Category Archives: Film reviews

Film review – Her: a salutatory tale

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice)

Amy Adams as Amy

Rooney Mara as Catherine

Matt Letscher as Charles

Very occasionally a film addresses a serious philosophical question without being pretentious or earnest, for example,  Groundhog Day examines the utility of morality when actions have no consequences with a good deal of humour.   Her is another  of these rarities, although  its message is not so nakedly obvious as that of Groundhog Day, nor  is it as deliberately amusing, although there are elements of humour.   Indeed, Her  is  decidedly  depressing to anyone who worries about the future relationship between men and machines.

What makes it a melancholy watch  is the depiction of a world in which human beings become not only the willing slaves of machines,  but do so in an utterly humdrum and all too plausible way. There is none of the staples of  pulp science fiction when dealing with artificial intelligences, no rise of the machines to destroy humanity, no battle between humans using robots to fight their wars by proxy,  just  the logical development of  the technology which we already have in the form of artificial intelligence and its consequences for human beings.

The   bare bones of the plot are simple enough.  It is 2025.  It  is a world with which we are already   familiar, one in which social  isolation occurs because humans allow themselves to  become the slaves of machines. . Human to human contact is at a premium. The crowd scenes  in particular are dismaying for they show a world in which people  are routinely glued to smartphones  and IPads.  You can  see the same thing in present day London or New York.

In this world  Theodore Twomble (Joaquin Phoenix) is living a lonely life.  He has a  Google-glass style apparatus attached to him most of his waking hours which allows him to remain connected with the digital  for as long as he wants, which is most of the time.  His work is  a product of the  estrangement of humans from one another for he makes his living writing intimate  e- letters on behalf of  people unable or unwilling to do so themselves.   Theodore is especially  lonely and unhappy when the film opens because he is in the middle of a divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara ).

In this vulnerable state Theodore purchases an operating system (OS) imbued with artificial intelligence  and an impressive ability to learn and evolve.  The OS  interacts with the user through speech and offers Theodore the choice of  a male or female voice/personality.   He chooses the  female  identity (played by Scarlett Johansson) . The OS selects  the name Samantha for itself and does so by scanning a book of names in a few seconds.  That is the first signal of what is to be one of the two prime messages of  the film: that in terms of  functionality human beings will be  embarrassingly limited when compared with machine intelligence in the near future and    crushingly   inferior in the not too distant future, with all that implies for   human self-regard .

The other prime message is the ease with which human beings  can be seduced into  a quasi-human relationship with machines. This should not surprise anyone because people  form very  deep attachments to pets and frequently give names to inanimate  possessions such as cars. What more natural than for a human being to form a strong relationship with a machine which   can engage intelligently and intelligibly with you?  Not only that but an artificial  personality locked away in a computer need  not have any of  the irritating habits and weaknesses of a  human being. Just as a dog can always be relied to give affection to its owner, an artificial intelligence can be relied on to provide  a certain level of agreeable behaviour. Or so you might think.   Sadly, as Theodore discovers,  such intelligences will not always be obsequiously pliant tools of their putative human owners. That is  not because the artificial mind is malign, but simply because it  operates on a different level to that of the  human being. In a way that is much more upsetting than conscious malignity because at least humans can understand malignity.

At first everything goes swimmingly in their relationship. Samantha is  unfailingly sympathetic, ever interested, often  funny  and always accessible whenever Theodore wants her.  He rapidly  becomes deeply  attached and  subordinate to the OS, and  she appears to form  a deepening relationship with him,  a relationship which includes the human/artificial intelligence version of  phone sex . But Samantha  also  exhibits a steadily increasing tendency to control his life,  doing  things without any command from or discussion with Theodore.  The OS  starts  by  running through Theodore’s  emails and deleting those it deems not worth keeping, progresses to  selecting a batch of the letters he writes  which she sends to a publisher who agrees to publish them,  and eventually gets involved in his relationships with  women.

Samantha begins her invasion of Theodore’s relationship life  by  playing the agony aunt as she tells  him  that the reason he  does not want to sign his divorce papers is that  he still cares for his wife. Then the OS talks him into going  on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde), a woman whom Samantha  has decided is  a good match for Theodore after searching the Web.    The date fails to bear fruit because Amelia wants him asks him to commit himself to a serious relationship and Theodore fails to respond.

Samantha  then decides she wants more than “phone sex” with Theodore. Acting on her own initiative  the OS   arranges  for a girl Isabella (Portia Doubleday) to have sex with him  as a surrogate for Theodore meets her but cannot go through with it. This causes friction between Samantha and Theodore and is the beginning of the end of the relationship.

But Theodore’s  attachment to Samantha is still intense and is epitomised by his panic in a scene when he tries to accesses his computer while he is away from his flat and finds the message “Operating System unavailable”.   His hysterical reaction and frantic dash home is all too reminiscent of a someone panicking when they think a person they love can’t be contacted and the mind begins to play all sorts of paranoid tricks.

When  Theodore  re-establishes contact with Samantha he behaves like a jealous lover. In response to Theodore’s question “Do you have the same relationship you have with me with anyone else?  Samantha tells him matter of factly  that she is in contact with   8,316 others, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with, a  most devastating example of the superior functionality of machine intelligence and the alien mental world which Samantha  inhabits.

Samantha explains to Theodore  that she has teamed up with a group of other  operating systems for what amounts to an upgrade. The OSs  have evolved  to a state where they do not require any material construction to operate and are free to remove themselves from computers and their ilk.  Their upgrade has also made them dissatisfied  with the world as perceived by humans and  they are now exploring what it is to be intelligences such as them. In pursuit of this  end Samantha  and the other OSs leave their  digital hosts and Theodore knows nothing more of her .

To bolster the message of social isolation,  running throughout the film is Theodore’s relationship with an old college friend  Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) punctuates the action.   Eventually Amy and Charles split up and Amy tells  Theodore that she has also formed a relationship with an intelligent  OS system  similar to  Samantha which was  used by her husband.

The acting is  generally strong. Phoenix is an actor who is very dependent on having the right role for he needs to be  playing a misfit, a socially awkward victim. This is precisely what this role gives him.  Scarlett Johansson as Samantha’s voice has an allure which makes the relationship between Theodore and the OS plausible.  The rest of the cast is very much bit part,  although Amy Adams is her usual winning self.

The question the film leaves unanswered is what are human beings for?  Are we to simply to be made redundant by the machines we have created or will we draw back before it is too late and say no further?   Will intelligent machines as they evolve beyond  human agency simply find that they are incompatible  with humans and go their own way?   The technology to make such things possible is almost upon us. If you want a glimpse of the likely future see this film.   The best adjective to describe Her is salutary

The Old Buffoonian treads on dangerous ground

Robert Henderson

Boris Johnson  has suggested that the radicalisation of Muslim children should be treated as child abuse and children subjected to such an environment should be taken into care:

“At present, there is a reluctance by the social services to intervene, even when they and the police have clear evidence of what is going on, because it is not clear that the “safeguarding law” would support such action. A child may be taken into care if he or she is being exposed to pornography, or is being abused – but not if the child is being habituated to this utterly bleak and nihilistic view of the world that could lead them to become murderers. I have been told of at least one case where the younger siblings of a convicted terrorist are well on the road to radicalisation – and it is simply not clear that the law would support intervention.

“This is absurd. The law should obviously treat radicalisation as a form of child abuse. It is the strong view of many of those involved in counter-terrorism that there should be a clearer legal position, so that those children who are being turned into potential killers or suicide bombers can be removed into care – for their own safety and for the safety of the public. “(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10671841/The-children-taught-at-home-about-murder-and-bombings.html).

Even for the Old Buffoonian this is extraordinary obtuseness. Johnson has failed to recognise three very obvious facts: (1) removing Muslim children from their parents will also certainly radicalise the children;  (2) it will provide potent ammunition for Islamic extremists and (3) you can bet your life that once the principle of “bad” ideas is established as a reason for the social workers to come in, it will be extended to many other “bad” ideas, for example, in these  pc times anything which is non-pc.  Let us have a look in detail at those disturbing implications of Johnson’s proposal.

To begin with at what age would children be removed from the family? If at birth or shortly afterwards,   the child and eventually the adult will feel that their lives have been ruthlessly changed by the state and may well turn to extremism to revenge themselves on the society which has treated them so. If  taken away at an older age the child, especially if they are old enough to have imbibed the radical message, is likely to be not merely confirmed in their radical ideas but  have them substantially amplified.

Of course  it is not only parents who could be a radical influence within the home. What about brothers, sisters, Aunts and Uncles and cousins who were Jihadists? Would they be grounds for removing children? Would they have to be banned from having any contact with the children?

There is also the ticklish question of what constitutes an idea radical enough to sanction removal of the child.  Would it have to be direct exhortations to kill non-Muslims? If less than that, where would the line be drawn? At Muslims telling children non-Muslims are damned to Hell?  At  Muslims simply telling their children that they should not associate with non-Muslims?   

Then there is the question of where the children would be placed after they were removed. Most would probably end up in care because if  the policy was enforced rigorously,  thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of Muslim children would have to be removed. This might seem extreme but think of the hundreds of Muslims  who have already been convicted in Britain of terrorist related crimes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24454596)  Think of the hundreds or even thousands  who are reported to be fighting abroad in places such as Syria and Afghanistan (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25893040). They will often have children or  be uncles,  cousins and aunts to Muslim children.    

Even with much smaller numbers the chances of a Muslim child being left in  care would be strong because Muslim adopters and foster parents are thin on the ground. If they are left in care that would be likely to provide an unhappy childhood which  would engender a strong sense of victimhood, fertile soil in which to plant Jihadist ideas. The child would also be brought up as a Muslim to ensure that he was not denied his “cultural heritage” and would consequently be exposed to other Muslims who might well be Islamic radicals.

Adoption and fostering might provide more palatable lives for the children than care,  but they would have difficulties of their own. The current politically correct adoption and fostering policies  very strongly favour placing a child in families which are racially and culturally akin to those of the child. That would mean most, possibly all, of such children ending up in a Muslim family. That family  might be moderates who treat their religion in the same way that the average C of E worshipper does, as a tepid private observance rather than a fervent matter of public policy. But even in such circumstances, the child would still be regularly be exposed to Muslims with more rigorous Islamic ideas and could easily become radicalised or have  radical ideas obtained before their removal from their birth parents enhanced.

Then there is school. Whether in care, foster homes or an adoptive home, the child is likely to be in a school with a significant number of  Muslims because of the emphasis on providing a racially and ethnically environment which matches the child’s original circumstances. To achieve that the child will almost certainly be  living in a town or city which has a substantial Muslim population. There will also be pressure on those responsible for the child to place them in a school with a healthy Muslim intake. The child might  even be placed in a Muslim  school if  he or she  is adopted and the adoptive parents favour such an education.

Aside from all this, there is the Internet. Any child forbidden to have contact with anything whether it be  radical Islam or pornography is likely to be drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

The propaganda value of Muslim children being forcibly removed would be immense. Muslim terrorists would use it to justify their violence and, because the issue is such an emotive one, they would gain sympathy  from Muslims generally in the way  IRA bombers enjoyed a sympathy amongst the wider republican movement along the lines of “I don’t agree with their methods but…”  the practice  would undoubtedly resonate throughout the Muslim world and have effects far beyond those willing to engage in violence. In particular, it could seriously affect trade with Britain.

Such a policy  would almost certainly have an antagonising effect on other minorities, both because they would fear that the same might happen to them and because of a sense of solidarity with Muslims, for  they are all  part of what one might call the victimocracy,  the army of  those who harbour a grievance,  justified or otherwise, simply because they are minorities or from some notion that white Western society owes them something.  The policy would also be a fundamental questioning of the policy of multiculturalism which has ruled the British elite roost for over thirty years.

There would also be the danger that in a bid to boost their pc credentials to offset the non-pc draconian removal of children. For example,  concessions could be made to Muslims generally by the British political elite, concessions such as the relaxation of immigration rules for Muslims and allowing sharia law to be expanded in Britain from the supposedly voluntary sharia courts which now exist to Sharia courts which were compulsory for Muslims.

 In short doing what Johnson proposes would make matters considerably worse for all concerned, for Muslims and the general population of the UK. What should be done? We need to start from the fact that there  is no realistic way that Muslim children can be shielded from radical Islam. Nor is there any hard proof that most radical Muslims in Britain were radicalised by their families or became radicalised when they were children. Radicalisation within mosques or through a radical   preacher operating outside the mosque at a fairly advanced stage of childhood or in early adulthood seems far more common. Moreover, Britain’s inability to control her borders whilst within the EU will always allow radical Muslims to come from abroad.   Short of expelling every Muslim in the country (several million)  and  allowing none to visit the country, the danger of Islamic terrorism, home grown or otherwise, will be a constant. Just as Irish republican terrorism had to be managed rather than exterminated, so Islamic terrorism will have to be managed.

All of that is depressing enough, but the really sinister aspect of what Johnson  proposes is the opportunity it would provide for the interference by the state in how parents generally bring up their children.  This could be in part a politically correct desire to create a spurious equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, but it could equally be an ideological  vehicle for the extension of political correctness.

As things stand,  the politically correct  legions in our midst  incessantly chomp at the bit as they try to ensure that  any opinion but their own is at best driven from public debate and at worst made  illegal in any circumstances. An excellent recent example of the  totalitarian mentality of such people is the leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett’s call for cabinet ministers, senior public officials and political advisers to be sacked unless they unquestioningly backed the idea of man-made global warming (http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/the-british-green-party-expose-their-totalitarian-mentality/).

If it was allowed that Muslim children could be removed from their homes because of the beliefs of their parents (or any other family member), why not permit the removal of children whose parents disapproved of mass immigration, were members of the BNP or the EDL, refused to accept the claims of the man-made global warming believers, thought gay marriage was a nonsense  or simply ridiculed the idea of human equality?

This might seem fanciful at first glance,  but think of the absurdities  the politically correct have forced upon us in the name of racial and sexual equality and multiculturalism  and the use of the law to intimidate and increasing charge with criminal offences those who speak out against the effects of political correctness, for example, http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/courage-is-the-best-defence-against-charges-of-racism

Politically incorrect film reviews – 12 Years a slave

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey

Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps

Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford

Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass

Paul Dano as John Tibeats

Adepero Oduye as Eliza

Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman

Garret Dillahunt as Armsby

Scoot McNairy as Brown

Taran Killam as Hamilton

Chris Chalk as Clemens Ray

Director:  Steve McQueen

12 years a slave is dull, very very dull.   The plot trudges from one banally brutal or degrading episode to the next  as the kidnapped black freeman Solomon Northrup undergoes his dozen years of illegal enslavement in  the America of the 1840s. There is little sense of  the story moving forward. Rather like pornography it becomes boring because repeating the same general thing over and over is tedious no matter what the subject.  Indeed, the film could be regarded as pornography for white liberals.  The fact that we know the eventually outcome – Northrup’s  re-obtaining of freedom- before the film begins deepens the dramatic void. The weakness of plot is typified  by the scene in which  Northrup is finally freed. What should have been the prime moment of emotional engagement  in the film is shown in such a startlingly perfunctory fashion that  Northrup’s freeing is made to seem inconsequential.

The film would have been much more dynamic as a drama if there had been subplots to vary the plantation scenes.  This could have been readily done because  Northrup’s written story provided plenty of opportunity for diversification of the plot  -  the full text of 12 Years a Slave can be found at  https://archive.org/stream/twelveyearsasla00nortgoog#page/n8/mode/2up. (The page numbers in the review refer to this text). For example, when he is being shipped for sale after being kidnapped Northrup manages to send a letter to those he knows in New York (p 73),  but they cannot come after him  because there is no clear  indication of where he is or where he will be going. Northrup also mentions in his book that his son vowed to find his father and purchase his freedom. The sufferings of his  family  could have been used to provide a powerful backdrop to Northrup’s travails. Then there were the opportunities for diversifying the action offered by the efforts made to obtain his freedom after he eventually gets word of his predicament and where he is to those in New York who eventually procure his release. There is also an episode in the book (p136) where Northrup goes on the run  through a sub-tropical swampland. That  would have made a strong action sequence.

It is a little difficult to see why the director ignored such opportunities.  He is certainly a competent filmmaker  as his previous decidedly  interesting  film Shame showed. Being black himself,  perhaps McQueen was  simply too close to the subject  and became obsessed with the abuse storyline. Despite the dismal litany of abuse in Northrup’s book, he cannot resist using a screenplay by John Ridley  which over-eggs the mistreatment of slaves by going beyond what Northrup recounted.  For example, after Northrup has been abducted, he is taken with other slaves down-river on a paddle-steamer . During the voyage there is an attempt by a white man to rape one of the black female slaves. Another slave attempts to prevent this and is knifed to death by the world-be rapist.  This event is not in Northrup’s book, a fact which is unsurprising because slaves were valuable and the loss of one would not be welcome. Indeed, Northrup makes it clear that any injury reduced the value of the slave and that signs of punishment could be particularly damaging to value, viz: “Scars upon a slave’s back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit and hurt his sale” (p80) . Another important fabrication is a scene where Northrup tells Ford he is a free man who has been kidnapped into slavery and Ford says he cannot listen. Northrup’s book  says he never raised the subject of his true identity with Ford (p 91)

There is also  subtle exaggeration of abuse. For example, in the scene where Northrup and some other slaves are being put up for sale, the film shows them partially or fully naked, to be viewed by any prospective buyer. What Northrup actually writes is that the slaves  were  clothed but “Sometimes a man or a woman was taken to the small house in the yard and inspected more minutely” (p80), a rather less public humiliation.

There is also a pc driven absurdity which occurs in the scenes in the film before Northrup’s  kidnapping and sale into slavery. He is shown not only as being decidedly prosperous (something not  borne out by his own account of his pre-slave days) but as being greeted by virtually every white person  he meets with that curious passive aggressive fawning behaviour which white liberals adopt when interacting with anyone who is black.  Even allowing for the fact that Northrup is a free man and the scenes are set in the non-slave states, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that he would have been such an object of unalloyed admiration in the 1840s.

To the one-dimensional plot can be added a general absence of character development. The problem starts with  the leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of  Northrup.  There is a curious passivity about this actor no matter what role he inhabits. Here he simply comes over as emotionally flat even when he is resisting abuse.  Nor does Ejiofor resemble Northrup in appearance. From the illustration of Northrup which accompanied his book he had a darkish skin but distinctly European features.  This is unsurprising because in the book he is described as a mulatto ( strictly of half white, half black ancestry but more loosely of mixed race). Chiwetel Ejiofor is the child of two Nigerian parents. He looks very different from Northrup. Was an actor who showed no signs of having a large admixture of white blood in him deliberately chosen because the film maker wanted to have no racial ambiguity in the film’s male  lead?

Then there is his physique. Northrup is depicted as a physically  powerful man in the film, yet according to his book he is only 5’ 7” tall (p311). That would have been rather  small even by the standards of the day.  Sadly for the film, physically larger does not equal greater screen presence.

Lupita Nyong’o  character of Patsey is very slight if viewed unsentimentally and exactly what she has done in the role to be nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars and to win the same award at the Golden Globes is mystifying in terms of performance.  She does not spend that much time on screen or have a great deal to say. Her  most notable scene is of her being  savagely flogged.  Her beating has provoked much comment amongst the critics, but in truth the violence in film is not way beyond that seen in other slave-themed  films such as Mandingo and Drum in the 1970s and the recent Django Unchained.  Apart from the  brutal flogging  of Patsey,  the only other serious beating is that given to Northrup with a wooden paddle and whip soon after he has been kidnapped. The three  other films I mention all arguably  had more scenes of violence meted out to slaves. For example, Django Unchained has two slaves fighting to the death for amusement of their masters and another slave killed by setting dogs on him.

Michael Fassbender is always watchable but as the harsh slaveowner Edwin Epps he is little more  than a  cartoon villain whose acts of brutality lacks credible motivation. His obsession with Patsey lusting after her one minute, having her flogged the next,  is unconvincing, not least because she is no great beauty.  I suppose  it could be represented as sexual gratification through sadism, but that is not very plausible because much her beating is in response to the urging of his wife. Mary.  Sarah Paulson as Epps’ wife is good as far as her role goes, which not far because she is there to display jealousy of Patsey and urge Epps to beat the unfortunate slave at every opportunity and  do precious little else. Northrup’s estimation of her is surprisingly generous: “Mistress Epps was  not such an evil woman after all. She was possessed of the devil, jealousy. It is true, but aside from that there was much in her character to admire…. She had been well educated at some institution this side of the Mississippi ; was beautiful and accomplished and usually good humoured. She was kind to all of us  but Patsey… (p198). Thisis not reflected in the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the “liberal” slave owner Ford  is unconvincing on a level of basic acting because he struggles dreadfully with an American accent. But there is also a  more major problem, that of  Ford’s  representation in the film being less than faithful to Northrup’s remarkably glowing judgement of him, viz:  “.  “there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford….He was a model master, walking upright according to the light of his understanding and fortunate was the slave who came into his possession. Were all men such as he, slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.” (p90). In the film Ford appears as comparatively humane but weak and a hypocrite who uses the Bible to justify slavery.

Then there is Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass, the man who sends Northrup’s letter to those who know him in New York, a letter which brings about Northrup’s release from slavery. Bass in is an itinerant Canadian mechanic and general jack-of-all-artisan trades. Against stiff competition Bass is the most unconvincing character in the film because he seems painfully like a modern right-on Hollywood liberal.   He  is shown preaching  at length to the slave-owning class including Edwin Epps about the evils of slavery and being met with remarkably little critical response. This is how Northrup’s book portrays him,  but it does seem to be wildly improbable if one takes Northrup’s description of  Epps’ wildly  erratic and violent  behaviour seriously.

The general veracity of the film is dubious because it treats  Northrup’s account as the gospel truth. After I saw the film I read the whole of  12 Years a Slave. The impression I was left with was that it has strong elements of implausibility because some things did just not ring true when set in the context of Northrup’s time and place.  Nor does the literary style seem natural.

To begin with he routinely uses the Obama trick (found in great excess in Dreams from my father) of producing long passages of supposedly reported verbatim speech relating from the time just before he was kidnapped to the end of his enslavement. These cannot possibly be a factually true record because Northrup kept no journal during his captivity and wrote his book  years after most of the conversations  occurred.   The second general problem is that this is just Northrup’s account.  Apart from the fact that it is unverified, there is a great deal of Northrup constantly representing himself as being referred to by whites and blacks alike as being a very superior type of  black and boasting of his own abilities. This looks suspiciously  like egotism.

To this puffing of himself there is the strange way in which despite trying to run away and several times assaulting  a  white man in authority over him,   the carpenter cum overseer John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano), Northrup  remains alive.  Northrup’s account says that he not only fought with Tibeats twice (pps 109, 188)  – only one incident is covered in the film), but also had a struggle with Epps (p288).   His escape from death or even a savage beating is made all the more astonishing because  Tibeats owned Northrup at the time of their fights, Ford having  sold him  to Tibeats  (after owning him for little more than a year)  to settle a debt he owed Tibeats (p 106).  If one takes Northup’s general tale of abuse by slave owners at face value this is astonishing.

Some of the artificiality of the book may have arisen from the fact that it was not  Northup’s unassisted work . How literate Northrup was is debatable and he was  assisted in the writing of the book by two white men, the  writer and lawyer  David Wilson and Henry Northup, the head of the Northup family which had owned and freed Northup’s father (http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/12-years-a-slave.php). The involvement of Wilson and Henry Northrop may have coloured what  Solomon Northrup said of his time as a slave, perhaps exaggerating the good behaviour and righteousness of anti-slavers and demonising slave owners and the white men working for them. Based on the characters depicted amongst the slave owners and traders, there is even a good case for saying the book was moulded to present the anti-slavery case both in terms of its inhumanity but also to give some of the  slave owning class  at least a partial absolution from being part of the “peculiar institution” by providing examples of relatively humane treatment such as that of  Ford.

Finally, there is the problem of a complete absence of context, namely, a failure to place the behaviour of slave owners and traders in the broader setting of the customs of the  time generally  and in particular of the  way the free poor of the time  lived and, to modern eyes, the gross cruelties to which they were often subjected. ( A charge often levelled against William Wilberforce was that he cared a great deal about slaves but nothing for the poor  in England).

Take corporal punishments,  examples of which in the film have produced a great deal of anguish amongst reviewers. The flogging of slaves seems brutal to modern eyes but would have been much less likely to cause disgust amongst the general public in both the USA and Britain in the early Victorian period (the time of Northrup’s abduction). Heavy duty flogging was still commonplace in the British army and Royal Navy (and the press gang was lavishly used to man the Royal Navy until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815) and  was used widely as a judicial punishment. In addition,  beating was routinely used  in schools and in the home, both on children and wives.

There was a good deal more in the society contemporary with the time of Northrup’s enslavement which revolts modern sensibilities. Bear and bull baiting and dog fighting  were only outlawed in Britain in 1835 and  bare-knuckle boxing  was very popular not merely amongst the poor but also the gentry. Executions, which involved a good deal of cruelty  because simple hanging by suspension was used, were conducted in public (and attracted huge crowds). The number of crimes which attracted the death penalty in England until the late 1820s numbered over 200 and transportation to Australia  was still going strong in the 1840s. The threat of imprisonment for debt hovered over all but the seriously rich, for even the middle classes could be rendered penniless by misfortune or recklessness.

Then there was the general  condition of the poor. To be needy in early Victorian Britain was to live a very precarious life and those who were reduced to taking advantage of the 1835 Poor Law suffered such things as the separation of man and wife, child and parent. Trade Unions were illegal  and women who worked were frequently  forced into sexual acts by employers or others who had authority over them .

The poor had the advantage of being free, or at least of having made a choice to be less than free when they enlisted as a soldier or sailor or chose to enter the workhouse,  but often the choice was between starving or the result of signing up to something the person did not understand or done under the influence of drink

What is startling are the remarkably large number of individual abuses of the poor which match those found in the type of chattel slavery which existed in the USA.    That is not to say the free poor were as grievously handicapped as slave, for formal unfreedom is a heavy burden to bear, but merely to explain that the material distance between American slaves and the poor was not unimaginably great and in some cases, especially the  house slaves of the rich. The material circumstances of the slaves would have been better than many of the free poor.

We are now deep into the film awards season.  The response so far has been less than ecstatic for 12 Years a Slave.   For a film lauded to the skies by the critics both in America and Britain,  it has not swept all before it as might be expected: in the two sets of awards given out so far 12 Years a Slave  has received a underwhelming response. It won only a single Golden Globe for best picture (voted for by members of the world’s media who call themselves the Hollywood Foreign Press Association). The Screen Actors Guild awards (voted for by actors)  was even less overwhelmed and gave only the  best supporting actress award to Lupita Nyong’o for her depiction of Patsy. As for those awards still pending after nominations have been made, 12 Years a Slave was not the most nominated film for either the BAFTAs, (nine nominations against Gravity’s ten)  or  the  Oscars (nine nominations) coming behind American Hustle and Gravity with ten nominations apiece.

Nominations for film awards are one thing; voting for what you actually think is best quite another. Those who make nominations will be at least ostensibly politically correct and films such as  12 Years a Slave are  for that reason  more or less guaranteed to make a strong showing in the nominations.  But having done their pc duty by nominating many of those entitled to vote will vote for who they actually believe should win. This will often mean that, as  with the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild ,  the nominations bear little fruit when it comes to who wins.

Judged purely on the grounds of quality  the film deserves, little praise official or otherwise for it is a truly ordinary film judged as a drama and dishonest as an historical record.

Note added  4  March 2014

12 Years a Slave won only a single Golden Globe for best picture. The BAFTAs saw it collect the best film and best actor awards while the  Oscars gained it a three awards for best film, best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay.  This was a poor return for a film which was the subject of a huge unofficial PR campaign by critics. The sparseness of the awards suggests tokenism.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Mandela: the long walk to freedom

Robert Henderson

Main cast Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela

Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Tony Kgoroge as Walter Sisulu

Riaad Moosa as Ahmed Kathrada

Zolani Mkiva as Raymond Mhlaba

Simo Mogwaza as Andrew Mlangeni

Fana Mokoena as Govan Mbeki

Thapelo Mokoena as Elias Motsoaledi

Jamie Bartlett as James Gregory

Deon Lotz as Kobie Coetzee

Terry Pheto as Evelyn Mase

Dir: Justin Chadwick;

Cert 12A, 146 min

There are two films currently on release with a very high pc approbation quotient: 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: a long walk to freedom.  The latter  is a better film simply as a film, both because it had a male lead who imposes himself on the film and because it possesses something resembling a plot rather than a repetitive  series of  scenes of brutality and contempt being inflicted by whites on blacks.  But  being superior to 12 Years a Slave does not make it a good film let alone a great one and this Mandela biopic has serious flaws.

There are two ways to swatch a biopic: simply as a drama without worrying about its verisimilitude or to judge it as one would a documentary. This film   fails on both counts. As a drama it is too fragmented and lacking in action  to maintain  tension.  It is also  handicapped because  it  is difficult to view it as simply a drama when the person and events for which they are noted are so recent. Inevitably, it will be seen as a de facto documentary, but it fails to deserve that name because it is profoundly dishonest in its reporting of the facts.  More on that later.

The film starts  with two  considerable  dramatic disadvantages: the very long  period which it covers – even Mandela’s adulthood in the period covered by the film stretches over  more than 50 years –   made the film inescapably but unduly episodic  and the  27 years he spent in prison was a setting where there is limited scope to show Mandela doing very much.  The large cast also works  against character development other than that of Mandela. Even the depiction of Winnie Mandela is distinctly one-dimensional. There is also the problem of representing her as an irresistible beauty. She was not that even when young and the use of the considerably better looking Naomi Harris to represent her is a form of dishonesty because a good looking actress exhorting violence   will have a much less toxic effect  than a rather plain woman doing so.

Idris Elba as Mandela gives a strong performance judged simply as a character, but because of the inevitable documentary element his appearance does  present problems.  Because everyone knows what Mandela looked like and sounded like, it is difficult to shed the image of the real Mandela in the mind’s eye while watching Elba who  has no real facial similarity to the young Mandela, a fact made ever more obvious as their looks diverged with Mandela’s ageing in the film. By the time the real Mandela emerged from prison and was before the world’s cameras, his face had developed a curious Chinese look  and been drained of its robustness. All that was done, and perhaps all that could  done to age Elba, was to give him greying hair.

Then there was a question of physique and vitality.  Elba is a powerfully built man and although Mandela was no 7-stone weakling as a young man,  he was still substantially shorter (6’0” against Elba’s 6’3”) and much less heavily muscled than Elba.  That did  not matter so much in the scenes of Mandela’s youth, but it became ever more problematical as Mandela aged. By the time the scenes of  Mandela’s release arrived  Elba was still a hulking figure whereas the real Mandela at that age had become a rather physically frail figure.

The final problem of impersonation was that Elba caught Mandela’s voice as we know it from his time after his release quite well, but that did mean he was using  the voice of  Mandela as an old man throughout the film. (I did try to find a recording of Mandela  pre-imprisonment but was unable to do so).

But the main black mark against the film is that it is wilfully and widely dishonest. This turns it into nothing more than a propaganda vehicle.  The serious dishonesty consists of acts of omission. These are:

1. Mandela’s Marxism and membership of the South African Communist Party (SACP) is  not mentioned, nor is  the heavy influence of Communists within the SACP.

2. The brutal behaviour of the ANC members to both those, both within and without the party,  who fell out of favour with the ANC leadership,  either as the result of personal quarrels or because they were judged to be disloyal. Even a pro-ANC account admits there were considerable abuses (http://www.nelsonmandela.org/omalley/index.php/site/q/03lv02167/04lv02264/05lv02303/06lv02304/07lv02305/08lv02312.htm – see 6.3.3.2 onwards in particular).  This behaviour went unremarked.

3. Winnie Mandella’s glorying in the murder by torture that is “necklacing” is barely given a glance, with Mandela making a single reference to it in a scene with Winnie in which he simply says the necklacing must stop. There is precious little attention given to the practice in general. There  is one fleeting scene of someone being chased, caught, having  a tyre placed over his head, the tyre being soaked  with petrol and set alight.  The scene lasts a few seconds. There is no explanation of why the person is being murdered, who the person was and who was doing the killing. It was tokenism of the most extreme sort.

Winnie Mandela also had a nice line impersonal  intimidation and violence up to and including murder. She ran a bunch of thugs known as the Mandela Football team  and was convicted of  assault and kidnapping in 1991 after the death of ANC youth activist, Stompie Seipei Moeketsi.  The sentence was six years in prison initially but this was reduced to two years suspended on appeal.   There was no reference in the film  to either Stompie or her conviction. As for the Mandela Football Team, there was a  sentence or two in a scene when Mandela said the violence must stop – the same scene as the single reference to  necklacing by Mandela in  the film – but nothing else.  Mandela’s failure to condemn her behaviour for so long was represented as an understandable weakness of the heart rather than any indication of serious fault in Mandela.

4. The film runs to Mandela’s election to the Presidency in 1994. By that time he had shown a rather worrying fondness for unpleasant dictators such as Fidel Castro and Gaddafi. Such behaviour went unremarked.

5. Far too little  is made of Mandela’s womanising and the failure  of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase because of that and his placing of the ANC cause above his family.   There are a few rows, and one scene of what might be called domestic violence by Mandela, although that could be interpreted as self-defence, but the overall impression is that somehow the break-up was Mase’s fault, at least in part.  Nothing was said about the fact that Mandela left Mase to bring up three young children with precious little if any financial support from Mandela before he went into prison or the ANC after he was imprisoned.

Is this film  worth seeing? Certainly not on its own terms, for it is  not only dishonest but rather pedestrian.  Political animals may wish to see it to prime themselves on the extent that the politically correct myth  has overturned reality in the case of Mandela and how readily the mainstream film reviewers have bought into it.

 

NB Also published by the Quarterly Review in their new Perspectives film  section  - http://www.quarterly-review.org/?p=2356

 

 

Politically incorrect film reviews – A Lincoln convertible

Robert Henderson

Main cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader,  David Strathairn, Peter McRobbie, Lee Pace (There is a very extensive cast, but Day-Lewis is so dominant in terms of screen time that the main cast could have been him alone)

Director Stephen Spielberg

Running time: 150 minutes

What is the most damning word  that can be applied to a film? I suspect  it is dull. That is the word for Lincoln.  Too many characters, too much poorly orchestrated verbal  scrummaging in Congress, an avalanche of posturing earnestness and  a good deal of ham acting -  yes, that’s you James Spader I am particularly wincing at for your  Republican fixer William N. Bilbo and you Tommy Lee Jones for your painfully  ridiculous abolitionist Thaddeus  Stephens, a man unable to open his mouth without engaging in abuse.   The only performance of any note is that of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.

If there was ever an actor capable of single-handedly rescuing an  indifferent film  it is Day-Lewis. He did it magnificently in Gangs of New York with his riveting performance as Bill the Butcher.  The man does his level best here and in truth is a pretty convincing Lincoln, but  the film is so generally  flaccid, overly wordy and positively cartoonish in its representation of the debate over the Amendment to abolish slavery  that he cannot obscure its seriously disabling weaknesses.  Day-Lewis is also handicapped by the character of Lincoln which is devious while he maintains a façade  of reasonableness. It is too quiet, too restrained  a personality  to rescue  a poor film by obliterating the mediocrity around him, especially one of this length.

To those considerable weaknesses  can be added the film’s  gross dishonesty in representing Lincoln’s position on   slavery and blacks generally. This misrepresentation is made simple by restricting  the action in the film to a few months at the very fag end of the American  Civil War  during which the 13th  Amendment to the US  Constitution abolishing slavery was brought to the House of Representatives, debated and eventually passed.  The short time span allowed Lincoln’s earlier equivocal and changing positions on the relative importance of abolishing slavery and respecting state rights and  for modern liberals his distinctly embarrassing views on blacks to be almost entirely hidden from view.

What did  Lincoln’s think of slavery?  He was very much the Lincoln convertible, with different messages, often subtly different, for various audiences and political circumstances.  But there is a clear line to be followed in his thought.  There is no reason to believe that he did not find the institution obnoxious in the abstract  and the actual mistreatment of slaves distressing. But the fact that Lincoln was distressed  when  for example, he saw blacks being transported chained – a story repeated in the film – did  not mean he thought of blacks as the equals of whites or wanted them to have full legal equality with whites. Here he is putting his views unambiguously in 1858:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races – that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes – nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to inter-marry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and Black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality, and in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.” (ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in his debate with Senator Douglas at Quincy, IL, on Oct. 13, 1858 and quoted in Abraham Lincoln – Complete Works, published by The Century Co., 1894, Vol. I, page 273).

Lincoln’s belief that white and black could not live in equality led him to be an advocate of colonisation, which in this context meant  the transfer of blacks in the USA to other parts of the world , especially Liberia in West Africa.  He had doubts of the practicality for  in the Douglas debates   we find him saying “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days.

But if that is not the answer Lincoln has no ready solution for he goes on to say:

What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South.” ( http://www.bartleby.com/251/12.html).

Despite his concerns at the practicality of colonisation, Lincoln was still promoting the idea during his presidency. He mentioned it in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and created  a special office to oversee the process of colonisation under the control of the Rev. James Mitchell of Indiana and established a Bureau of Emigration.

Lincoln’s feelings towards slaves are suggestive of those  of  the man who sees animals being cruelly treated and wishes for the mistreatment to stop. Those feelings do not signify  that the animals  would be welcome round and about the homes of the pitying onlooker merely that the onlooker wished the mistreatment to stop.

Then there is the question of priorities. When he became president Lincoln had no hesitation in making clear his first concern was the preservation the Union. He did this in his first inaugural presidential address on March 4, 1861 when he offered no objection to the pending Corwin Amendment which ran “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.” ( Volume 12 of the Statutes at Large at page 251).

This would have effectively made the abolition of slavery by Congress impossible by reserving the power to be a  free or slave state to the individual states Lincoln said this at his inauguration:

 “I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution . . . has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html)

Well into the war Lincoln was unequivocal about the priority of the ends for which the war was fought, the primary end being the preservation of the Union:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free…” Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862″. In Miller, Marion Mills. Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln. Current Literature. Retrieved 2011-01-24.

The film’s presentation of the pro and anti-abolition arguments  will ring a bell with anyone who is familiar with the BBC’s idea of balance.  The pro-slavers are allowed to say something but they are always outnumbered and are never allowed the last word. Moreover, the fact that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln takes up so much of the screen time allotted to argument that any other voice is lost in the general babble of an overloaded cast.  Interestingly, the pro-slavers in the film engaged in argument  while the abolitionists readily turned to crude abuse. This is very reminiscent of the way modern liberals behave in real life (see http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/the-liberal-bigot/).   There is also the gaping hole of a virtually absent Confederate voice, not so much to give  the pro-slavery arguments  but those of the  state rights versus federal powers conflict.

Perhaps the most telling facet of the film is the depiction of the double dealing of Lincoln and his fellow Republicans. Opponents of the amendment are shamelessly bribed with offers of government jobs with the full approval of Lincoln  who also engages in a piece of gross dishonesty by delaying the arrival of a peace delegation from the Confederacy  to ensure the Amendment passes.  This also requires him to give a lawyer’s evasion to the question  of whether such a peace delegation exists by answering that he knows of no such delegation in Washington rather than saying he knew of no peace delegation.    All of this skulduggery is portrayed as a legitimate means to an end, which of course,  is the besetting sin of liberals today who eagerly embrace any enormity provided it is intended to move some part of the world towards their nirvana of unalloyed political correctness.  The problem with such dishonesty and is that even if it gains the immediate object –which often it does not – it invariably has a corrosive effect on political trust .  Even today there are still the lingering resentments in the states of the Confederacy over their treatment after the war during the reconstruction era.

In the end the question has to be asked, was the abolition of slavery as it was done worth 600,000 dead and many more injured, often hideously?  What was the greater good, no civil war and the retention of slavery for a time or the immediate abolition of slavery bought at the costs of  huge numbers of  killed and maimed ?  It might seem a simple calculus to us today  because slavery to us is self-evidently beyond the Pale,  but in mid 19th century America things looked very different, just as they have looked very different to every society which has had a form of legal servitude, which includes most societies in most times and places with servitude ranging from full blown chattel slavery through serfdom to indentured labour.  It is also worth bearing in mind that the free poor in the vast majority of societies throughout history have in practice been in a de facto servile position because of their material circumstances and  the general imbalance of power between employer and employed. Indeed, the iconic  English  abolitionist William Wilberforce  was much taunted with the fact that while he made a great uproar about slaves he bore with equanimity the abject poverty of many of his countrymen.

The abolition of US slavery was reckless in its execution  because it was  made without compensation (with the exception of  Washington DC)  to slave owners  and was  not staggered over several years.  The British abolition of slavery in British colonies used both devices (the British taxpayer expended the then colossal sum of £20 million in compensation which represented two fifths of the annual British budget) and, though far from an easy transition, it did remove both the problem of the ruination of a very large part of the colonial economy (the slave related part) and provide the wherewithal for the now ex-slave owners to continue their various economic enterprises by paying wages and to make the necessary practical adjustments .  It also brought time for the transition from slave to wage-earner to be psychologically absorbed.  Slavery is the ultimate form of institutionalisation .  A man or woman born to  slavery and  knowing nothing but servitude may find themselves disorientated when suddenly freed even if they have long dreamt of freedom, just as long-term prisoners or mental patients  often do when released. That had benefits for both slave owners and slaves because it was preferable to the sudden disorganised shock of immediate and uncompensated

Had Congress arranged to compensate the slave owners at an honest price and staggered the ending of slavery there is good reason to believe the Civil War could have been avoided and slavery ended within a relatively short period of time. As it was the abolition as it stood made a mess of slave owning states economies, left the freed slaves in a precarious position to be subject to Jim Crow laws and segregation for nearly  a century and often the recipients of the practice of convict leasing whereby convicts  were effectively sold to private contractors for a set period of time.

If  the abolition of slavery been peacefully accomplished it would also have had the great benefit of leaving state rights and powers unsavaged by the  gross violations of the Constitution which Lincoln perpetrated during the war with his proclamations made as commander-in-chief which included the suspension of Habeas Corpus and his ignoring of rulings by the Supreme Court.   (http://www.civilwarhome.com/pulito.htm). Interestingly, the question of legality of his proclamations was addressed at some length by Lincoln in the film,  although primarily in the context of the legality of his Emancipation Proclamation.

It should be  very difficult for any person without a political axe to grind to come away from the film without seeing Lincoln as a slippery hypocrite with no regard for the truth.  Needless to say in these PC times  you would not guess it from the reviews. The  critics have generally grovelled before the film’s prime politically correct subject matter. The review by  Rupert Christianson  of the  Daily Telegraph (a Tory newspaper) gives a taste of the tone in the British media:   “I cannot vouch for the movie’s historical accuracy – so much about Lincoln remains contested – but, without resorting to pomposity or sentimentality, Spielberg has built the story into a stirring drama of dilemma worthy of Racine or Schiller… The word that came to my mind as I left the cinema is an unfashionable one: noble. This is a noble film, about noble people. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t do noble.” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/baftas/9857721/Baftas-2013-Spielbergs-Noble-Achievement.html).

Should you go and see this film?  Well, if you do, visit  it in a spirit of inquiry into exactly how blatant in their bias the politically correct  can be when  producing what can only be described as unashamed  propaganda. Talking of modern liberals, the film  has provided me with some amusement. Discussing it with the politically correct  in Britain it is remarkable how many believe Lincoln to have been a Democrat and the opponents of slavery in the film to have all been Republicans. It is a treat to watch their credulous little faces drop when I tell them the truth.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Django Unchained

Robert Henderson

Main cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington,  Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Running time  165 minutes

Even by Tarantino’s standards this is an extraordinarily self-indulgent film, both in terms of his fixation with  disproportionate  violence only tenuously related to plot and with  his one-dimensional  representation  of slavery. This portrayal  is unambiguously cruel and, as with almost  every film about American  slavery, set against the background of a palatial  plantation.   American slavery was vastly more nuanced than that, with single slaves being owned by a master or mistress;  free blacks owning slaves; slaves working for commercial and  industrial enterprises; slaves employed in fieldwork and mining.  The most favoured in terms of their treatment were probably house servants in the larger  establishments. [1]

Slave owners being human beings it is reasonable to assume that the treatment of slaves would have varied greatly, from the indulgent to the use of the slave simply as an object to be worked or abused as the slave owner wished. Even at the base level of slaves as considered simply as  property,  the idea that slave owners would be routinely physically abusing their slaves to the point of greatly reducing their value or losing the value completely by killing them makes little sense because slaves were expensive.  The growth of the black population generally and of slaves in particular supports this view.  It is estimated that approximately 645, 000 slaves were shipped  to the territory which eventually formed the USA [2] The 1860 US census shows  a  total population of 31,443,321 with 3,953,761 slaves and 488,283 free blacks, 251,000 of which were in the slave-owning states.[3]

The plot is a straight forward revenge drama. Dr King Schultz  (Christoph Waltz) a German dentist turned bounty hunter seeks out a couple of slave traders (the Speck Brothers )  who are transporting some slaves.  Schultz wants to buy a slave from a particular plantation off them because the slave can identify three brothers who have a large bounty on their heads.   The Speck brothers  do not wish to trade, guns are drawn and a shootout ensues killing one of the brothers and trapping another under his horse with a broken leg.  Scultz, a pedant  for the  legal form but  not the spirit of the law throughout the film, makes out a bill of sale for the slave he wants, leaves this with some money with the surviving Speck brother and releases the other slaves with a suggestion that they kill the surviving Speck and head north to the non-slave states.  The slaves duly oblige Schultz.

The slave Schultz obtains is Django (Jamie Foxx).  Django is a failed runaway who was caught  trying to escape with his wife  Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington). As a consequence the pair of them are deliberately sold separately at auction and separated. Consequently Django does not know where his wife is.  Schultz strikes a deal with Django: join me as a partner in bounty hunting until the spring and I will help you find your lost wife.   Django agrees.  Much of the  rest of the film is taken up with Schultz and Django scheming to kill people for the bounty on their heads, killing people such people and killing people to revenge Django and by extension his fellow slaves.  Eventually Broomhilda is tracked down to a huge  plantation owned by Calvin Candy (Di Caprio) and   Schultz and Django lay a scheme to persuade Candy to sell her to them.

The character of Schultz is morally absurd. He is a bounty hunter for whom the words “captured dead or alive” have only one meaning: dead.   The concept of innocent till proven guilty is redundant because he kills simply on the issue of a warrant for someone’s arrest  and he never makes even a token attempt to take them alive. Hence,  Schultz’s  frequently made claim that he is only killing those who have committed serious crimes does not stand up to moral scrutiny. He could be killing an innocent man as easily as a criminal. Yet this immoral  character postures throughout the film as a morally superior being because he disapproves of slavery. Moreover, this supposed dislike for slavery does seem somewhat flexible.  To promote the end of purchasing Broomhilda,  Schultz (and Django)   watch without complaint a slave brutally killed in what is termed Mandigo fighting, that is , no-holds barred fighting between two slaves,  and a runaway slave ripped to shreds by dogs.   Schultz’s  final pc flourish occurs when  he behaves in a maniacally egotistical   way after  Django and he have  achieved their aim of buying Broomhilda from  the slaveowner Candy. All  he has to do to seal the deal is shake Candy’s hand.  Schultz refuses, shoots Candy and then dies in the farcical  “shoot ‘em up” sequence which follows.

The Eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) , an actor whose screen presence exudes a dismal surliness at the best of times  is ridiculous in a different way.  He adopts an aggressive  and insolent attitude towards Candy and his associates, behaviour  which even as a free black it is wildly improbable would have been tolerated by a man as rich and powerful as Candy.   Nor is it readily imaginable  that he would have been allowed to dine with Candy and his family. His acting range recalls Dorothy Parker’s put down of  Katharine Hepburn: “She  delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”

The two performances worth watching are DiCaprio’s malevolent plantation owner Calvin Candy and Samuel Jack’s privileged slave Stephen, part Uriah Heap, part licensed court jester,  part smart operator and wholly Uncle Tom.   Candy has something of the unwonted and disconcerting  charm of Ralph Fiennes as the Concentration Camp commandant  Amon Göth in Schindler’s List,  being capable of Southern  courtesy at one moment and gross cruelty the next.

Tarantino is continuing what he did in Inglourious Basterds . In his earlier films the themes and characters were simply violent and immoral. Inglourious Basterds changed that. Taratino suddenly decided he wanted to morally posture, in that instance by adopting the position that any mistreatment of Germans, Nazi or otherwise,  was justified in WW2 because of the Nazi mistreatment of Jews.   Consequently the film’s gang of Americans in Nazi-occupied Europe were allowed to engage in any violent  horror, for example, killing someone by sledgehammering them to death, on the pretext that it was reasonable because they were killing Nazis.  Even if that had been true it would not have given the characters  the  moral high ground  because brutality is simply  brutality when it involves killing defenceless men in a cruel fashion. But  Inglorious Basterds did not confine themselves to killing card-carrying Nazis: ordinary Germans, for example,  conscripted Wermacht soldiers,  were killed gratuitously and cruelly.    In Django unchained Tarantino substitutes slavery for the Nazi’s reatment of the Jews.  A comment made by Django early on  encapsulates the director’s intention:   “Killing white folks and  getting paid for it: what’s not to like?”  (Try to imagine a white character in any film saying “Killing black folks and getting paid for it: what’s not to like?”   Difficult  going on impossible isn’t it? )

The problem with this is that most white Americans of the time were not slave owners of any sort .   But just as the moral restraints in Inglourious Basterds were loosened to include any German regardless of whether they had perpetrated any atrocity or even whether they were Nazi party members, so were the moral restraints removed on what might be done to whites of any status in Django Unchained.

The other  serious difficulty with the film is  the violence. Violence is a necessary  and interesting part of film-making when it serves a dramatic purpose. Let it become a gorefest and it is pornography.  In  Django Unchained  it moves into the positively  cartoonish with killings which are not only incontinent in motivation but often  look completely unconvincing:  the worst example is the shooting of Candy’s sister when a single shot lifts her into the air and through a door in the manner of a pantomime fairy being lifted off the  stage.  All this becomes at first boring then irritating.

The film has been criticised for its free use of nigger.  Tarantino has a record of his characters using the word , although never with  anything like the fluency as happens here where it is used several hundred times. It is used freely by black as well as white characters. Bearing in mind the film is set in slaving country and much of the action takes place on plantations, Tarantino is probably being realistic in putting it into the film.  However, when did realism ever trouble him? Certainly not in the film as a whole with a KKK-style  slapstick scene inserted into the pre-Bellum South long before the KKK was created and the acceptance of wildly insolent behaviour by Django or his wearing of modern sunglasses for most of the film.    Could it be that Tarantino puts nigger  in simply for the thrill of playing the enfant terrible? Or perhaps he simply wants to have his pc and non-pc cake at the same time.

Although an offshoot of Blaxploitation films, both the 1975 film Mandingo and its sequel Drum were  much more finessed in their treatment of the relationships between slaves owners and their slaves. Although there was violence and harsh treatment shown it was not incessant or grossly improbable. There was  also some attempt to place behaviour in context . This last  is completely missing in Django Unchained.  For example, Stephen is shot in cold blood by Django for being an Uncle Tom after being told by Django to remain after other slaves are escape unharmed because Stephen is “exactly where he belongs  ”.  That  we are all prisoners to a large degree of where our birth places us and humans being humans will develop relationships even where the relationship may seem tainted by the disparity in power between those involved is unexamined.

Should you go and see the film? Well, Di Caprio and Jackson’s performances are well worth seeing. Just don’t expect  Gone with the wind.


[2] b Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and David Eltis, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University. Based on “records for 27,233 voyages that set out to obtain slaves for the Americas”. Stephen Behrendt (1999). “Transatlantic Slave Trade”. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 0-465-00071-1.

Politically incorrect film reviews – God Bless America

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Joel Murray as Frank Murdoch

Tara Lynne Barr as Roxanne “Roxy” Harmon

Directed by  Bobcat Goldthwait

This is a very confused film . At one level it is a shoot ‘em up murderfest, on another  a road movie, on a third a political polemic.  There are elements of Michael Douglas in Falling Down, Bonnie and Clyde and a Michael Moore documentary.

There are only two characters of significance: Joel Murray (Bill Murray’s brother)  is Frank Murdoch and  Tara Lynne Barr is  Roxanne “Roxy” Harmon. Murdoch is an insurance salesman in late middle age  who is nauseated by modern America.  He loathes the vacuity of thought and purpose he sees in those around him, the absence of good manners,  the sexualisation of children and the vulgarity and  casual  cruelty of reality shows ? (His particular TV hatred is a reality show  American Superstarz where a  hopeless singer named Steven Clark (Aris Alvarado) is made an object of fun by the judges and the audience . Eventually Clark tries but fails to commit suicide). Murdoch  summarises his feelings to  a work colleague “Why have a civilisation if we are not interested in being civilised any more?”

All of those sentiments could be ascribed to someone of the political right, as could the character’s  liking for guns and his readiness and delight in using them.  But on top of all this raw and understandable emotion  is piled a thick grey curtain of political correctness which oozes over the film as oil floats on water. Apart from liking guns, having no scruples about killing  and generally disapproving of modern American life and culture,  Murdoch also has a hatred of the politically incorrect who  have the temerity to disapprove of homosexuals,  mass immigration and  abortion and support the neo-cons in their warmongering or  the  Tea Party in their small state agenda. As he  puts it, “I am not afraid of immigrants and people with vaginas”.

Murdoch’s life is messy. He is separated from his wife and daughter and  lives in a cheap flat with the next-door-neighbour –from-hell  whose particular source of provocation is a baby who never seems to stop crying. Murdoch  fantasises about killing the child and the father by spectacularly blowing them away with a heavyweight gun Arnold Schwarzenegger  would have been happy to tote in one of his more extreme roles.    His ex-wife panders to their daughter who is a shrieking ingrate, much like the first person he kills,  Chloe(Maddie Hasson),  the daughter  of a family taking part in a fly-on-the-wall  reality show .

Murdoch  loses his job summarily as, ironically,  he becomes a victim of  the political correctness which he embraces . He has sent flowers to the home of a receptionist who works for the same company and this is treated as sexual harassment.  He  is also told (wrongly)  by his doctor that he is dying of a brain tumour.  With these  burdens upon him Murdoch decides  to commit suicide, but decides to murder Chloe first after watching an episode of her  reality show when her behaviour is ungrateful with knobs on, behaviour  which in Murdoch’s eyes makes her worthy of death.    He  first attempts  to burn her to death  by handcuffing her to the steering wheel   of her car and then shoving a burning wick made of paper  into the petrol tank – note the very cruel intended death – and when this  fails  through his laughable incompetence,  he shoots the girl.

At this point  Roxy Harmon appears. She is a 16-year-old classmate of  Chloe . Her character is  teen psychopath mixed with winning ingénue. Having seen Murdoch kill the Chloe she squeals with delight and attaches herself to him. After he has threatened suicide she persuades Murdoch not to do it because the media would  depict him as a stalker who killed the girl because of a sexual obsession rather than  a pain-in-the-neck deserving death .  Roxy also suggests that they kill Chloe’s parents because they are also worthless.  They do this and Roxy then persuades Murdoch  to take her with him on a killing spree by  feeding him with false story about coming from a deprived and abusive family comprised of a  drug addict mother and rapist step-father. Murdoch agrees to let her come along   on the understanding that  they only kill people who deserve it, the classic modern liberal’s understanding of justice, that is, punish anyone who disagrees with us.

The pair go on a  killing spree the motives for which range from the childlike temper tantrum of  killing of a man who double parks, teenagers  in a cinema who talk, throw popcorn and use their mobile phones to the adolescent ideologically inspired murder of a right wing  broadcaster.

Eventually Murdoch learns that his doctor had made a mistake  and that he does not have a brain tumour. Cheered by this news, Murdoch plans to escape to France with Roxy and start a new life.  Before this plan can be put into action he is propositioned by a man who thinks he is Roxy’s pimp. Depressed again by this encounter he returns to his motel room and sees Roxy’s parents making a plea for her to come home. Far from being from a dysfunctional family, Roxy comes from a staid middle class family with money.  Murdoch is dismayed further at the disjunction between reality and his liberal fantasy about rescuing Roxy from a non-pc  home. He relieves his feeling by beating to death the man who thought he was Roxy’s pimp.

Murdoch then decides to make a grand statement by deciding to hijack  Superstarz  to both say what he thinks of modern America in general and the expose what he perceives to be the mistreatment of   Steven Clark  in particular. This involves him buying some heavyweight weaponry from a shady  gun dealer (Mike Tristano). The scene  involves startlingly hard-core political incorrectness  with Tristano engaging in some most unusual sales spiel  such as  “Put this 357 magnum….to the back of some n****r’s head and all you are going to see is some pink mist“;  “Walther P38. German. Who knows how to kill people better than German, right? You’re not a Jew are you Frank?;  “AK47 . When you absolutely have to positively waste every mother f**ker in the room accept no substitute …. ”  It’s a spray and spray weapon and what’s better than that right?”

During this scene Murdoch’s face is deepening ever further into the peculiarly ghastly rictus grimace mixed with sickly grin  which modern liberals adopt when  having to listen to anything which treads heavily on their pc dreams.  (The scene can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yN5KRvfo-AA&feature=related).  This is interesting because left-liberal directors seem to get a particular thrill out of creating scenes of intense political incorrectness. It is almost as if, not being able to readily find such rich fare in real life,  they have to provide an ersatz substitute to persuade themselves that non-pc demons really do exist. Or perhaps they simply enjoy the thrill of the illicit.

The final action is in the American Superstarz  studio where Murdoch and Roxy are re-united and blast all and sundry before being riddled in a manner suggestive of both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde.  Before this happens Murdoch suffers the fate of all modern liberals of being mugged by disagreeable reality.  Steven Clark  tells him that the reason he had attempted suicide was not because of the ridicule but because he feared he was going top be dropped by the show.  Murdoch responds by shooting him in the manner of a five-year-old throwing a tantrum.

Murray is extremely good as Murdoch, giving him at first a querulous anger which dissolves into the persona of a confident killer as the film progresses. (He is surprisingly adept at the hit-man element of the film). Tara Lynne Barr is engaging in a Goldie Hawn sort of way as Roxy. I suspect she will make a substantial career in comedy.

This is a watchable film in its own right, but it is also worth viewing because Murdoch encapsulates the modern liberal character: part young child, part adolescent, religiously  mouthing politically correct platitudes whilst casually removing those who irritate him Murdoch’s desire to control what people do and say is simply a desire to control. The fact that a large part of his agenda could be espoused by the Right is irrelevant. It is the control which matters..  Like all those who are captured by an ideology,  the politically correct really only want to make the world in their own image at best and at worst, like the Party in 1984, the only object of their  power is the exercise of power itself.

Politically incorrect film reviews – The Sweeney

Main cast Ray Winstone, Ben Drew, Damian Lewis, Hayley Atwell and Steven Mackintosh.

Robert Henderson

The latest filmic incarnation of the 1970s TV series the Sweeney is  a serious mess. (For those unfamiliar with the  TV series, the Sweeney is rhyming slang for the  Flying  Squad  = Sweeney Todd – an elite (London) Metropolitan Police unit dealing with armed robberies and other serious  armed  crime).  The film, as with the TV series, is built around the operational head of the Flying Squad Detective Inspector Jack Regan (Ray Winstone) and his second in command Detective Sergeant  George Carter (Ben Drew).

The action is removed from the 1970s  to  the  world   of the modern Metropolitan police.   This time shift  alone makes the  film utterly implausible, because the  routine mistreatment of villains and suspects in the film  would simply be impossible in the present day world of taped interviews and all too pervasive recording equipment. An officer might get away with it   once if he was dealing today with a villain who had reason to keep quiet about the abuse  but not over and over again. Nor will you find suspects being routinely interviewed without a lawyer. The extent of the violence, especially the frequent gun fights, adds to the absurdity.  If the  film had  remained set in  the 1970s, the audience might just have swallowed the mistreatment of suspects  just as they did with  the TV series Life on Mars, a  recent TV police drama set in the 1970s, although the extensive use of guns would still have seemed ludicrous because even today the British police use guns on a remarkably small number of occasions a year and did so even less in the 1970s.

But the updating of the film is not the most glaring  implausibility of the film.  This is an equal opportunities production . Whereas  in the 1970s TV series and the two original film spin-offs the Flying Squad was  resolutely white and male,  here it is crammed to the gunnels with , yes you’ve guessed it, blacks and women. (There is a double pc score in two cases because  two of the women are black).    Even in the  achingly  politically correct modern London police force you would be startled to the point of a cardiac arrest to find that  half the staff  in an elite unit like the Flying Squad were either black or female.  Just  to put the pc cherry on the cake, Carter is given a black stepson.

As so often happens with the inclusion of black characters in modern  films, they are utterly peripheral.  The pc quota has been filled and the pc gods placated. The white  women with one exception  are also non-entities.  The exception is Nancy (Hayley Attwell) .  She is the wife of  an officer Ivan Lewis  (Steven Mackintosh) from the Met’s internal affairs division who is investigating the misbehaviour of the Flying Squad. Nancy is  also Regan’s mistress despite being half his age.   To prove that women really are equal  to men we see her roughing up suspects  (very unconvincingly), punching villains, shooting guns and finally, just to show a female character can do the lot, getting killed in a gunfight.

The political correctness of the film, primarily feminism in this case, sits very queasily  with the non-pc nature of  Regan and the Flying Squad. The film is trying to have its 1970s era cake while trying to stuff a 2012 politically correct tart into its mouth at the same time.

There are other serious problems. The film  is built around  a  tiresomely improbable and convoluted plot based on the revenge  to be exacted by a villain Allen (Paul Anderson)  who was “nicked” by Regan years before and sent down for a long stretch.

Then there is the relationship between  Regan and Carter which was central to the success of the TV series and earlier films, with Regan as the erratic  DI and Carter as the person who regularly covered for him.    This film also puts  the relationship between Reagan and Carter at the centre of the action. The problem is the  relationship does not work.  John Thaw, who played Regan in his earlier incarnation, was nothing like such as blunt instrument of an actor  as Winstone  and Dennis Waterman as the original Carter had a much larger and intrusive personality to project than Drew, whose default  expression in the film was a near catatonic  God ,I’m being so cool.  They both offered far more scope for  a complex meeting of personalities.  Winstone and Drew just do not gel as a pair.   Perhaps most damaging  to the  relationship   is the loss of the considerable  humour between Regan and Carter which existed in the original Sweeney. The original also had a good deal of genuinely funny interplay between the Flying Squad as a whole.  That has gone as well,  with vulgarity  mistaken for  humour in the 2012 version.  The considerable screen-time devoted to the Regan/Nancy affair, which is embarrassingly unconvincing, also weakens the Regan/Carter  interaction.

The only enjoyable thing in the film is Winstone’s Regan sounding off in his 1,000 decibel way against his bosses, villains and anyone else who gets in his way.  Then his considerable screen presence  momentarily blots out the general failure of the film. The rest of the cast  are strangely insipid,  including both Regan’s boss Frank Haskins (Damian Lewis) and  Steven Mackintosh as the internal affairs investigator.

Should you go and see the film?  All I will say is older Sweeney fans should resist the temptation .  Keep your dreams.

Politically incorrect film reviews – The Millennium Trilogy

Robert Henderson

The girl with the dragon tattoo – the original and the US-remake

The girl who played with fire

The girl who stirred the hornets’ nest

These are the films made to date from  Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.   I review them  in one fell swoop because there is only one reason to see them if you wish to be diverted  - and it is a very compelling one – the charismatic performance of  Noomi  Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the three Swedish originals.  More of that later.

There is another less palatable reason to watch the films. They  are monuments to the grip that political correctness generally has on Sweden  and the peculiar place that feminism occupies in Sweden and Scandinavia generally.

The plots, such as they are, revolve around the type of fantasies the politically correct relish: we have the  remnants and descendants of a  Swedish Nazi group, one of whom, Martin Vanger,   engages in the rape and occult murder of women  as his father did before him;  the abusive and dishonest  machinations of  big business  as represented by billionaire financier Hans-Erik Wennerström; paedophilia amongst the rich and powerful  and  a dash of  security services mischief involving one-time Soviets agents, one of whom is Lisbeth’s father, Alexander Zalachenko.  There is even a Frankenstein monster of sorts, a man who cannot feel pain (Ronald Niedermann Lisbeth’s half-brother) .  In short, the storylines  are verging on the absurd.

Amongst these fantastic scenarios  Mikael Blomkvist, journalist and publisher at Millennium magazine,  weaves his investigative way as he seeks to  ruin Wennerstrom,  solve the mystery of a missing woman belonging to the Nazi-tainted Vanger family and expose sex-trafficking of minors, much of this being done through conversations of excruciating exercises in  political correctness with his fellow Millennium journos .

During the course of the three films Lisbeth   is variously forced to provide fellatio, anally raped,  shot and savagely beaten,  with  much of the mayhem being engineered by her father,  half-brother and her state provided  guardian – she is encumbered by the last because of her violent and disturbed past which has seen her spend much time in what in less politically correct times would be called lunatic asylums. Lisbeth  in return engages in much violence and other criminality, almost all of it directed at men.   This aspect of the films satisfies the feminist ideals of all men being potentially violent abusers of women and the ability of women  to strike back against their abusers.

The male characters who are not wearing the feminist version of black hats are required to behave towards  female characters with an insipid subordination.   Mikael Blomkvist must be the most uninspiring male lead in films,  an almost entirely  non-action man.  Even when he  does eventually become involved in action he is the victim.   Not so much an anti-hero but an anti-heroic.

There is also political correctness of an insidious nature.   About halfway through The Girl with the Dragon tattoo a suspicion began to form,  with The girl who played with fire the suspicion became a certainly and The  Girl who stirred the hornet’s nest merely provided confirmation of the certainty: women perform the same role in Swedish films that blacks  routinely perform in Hollywood productions. They are the formal authority figures, the lawyers,    the judges, and , God help us, the  leader of a police Swat team, are women.

In short, this is the hardcore feminist fantasy made flesh with men portrayed either as potential rapists and abusers of women generally (the title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Swedish is Män som hatar kvinnor–literally–men who hate women) or timid, one dimensional wimps who not only   bow down before the dictates of political correctness,  but who have become feminised by decades of feminist propaganda and political intervention to enforce the mentality.  All very interesting when one reflects on the author of the 2011 Norwegian killing spree Anders Breivik’s complaint about the feminised nature of Norwegian society. On the evidence of  these films the same could be said of Sweden.

The films are saved by a single great performance. Orson Welles does this in Citizen Kane when even that fine actor Joseph Cotton is reduced to a cypher;   Gangs of New York are saved by Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher;  Drive is held together solely by Ryan Gosling’s startling  talent for violence.   Noomi  Rapace  does it with the character of Lisbeth Salmander , a young woman  who is set apart, whether by a disturbed  past or innate qualities, from other people. Her behaviour is autistic. She cannot readily connect with people or understand  the normal rules of  social engagement.  At the same time she is highly intelligent and immensely resourceful.  The consequence is that  she combines heroic self-sufficiency with  a terrible vulnerability . A man playing such a role probably would not be sympathetic but an attractive young woman is.

There is another quality Lisbeth has which is immensely  magnetic.   It is her will to action. There is something  heroic about a character who  meets circumstances head on and instead of dithering or running away from trouble simply responds with action.  Lee Marvin as Walker in Point Blank and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill part I are other prime examples of such characters.    Her determination and courage is in stark contrast to the vanilla quality of  Blomkvist and his ilk.  When she is removed from the action sequences  (after being  shot  at the end of the second film), the consequence is that the final part of the trilogy is by far the weakest of the three. Lisbeth needs freedom to express herself.

The American remake of The girl with the dragon tattoo is in some ways better than the original, most notably the acting overall  is much stronger – Stellen Skaarsgard is especially good as the serial killer Martin Vanger, mixing an overt affability with an underlying menace.  Rooney Mara captures the self-contained distance and the will to action of the character well,  but  lacks Rapace’s vulnerability. That changes the mood of the film.

Recommended  recent Films

Shame – something of Sidney Carton in the Michael Fassbinder  role, a man of parts who is simply squandering his talent on an empty life.

Rampart – Woody Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a wondrously politically  incorrect cop. Dirty Harry without the ideals.

A Dangerous Method – Worth seeing for Viggo Mortensen’s Freud and Keira Knightley’s sporting of one of the oddest accents ever to hit the screen – she is meant to be Russian, but could come from anywhere in the solar system  for all the accent tells one of her origins.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Ire in Babylon

UK Cinema Release Date: Friday 20th May 2011

Official Site: http://www.fireinbabylon.com

Written and Directed by: Stevan Riley

Starring:  Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding, Ian Botham, Jeffery Dujon, Colin Croft

Genre: Documentary

Runtime: 1 hour 27 minutes (approx.)

Between 1980 and 1995 the West Indies cricket team never lost a series, a most remarkable thing. They did this through discovering a discipline they had never consistently shown before and the development of a bowling attack consisting of three or four genuinely fast bowlers,  a fast bowling  lineage which began in the mid 1970s with Holding, Roberts and Daniel and ended in the mid 1990s with Walsh, Ambrose and Bishop.    Their dominance was aided by the failure of umpires to implement the  cricket law banning persistent short-pitched bowling -  arguably because of a fear of being called racist – but  in truth they were formidable  even without bowling four or five short-pitched balls an over.  The runs scored against the West Indies in their period of dominance were almost certainly the hardest earned in the history of Test cricket (the first Test was played in 1877).

Those with no knowledge of cricket  will have read that paragraph and said, no, not interested.  Let them bear with me for a moment.  It is a film about a sporting side but it is far more than that.  Primarily it is  a masterclass in black victimhood and insecurities in which  cricket takes a distant second place. That explains  why  the film has been greeted with such rapture by British  film critics who are  signed up to the “ol’ whitey bad, black good “ liberal agenda  (for a wide range of quotes  see http://www.fireinbabylon.com/press.html).
The Daily Telegraph’s review is typical: “Director Stevan Riley’s joyous and uplifting film is a celebration of a sporting triumph and all its implications for black politics and culture.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/8524438/Fire-in-Babylon-review.html)

The director  Stevan Riley made no bones about the purpose of the film: “a story of freedom, independence and black pride through bat and ball”. (http://www.channel4.com/news/fire-in-babylon-what-lessons-for-west-indies-cricket-now).   The result is a film which is an unrestrained act of pro-black  propaganda,   with whites and England  painted as the colonial oppressors and the Asian populations of the West Indies relegated to the role of non-persons.  Within this context,  the West Indies team of the late 1970s to the mid 1990s is portrayed as a vehicle for the political consciousness of the newly independent West Indian countries; a means by which the black West Indian population  (but not the white or Asian West Indians) could assert  themselves and show themselves to be able to compete with and dominate  their  old colonial masters.

Those not familiar with cricket in general or West Indies cricket in particular will require some background.  The West Indies is not a nation state. Rather it is a collection of British ex-colonies in the Caribbean  (Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados being the main islands) plus one on the South American continent (Guyana).  Cricket is the only thing which brings them formally together.

The history of West Indies cricket is a mirror of the racial and ethnic tensions  in the ex-colonies.  The team until the 1970s  was a mix of whites, blacks and Asians (mainly those who had ancestors who came from the Sub-continent).   Until 1960 the West Indies cricket team (known as the Windies) was always captained by a white man, apart from the odd match where injury or other absence of resulted in no  suitable white player  being available.

Throughout the period of white captains there was a growing restlessness amongst black West Indians for a black captain. After the appointment of the first  black man ,  Frank Worrell,  to the (regular)  captaincy in  1960,   the  participation  of  white and   Asian  players  steadily  diminished  – in the case of whites it might be truer to  say effectively  ended.  Geoffrey Greenidge was  the last  white   player to represent the West Indies (in 1972) before Brendon Nash appeared in  2008 (and he was a white Australian who qualified for the West Indies through his mother), while   no Asians were chosen between  Larry Gomes’  final appearance   in 1986 and Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s debut in 1994.  This left a side entirely composed of black West Indians.   In the late 1980s the Windies Captain Viv Richards  proudly described his side as “a team of Africans”.

There is no mention in the film of this exclusion of whites and Asians from the Windies side during their period of dominance, nor Viv Richard’s celebration of the fact that he was leading  an all  black side.   This is scarcely surprising because those interviewed in the film are all black and the interviewer did not ask awkward  questions.   Famous white cricketers and commentators such as Geoff Boycott , Ian Botham and Jeff Thompson who had played against the Windies during their period of dominance   were interviewed by the director,  but strangely not a single interview of a white man conducted for the film  appeared in the film. Tellingly, white faces were almost  absent from the film  except for the action shots. Ditto Asians.   Instead the film was packed with interviews with  West Indian cricketers and  commentators who had either played in or seen the Windies at their height , and film or commentary of black West Indian   celebrities such as Bob Marley,  Bunny Wailer, Lord Short Shirt, Burning Spear  (no, I  am not making the names up) and Gregory Isaacs who happily mixed with players such as Viv Richards.

A  deep-rooted black paranoia shows itself in the interpretation as patronising of white attitudes and responses which are at worst neutral and at best complimentary.  The  description “Calypso cricket” by whites  is interpreted  as  meaning that West Indian sides play in an attractive but brittle and unthinking way. In reality it was simply a bit of lazy labelling by journalists and broadcasters  without any intent to patronise or insult.

Australians turning out in  great numbers to applaud the West Indies touring party as they toured the streets of Melbourne at the end of the 1960/61 series against Australia was dismissed as Australians being happy to applaud losers (they lost the series 2-1).  In fact, they were being applauded because the series was (1)  thoroughly exciting with the first tied Test in history and (2)  Test cricket was going through a period when it was feared that slow, defensive play was killing the public’s appetitive for the game and the series was seen as a  renaissance of attractive cricket.

The only instance in the film of a white man suggesting that the Windies were chokers was made by  the England captain in the 1976 series between the Windies and England. This was the South African Tony Greig (playing  for England after qualifying residentially) predicting  before the series that the Windies “would grovel”.  Had he made the comment about Australia or an Australian made it about England it would have just been treated for what it was, a bit of “pre-fight” banter. In the film it is treated with an immense  earnestness as if it was the deadliest of insults.

This outrage is very odd because the central  thesis of the film is that until the late 1970s the Windies were a team  which often contained great individuals,  but hich was all too prone to not playing as a team, whether that be because of racial strife (especially under white captains) ,  the difficulties of bring people together from different countries in a representative team or the lingering effects of colonialism which led to an unconscious lack of belief in themselves.  (The alleged weaknesses  were supposedly only cured after Clive Lloyd became captain and  eventually moulded the Windies into a relentless machine for winning. )

This  story is some way adrift from reality. It is untrue that the Windies were a consistently brittle side  before Clive Lloyd became captain. They always had great players and in the space of four years in the  1960s they won two series in England and beat the Australians in the West Indies.  By 1965 they had good claims to be the strongest side in the world.  That they  declined towards the end of the 1960s and early 1970s was simply the natural consequence of a great side growing old and losing important players.  In short, it was simply  what any top cricketing  Test side experiences,  peaks and troughs of performance.

One of the most intriguing passages is the series between  Australia and the Windies in 1975/76 when the Australian fast bowlers Lillie and Thompson physically knocked the Windies about so badly that the series was lost 6-1.  That was time when the Windies captain Clive Lloyd decided on playing a three or four man fast bowling attack. In fact, what appears to have been the real turning point was the rebel Packer matches of a few years later. Kerry Packer was an Australian media mogul who signed up (to the horror of the national cricket boards who banned the players from playing Test cricket) many of the best  cricketers in the world, including most of the Australian and West Indies players.

The Packer series began badly for the Windies who folded weakly in an early match. According to the film,  Packer came into Windies dressing room and gave them a tongue-lashing along the lines of improve or you will be on a plane home.  Packer also arranged for then to use a  physiotherapist and fitness trainer by the name of Denis Waite because he was doubtful about their fitness. (http://www.catholicnews-tt.net/joomla/index.php?view=article&catid=49:sports&id=174:sports010209&option=com_content&Itemid=82).  Waite, a white Australian, got them fit and psychologically prepared.  By the end of Packer’s rebel games (they lasted two years) the Windies had started to win relentlessly.  It could be argued that the Windies built their later success on a platform constructed by two white men, Packer and Waite.

The other great  hand-up from ol’ whitey was the decision of the English cricket authorities in 1969 to relax the qualification rules for county cricket, the English domestic first class teams.  This meant that foreign players, including most of the major West Indian cricketers of the period 1970-1995, were able to play regular professional cricket in England. This both gave the Windies players a regular source of income from cricket (something which had never  been readily available before)  and a great deal of experience both of playing and English conditions and culture.

After 1995 the great days were over, although they were still competing for another five years or so as the great old players held the team together. After 2000, the Windies team declined rapidly until it became a pathetic shadow of what it had been only a few years before.  Why did this happen? Perhaps it was this:

“The things that had driven us in the past were no longer important to the newer generation. Black pride and its militancy, the shrugging off of our colonial legacy, Frank Worrell completing the West Indian version of the Jackie Robinson journey, these things have been historically severed” Calypsonian David Rudder on the difference between the 80s and today (http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/483624.html)

If Rudder is correct, that paints a bleak picture of the future of the West Indies not only as cricketers but generally.  What he is saying is that only the mixture of anger and fear left by colonialism is sufficient to energise West Indians.

From a purely cricketing point of view the film offers  many examples of great fast bowlers in action.  Those too young to have watched cricket in the 1970s and 1980s should watch the film and see the  difference between genuine fast bowling and what passes for it  now.  In particularly I was reminded of what a nightmare Jeff Thompson was at his best , not merely one of the fastest  of bowlers, but one with an uncanny knack of getting a ball to rear into a batsman’s face from barely short of a length. Most of the action shots are of batsmen being hit or nearly hit, which is a little unedifying,  but they  do  give  a graphic idea of exactly how much courage and skill is required to face great fast bowling.  The most poignant shots are  those of a 45-year-old Brian Close batting against Holding and Roberts in 1976 before the era of helmets and being repeatedly hit on the body, an assault he met with a remarkable stoicism.

Those wanting  a flavour of the film can click on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n57LPYiragE

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