The life of Olive Morris, a Jamaican-born British-based community leader and activist in the campaigns of the 1970s, is one which most people know very little about. BAFTA nominated filmmaker and Fatoedo Productions founder Alex Kayode-Kay’s dramatic short The Ballad of Olive Morris introduces us to her woefully under celebrated life as a radical and force to be reckoned with in her determined fighting against racism, sexism and other forms of oppression in British History. Kayode-Kay’s 10 minute short’s incredibly detailed production design propels us into the world of the young woman with its depiction of a brutal and formative clash with the police when the 17 year old jumped to the defence of a Nigerian diplomat as he was wrongfully beaten and arrested on the streets of South Brixton. The filmmaker’s eye for direction and production seamlessly combine in this hard-hitting and truly important short. Ahead of the BAFTA awards this weekend we were able to speak to Kayode-Kay about his surprise at the lack of material about this dynamic woman, grassroots independent funding seeing him pounding the streets of Brixton to get his film off the ground and why he wants Olive Morris and her story to become mainstream in Black history.[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]
How did the story of the real Olive Morris galvanise you into creating a film about this formative experience in her life?
It was by accident or perhaps good fortune. I moved to Brixton in 2016 and before that, I had never heard of her, she was never on my radar. Whilst living in Brixton I was having issues with my landlord and someone advised me about a place called Olive Morris House which dealt with housing disputes and issues. Whilst there to resolve my issues I saw a picture of this woman. It was a striking picture, she was very dynamic and oozing leadership qualities. I read a bit about her activism in the 60s and 70s. She fought for housing and women’s rights among so much more and I realised what an interesting historical figure she was. When I went home, I did a very deep Google dive and I found that there was a fair amount of literature about her, mainly from a site called Remembering Olive Morris but not much else.
As a Black man in the UK we need to see our own history told which hasn’t been done effectively.
Through this research I found out more about her fascinating life. She founded movements and organisations fighting against all forms of injustice. Whether it was against police brutality, racism, women’s rights, housing and squatters’ rights. She did all of this through her teens up until her death from cancer at 27. I thought, holy shit, that is such a cinematic story and wondered why I had never heard about her. I did some more research thinking there must be some documentaries or mini series around, but I found nothing. This was such a lightbulb moment for me. What steps were lost in the telling of history that this woman’s story never became something we all know about?
We first met last year at the Bolton film festival, did you find you were introducing people to her story through the film during the festival circuit run?
Long story short, yes. The majority of people I was talking to had no idea who she was. I found the presentation of the film made people want to go and find out more. Most people will do exactly as I did and go and do their own research into her. It’s a ten minute short but also a taster, it’s a film within a film which leaves you wanting more.
Her life was so full, what about this early part of her life activated your interest?
I had read so much about her before writing this particular script and I had to boil it down to practicalities. I want to inform people about who she was and what she did. The incident I focus on is her at 17 years old, stepping in to try and help save a Nigerian diplomat who was being falsely brutally arrested and assaulted as he was accused of stealing his own car. The police at the time couldn’t conceive of a Black man in Brixton being able to afford a really nice Mercedes. Olive Morris stepped in and was brutally beaten for her troubles, then arrested where she was threatened with sexual assault before eventually getting bailed out. This story actually happened, I looked into records and got her own statement of events. There are even newspaper clippings of the diplomat talking about how brutalised he felt by the police. That incident is something I felt I could boil down to ten minutes and there’s no way anyone is going to miss why she mattered, why we should be talking about her and why she should be more of an iconic figure. That incident embodies her tenacity, her bravery, her courageousness and her will.
I think it’s so poignant in the film that as the diplomat is being beaten there are so many people around not doing anything but Olive, at 17, jumps straight in. She was fearless.
Through all of my research, that was her personality. She wasn’t a physically imposing person but she was never afraid to square up to anyone when she saw an injustice. From another perspective, as a Black man in the UK we need to see our own history told which hasn’t been done effectively. Black History Month is usually a celebration of American civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Angela Davis. They are internationally recognised figures who are celebrated in their own country because of their leadership.
Representation and the telling of people’s stories matters and she will be part of that now.
Olive Morris was doing something very similar for her community in the 60s and 70s but, for some reason, it got lost. Her activism was significant enough for her to have a building named after her in Brixton when she died at 27. She was a big deal in her lifetime but it never spread out. Media representation is how people are celebrated and how they come alive. Film, TV, books, it all matters. Don’t let anyone ever tell you, “It’s just a movie”. Representation and the telling of people’s stories matters and she will be part of that now. I’m not gonna try to claim credit for being the only one talking about her but hopefully, my film plays a small part in trying to keep that legacy and for her to become more of a known figure. She’s an inspiration.
Your production feels incredibly authentic, right down to the clothes and the feeling of life in Brixton at the time. How did you nail that?
A good crew, good actors! I think other filmmakers might try to mystify it, but for me, the process of filmmaking is very linear. I start from the research and build a solid base. If any part of it falls down, the whole thing collapses. I did a lot of collages and moodboards very early on to set the scene. I would look at various other films set in that period such as Malcolm X or Michael Manns’s Ali and create that image in my head. After the research I storyboarded the whole script and then looked for the right crew. Juliet Green was the production designer and did amazing work. When we spoke she got it instantaneously. I was working with people at a very high level and I made sure all of the departments were working together. After initial meetings I was urging everyone to stay in touch and worked on my role.
I think other filmmakers might try to mystify it, but for me, the process of filmmaking is very linear.
We then moved on to casting. I reached out to Casting Director Nikki Meadows and we worked together to assemble everyone. Someone said 90% of directing is casting which I don’t agree with as it is a bit more complex but when you get the casting right it makes your life a lot easier. We shot in October 2021, still in the pandemic and a lot of rehearsals were via Zoom. We put aside a day to rehearse the stunts and were shooting for three days.
How long was the process from starting to write the script until it was fully in the can?
I wrote the script in 2019, it was a good two years before filming. I was trying to get funding and wasn’t getting anywhere. I went to almost all the major film funding bodies in the UK. BFI, Film London, BBC Films, it did the rounds and I realised that wasn’t working. By summer 2020 I was determined to get it done and ended up working with a crowdfunding platform called Greenlit which is great for independent filmmakers. Over the course of two months, I shot a video talking about the film. I collated all my materials and the crew I had got together and put together a really strong page which was the key. I took a month out to hit the ground in Brixton, I treated it like a job and knocked on doors asking if people would help fund the film.
What steps were lost in the telling of history that this woman’s story never became something we all know about?
How did you find people’s reactions?
Reactions were generally OK, people were receptive to hearing about Olive Morris. Funnily enough, most people in Brixton had heard the name as they knew the building but they didn’t know who she was or about her activism. Her story has never been taught, even within the community. So I was asking people to help, showing them the page and letting them know that £20 quid could get their name put in the credits. The end credits are full of names which are down to people giving me money. It reached the point that this was the only way to get it done and I was able to raise 15k this way. As I had been seen walking around talking to people every day I ended up running into people who worked at local newspapers who put out an article as time was running out on the fundraising which helped the money come in a lot quicker. This is a community supported project and I’m always keeping people updated on the film’s progress which is also part of my role as a producer.
Your BAFTA nomination has given you an incredible platform to talk about her story, what does it mean to you?
A BAFTA is the highest accolade you can get in our industry in Britain and it’s a massive, massive honour. It’s not something I expected, there are so many great short films out there, made every year. I crowdfunded this project, I walked up to people on the street asking for money. I did get a bit of a grant afterwards but for the most part, it was independent. I didn’t have a corporation behind me. I am truly independent so I just thought it was going to be a real long shot. The end goal is more exposure for Olive Morris, putting the film in front of more people, and creating a bigger platform to talk about her story.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a script developing The Ballad of Olive Morris into a feature. I’m in talks with several companies. I’m also working on someone else’s story which needs to be kept under wraps to a certain extent. It’s a true story, British history, expansive and a feature.