issue 211 - September 1990
Eddie Murphy is one of the great disappointments in world popular culture. The world's biggest comic actor, he forms part of the triumvirate of black men at the peak of their particular entertainment industry mountain - Michael Jackson in music and Bill Cosby in television. Like them, he exemplifies a coming of age for black Americans, a role model of power and control who has a cross-cultural appeal to audiences the world over. He is a Golden Child with a Golden Opportunity.
And what has he done with it? Answer: he is squandering his chances, his gifts and his reputation as fast as he can. He has had more chances than any other star. He keeps churning out movies with the charm of a wet turd and yet still has his audiences come clamouring back for more, validating his box-office clout and encouraging ever more outrageous financial demands. At the moment he gets about $12 million per picture - and is thinking of leaving Paramount because he considers himself underpaid. The funny money he commands is obscene but should not be held against him any more or less than we hold it against any other movie or music celebrity of this magnitude from Mick Jagger to Jack Nicholson (reputed to be on $40 million to appear in the Batman sequel).
Eddie Murphy has to answer more specific charges. He has done nothing to further the cause of black people in general - unless by offering his own success as an example. In that sense his initial blitz onto the screen in Walter Hill's 48 Hours when he negotiated a bar full of white racists was misleadingly full of promise. Much more telling was his second film (and still probably his most satisfying) Trading Places, in which his black petty thief deplored the immoral excesses of white capitalism but had no qualms about enjoying the mega-wealth it eventually brought him.
But perhaps it is unfair to hold his utter lack of a political perspective against him - again, there are plenty of white stars who are apolitical but lose no credibility as a result (think of Woody Allen). The main charge Eddie Murphy has to answer is that he is wasting his own talent, throwing it away on misogyny and cliche. The man has a great comic gift but has reduced it to a few trademarks - primarily a manic chuckle and a pathetic obsession with the word 'motherfucker'.
Murphy's descent into the qualitative depths has mirrored his ascent into the financial stratosphere and can be charted by watching the two instalments of Beverley Hills Cop. The first, hard on the heels of Trading Places, was a formula yarn which hedged its bets by adding a healthy dollop of action to its hero's comic charisma. But it was both fun and funny. The sequel came later after Murphy had become a Hollywood god and could exert more control over his material. The result was a thoroughly objectionable, sexist piece of film-making which betrayed Murphy's view of womankind as little more than sexual meat. Not even suggestive of lust, the stream of misogynist words he has poured over all his subsequent films feels like it has a disturbing violence behind it. Funny it ain't.
The more control Murphy has gained, the worse has been the result - culminating in this year's execrable Harlem Nights, of which he was writer, director, producer and star. He deserves to go down in flames but somehow you still have to hope he pulls himself out of his nose-dive. What he needs is a director who can rein back his excesses and help him develop his craft. And who can tell him that abusing and degrading women is about as funny as the redneck jokes about 'niggers' that he would certainly deplore
Colours of a New Day
by various artists
(Lawrence & Wishart UK, Pantheon US)
This is the literary equivalent of the Free Mandela concert: a collection of prose and poetry by 34 writers from around the world who have pledged their profits to an ANG cultural project inside South Africa. Perhaps unexpectedly, very few of the contributions are about South Africa or racism - or even about wider political issues. That is largely because few of the pieces have been written specially for the book; in quite a few cases these are not even stories selected from an oeuvre for their relevance but rather excerpts from novels currently in progress.
This has both good and bad effects. On the one hand it means there is a fascinating diversity as you move from a Soweto township through memoirs of Cultural Revolution China to a childhood in an English seaside town. And 34 different views of apartheid might very well not have turned Out to be that different.
But on the other hand there is a certain lack of focus which occurs particularly with the excerpts from novels - it is a rare novel whose excerpted few pages can stand as a short story, the construction of which is a very particular art.
The quality is as variable as you would expect as lesser-known writers sit alongside international luminaries like Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Han Suyin from China, June Jordan from the US, Nadine Gordimer from South Africa, Raymond Williams from the UK and Margaret Atwood from Canada.
Atwood's contribution is perhaps the most successful of all, managing to pull together f ragments about a lifelong friendship, about life in the West over three decades and about ecology, into a coherent and evocative short story. This piece alone would be enough to validate the decision to include pieces unrelated to South Africa alongside territory like the Indian writer Vikram Seth's tribute to Biko:
When Vorster, Kruger and their rotten
Spawn revert to slime, forgotten,
And time obliterates their base,
Their too uncrazy frame of race,
We will remember one who, chained
Naked, and coshed to death, maintained
His principles of peace and pride
And taught us dignity as he died.
Voices Made Night
by Mia Couto
A man tells his wife he is going to start digging her grave. This could be upsetting. She is not dead yet, as she points out. Nor has she immediate plans in that direction. But she takes it philosophically. And after a brief discussion he starts digging.
Suddenly an ox explodes, begins another curious tale in this collection, Voices Made Night, by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto. 'It burst without as much as a moo,' he writes. 'In the surrounding grass a rain of chunks and slices feel, as if the fruit and leaves of the ox'. In a third tale a man vomits a live, talking raven.
These stories are about magic and they are about realism. At first they seem to borrow from the Latin American realism. But look at them more closely and you see the stories tend to work the opposite way round.
Compare, for example, magical realist Gabriel Garci Marquez's description (in One Hundred Years of Solitude) of a woman being wafted away by a gust of wind as she is hanging up her washing. She disappears into the blue, never to be seen again. Nobody is surprised at this - and nor should the reader be. Realism keeps slipping imperceptibly into magic.
In Mia Couto's tales, however, the central event is treated as strange, awesome and magical by the rural peasants who witness it. The ox exploding, for example, must be some kind of divine sign. It is described in surreal terms to the reader. So is the subsequent explosion of the ox-herd. It is only towards the end of the story, when a couple of government soldiers appear on the scene and interpret events, that we learn that this is a mundane affair for war-torn Mozambique. The ox trod on a landmine, laid by South African-backed Renamo rebels.
This technique enables Couto to express the alienation of the most disempowered from the source of their own suffering. It reminds you of the answers of peasants in rural Mozambique who could not begin to explain or understand why those white people in South Africa should be supporting the bandits' to do all these violent, bloody things. It was a mystery to them.
Or, in the words of Mia Couto: 'The most harrowing thing about poverty is the ignorance it has of itself... there exists in nothingness that illusion of plenitude which causes life to stop and voices to become night'.
Voices Made Night is a puzzling and unusual offering from a writer able to combine humour with horror and with beauty - and remain compassionate throughout.
The Price of Coal
...being the book that undermined Britain's monarchy
When I was 14 the comprehensive school I attended was honoured by the fleeting presence of the future King of Britain. It was 1977, the Queen's Silver Jubilee year, and the British populace was no doubt subjected to more Royal visitations in that year than in any other before or since. Nonetheless it seemed triply inappropriate that 'Prince Chick' (as we colloquially nicknamed him) should drop in on us in our vast council estate on the northern edge of Glasgow. First, we saw him as the English king-to-be: few children in Scotland are brought up to have much time or patience for the monarchy. Second, ours was a Catholic school and he was destined to be head of a Protestant church. Third, he was rich and we weren't.
As pupils, we became aware of much anxious organization for the visit on the part of the school's senior staff. A hand-picked elite group - of sixth-form girls would be presented to the Prince and apparently spent a lot of time being taught how to curtsey. On the day before the event we discovered that the crush hail, where we normally flocked to buy sweets at morning break, had been ruled out of bounds. Crowds of us stood gawping through the windows in disbelief. The hall had been decked Out overnight with dozens of vases of white flowers.
I read Bany Hines' The Price of Coal some years later and was impressed by the accuracy and the power with which this short novel dramatized and elaborated the complex reaction of a working-class community to this kind of event. The plot is simple. When it is announced that the Prince of Wales is to visit a South Yorkshire colliery as part of the Jubilee celebrations, the Coal Board immediately decides to spend an enormous amount of money on a facelift for the workplace. Hines exploits this situation to stimulate both tremendous amusement and serious political reflection in the reader.
In the first part of the book, called 'Meet the People', the transformation of the colliery is quite surreal. The muckstack is recontoured and grassed over, only for the grass seed to be washed away by a freak shower a week before the visit. All visible parts of the work buildings are smothered in white paint, tubs of flowers suddenly appear from nowhere, and a new sign is placed on the gate with a Latin motto: E Tenebris Lux ('Out of the shadows comes the light'). When a brick which is propping open a window proves to be stuck fast, the colliery manager orders it painted the same colour as the window frame so that it will be inconspicuous.
Each of these fantastic innovations provokes comment from the miners and their families, and it is in these exchanges that the book's political message is delivered. Although some of the miners welcome any improvement in their working conditions, others see that a fundamental social principle is at stake. One of the main opponents of the visit voices this plainly: 'If all this fuss is worth making, it's worth making for us. It's us who work here and live here. It's us who sees it every day and it should be our needs that come first, not His.'
The truth of this assertion is graphically demonstarted by the second half of the novel, entitled 'Back to Reality'. As this suggests, the absurd hilarity of preparations for the Prince's visit ishere grimly contrasted with a disaster in the pit a fortnight later in which five miners are horrifyingly killed. The implication is that, while massive funds are available for the entertainment of Royalty during a half-hour visit, no corresponding investment is made to ensure the basic physical safety of those who spend their working lives underground. What matters to those in power is the public face, rather than the human price, of coal.
Much fiction about industrial politics tends to highlight the dramatic conflicts which centre on strikes and strikebreaking, sabotage, and clashes between management officials and workers' representatives. The Price of Coal achieves the much more difficult feat of exploring and revealing the atrocities of capitalism (dangerous and punishing working conditions, lack of participation by workers in key decisions, vast inequalities of wealth) without recourse to any of these conventional devices. There is very little by way of classical 'class struggle' in the book. The miners and their families are not overly politicized and the only active opposition to the Royal visit which emerges is some red graffiti on a canteen wall ('Scargill Rules OK!') which is soon removed. Hines' description of the miners also lacks any pious 'sons of toil' sentimentality: tnuch of their conversation is vulgar and bluntly sexist, and some display a distinctly slapdash and lazy attitude to work. But it is unnecessary for the reader to sympathize wholly with the book's characters for Hines to achieve his political objectives.
When I look back at my own experience of a Royal visit in the light of this novel I can understand more fully the sense of smouldering discontent in the locality about our entertaining 'Prince Chick'. There were, fortunately, no disasters after the Prince's departure. The visit itself was a notably brief affair. A group of us watched the Prince's arrival in a limousine from a second-floor Maths class. An observatory silence fell on us as His Majesty walked across the school yard and was broken by our teacher saying, very volubly, one word: 'Parasite'. Few of us then knew exactly what the word meant but the animus with which it was uttered seemed to sum up all of our feelings.