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new internationalist
issue 159 - May 1986


Star rating system. Film reviews

The Color Purple
directed by Steven Spielberg

[image, unknown] Overwhelmed by its emotional intensity, you walk out of The Color Purple thinking it is a wonderful film. Yet a lingering uneasiness remains: when you bawl your eyes out from the opening shot to the closing credits, is the superficiality in you or the movie?

The Color Purple is a good story, beautifully shot; the acting is superb and the music enjoyable. But don't go expecting to see Alice Walker's novel on the screen. Steven Spielberg's film is a tear-jerker of tragic dimensions that dramatises a revolutionary change in an individual and a community without portraying the very humanity which fuels that change. And, while it's never quite fair to say 'the movie isn't the same as the book', it was Walker's narrative device (letters written to God) that gave the heroine, Celie, her humanity.

In the film we see the outer Celie - first used and abused with no sense of self-worth, then a confident, independent woman. But we never see the inner Celie. As a result this is not the story of her growth through her relationship with the beautiful and self-reliant juke-joint singer Shug Avery. Instead their relationship is left in something of a fog. The only quasi-lesbian scene in the film is uncomfortable and contains the most timid kissing this side of high school.

The Color Purple packs a stupendous emotional wallop. Every scene is so intense and so tragic as to be almost unbelievable. And despite the problems, the film does provide a view of how racism and sexism work to destroy human relationships while still showing people with their dignity intact. See it.

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Book reviews

AIDS - the Deadly Epidemic
by Graham Hancock and Enver Carim

Our appetite for reading about AIDS seems to be pretty insatiable. And first reaction to this book by two excellent development journalists was that they must have pushed it out with an eye to the main chance. That may still be so, but the cynicism soon gave way to the usual horror, as well as to respect for the comprehensive picture they paint By the end of the book you can't help but be convinced that AIDS is an international problem to rival most of those the NI routinely covers.

Unless a cure is found fast, AIDS is likely to cause profound changes in our societies. And the book warns of the appalling outlook for Africa - not just because its East and Central regions are more affected even than US cities, but also because of the growing and unproven belief that the problem originated there. Only the authors' arrogant moralising about gay promiscuity rings false in a book that manages to pitch at a popular readership without being sensationalistic.

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Indian Country
by Peter Matthiessen
(Collins Harvill)

'I am sad on my land... this mountain is sacred, we don't want to leave our mountain... Lightning, rainbow, earth and night - that's where we came from. Now thousands of white people come, trying to take this land away from us, trying to kill us... If this government keeps on like that. I think it's going to be the end of the world,' These prophetic words belong to Katharine Smith, a proud, defiant 60-year-old Navajo.

The story of her people's resistance to the US government's apartheid policy of relocation is only one related by Peter Matthiessen - cult author of The Snow Leopard - in this chronicle of a continuing tragedy. Indian Country studies the abuse of traditional Indian territories and ways of life in America and Matthiessen delivers a passionate indictment of destructive consumerism. A powerful and disturbing book, its underlying message is clear: first them, then us.

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Understanding Abortion
by Mary Pipes
(Women's Press

There can be few operations that create so much uproar and outrage as abortion: but we all too rarely hear the thoughts of the women who have them. This book fills that gap. Thirty women recall their feelings before, during and after their decisions to have abortions ... 'I felt like an actress, like everyone was watching me and waiting to see how I would react. So I put on one hell of a performance'.

This is not merely a practical handbook useful only to British readers. Mary Pipes' complex morality is etched into every page. She avoids simplifying abstractions and approaches the problem concretely - through the eyes of those experiencing an unwanted pregnancy. Until there is a safe and reliable form of contraception, she believes, women should be allowed to choose.

The book is intended for women: to help them face this choice armed with the experience of others. But it would be good if men read it too: sex becomes more meaningful when both partners care about the consequences

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The Struggle for Health
by David Sanders with Richard Carver

[image, unknown] Medicine has little effect on disease without political change - and Sanders proves it in clear language with witty cartoons and well-researched arguments.

Allende of Chile, Neto of Angola, Machel of Mozambique and Che Guevara of Cuba - they all started as health workers but found political change a more effective cure for their country's health. And China and Cuba have dramatically improved health not by building hospitals but by overthrowing the capitalist system and distributing resources more equally.

Sanders is no desk-bound idealist. Trained as a doctor in white Rhodesia, he returned to independent Zimbabwe from exile in Britain so as to co-ordinate their new health training scheme. And his excellent book is less a health manual than a lesson in social and political history - a must for every medical student, development worker and aspiring politician.

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Music reviews

Modern Times
by Latin Quarter
(Rockin' Horse)

[image, unknown] Latin Quarter are the group who took the following words into the British singles chart - The West still complains about the foreign aid' They'd do better to change the terms of the trade/ More tanks than food in the Ogaden/ It looks like Moscow got it wrong again .Independence has a hidden expense/ When the hands on the purse strings are white.

The lyric comes from a catchy exercise in light reggae called Radio Africa (included here), and any expectations it awakened that here was a band with not only a conscience but also political awareness are fulfilled by this album. The songs are literate, punchy and pertinent - this tour through the modern world takes in, for instance, South Africa, both Reagan's and McCarthy's America, the Falklands/Malvinas, and the Welsh coal-mining valleys. Musically the record doesn't burst any new frontiers but it's appealing and eclectic enough to take those words to an even wider audience.

The kind of songs NI readers (and editors) would write if they had the chance and the skill.

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Fosatu Worker Choirs
By Fosatu Worker Choirs

[image, unknown] Traditional choral singing from South Africa has always been one of the most emotive forms of African music to the Western ear. And when the old tribal music is sung by black workers from the now-burgeoning trade union movement, with new lyrics that call on workers to come together and fight the system, the results are even more moving.

The words to these mainly acapella songs are simple and idealistic, like socialist hymns the world over - Wake up Africa/All workers unite are typical lines (most are in African languages but translations are provided). Some of the music is ramshackle - as much people having a good time as performing. But there are some stunning moments too, most notably in the beautiful Zulu song Zithulele Mama ('Don't cry Mama').

The cassette tape is available from Shifty Records, Box 27513, Bertsham 2013, South Africa £7/US$l0.50, airmail £5/US$7.50, surface mail.

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Crusade For Justice
.being the 19th-century book that teaches the 20th century about racism

LAST autumn black American writer Maya Angelou gave a performance in London to mark the publishing of the third part of her autobiography. The hall was packed out, her books were selling fast and her name had become familiar to countless people through press and radio interviews. She said she had tried for 12 years to get her work into print in Britain and thanked her publisher for being 'brave' enough to take her on.

Considering the acclaim with which books by contemporary black American women writers are being received at the moment, the word 'brave' seemed to me a little generous. The overnight (certainly overdue) interest by white readers outside the US has forced publishers to make available works that could previously be bought only as expensive imports. This has resulted in some rather random publishing and has totally obscured the tradition of black women's writing of which authors like Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are part. The last shall be published first and the first last, seems to be the rule.

At this rate it will take a long time to get round to rediscovering Ida B Wells, who was an Afro-American journalist writing and organising from the 1890s until her death in 1931. Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was edited by her daughter, who had to wait nearly 40 years before she could find a publisher. As a result her mother's work did not have the recognition it deserved until black feminists began to use the book as a source for reconstructing their history.

Born at the end of the Civil War, she was involved in the early civil-rights movement right up until the formation of organisations like the NAACP. In her mid-teens Ida became the first black person to contest the Jim Crow laws in the Tennessee state court after the repeal of the Civil Rights Bill in 1883.

She was drawn into organising against lynching in 1892 while she was living in Memphis and working as an editor of a black newspaper. One of her friends, a black businessman, was among a group arrested on false charges, taken out of their cells and murdered by a white mob which included some of the town's leading citizens.

Ida describes how she woke up to the fact that lynching was really a means of political and economic repression of blacks by Southern whites. Her sharp analysis of the situation, combined with her advice to the black citizens of Memphis to arm themselves and move West earned her a reputation as a troublemaker - soon the white newspapers of Memphis were urging people to lynch her as well if she ever returned to the city. Ida was obliged to stay in the North for her own safety.

Shortly after this she was invited to England by women campaigners in an effort to move public opinion in America from outside. She won over large and sympathetic audiences with her lectures on the barbaric racism of the Southern states and a committee of politicians, church leaders and journalists was set up to monitor the number of lynchings in the South and protest vociferously from London.

Ida B Wells was one of the few people of her time prepared to speak publicly about the more uncomfortable areas of sexuality between blacks and whites - which may be one clue as to why her book was not published earlier. She contested the idea that black men were guilty of preying on white women by documenting the facts of each lynching case as it arose. Assault charges were very rarely made and it was almost unknown for there to be any incriminating evidence. The rape theory was a smokescreen, an excuse, but one that had a powerful resonance in the imagination of whites in Britain as well as America. Wells ridiculed the laws which allowed white men to rape black women without ever being punished, but which forbade marriage between people with different skin colours.

Her analysis of the causes of racial violence is no less relevant when it comes to unravelling racist ideologies today. Modern panics about lawless young blacks terrorising the inner cities are often based on the same kind of racism which identifies black men as sexual predators and white women as their victims. This has enormous - but almost completely unexplored - implications for white feminists, particularly those engaged in campaigns against male violence.

Little do people realise that Ida B Wells - who died just as the present generation of women writers was being born - stirred 19th-century women campaigners in America and England to discuss the intricacies of race, sex and class more openly than their descendants are able to do today.

Vron Ware

Crusade for Justice - the autobiography of Ida B Wells,
ed. Alfreda M Duster, University of Chicago Press

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