Race in British Cinema

This essay deals with the themes of racial intolerance and a multicultural representation of a working class Pakistani family set in 1971 Salford from the film East Is East (1999) directed by Damien O’Donnell.

The film tells the story of a Muslim man from Pakistan, with an Anglicised name, George who is married to a white Catholic, British woman named Ella from Salford Manchester.

George is the central character of the film therefore he is the main focus in this essay. The couple have a large family of six sons and one daughter. Together, they run a chip shop called ‘George’s English Chippy’. This connotes irony as George wants his family to be accepted by Muslim community and live by their rules and trade yet he is conforming to cultural heritage in Britain.

This emphasises that “a nation does not express itself through culture, it is culture that produces the nation” (Higson, 1995:274) where in this instance, Britain is expressed as a multicultural nation of English food by a Pakistani family. The cultural heritage of Britain is secure as chip shops are traditional there and we would not come across one in a country such as India.

Race is a term, which is generally used in order to relate to different skin colours and cultural heritage. Of course, the racial division has such correspondence to the colonial era in Britain as during the 1970s especially, Britain would not hold such heritage without the growth of immigration.

In turn contemporary society relates racial attitudes back to cultural acceptability where “Britain had developed a long tradition of viewing black people from the vantage point of superiority” (Saggar, 1992:33). Here, social and cultural aspects of the post war mass immigration developed. For instance, “richer pickings” were considered to be “elsewhere” meaning India.

The white racial superiority exploiting land and labour of black people led to India becoming a country known as a market rather than a producer as Britain gathered its own wealth and forced India to buy British cotton in 1857 regardless of India’s rich cotton, silk and spices. (Smith, 1987: 8)

Also, members of the public may live in the past and view the black/Asian race as slaves which interlinks with the idea that black people are offered jobs in Britain due to the fact that they are willing to work in a lower hierarchy whereas Britain’s citizens feel too proud to do so.

Needless to say, the idea of being British to one person is different to another when we consider the several factors, which influence the consumption of film such as gender, class and race (Street, 2009). A “native” culture versus British identity notion arises in films where particularly in East is East, (1999) the place of birth is more important to George than the respect for the country he lives in. George is a man who uses his mother tongue and wants to secure his own nation identity in a British environment.

Through social constructions, neighbours such as the old man surround him across the road that does not believe that George’s discipline towards his children and his wife is acceptable by means of gaining power as a man. We must note that, “…members of the ‘same’ ethnic group may be alike and not alike in many ways” (Murij, 2011:589) yet the old man still connotes racial discrimination towards George with disgusted looks and swear words as he does not accept a man who is of a different ethnicity to be welcome in the British community.

Although, he is not part of the Pakistani ethnic origin therefore he fails to understand George’s behaviour. George wants to participate in British working class life yet he has no desire to share the beliefs and attitudes of one. He is a working class citizen in Britain; therefore, he is equal to those on the street who are of the same social class however he is disregarding this.

George is simply choosing to change the “monoracial” atmosphere and bring something new to the street – a diverse, multicultural environment where his children for example are able to have multiracial friendships but not relationships.

Furthermore, race especially in 1970s Britain was, the concept which shown the correlation between the initial images of race and the sense of belonging by your colour and characteristics of members of the same group. (Husband, 1982:13).

Yet, through a social aspect, George chooses to separate the rules and values of Pakistan with the ones belonging to Britain as he only views his life though a Pakistani perspective.

On the other hand, his children want to participate in British culture as they go to the discotheque, which represents 1970s Britain, and Sajid is seen on a space hopper at another moment, which connotes a young boy who has adapted to British life.

Seeming as though the British Nationality Act of 1948 allowed migrants to enter Britain freely to find work and bring their families, we would think George would appreciate this and live to their standards as much as possible alongside 1971, the year where the West Indian, Pakistani origin rose to 131,885 – more than five times the total of ten years prior along as the Immigration Act (1971) was established. (Husband, 1982: 83).

Married to a white British woman, George has made a vows knowing fair well that Britishness is a part of Ella’s life and they have each inherited both of their cultures to their children who were born and raised in Salford. They do not always follow their father’s rules however perhaps they see him marrying a British woman as a positive due to her strength and nurture of them and wish to do the same for this reason.

Ella maintains George’s rules on many occasions however she has influenced her children with Catholic ideas. Connections with Bradford allow their children to have a traditional upbringing in order to attend the mosque together and share their culture with other Pakistani families.

Also, he expressly wants the brides of his sons to originate there, as he believes they are respectful and proud Muslims. The family fit neither into the Pakistani nor do they in the white community which reinforces the idea that British Muslim community engagement receive various levels of equality through religious differences (Modood, 2010).

George forces his children against their will to conform to Muslim life with Urdu classes, arranged marriages and circumcising his youngest son, Sajid, which is overlooked by white members of the community and his own mother. He questions if the doctor is Indian, which indicates that he is racist towards other races, as he believes that only an Indian doctor will do the right job.

Conflict between India and Pakistani is represented through history, as George is worried about the war in his homeland, Islamabad and racism by Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (if people were deported then violence would become the consequence). His authority gave people permission to act in a racially discriminatory way.

The attitude that, “people like Enoch Powell are given a lot more exposure in the media” (Smith, 1985: 37) shows that George is fighting against the belief that black people and anti-racists do not get the same treatment just because he is a health minister and makes the rules. If this still existed today, we would live in a version of Britain where citizens were solely white and everyone should think and look like them in order to be accepted and belong.

At the outset, a bird’s eye view of the street displays the parade for Christian faith and the Muslim children are involved which was a very rare thing to see in the 1970s. Ella looks nervous which predicts that tensions are high and presumes a sense of conflict in the family.

Likewise, the Muslim children run down a back street so they are hidden from their father. This interprets that being present in such a public event is forbidden especially as they represent ironic imagery holding a crucifix and a statue of Virgin MaryThe children seem to find spiritual engagement in the Christian faith with disrespect to their own faith, primarily because they dislike the harshness discipline by their father.

Here, it is true to say that images of Asians are “negotiated, produced and reproduced” (Malik, 2002:10) as with Sajid scattering rose petals which does not symbolise the love and honour to his own religion but the freedom of wisdom to make his own choices.

The lyrics to the opening song “I wish that I could be a better man” makes the audience aware that George is trying to be a good Muslim father. Indeed he has married a British woman which is forbidden in his faith, though regardless of his behaviour, he truly does love her and has never left her to provide for herself and their family.

His frustration leads him into an anger which is taken out of his wife, although it is not acceptable and cannot admit to his family that it is wrong, we do see a remorseful side to him which illustrates a man who is not perfect as with the neighbour who uses expletives and is sinning against the Christian faith. It is a wonder how they do not get along due to their wrongdoings.

Likewise, with the eating meat scene, the children are eating bacon and sausages which is sign of living life like Christians or at least against Muslim teaching. A close up shot supports that the idea that they often choose to rebel as with a long shot of their empty house emphasises that their father is not home and they would not be allowed to do this if he was present.

A low angle shot of the more religious son looks down at them for giving into temptation and says “it stinks of burnt bacon down here, dad would smell it a mile off” where diegetic sound emphasises the worry on Meenah’s face as the violins make it more intense with fast cuts adding to the panicky atmosphere and changes to upbeat tempo to show a sign of relief. George’s speech that, “In Islam everyone is equal” is clearly not true as is always wants to overpower the family with his harsh discipline.

Alike to the idea that George exclaims “Pakistani sons show respect” followed by Tariq expressing that “I’m not Pakistani. I was born here.” Indeed, intermarriage in 1970s Britain was less likely to occur than nowadays and we should not assume that prejudice is lowered just because a couple are sharing a marriage of two cultures (Song, 2010).

George wants to save Tariq from being racially prejudiced but more importantly to maintain the family reputation of being honourable to their faith, which is ironic as he is married to a British white woman. This emphasises that British Muslim community engagement considers such contemporary equality through religious differences (Modood, 2010:183).

As a final point, the closing scene demonstrates that the sons do not wish to be part of their father’s plans of arranged marriages where everyone is disappointed. Boundaries are broken when George tries to hit Ella but his sons defend her and the use of swear words and taboo language indicates that he has given up on the good Muslim father figure of being a “better man”.

Even his youngest child, Meenah cries, “Are you happy now dad? Is this what you wanted?” in an high angle shot which positions the difference of power as the female scared of her father and it is the norm for women in their religion to be looked down upon.

The mother and father however do resume their relationship afterwards when George says “I’ll have a cup of tea” which immediately illustrates that everything must be forgotten just like the domestic abuse like a vicious circle. Cultural heritage comes into play a way of rekindling their relationship and George uses a British stereotype of drinking tea rather than a Pakistani one. Still, Ella is torn between two religions as she struggles to abide to the honour to George’s family being more important than her son’s happiness.

The idea that, “British working class culture is rather more hospitable than middle class to the violent and the cynical…” (Durgant, 1970:6) in this case, seems to be more in line with working class and race as we do not see any of the white British working class members tolerating domestic abuse.

In conclusion, this essay has explored how coming to Britain has affected the lives of a family coming to a new country and adapting to their beliefs and values. George acts in a racist way while others are racist towards him due to his harsh behaviour to his family.

The fact that he wants his children to be surrounded by members of the Muslim society, makes it hard to realise why he has been in a marriage for so long with a white British, Christian woman. Cultural acceptability has been a key point with regards to domestic violence as not only do the neighbours feel disgusted in George but his own family turn against him and turn towards their mother of the Christian faith where they find optimism.

Identity and difference have been identified as the old man who plays the neighbour, only recognises Pakistani culture by their past which restores the attitude that being born in Britain and maintaining their standards holds the right to live in the country.

George has simply portrayed the Muslim faith in a negative way though, we must note that he is only trying to balance the reputation of his faith and love for his family. He struggles to do this but he just wants to be respected in the way the children respect their mother.

Through a working class Muslim perspective and a white British Christian one, we seek ways of taking in the idea that some races simply want to join another community in order to work and bring their families rather than become friends or applying the British custom to their lives. They mostly stand by their means of life (in George’s case) through their Muslim faith or on the other hand face challenges when coming to terms with the compromises and contradictions that their father confronts them with such as arranged marriages.

George does conform to polite mannerism in front of other Muslim members where his children choose to rebel. Also, he refrains from apologising for his mistakes and the most upsetting one being domestic abuse whereby no fault is resembled as he attempts this twice. Overall, the perceived impression is that being British is seen to be have more Christian values rather than Muslim ones.

Consequently, being Muslim is portrayed in nothing more than a negative way. The friendliness and hardworking people of the Indian race has been overlooked through history and the film conveys a message that through 1970s Britain, the British community were superior to India.



Abbott, S. (1971). The prevention of racial discrimination in Britain. London: published for the United Nations Institute for Training and the Institute of Race Relations by Oxford U.P. CARF. (1986) The fight against racismA pictorial history of Asians and Afro-Caribbean in Britain. 2nd ed. London: Institute of Race Relations.

Davison, R. (1966). Black British: immigrants to England. London: published for the Institute of Race Relations by Oxford U.P.

Durgnat, R. (1970). A mirror for England. British movies from austerity to affluence. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.

Fitzgerald, J. (2010). Studying British cinema: 1999-2009. Leighton Buzzard [England]: Auteur.

Harper, S. and Smith, J. (2012). British Film Culture in the 1970s. The boundaries of pleasure. 1st ed. [E-book] Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Available at: https://www.dawsonera.com/abstract/9780748654260 [Accessed 15 Jan. 2015].

Higson, A. (1997). Waving the flag: constructing a national cinema in Britain. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Husband, C. (1982). Race in Britain: continuity and change. London: Hutchinson.

Malik, S. (2002). Representing black Britain. Black and Asian images on television. London: SAGE Publications.

Modood, T. ”Race’ In Britain and the Politics of Difference’. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 40.1 (2010): 177-190. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

Murji, K. ‘Race Policy and Politics: Two Case Studies from Britain’. Policy Studies 32.6 (2011): 585-598. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. Pines, J. (1992). Black and white in colour. London: BFI Pub.

Shyllon, F. (1974). Black slaves in Britain. London: published for the Institute of Race Relations by Oxford University Press.

Smith, C. (1985). How racism came to Britain. London: Institute of Race Relations.

Smith, C. (1987) Policing against black people. London: The Institute of Race Relations 1987.

Song, M. ‘Is There ‘A’ Mixed Race Group In Britain? The Diversity of Multiracial Identification and Experience’. Critical Social Policy 30.3 (2010): 337-340. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. Song, Mi. ‘What Happens After Segmented Assimilation? An Exploration of Intermarriage and ‘Mixed Race’ Young People in Britain’. Ethic and Racial Studies 33.7 (2010): 1194-1213. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

Street, S. (2009) British National Cinema. 2nd ed. London: Routledge


East is East. 1999. [DVD]. Damien O’Donnell. United Kingdom: Film 4, BBC Films

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s