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One6th's concept art for 'Two Black Boys in Paradise'

Manchester stop-motion short set to break boundaries of storytelling and diversity

An adaptation of 'Two Black Boys in Paradise' has begun production as a beautifully crafted stop-motion animation - the poem and film creators talk to Now Then.

First commissioned for the Courtauld Institute, ‘Two Black Boys in Paradise’, written by Dean Atta, is, as the title tells, a poem of two black boys enjoying their own intimate paradise. Based on the Adam and Eve story, it tackles the real-life struggle of race and sexuality, with language that, even if interpreted differently, never stops being as impactful.

“It was really important for me to exercise that (black pain) out of me,” began Atta. “Because these are things that I think about a lot and experienced, but don't necessarily dwell on. So, I wanted to have a poem where I could put all of that in one place, and give it a space by framing it in a positive, but still asking those questions: Did you do this? Would it be like this?”

A writer and performer based in Glasgow, Atta has been writing poems since 2003. His collection of anthologies and books is ever expanding. Books on identity and his experience, like ‘Black Flamingo’ or ‘I am Nobody’s Ni***r’, set themselves apart from anything else on bookshelves. However, Atta says ‘Two Black Boys in Paradise’ has been a different experience to write.

“When writing and reading it, I knew there'd be lots of people listening that I didn't know, and my partner would also be there, who is a white passing person. So, it was interesting for me to be talking about this kind of black love when, actually, my partner isn't a black person, but I'm still upholding this idea of black love. And I think that's important that you can have that – that you can believe in black love but it doesn't necessarily mean your partner must be black. It's just a wider sense of love.”

This poem sets itself apart not only because of the story it told, and the questions it asked, but also because of the way it developed. Atta said: “Two Black Boys in Paradise is different because it's clearly having a life of its own. I wrote it as a commissioned piece to perform at a specific event. And after that, I was like, ‘Okay, it's done its job here, but I think there's more to it.’ So, then I submitted it to be published in an anthology. And then the anthology picked it up, and it's in there and I was like, ‘Okay, it's done its job here and it sits in amongst all these other poems, and it's part of a bigger story.’ But then I was like, ‘No, there's still more.’”

And there was more, when animation studio One6th Animation, based in Manchester and London, approached him with an idea: to adapt this poem to stop motion animation.

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Dean Atta performing 'Two Black Boys in Paradise' at The Courtauld, in front of a screen projection of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s ‘Adam and Eve’, 1526.

Ben Jackson, 35, a gay animator from Lincolnshire and co-founder of One6th Animation, uses his short films to tackle the realities of life and their struggles. One6th’s latest short film, ‘Squib’, is a collaboration with Anthony Anaxagorou about the ‘Claustrophobic journey through lockdown and a hopeful look towards the future’.

Jackson said: “Baz [co-founder of One6th] and I have always shared similar values and we try to align our studio with those values, both in the way we work and with what we put on screen. Baz grew up in a working class, single parent household, I struggled with my sexuality, and I think those struggles are some of the things which influence the way our studio operates.

“For a few years now, I’ve been wanting to make a film which draws on my personal lived experiences as a gay man… With a growing awareness there definitely came an increased desire to actively tell stories with these themes and I’m glad we are doing it sooner rather than later.”

Jackson explains that he first met Atta in Berlin, when the latter was reading an earlier version of ‘Two Black Boys in Paradise’. Back then, the six-month-old studio couldn’t yet make a film about the poem, but its premise stuck with Ben for a whole year: “In the summer of 2020, I read Dean’s verse novel ‘The Black Flamingo’ and I was completely blown away by the writing and story. I reached out to Dean to ask if he would be interested in collaborating and he suggested we develop a story for ‘Two Black Boys in Paradise’. By this time, One6th was better established and we were at a place where we felt ready for a new challenge.”

I hope that [the film] speaks to people of all genders and sexualities and that they feel joy and warmth watching it; that if anyone is struggling it offers them hope and a sense of belonging.

I hope that it is a conversation opener and that it can be used not only to entertain but also as a gateway for educational establishments to discuss social issues, discrimination, poetry, animation, and art.

I hope that it is one of many pieces of art that helps to positively represent queer love so that people realise it’s possible to have a happy, healthy queer relationship and that their love and affection doesn’t need to be hidden from the world. That two queer people could kiss each other goodbye in public without fear.

I hope it asks people to rethink how they treat and think about others both on a personal but also structural level. A paradise where two black boys are free and happy is only achievable when we actively work to deconstruct a society that limits and harms marginalised people.

I hope we make a beautiful film that people engage with and love and that it helps One6th to grow a platform that enables us to continue to produce films that matter to us, collaborating with people from lots of different backgrounds and working with and helping to nurture talent, particularly from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds.”

Ben Jackson, One6th Animation

Animation, even when progressive in today’s era, still needs to develop in its representation of minorities and marginalised communities. And with projects like this one, maybe it will be less rare to see such diverse voices represented in UK’s media for children.

“I always wish that I had seen myself in the books I read and films I saw when I was growing up,” said Jackson. “I’m sure that the fact I did not see any stories of queer love until I was in my 20s had a detrimental effect. It took me a long time to accept myself and I could never imagine growing up and falling in love. Even when I started to allow myself to contemplate a future where perhaps I could maybe love a man, then the love in these daydreams was clandestine.”

The film is currently in its bare production stage. Atta confirmed his position as producer, as well as the film being developed by a diverse and talented cast of animators and workers. This will make the short not only true to its source and message, but also capable of breaking the boundaries of diversity even outside of the film.

Ben and One6th estimate an early 2023 release, promising the film will be prepared for big screens rather than just online. Thanks to more time during the pandemic, more details and complexities are being added compared to previous projects, to help deliver the powerful story of two black boys in paradise.

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