Skin Device

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In this feature-length extension of his 2020 documentary A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim, producer and writer Ed Accura devotes further time pondering the titular myth. It’s immediately clear that it’s a case of don’t, not can’t. But however it has come about, this shibboleth is now responsible for an astonishing statistic: 95% of black adults in the UK and 80% of black children do not swim. As the film points out multiple times, this has life-threatening implications.

Lack of parental encouragement, lack of opportunities at school, no role models, braided hair, fear of the deep end and ancestral memories of slave-trade Atlantic drownings are just some of the reasons given in a generous spread of interviews. As well as this fieldwork, the film also has an activist thread in order to combat what Accura calls “blaquaphobia”: dramatised interludes in which he plays Frank, a recent swimming convert trying to convince a pair of reluctant teenagers, K Frost (Reginald Mudenda) and Layla (Amina Smith-Gul), to take part in a gala as part of a programme for disadvantaged young people. The character is based on Accura’s own journey of learning to swim as a 53-year-old.

These segments are a little clunky, but hook you in teen-mag photo-story style. K Frost getting suddenly enthusiastic about hitting the leisure centre when Frank bribes them with a meet with a music-video director is particularly amusing. The film’s length and occasional repetitiveness risks the attention-span equivalent of wrinkly fingers, and perhaps breaking out some historical perspective could have been illuminating: recent US research suggests that antebellum African Americans did swim more frequently, and the current stereotypes stem from the rise of white-dominated beach and pool culture.

But Accura’s good-humoured approach is a fine ice-breaker for the subject. As one interviewee points out, maybe all black UK swimming needs now is one major cultural advocate. Someone get Stormzy a pair of armbands, pronto.