issue 194 - April 1989
directed by Alan Parker
This is becoming a regular problem for the radical reviewer: what to do about a movie that addresses racism head on and with great power, but which does so entirely from the white liberal viewpoint?
This is certainly one of the finest films in Alan Parker's already impressive portfolio, which sees his cinematic skills put at the service of a vital political cause. It takes a true story about the murder of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi 25 years ago and dramatizes it to the level required by a major Hollywood feature.
Occasionally this fictionalization creaks implausibly - notably when one of the key racists hangs himself in an unlikely fit of conscience so that (as Parker's own production notes explain) one of the investigators can make a speech explaining everyone's complicity in racism. But creaks which add depth to the political message are hard to complain about.
The real grounds for complaint are more fundamental. First the black people in the film are little more than scenery - helpless victims to be abused or saved by whites. In reality the civil-rights movement of the early 1960s was largely black. Second the film's central characters are the FBI investigators who uncover the nightmarish Ku Klux Klan attitudes of a small Southern town. These two agents supply a dramatic tension of their own as Gene Hackman's 'good-ole-boy' former sheriff clashes with Willem Dafoe's Kennedy-inspired idealist. But the FBI idealism is supremely misleading. The FBI did launch a huge investigation on this showpiece occasion but more often intimidated civil-rights workers from Martin Luther King down.
In this sense the film is not fictionalized enough - by remaining tied to real events, Parker is unable to give a truer general picture of the civil-rights movement. But that was probably not his goal, which was rather to construct a powerful film that makes a mass audience feel the horror of racism. And in that, at least, he has succeeded quite brilliantly.
A Burst of Light
by Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde is one of the US's key black women writers. She is a poet, and she sees that as perhaps her most vital role. But she has probably achieved wider notice for her prose writing - which means political essays and autobiography rather than fiction. Looming large among these are The Cancer Journals, in which she lays bare her battles with the demon of breast cancer. A classic of its kind, it challenges the standard medical attitude to cancer in general and mastectomy in particular.
Tragically she was forced to put her principles into practice a second time when she was diagnosed, in February 1984, as having cancer of the liver. A Burst of Light is an occasional journal which takes us through the first three years of living with this new cancer, of her marshalling the resources to battle with it every day. This is an uncomfortable journey, but not a depressing one, largely because of the awe-inspiring energy with which Lorde confronts her life - and her death. She throws herself into political work more completely than ever - her campaigning against racism, against sexism, against homophobia. her solidarity work with black women from South Africa to the Caribbean. And the other essays included in this volume, such as those on Apartheid USA and Lesbian Parenting show the sharp clarity of her mind as well as the extent of her internationalist commitment.
But it is A Burst of Light to which we inevitably return, with a certain morbid fascination which Lorde acknowledges: 'Sometimes I have the eeriest feeling that I'm living some macabre soap opera... If so, I hope it'll be useful some day for something, if only for some other Black sister's afternoon entertainment when her real life gets to be too much. It'll sure beat As The World Turns. At least there will be real Black people in this one, and maybe if I'm lucky I'll get to drag the story on interminably for 20 or 30 years like the TV soaps until the writer dies of old age . . .' Amen to that.
(The politics are unimpeachable but an entertainment rating hardly seems appropriate.)
The Information Society
by David Lyon
With the merging of the technologies of phone, computer, facsimile and fibre optics, we are confronted with a vast reorganization of communications between individuals and corporations.
Particularly worrying is the military, commercial and government power of the North over the South. While not upholding any 'conspiracy theory', Lyon shows how, far from strengthening real communication between rich and poor, the developments might lead to the electronic colonization of the Third World.
Even within rich countries the information technology industry is dominated by transnationals. Hand in hand with deregulation and privatization, this threatens to create a new illiteracy, a new group of powerless people. State and corporate datafiles are the most immediate concern: people are being denied the democratic right to participate freely.
But this technology, like any other, is a human product: people choose, collude, acquiesce. How information is used will be a political, not a technical decision.
by Lou Reed
Lou Reed really ought to be dead by now. Like Iggy Pop and Keith Richards he seems to have spent so long dancing on the edge that it's a miracle he hasn't gone the way of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison. Survival carries its own problems: how to remain a credible rock singer in your forties, how to find new ways of hacking at the seams of sex, drugs and underworld America that you have mined for two decades.
The answer in Lou Reed's case seems to have been to dabble in politics. The underworld of pimps, pushers and transvestites is still here, but whereas his work from Velvet Underground onwards has always seemed like a celebration of their seedy reality, here he sees them as symptomatic of the US's decline as a civilization. This is really an album about the decline of the American Empire, which he compares to ancient Rome.
Time's running out, he says, and as if surveying his own past enjoins 'This is no time to turn away and drink or smoke some vials of crack / This is a time to gather force and take dead aim and Attack'. And attack he does, updating the call of 'the Statue of Bigotry': 'Give me your hungry, your poor and your tired and I'll piss on 'em'.
There are any number of highly quotable lines from a string of consistently interesting lyrics (one of which attacks Jesse Jackson in the same breath as Kurt Waldheim and the Pope, company he scarcely deserves). But sadly they read better than they sound. Reed does little more than read them himself, virtually without rhyme or melody, against the plainest of backdrops. A tune here or there might have distracted us a little from the message - but it would also have induced us to play the record again.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
.being the book that revealed the
inner life of a great African leader
Poetry can hardly claim to be at the centre of things in the West. Now that the visual media have seized the commanding heights of popular culture, poets have retreated to the universities, barely acknowledged by the restless tides of social movements.
Only in the Third World have poets been at the heart of things: they have raised their voices against military dictatorship and colonial oppression, become symbols of resistance. Some have even led the resistance themselves. Agostinho Neto is the quintessential example of the poet as revolutionary, spinning his dreams and inspirational calls to arms from inside prison cells and given the chance to turn imagination into reality as the first President of independent Angola.
Antonio Agostinho Neto was ham in 1922 near Luanda, capital of what was then the Portuguese colony of Angola. After school he worked in the health service, determined to become a doctor. There were then no medical colleges in Angola so he saved enough to travel to Portugal in 1947 and begin studying there. By this time he was already politically involved - and he had his first taste of prison in 1951, when he was given a three-month sentence simply for collecting signatures for the Stockholm Peace Appeal.
He was also by then writing poetry of the highest quality. These early works are deeply evocative of the Angola he remembered: its bustling markets and musseques (shanty towns), its music and religions, but beyond all that, too, the African landscape ('There on the horizon/ fire/ and dark silhouettes of the baobabs'). But inseparable from his memories of Angola is his belief in its future. 'We are going in search of the light,' he says, straining towards 'the day of the abolition of this slavery.'
Too often in political poetry the message overwhelms the medium: the injustice the writer wishes to confront and communicate becomes so vile and so blatant that the love of words is lost. Neto, in contrast, never loses his feel for language, his sense of how to order it for effect. As a result powerful phrases abound, as when he makes a mythic plea on behalf of the enslaved African: 'My hands laid stones/on the foundations of the world/ I deserve my piece of bread'. But running through the early poems too is a sense of mission, a sense that the Angolan people were relying upon Neto himself to advance their hope of liberation. 'I am a day in a dark night,' he said, 'I am an expression of yearning'.
By 1955 Neto had become politically prominent at the head of a movement representing young people throughout the Portuguese colonies. He was rewarded with two and a half years in prison and was released only due to international pressure on Portugal's fascist Government. In 1958 he finally qualified as a doctor and returned to Angola the following year to start practising medicine - and also to dedicate himself to the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), whose leader he became in 1962 after a further two years in prison.
By then his poetry had become inseparably tied up with the liberation movement. One of his MPLA colleagues later wrote: 'The slim volume of Agostinho Neto's poetry gave us the opportunity to see the close relationship between the people and the poet. Poetry of consequence. On its arrival in Luanda, almost the entire edition was absorbed by the population living in the musseques in a single afternoon. When the police came to seize the book, there was not one copy left . . . His poetry became a banner, red as acacias'.
Neto's Marxism shows through most in his sense that Angola's, and beyond it Africa's, liberation was historically inevitable. He it was who coined the phrase 'Victory is Certain', since adopted by other revolutionary movements around the world. And that belief resounds from some of his greatest lines, written from a jail cell in 1960:
Here in prison
rage contained in my breast
I patiently wait
for the clouds to gather
blown by the wind of History
can stop the rain.
The rain eventually fell in November 1975 when, after nearly 15 years of bitter guerilla warfare, Neto declared Angola's independence from Portugal and was sworn in as President. The story is still not over, of course. When it became obvious that the Portuguese, newly liberated themselves from fascism, were going to withdraw, the South African army took over their battle against the MPLA. They have been involved ever since, hampering Angola's development and forcing it into more rigid political channels than it might otherwise have chosen.
Neto died in September 1979. The event passed me by: Angola was then just another far-off trouble spot. But, ten years on, the poems collected in Sacred Hope burn off the page almost as much as they must have done for a contract worker in the musseques three decades ago. And his vision of a liberated Africa as the source of a love that would lighten the arid lands of domination' may still be no more than a sacred hope - but it is an extremely moving one.
Sacred Hope by Agostinho Neto. First published in English 1974. Republished in 1988 by Journeyman Press and UNESCO, with illustrations by Angolan artist Henrique Abranches.