Award-winning moviemaker and activist Veronica McKenzie has many stories to tell, and among the most interesting of these is her own. It so happens that she disputes this statement, but as I’m writing this rather than her, she’s going to have to shrug her shoulders and accept my take on the subject.
Growing up a black, working-class lesbian in north London in the 1970s, McKenzie knew she was different from an early age, even before she had the concepts or language to identify how. For almost as far back as she can remember, McKenzie liked to hang out with grownup company, taking in — and before very long, taking on — their ideas. At the same time of her life, she was doing, she was also struggling with intense isolation as a black adolescent who couldn’t fully identify with her peers.
One of her formative experiences led her headlong into political activism at just fourteen. Not content with witnessing that era’s appalling, often open racism from police and far-right agitators, she joined a movement to challenge it. Her mother, in a tacit — and for someone of her African-Caribbean background, rare — acknowledgement of her second daughter’s distinctive character and intellect, allowed her teenager, accompanied by a classmate, to travel far from home to attend a radical socialist meeting, which involved an overnight stay.
Veronica McKenzie at BFI premiere (below)
This experience fuelled Veronica McKenzie’s lifelong activism, both political and ultimately creative. Her journey took her from her initiation in mainstream (read, white-dominated), progressive politics to a black radical (read, male-dominated) political organisation and a black women’s group, which she co-founded while still in her early twenties. And it wasn’t only her political activism that stands out from the crowd.
A school visit from a high-end shoemaker led the sixteen-year-old fashionista, radical activist coming to terms with her sexuality — and how many times have you come across a description remotely comparable to this combination? — to a career in fashion. She may have barely known it at the time if indeed she was aware of it at all, but this was the start of a creative career.
Throughout the course of the interview, McKenzie is warm, easy-going and charming, giving full answers to questions with which many would struggle, and some would duck. It is her openness and determination to challenge as a creative activist and, ultimately, a black lesbian navigating an industry that is casually exclusionary and often hostile to her presence that has largely powered her creativity and success.
Her range is vast, from a time-honoured British soap opera that’s considerably older than she is to cutting-edge comedy and a distinguished feature film she scripted and directed herself, after the project was much tinkered with, then ultimately rejected by Britain’s major cultural institution. Undeterred, she persisted with the movie, Nine Nights (2018), and it eventually won her the 2019 Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival’s Best Narrative Feature award.
Creativity is Veronica McKenzie’s primary defining characteristic, but her courage and resilience are the qualities that enable and empower it. Her approach to her work is consistent with her approach to life itself, and indeed this interview. She’s impossible to pigeonhole, as her body of work makes clear.
But the best and most inspiring thing about Veronica McKenzie isn’t what she’s done but what she’s going to do. This fiercely ambitious and distinctive creative force has accomplished a lot — but not nearly as much as what lies ahead of her. A prominent element of her plans is adding substance to black queer stories, and if her record is any indication, what she creates will be well worth the wait.
- You may also like The Rise of Rev. Darrell Goodwin — Black. Queer. Activist. Leader.