issue 203 - January 1990
A Dry White Season
directed by Euzhan Palcy
This is cinema's best attempt yet to come to terms with South Africa. A World Apart was brilliant in its way but tightly focused on a white mother and daughter; Cry Freedom's black scenes were much less convincing than its white, and it descended into an adventure yarn; while Mapantsula offered a portrait of a gangster without attempting to seize the big picture.
Like Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season shows a comfortable white middle-aged man gradually waking up to the vicious inhumanity of the apartheid system. But it is altogether more rooted in the bitter experience of black people. As the story unfolds in the immediate aftermath of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, we see how two families, one black and one white, are destroyed - and the black actors are all South Africans themselves rather than US imports.
For this we have to thank director Euzhan Palcy, since André Brink's original novel focuses almost entirely on the Afrikaner teacher, Benjamin du Toit. Palcy is the first black woman to make it as a big-budget director in Hollywood. This is only her second film. Her first, Rue Cases Nègres, was a stunning portrait of life in the sugar plantations of her native Martinique (and would have been hard to beat as NI's Film of the Year for 1983 if we'd chosen one then).
Snapped up for her obvious talent by Hollywood, Palcy held fast to her idea of making a movie about South Africa. Her concession to the industry was to structure the story as a mild thriller, showing du Toit (an outstanding performance by Donald Sutherland, his best for years) delving ever deeper into the treatment of his black gardener's family by the security forces. But the thriller element does no damage to the message and helps the story along for even the most committed viewer.
Another borrowing from mainstream is the courtroom scene at the centre of the film, which is carried by a virtuoso cameo from Marlon Brando as a wheezy, old and vastly corpulent liberal lawyer. This is Brando's first film since 1980 and it's good that his old campaigning fire was still sufficiently alight under the millions and the sloth to involve him in this.
A Dry White Season is all that we could ask of a Hollywood movie about South Africa. It leads the unconverted and naive step by step into understanding - and then stares the brutality of apartheid straight in the face.
A Dry White Season
It is a dry white season
dark leaves don't last, their brief lives dry out
and with a broken heart they
dive down gently headed for the earth
not even bleeding.
it is a dry white season brother, only the trees know the pain as they still stand erect
dry like steel, their branches dry like wire,
indeed, it is a dry white season but seasons come to pass
by Mongane Wally Serote, one of black South Africa's greatest poets.
Straight Outta Compton
by Niggers With Attitude
(Priority/4th & Broadway)
Perhaps you've never heard NWA, but you've almost certainly heard of them. This black hip hop crew, with their incendiary, backs-to-the-wall rhetoric (eg Fuck the Police) are surrounded by moral panic. And it's not just the moral majority, or upwardly mobile blacks, who'll be offended. NWA simply epitomize the problems that much hip hop poses for thinking pop fans and the serious press as well: the machismo, misogyny and zero-dimensional music are an affront to all 'caring' pop's values.
The press have two strategies for dealing with this affront. Either play up the 'positive' aspect (scratch most rap hoodlums and you'll find obligingly civic-minded, church-going, Bill Cosby-admiring moralists); or simply deny the music's dangerous allure by rejecting it as 'moronic' and 'boring'. But we should be trying to see how it both offends and appeals.
Hip hop is survivalist music. Today the black ghetto speaks for everybody's experience: the city's no longer a place of opportunity but a 'hell' to be survived. Hip hop is the sound of threatened individuals asserting themselves against an uncaring world, taking on all comers and dispensing rough (social) justice or vengeance. Hence NWA's fascination with gangs and gun law (their favourite word is 'ruthless').
But survivalism also demands that men conquer inner weaknesses, harden themselves against feeling and femininity - NWA, for example, see all women as harpies and exploiters, and prefer sadistic/anal/oral sex to anything more involving. This priapic, will-to-survival music can allow men an unsettling glimpse into the impoverished, tunnel-vision world of their own (usually safely repressed) masculinity.
NWA, though, aren't hard-edged or moronic enough to convey the horror of survivalism. Apart from the white-cold rage, colossal bass recoil and steel-on-steel impacts of Dopeman, you get just warmed-over sampling, flippy-floppy beats and rather beer-bellied delinquency. Hip hop can be an excursion into your own dark side. But NWA are all 'attitude' and shock value - big sales and little else.
The Midas Touch
by Anthony Sampson
(Hodder & Stoughton)
This is about 'Money, People and Power from West to East', as the subtitle to the book explains. It looks at the explosion of mobile, global money in the 1980s encouraged by the electronics communications revolution, and how it affects people's lives.
Fears in the 1970s - shared by the NI - of multinational corporations developing into international, all-powerful giants with loyalty to no country, now appear dated. Many of the top new corporations in the world are Japanese. They are firmly loyal to their country and government. Others like Chevron have been gobbled up, still others pushed to near-bankruptcy like Texaco. Even now British American Tobacco is desperately trying to fight off the predatory raid of James Goldsmith, Rothschild et al. The declared aim of such finance pirates is to break up the giants, and sell them off bit by bit. For the 1980s and 1990s, it is finance, not the corporation which is king.
We are given a narrow slice of history: the last ten years, complete with corporate raiders, the rise of the Japanese, the 1987 stock market crash, China, the East Asian economic miracle - together with an uncomfortably slight bow to the debt-ridden nations of Africa and Latin America.
But Sampson fails to explore seriously the catastrophic drop in commodity prices which fuelled the 'junk money' boom. The book's slim nature - it lacks the rich research which illuminated The Arms Bazaar or The Sovereign State of ITT - is also a disappointment.
Sampson's usual strengths and weaknesses are on display. He chooses to investigate the big issues. His writing is a joy, combining the telling quote from finance megastars with anecdote to illustrate a substantial point. And the complexities of economics are clearly and entertainingly explained. It's an object lesson for all feature writers. On the debit side, he frustratingly falls short of any overarching analysis. Here is the social democrat refusing to condemn the absurdities he chronicles so well; or simply producing half-baked observations. Humans, we are told, never tolerate for long the predatory and revolutionary power of money without constraining it. Really?
Agents of Repression
by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall
Paramilitary police operations and death squads directed against dissidents are usually associated with Third World regimes. This book documents the use of these, and other repressive techniques, in the secret war that the US FBI waged against the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Black Panthers during the 1960s and 1970s.
By 1971, when the official counter-subversion program COINTELPRO was 'ended', the wide range of tactics used - including assassination - had succeeded in destroying the Black Panthers and other militant Black groups.
But the secret war, increasingly against AIM, continued under other names and even intensified under FBI direction. In 1973, the US Army engaged in its first domestic operation since the Civil War when its forces, including armoured cars, assisted heavily armed FBI agents in laying siege to the village of Wounded Knee. This had been occupied by AIM members in support of the Lakota (Sioux).
But Wounded Knee was not the end of the war against the Lakota. Between 1973 and 1976, 69 AIM members and supporters died violently and 300 more were physically assaulted, sometimes shot. The political murder rate, attributed primarily to the tribal police, was almost equivalent to that of Chile in the three years after the coup against Allende.
The authors end their book by calling on the US Left to start seriously organizing against the FBI and the apparatus of political repression that continues to operate in the US. Given the increasing dissent in the US and recent revelations concerning new illicit actions against activists, it seems like good advice indeed.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
The Innocent Anthropologist
.being the book that demystified the study of other cultures
These 'Notes from a Mud Hut' very nearly failed to survive at all. Under siege from termites, goats, mice, rainstorms and - on a final stopover in Rome - thieves, the precious pieces of paper were only a little more vulnerable than the author himself.
Nigel Barley's book is partly about being human within an academic context he sees as largely hypocritical about fieldwork. 'The conventional myth seeks to depict the battle-scarred anthropologist as a lone figure wandering into a village, settling in and "picking up the language" in a couple of months; at the most, we may find references to translators being dispensed with after a few weeks. Never mind that this is contrary to all known linguistic experience.'
His own experience of a year living with the Dowayo people in Cameroon is told differently. He was faced there with one of the world's many tonal languages - conveniently forgotten in Western schools which teach only European languages and imply that all languages work in much the same way. One of Barley's more crashing mistakes occurs on his first meeting with the rainmaker. '"Excuse me," I said, "I am cooking some meat." At least that was what I had intended to say; owing to a tonal error I declared to an astonished audience "Excuse me. I am copulating with the blacksmith."'
Barley's savage wit ranges over bureaucrats, police, customs officials, Dowayos, Americans, Germans, French - and his own British. 'My immediate family knew only that I was mad enough to go to savage (sic) lands where I would live in the jungle, menaced by lions and snakes, and might be lucky to escape the cooking pot. It came as some comfort to me when I was about to leave Dowayoland that the chief of my village said that he would gladly accompany me back to my English village but that he feared a country where it was always cold, where there were savage beasts like the European dogs at the mission, and where it was known there were cannibals.'
What does it take to begin to understand and respect the ways of a culture so different from one's own? Without the benefit of continuous interpretation and hindsight, much of the world of this book would be as incomprehensible to the reader as it was initially to its innocent anthropologist. Elderly men clammed up when Barley asked questions in the presence of his assistant, who was felt to be too young; men rushed howling from the room when he casually asked about circumcision in a sister's presence.
'To begin with I was distressed to find that I couldn't extract more than 10 words from Dowayos at a stretch ... One day, after about two months of fairly fruitless endeavour, the reason struck me. Quite simply, Dowayos have totally different rules about how to divide up the parts of a conversation. One must talk to people physically present as if on the telephone, where frequent interjections and verbal responses must be given if only to assure the other party that one is still paying attention. When listening to someone talking, a Dowayo stares gravely at the floor, rocks backwards and forwards and murmurs "Yes", "It is so", "Good" every five seconds or so. Failure to do so leads to the speaker rapidly drying up. As soon as I adopted this expedient, my interviews were quite transformed.'
Barley was useful to the villagers as a source of transport, of money and of continual amusement through his language-learning efforts and his uncomprehending questioning. Only occasionally did villagers become impatient, thinking he was only pretending not to understand - they believed he was an ancestor in a white skin who was obsessed with privacy simply to maintain his secret.
At other times, converse sets of taboos could be quite useful. Barley was not terrified of 'that most horrible of birds, the owl', would pick up 'a chameleon, whose bite is held to be deadly', and handled the claws of an ant-eater, believed to be potentially lethal. Yet when a scorpion rushed straight at him, he ran out of his hut to cry to a six-year-old child outside 'There are hot beasts within!' 'The child peered inside and with an expression of profound disdain stamped the scorpions to death with his bare feet.'
The Innocent Anthropologist manages to value the culture and symbolism of the Dowayos while respecting the needs created by the author's own background. In a book that returns time and again to the issue of cultural hypocrisy, the most biting satire is saved for those whose years in Cameroon teach them nothing. Between the jokes, the discomforts and the anthropological unravellings, Barley conducts an unrelenting war on cultural complacency and self-satisfaction.
The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley (available in Penguin).