Zoltan Korder who at the time was working on a feature film based on the book ‘Cry My Beloved Country’. Zoltan was so impressed with Ngakane he offered him a significant role in the film, alongside Sidney Poitier and the opportunity to work on post-production in London. In London Ngakane continued to act, mostly small film roles, supplementing his income by running a stall and later an antique shop in West London’s Portobello road, however Ngakane’s real ambitions lie in filmmaking.

Working as an actor on set at film studios meant he could observe and study the technical necessities of filmmaking while reading books on the subject to hone his craft.  Eventually Ngakane saved enough money to buy his own 16mm camera and started experimenting. His first film was a feature documentary depicting the struggle of South Africans in entitled ‘Vukani’ – ‘Awake’ released in 1962.   Writer Chris Albertyn states:-

It was the first film made by an African person that documents the situation black people had to live in. It was the first movie that was made to mobilize the public – nationally and internationally – against the Apartheid regime. And it was the first visual expression of what was to become the next step in the struggle against racialized injustice – as it was not just a hidden message of the film that the fight against oppression would turn into an armed one from now on.’

Jemima and Johnny (1966) was funded by the British Film Institute and was to be his most successful film. Inspired by the Oscar winning featurette by Albert Lamorisse entitled ‘Red Balloon’ (1956), Jemima and Johnny are two children Jemima Black and Johnny white who meet and explore the streets of West London. This is a  beautifully shot film, with uneven sound, sparse dialogue and hand held camerawork which adds to its  natralistic charm, it touches the hearts of audiences worldwide.  With its gritty realism and sensitive performances, ‘Jemima and Johnny’  tells a story of childhood innocence and London’s community life with a strong statement about Caribbean immigration. The fear and anxiety of a multi-racial Britian was intensified by the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane, a Black Carpenter stabbed to death in 1958, only streets away from where the film is made.

‘Jemima and Johnny’ was London’s entry to the 1966 Venice Film Festival where it won a prize for the Best Short Feature. The film was critically acclaimed but Ngakane, never received the fame he deserved as a due to the lack of opportunity caused by British racism.   In the British Film Institute profile for Ngakane, writer and filmmaker Inge Blackman :

“In spite of winning prestigious film prizes and making critically acclaimed films in Britain his filmmaking credentials were always in question, and he was not allowed to move beyond the label of a ‘Black filmmaker’. He revealed, “None of them would let me have a say on drugs, fatherless children, mini-skirts… I am still considered incapable of handling British topics”

Being the great visionary, Ngakane  went on move the African Filmmaking community forward by founding FESPACI The Panafrican Federation Filmmakers in South Africa, and was a founder member of FESPACO the Panafrican Film and Television Federation. Nagakane continued to advise and support African Filmmakers until his death in 2003. ‘Jemima and Johnny’ has become a classic and continues to screen at Festivals worldwide.

watch Jemima and Johnny online here :-


South African National Cinema

By Jacqueline Maingard

BFI screen on line, Inge Blackman

Obituaries The Independent Newspaper, Steven Bourne

Negekane, Lionel Wikipedia.