A Tale of Two Empires – The Battle of Algiers in Brixton

by Abiba Coulibaly

In one of the oldest pictures I have of myself, I am a few months old, held up by the hands of my father in our first home, a flat just off Streatham High Road. Directly behind us on a shelf, is a sole book with the word ‘French’ visible along the spine. It is a French-English dictionary which was grasped at by my parents whenever conversation faltered because a specific word or sentiment couldn’t be properly conveyed. My mother is Anglo-Irish and grew up in Brighton. My father is from Ivory Coast where he grew up speaking French, the nation’s only official language, and Djula, a language indigenous to the North-West of the country, meaning that at times there was a language barrier between my parents. That slightly out of focus ‘French’ which serves as the only legible text in the photo is a concrete manifestation of how the language always looms ambivalently in my interactions with paternal family, haunting both myself and my father despite him being born just a few years after Ivory Coast became independent, and having willfully left France in the mid-90s, a journey which would eventually lead him to Streatham. A distance had been put between us and France – temporally, geographically; but some kind of a grip still remained, one that meshed awkwardly with my experiences as a Black Briton. 

Aged 17, in the middle of my A-levels, I moved from Streatham to neighbouring Brixton, which has been home ever since. As a West Indian stronghold, my mixed heritage meant I identified easily with those around me but there were also dissonances, not just by way of me being African rather than Afro-Caribbean, but linguistic and religious ones too. My experience of being black is inextricably linked to being French-speaking and Muslim, something that tends to confuse people in Britain, a country in which black people are overwhelmingly from nominally Anglophone and majority Christian countries. This itself is a reflection of the country’s colonial history of linguistic and religious oppression and continued dependencies largely related to labour and capital following the era of decolonisation. The general trend of migration during the ‘postcolonial’ period in Europe has been from formerly-colonised to formerly-colonising countries, hence Portugal’s sizable Cape Verdean community, or the large Surinamese presence in the Netherlands for example. But my familial trajectory was less straightforward and spanned two imperial geohistories, which sometimes intersected but more often than not felt detached. Growing up, I was acutely aware of my family’s entanglement with France’s imperial endeavours, while my lived experience was plagued by those of Britain, only magnified by growing up in an area like Brixton.

My relocation to the area, a result of the lottery that is Lambeth Council’s social housing operations, coincided with the peak of gentrification. The year after I arrived, house prices would increase by a third in just 6 months, and Brixton defied both its reputation and market logic as one of the handful of areas which saw house prices rise dramatically in the aftermath of the recession. But the material gains have done very little for original, long-term residents who have been priced out of many of the new developments in housing but also those relating to culture and entertainment, resulting in a cultural attrition and economic disenfranchisement that genuinely make me wonder if it was better when the mention of the area elicited fear rather than the prospect of bottomless brunches.

Today, I witness the sad, strange post-gentrification aftermath in which parts of Brixton have become truly unrecognisable. Specialty coffee shops and craft beer bars continue to pop up, and pop-ups multiply, but some elements stay the same, stalwarts belonging to a time before all this. En route to the market there remains one of these constants – the stills of the Ritzy cinema which adorn the North end of Coldharbour Lane. These are life-size, black and white images from different films predating my birth, and the sight of which, like the rainbow gradients of the neon Electric Avenue sign, or the reminder to ‘come in love…stay in peace’ emblazoned on the high road’s rail bridge, signal that I’m home. Growing up, the image I was always drawn to was that of Pam Grier in Hit Man, her afro full and resplendent, stance assertive, and thigh emerging from a slit in her fitted, black dress. I could never place the image, and for a long while, those it sat alongside were also an enigma. Slowly, as my interest and appetite for cinema grew, some became familiar, taking on a new found resonance. One such instance was my first viewing of The Battle of Algiers, which I came across during a ‘Decolonising the World’ module as an undergraduate at SOAS (where else!?) in which the film was required watching.

Watching the film was and continues to be a stirring experience, but one shot in particular stood out for a different reason – I’d passed it on an almost daily basis, oblivious to its origin or significance. The black and white image is that of Brahim Haggiag portraying Ali La Pointe, the film’s lead and a spearhead of the revolutionary popular movement for Algerian independence, the National Liberation Front (FLN). He is lashing out with a look of palpable fury on his face, the veracity of which demonstrates why the film is so often mistaken for a documentary. In the previous scene, a French official has planted a bomb in the Casbah, Algiers’ historical maze-like medina, a real incident which claimed 73 lives. During the aftermath its inhabitants, both greiving and enraged, form a rapidly-moving throng, chanting ‘murderers’ as they cascade down the steps of the citadel. Initially Ali participates, leading the crowd, but upon realising they are heading towards the French army and the danger this presents, he halts them before being joined by a comrade promising the FLN will avenge the dead; this is the heated moment enshrined on Coldharbour Lane. The film continues to detail the determination and tribulations of delivering this promise, a struggle that is depicted as a civic duty undertaken by men, women and children alike. This historically-accurate and unflinching depiction remains one of the few representations in popular culture to address head-on the violence France inflicted upon its colonies and the resistance and counter violence with which this was met. Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo does not shy away from the suffering of the Algerian population, but also demonstrates their experiences beyond victimhood; as having self-determination and an unwavering sense of justice, and as impeccably effective and committed organisers. As someone who shares their African, Francophone and Islamic identity, the agency with which he portrayed this demographic, mostly absent from the Anglophone public sphere, and its presence right on my doorstep was incredibly striking. 

The film is frequently recognised as one of the greatest ever made, but its presence in the context of Coldharbour Lane further elevated its significance for me. Grassroots insurgencies against white supremacist systems of oppression and (neo)colonial ideologies resonate loudly in Brixton – the uprisings in 1981, 1985, 1995, and most recently in 2011, each a response to failures and wrongdoings of the London Metropolitan Police demonstrate this. As do the more recent 2015 protest against gentrification, perhaps the most fervent and well-attended of its kind ever seen in London, and the annual march for reparations for slavery which departs from Windrush Square. This is not to draw false analogies – Brixton is vastly different from Algeria of the 1950s; while it is tempting to make a parallel between settler-colonialism and gentrification, the analogy feels reductive. But the systems used to oppress in the colonies have been replicated in the metropoles, even in the present so-called ‘post-colonial’ period. The ideologies that permeated colonial Algeria are the same that make possible the police violence, calculated redevelopment schemes, and shameful housing failures that plague so many of London’s boroughs, and which Brixton in particular has both felt and fought back against so strongly, making the positioning of the still particularly powerful.

The area it backs onto, Windrush Square, serves as a microcosm of British pre and post colonial history – a bust of sugar merchant Henry Tate and a library named after him inhabits the same space as a memorial to Cherry Groce, the woman whose shooting by Met police sparked the 1985 ‘riots’. Also present is a war memorial to African and Caribbean soldiers and the Black Cultural Archives. The name of the square itself pays tribute to the generation of migrants whose contributions to this country are innumerable yet undervalued, having assumed the title in 1998, the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush, before which it was named Tate Gardens. The still’s attachment to the square comes via the Ritzy, South London’s oldest cinema, a rarity as one of the few pre-gentrification establishments that has benefitted from the phenomenon, and which divides opinion as an important cultural hub with an iconic readograph that also sells overpriced tickets whilst refusing to pay staff living wage. The image from The Battle of Algiers, portraying the definitive conflict of French imperial endeavours, finds itself back to back with a small square encompassing the geographies and intricacies of the British empire.

While imperial powers may be framed as competitors, their shared interests and ideologies have seen a frequent joining of forces, from the French and British regimes jointly drawing up the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement which paved the way for the current occupation in Palestine, to their frequent collusion in regards to the border regime either side of the Channel, highlighting the intersecting, and often collaborative nature of (neo)imperial powers and the colonial ideologies they continue to perpetuate. Current political rhetoric shows us that, in many ways, the complete disdain for human life and willingness to contravene internationally enshrined human rights law by European powers that Pontecorvo addressed assiduously in The Battle of Algiers, is still very much a reality seven decades later. This is why an image of Algiers superimposed onto Brixton, two locations hugely emblematic of radical organising against racialised systems of oppression, is such a symbolic combination, both on a personal level for myself as a British-Ivorian, and on a wider level as a reminder of the past and continued need for anti-imperial resistance and of the evocative, far-reaching role of cinema in this struggle.