issue 223 - September 1991
directed by Spike Lee
Right from the start, with She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee has set out to make films that follow no rules but their own. With Do the Right Thing he succeeded triumphantly in making the ‘Spike Lee Joint’ pretty much its own genre. But Jungle Fever follows this absolute sense of self-sufficiency to risky effect.
Do the Right Thing confronted the audience with viewpoints so multiple, so complex, that it was finally unassimilable – unless you boiled it all down to the question of which side of the fence you were on. The suggestion was that plurality and the liberal idea of co-existing value systems had simply ceased to be workable options in the US.
Jungle Fever subjects the notion of multicultural consensus to even more withering scrutiny. This is a Romeo and Juliet tale of star- and race-crossed lovers – buppie family man Flipper (Wesley Snipes) and his Italian-American secretary Angie (Annabella Sciorra). The two defy social disapproval to move in together, Angie particularly incurring the possessive wrath of her brother and father.
The affair is doomed from the start but the dice are also loaded – Angie is seeking freedom away from her family but Flipper is leaving his wife and children into the bargain. Lee’s sympathy appears to be on Flipper’s side – surprising no-one who saw Mo’ Better Blues, which more than tacitly approved its hero’s self-absorbed prevarication between two women. What is strange, though, is that the romance never looks like genuine love – we see the lovers more with their friends and families than with each other. The argument is that both are seduced by the glamour of racial otherness, that mere curiosity has stirred their ‘jungle fever’. As in Right Thing, Lee goes from the liberal question (why can’t they live together?) to a violent polarization, finally accepted as The Way Things Are.
Maybe it’s true, in New York’s Bensonhurst area, that white kids with black lovers risk being beaten to a pulp by their nearest and dearest – but Lee argues the point through Italian stereotypes as extreme as the Jewish ones of Mo’ Better Blues. And for all the brutal energy of the depiction there’s little sense of outrage. The diagnosis all but endorses the status quo, pointing towards an even more separatist America.
It’s only in the subplot about Flipper’s crack-crazed brother that the film hints at something really extraordinary. Maybe Lee should have gone for broke with the drug-hell drama he’s testing out here. As it is, Jungle Fever never quite gets to grips with the racial or the sexual issues it tackles and its cynicism leaves a worrying after-taste.
by Salif Keita
It was Salif Keita’s Soro LP that first opened many Western ears to the scope of African hi-tech music. With the Malian singer’s keening Islamic intonations set against the complex backings of the Paris fusion school, Soro set its own agenda with few concessions to commercial imperatives. But for the most part 1989’s follow-up, Ko-Yan, retreated too far into technological aridity and bombast.
It was hard to predict where Keita would go from there. Rumours abounded. And news that Weather Report’s keyboard maestro Joe Zawinul was to produce the next LP seemed to confirm fears of cerebral fusion overkill.
In fact Amen is anything but that. Ornate as it is, it’s far more contained than Ko-Yan and certainly bears little relation to Weather Report’s baroque spaciness. If anything, it tends towards flatness. There’s a sense of too little going on in these songs; and although many sustain a strong sense of drama, surprisingly little of it comes from Keita himself. The ‘Golden Voice of Africa’ seems curiously muted here and often it’s the backing singers who steal the laurels.
Amen is by no means disposable, though – and the inner sleeve makes you wonder how much you’re missing if you’re not fluent in Manding. Yele n Na is a tender, avuncular profession of love for a younger woman: ‘Was it not I who carved your little sticks/ Mended your old clothes/ And even your knickers’. Kuma, meanwhile, is a quite painful cri de coeur which draws on Keita’s double outsider status (as a noble venturing against the grain into the profession of music, and as an albino). Waraya echoes the changing political situations in Mali and Guinea, foreseeing a new era of freedom for his country and its neighbours.
It’s a shame that the music doesn’t always live up to the urgency hinted at by the lyric sheet but, on the whole, Amen is a creditable meeting of adventurous minds.
by George Monbiot
For centuries many European adventurers wrote like war correspondents in hostile territory. They spun exotic tales out of fear and ignorance. In some ways film-makers are their modern heirs. The Amazon is one of their most favoured locations.
George Monbiot’s Amazon Watershed is different. It’s more vivid, lively and distressing than anything suggested by the hundreds of pretty TV documentaries that have conned us into thinking we know all about it. At its best, travel writing conspires with the reader’s imagination to take us to places and people the camera cannot capture. This book is often travel writing at its very best.
You get to like Monbiot and trust his judgement – and he writes like an angel. But, unlike the angel, he sets off down paths where the rest of us would hesitate to follow. He engages with the people he meets, with their hopes and fears as well as his own. He takes the trouble to find out what they are.
This can be a dangerous thing to do. So, just as you are thinking ‘Time to take cover, George!’ he’s off to confront a murderous local landowner, or detained on the deck of a sinking river boat to save the inebriated captain who’s driven it onto the rocks.
‘I felt that having made ourselves rich we have insulated ourselves from surprises,’ Monbiot writes. ‘Only the poor wake up to find their houses gone, their crops destroyed, their children massacred. Yet we still have the fear, the hope, the courage, the aggression designed to help us through these moments, and we still need to exercise them. We invent quests and conflicts to take the place of the fundamentals we have lost.’
Travel writing is moving on into new territory. Reading this book you understand and welcome its growing appeal.
The Challenge Road
by Amrit Wilson
This is a timely book. For years the Western media have given the ‘Eritrean rebels’ little more than a cursory glance: their conflict with the Ethiopian Government is one of ‘the causes of famine’; their actions stop aid supplies reaching the starving.
But now the rebels are the victors and there seems every chance that the Eritreans will achieve the independence for which they have fought for 30 years, since it was annexed by Ethiopia. Even the policy analysts in Washington and London will now have to consider what sort of government an independent Eritrea might have.
They would do well to study The Challenge Road in which the positive impression of the Eritreans relayed back by visitors to their liberated zones over the last decade is confirmed. Amrit Wilson concentrates on women’s experience, though not exclusively on ‘women’s issues’ – this is simply the story of a desperately hard liberation struggle, seen through the eyes of its women participants. This is a good test for a liberation movement which the West has always considered to be a bunch of Stalinists, since Stalinists are not exactly known for their enlightened sexual politics.
And the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) come out of it very well, in a way that fills you with hope for the new country they will be building.
The Challenge Road exists: it is a highway built by the EPLF in 1982. Its 37 hairpin bends through steep mountains opened up the north-east Sahel front. Wilson takes this remarkable symbol of Eritrean endurance for the title of a book that is enlightening as well as inspiring.
‘The enemies of the State are known. Arrests are in progress. The prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled.’
We’re moving towards the end of Spartacus, the 1960 epic about the mass slave revolt against Rome in 72 BC. The rebellion has been put down and the instrument of that repression and patrician villain of the piece Crassus, played by Laurence Olivier, is speaking. It’s one of the most chilling moments in the film and it’s also one of the most revealing, because Spartacus was scripted by Dalton Trumbo – one of the famed ‘Hollywood Ten’ who were blacklisted and hounded out for their left-wing sympathies in the early 1950s.
Directed by a 31-year-old Stanley Kubrick – who later went on to the likes of Doctor Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange – and starring Kirk Douglas as the eponymous hero, Spartacus is probably still the only Hollywood epic film which can be both enjoyed as entertainment and taken seriously for its themes and subject-matter. One of the main reasons for this is that it avoids the usual weight of Christian self-righteousness which bogs down almost every other Ancient World epic.
Ben Hur (1959) has that famous chariot race and The Ten Commandments (1956) its miraculous parting of the Red Sea but both of these, along with the many other epics of the 1950s, spend much of their time celebrating a beneficent God who’s prepared to come to the aid of His Chosen People. In his pompous on-screen introduction to The Ten Commandments, the famously right-wing Cecil B De Mille speaks of his film as telling of ‘the story of the birth of freedom… Are men the property of the State or are they free souls under God. This same battle continues throughout the world to this day!’
The Cold War rhetoric is unmistakable and it’s no coincidence that the era of Manichean struggle between East and West was also the Golden Age of the Hollywood Biblical epic: God is on Our Side. Shorn of that simplistic religious optimism, Spartacus is able to tell a different kind of story: in this world people have to help themselves and life is seen explicitly as a struggle between the few in power and the many beneath them.
The film begins with Spartacus working as a slave in a Libyan quarry. Bought by the owner of a gladiator school (Peter Ustinov), he and his fellow slaves undergo rigorous military-style training with only one aim in mind: ‘to be sold to ladies and gentlemen of quality, those who appreciate a fine kill’.
‘I’m not an animal!’ declares Spartacus, who, when forced to fight in the arena for the visiting Crassus, sparks a slave rebellion that takes in much of Italy. The revolt is eventually put down and Spartacus crucified, but the ideals he articulated and fought for are seen to live on – in the struggle if not the fulfilment.
Spartacus is a great spectacle, with over 8,000 extras and huge battle scenes aplenty, but where the film comes into its own is in the incisive contrast between the slave leader and his key opponent. Spartacus is struggling towards an understanding of the cruel world in which he lives, towards personal freedom, justice and a dignified life. ‘I’d rather be here,’ he says, ‘a free man among brothers, facing a long march and a hard fight, than to be the richest citizen of Rome, fat with food he didn’t work for and surrounded by slaves’.
Olivier’s Crassus, on the other hand, coldly defends the existing order and all its injustices. Crassus speaks of the ‘might, the majesty, the terror of Rome’. As in all dictatorships, the interests of the State are interchangeable with his own: ‘There is only one way to deal with Rome. You must serve her. You must abase yourself before her. You must grovel at her feet. You must love her.’
The film is clear that human rights have to be fought for – and then defended. Here the casting of the American Douglas against the British Olivier (with all the built-in privilege and arrogance that the latter’s clipped tones imply) is particularly telling. There are other resonances. Dalton Trumbo’s own experiences under McCarthyism are echoed when after the final battle Crassus asks the surviving slaves to ‘name names’ and point out Spartacus – all step forward claiming the identity. And Kirk Douglas, who as the film’s producer selected both Trumbo and Kubrick, brings his own embodiment of the American Dream (born Issur Danielovitch of Russian-Jewish parentage) as background to the lead role. Spartacus is both superb cinema and a persuasive political statement.
Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick. The film is being re-released this year with over 10 minutes of footage not seen since its initial cinema run in 1960.