Review: Courttia Newland in conversation with Tina Gharavi: Screenwriting & Writing ‘Small Axe’
As a screenwriter, Courttia Newland has written episodes of Steve McQueen’s 2020 BBC series Small Axe: ‘Lovers Rock’ and ‘Red, White and Blue’. This event was a very informal discussion between two screenwriters, discussing the nature of their work. Newlands’ TV writing, which was very cinematic, struck a chord with Gharavi, who desired the opportunity to discuss their craft.
In January, Newland’s latest novel ‘A River Called Time’ was released to the public. We also have a new novel being released in November; a sci-fi religious drama named ‘Cosmogramma’.
Newland’s origins in the world of writing are quite unique. He had been an MC, and this led him to becoming a drum and bass producer. He had earned a bit of cash through releasing an album and wanted to expand his horizons. He decided to purchase more instruments and equipment, but didn’t have the financial backing to do so. This led Newland to write a book, plan to sell the film rights and use that money to fund the careers of himself and his artists. Newland fell in love with writing, deciding not to continue his music and invest his time in novel writing instead. This novel became ‘The Scholar’, turning out to be a hit, being dubbed an “ode to London’s black youth culture” and praised for Newland’s “painting of the reality for young people across the city”, talking about gang culture and crime.
One of the more striking themes from this novel revolved around the concept of family. Our main protagonist has a strong bond with his cousins, something present in Britain’s black communities, therefore allowing his family roots to span a wide distance across London. Each cousin has their own different narratives, which are effectively represented by Newland.
When discussing the TV that inspired Newland, he felt frustrated towards the “generational inaccuracy” of black British television. He felt that the writers were often poor in their depiction of black youth culture. “No one really knew who we were. No one really understood us.”
There’s a quote which brought significant conversation throughout the event. It’s a quote from Kwame Dawes, an academic and a poet, who made an argument revolving around the authenticity of Britain’s black culture in Newland’s writing.
“Kwame Dawes has noted that these prevailing themes (crime, music and gang violence in the male urban ghetto) mean Newland’s writing is in thrall to African American culture and the ‘fundamentally flawed premise that black American experience is the same as the black British experience”.
You can watch Tina and Courttia’s discussion of this quote here [23:45 – 28:35]
Tina and Courttia further discussed the influence of music on black British culture. Newland reflected on an event he had seen, a panel promoting black voices in the arts. An influential black rapper stated that “if the UK had a rap scene, he would know about it”, only to receive a rally of groans as the audience reflected on the influence of grime on the UK music scene. Gharavi furthered this, talking about Stormzy’s multi-cultural status as an iconic symbol of the UK.
Newland also talked about an occasion in which he watched a musician named MC Sway, a black UK rapper who totally captivated his audience, with the crowd repeating his every lyric. He reflects on this moment as thinking “Yes! Now we’ve got to that point in time”, seeing it as a huge step in the development of a black voice in Britain’s music culture.
At this point in the talk, Gharavi moved the conversation onto Newland’s transition to screenwriting. He’d always written for the screen. It took him a long time to develop his voice as a screenwriter. “Deals came and deals went, it never quite worked.”
However, he kept writing for the screen, and when people weren’t too keen on his ideas for novels, he fully invested himself in the craft of screenwriting.
He watched a lot of film and cinema, whilst practicing and teaching his craft to up-and-coming writers. He wanted to be ready for that one door that would be opened, with the scripts ready for the person willing to take a chance on him. That person was academy award winning filmmaker Steve McQueen.
Gharavi shared the trailer for ‘Lovers Rock’, screenplay by Newland and McQueen, and the film described by Tina as “visual poetry.”
Newland had worked on ‘Red, White and Blue’, one part of the Small Axe collection which features John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a London police officer who founded the Black Police Association in the hopes of reforming the police force. Newland was chosen to work on ‘Lovers Rock’, dreaming of making an art-house film about black British culture with McQueen. It’s safe to say this dream has been lived.
He purposely made ‘Lover’s Rock’ minimalist. Newland is a very dialogue driven writer, but he wanted to support McQueen’s stripped-back approach.
When asked about his next dream, Courttia announced he was working on an original screenplay with Film 4, another insight into black British working-class culture. He also teased us all with a non-British period-drama, but remained secretive on this project!
Throughout the conversation, Newland answered questions sent in from the live YouTube audience:
Q: Is there a distinction between black culture and black British culture?
A: That’s a massive question! There’s a big difference between Afro-futurism and African-futurism! I think African futurism is a lot more comfortable, it’s really overt about its intentions to represent everyone. It’s more all-encompassing. There is a specificity to being a black Londoner, when you go to Manchester or Newcastle it’s not quite the same. It’s different, but there’s also crossovers. When I’m in Leeds there’s always an exchange of slang. Even in London it’s very specific to certain regions.
Q: I would love to hear both people’s thoughts on links between music/prose/script and screenwriting. Are some themes meant to be expressed through certain media?
A: It’s totally organic. Everything is linked, it’s just a matter of what I decide to push to the forefront and things that I leave behind. So ‘Cosmogramma’ is a science-fiction novel set in a world where slavery never happened, and because that never happened, African Cosmology is the dominant religion. As a result of this a lot of the things our society finds niche, such as ancestor worship, meditation, are not alternatives. Everyone does them. All forms of African spirituality were respected.
I always remember, when I made the decision to write this novel, I woke up in the middle of the night and had left the TV on. It was playing ‘Pyramid Song’ by Radiohead, and the lyrics were the exact narrative of my novel. For me music and novels are completely in-time. Every script has its own playlist. To get you into the vibe, into the mood. It helps me get into the zone.
Q: What advice would you give up and coming screenwriters? [from Tina Gharavi]
A: I’ve always said to people ‘just write’. You can’t get worse from writing over a long period of time. Age does something, and you can’t force it. Having spent extra days and years on this planet, it brings growth. My advice would be to take your time, don’t rush. Don’t worry if things don’t come the way you want them to. Allow yourself time to grow. As we say in the Caribbean, don’t allow yourself to ‘Hurry, come up!’. Take your time. Enjoy your work. Enjoy the act of creation. You can’t go back and do that process again.
For those wanting to keep up with any future NCLA events, you can view them here.
Courttia Newland is an author, screenwriter, playwright, creative writing tutor and literary activist.
Tina Gharavi is a Senior Lecturer in English: Digital Media/Film at Newcastle University, as well as being a BAFTA and Sundance nominated writer/director.
Thomas Moorcroft, the author of this review, is a third year English Literature and History student currently on placement with the NCLA. This is his final review of an NCLA event, and he thanks you all for welcoming him over these last two semesters.