issue 178 - December 1987
directed by Richard Attenborough
The story of Steve Biko, the young black leader murdered by South African police in 1977, given the big-budget treatment by the Oscar-winning team who produced Gandhi - in prospect this looked like the NI Film of the Year. It comes close - but more for its good political intentions than for artistic execution.
We have become accustomed to movies using the character of a white journalist to make Third World issues intelligible. Maybe some day soon mass audiences will be prepared to relate to people from other cultures directly but in the mean time this is unquestionably a useful tool. And it is used in exemplary fashion here as newspaper editor Donald Woods (a fine performance by Kevin Kline) has his comfortable liberal detachment gradually stripped from him, his contact with Biko showing him the sheer inhumanity of the society around him.
But then Biko dies off-camera, as if Attenborough does not have the courage of his conviction that he was murdered and wants to retain a certain liberal ambiguity. Even if this is not the reason the curious jump over his tragic end is anti-climactic in effect and leaves a hole at the heart of the film. From then on the movie becomes a mild semi-thriller showing the Woods family's escape into exile. The flashbacks which recall Biko here are politically essential but artistically awkward.
And it has to be said that Attenborough seems much more at home with the white characters than the black. Biko himself radiates warmth and humanity but there's a false note even here, summed up in the embarrassing scene where Woods sees him for the first time, his face bathed in dazzling sunlight like a saint. There are things here that it is remarkable to see in a major film. A sympathetic view of Black Consciousness... A moving rendition of the black South African national anthem Nkosi Sikelele Afrika at Biko's funeral. The chilling final roil call of people who have died in police custody, together with the bald official excuses: suicide by hanging', 'slipped downstairs'. For all this and more, forgive its flaws and urge everyone to see Cry Freedom. But flawed it remains.
Her Mother's Daughter
by Marilyn French
(Summit US, Heinemann UK)
Three generations of women, chronicled through a haze of cigarette smoke as each sits sipping coffee between chores. This is a novel about self-sacrifice and housework: about a desperate drudgery as each mother grits her teeth and sets about trying to ensure that things will be different for her daughter.
'My mother never combed my hair' mourns one, tugging tangles out of her own daughter's hair and naming her Anastasia, after a perfectly dressed little girl she envied when she was a child. Each wants for her daughter those things that she lacked as a child: a kind father, clean clothes, beautifully prepared meals. But each dies a little with each act of selflessness. And bitterness flavours every effort they make to save their precious daughters from their fates - until the bitterness is all that each daughter remembers. 'You seemed to hate us,' Anastasia tells her mother. 'Why did you always seem so angry?' cries Anastasia's own daughter in her turn.
The moral is that love cannot grow in a soil of self-sacrifice. A woman must first find and enjoy her own pleasures or her every gift to her children will be blighted. Love comes hard between these mothers and these daughters, strangled by the knots of resentment and guilt.
The knots, of cooking and washing and sewing and shopping and weeping and ironing, are painfully documented in nearly 700 pages. Too many pages; too many cigarettes. But if you persist through some deadly humdrum in the early chapters, the last scenes of sad reconciliation are brilliant.
Exploding the Hunger Myths
By Sonja Williams
This is the latest book from the Institute for Food and Development Policy - a grand and forbidding name for a very sympathetic group of people, the radical Californian think tank which challenges conventional and right-wing thinking about the Third World. Exploding.., is a logical extension of their two most famous books, Food First and World Hunger: Twelve Myths, turning those ideas into a high-school curriculum which can be used by teachers.
The book is intelligently and attractively laid out, full of exercises and handouts, tests and teachers' background notes. These explain carefully that the real causes of hunger are not overpopulation or too little food but rather poverty - a poverty which can and does exist within Western societies too. The curriculum is aimed specifically at US teenagers but would still be a perfect starting-point for British and Australasian teachers.
Available from Food First, 145 9th St., San Francisco, CA 94103 USA for $15 plus 15% postage and handling.
On Power and Ideology
by Noam Chomsky
(South End Press)
This absorbing collection of five lectures, which Noam Chomsky delivered during a recent visit to Nicaragua, places US intervention in the Central American region within its broad historical and cultural context In the prerevolutionary day of the 13 Colonies, Ben Franklin declared the 'father of his nation' to be the man who removes the natives to give his own people room'. Chomsky traces from then the development of what he calls the unspoken 'Fifth Freedom' of the powerful in the US: 'the freedom to rob and to exploit, to protect "our" raw materials worldwide. the central doctrine of foreign policy'. The enemies of the Fifth Freedom were those natives who believed that they had the right to determine for themselves what to do with their nation, resources and labour.
Along the way Chomsky discusses Cold War ideology, the war against Vietnam, the cynical purpose of foreign aid, and what he reveals as the true reason for Reagan's hatred of Nicaragua: 'if a tiny and impoverished country can begin to do something for its own population, others may ask "why not us?"' The last chapter especially shows great insight into the forces in US society which keep exploitation in place.
Noam Chomsky's moral passion, political brilliance and scholarly precision are virtually unique in the West. His essays challenge us to work towards fundamental social change at home if we are to help the Third World in the long term.
by Sweet Honey In the Rock
(Cooking Vinyl UK, Flying Fish US)
Here for once is a record that everyone, whatever their age or musical predilection, can enjoy. Sweet Honey in the Rock are six women whose acapella singing draws together all the threads of the great tradition of black American music from gospel to soul, weaving something which seems both timeless and immediate.
Their reputation has grown steadily over the decade that these songs span and while they will never sell millions, they are a rich and uplifting resource for those of us who want to feel part of a great global cause that will challenge oppression wherever it occurs. Whether close to home, as in the beautiful June Jordan lyric about the lonely burden borne by a selfless black mother; or in the prisons and the mines: 'Chile your waters run red through Soweto! The hands of oppression are the hands of hunger ... The same hands, same waters'.
This compilation is a perfect introduction to this rich and vibrant soundtrack of resistance. But any of their albums are worth investigating. 'We who believe in freedom cannot rest,' they sing. But resting by listening to this can make you feel more effort is worthwhile.
World Hunger - Twelve Myths, by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins. The people who produced one of the bibles of world development, Food First, maintain their reputation with an updated version of the book which challenges popular thinking about the global food problem. Authoritative and still challenging.
Salvador, directed by Oliver Stone. Both the movies with the highest star rating this year were by Oliver Stone, the other being the Vietnam film Platoon . The 'hero' here is an apolitical hedonistic slob made to care by the carnage in El Salvador and the undercover US contribution to it. Skilful, shattering - and a true story.
Breaths by Sweet Honey in the Rock. No new record this year has expressed our concerns with the brilliance of Jackson Browne's Lives in the Balance in 1986. The best rock album of the year, Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, has no real political dimension and so we recommend this compilation of Sweet Honey in the Rock's inspiring singing.
...being the book that showed the US is not classless
Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie was one of the first novels accurately to depict the transformation of American cities by the industrial revolution. The book is set in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was the best of times for a small group of capitalists who made fortunes in the new industries; but for millions of workers, many of them immigrants, it was the time of the sweatshop and the tenement, of union bashing and economic oppression.
The heroine, Carrie, 'bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth', arrives in Chicago from her small Wisconsin town with a few dollars and vague ideas about earning her living in the big city. But without skills, money, contacts, she finds only the most ill-paying, gruelling work punching holes in shoe leather. And even this job is lost when she is off sick for a week. In her desperate state, she easily succumbs to the approaches of a genial trader who offers her not only financial security but the opportunity to eat and dress well. She goes to live with him, breaking off all family ties and effectively severing herself from her past. The trader introduces Carrie to the dapper manager of a high-class saloon who soon persuades her to elope with him to New York. Carrie's beauty and charm leads her into a successful career in the theatre and she abandons both her lovers.
When first published, Sister Carrie was considered immoral and tasteless by many reviewers and the publisher, Doubleday, did their best to suppress it. But the book did well in Britain and eventually received the critical acclaim in the US which it deserved. What early critics objected to most was Dreiser's treatment of Carrie and her seduction. She lives with her seducer and then elopes with a married man, yet she neither repents and becomes virtuous, nor is she punished as a fallen women. And even more shocking to readers in 1900, Dreiser wrote about her seduction in plain, undramatic language as if to imply that Carrie's situation was not unusual and that her choices, however 'immoral', are the best she can make under the circumstances. He showed how few options working-class women had: they could look forward to a life of drudgery either in the factory or in the home.
Dreiser rarely criticizes any of his characters; even the most heinous of their actions are the result of social conditioning, of the economic facts of their existence, of irrational drives. In one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, Carrie's lover, in a desperate attempt to earn money, takes a job driving a train during a strike. Dreiser shows equal sympathy for the grievances of the striking train drivers and the plight of the scabs, the impoverished men who can find no other work. Free will and the ability to transcend the material are the real luxuries in Dreiser's world.
Sister Carrie is one of the great urban novels in American literature. Traditionally Americans have tended to regard their cities as necessary evils rather than attractive centres of civilization. But for Dreiser, New York and Chicago, however sordid and cruel, were vital, fascinating places of culture, beauty and industry. His evocation of daily city life - from the high-class saloons to the factories by the river, from the parade of fashionable women on Broadway to the men waiting for a free meal outside a mission house - is unforgettable. And his use of detail allows us to enter the lives of his characters, to feel and see the tumult of the American city at the turn of the century.
Anais Nin once dismissed Dreiser as a 'materialist' and certainly he has always been associated with the naturalistic novel because of his lack of moral judgement, his apparent acceptance of the laws of nature, his detailed picture of US society. He was one of the first American novelists to deal with the conditions of the working class, to point to the growing divisions within US society and explore a class system which was not supposed to exist in this egalitarian country. Yet in Sister Carrie he looks wistfully to a time when women and men will not be dominated by material needs and desires:
'Man (sic) has not yet comprehended the dreamer any more than he has the ideal. For him the laws and morals of the world are unduly severe. Ever harkening to the sound of beauty, straining for the flash of its distant wings, he watches to follow, wearying his feet in travelling.' Dreiser was a realist, yes, but one with a utopian dream.
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.